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Tentmaking / Bi-Vocational Ministry

It’s early on a Tuesday morning. A month ago at this time, I was pulling muffins out of the oven and steaming milk for lattes at the cafe where I worked for five a half years. Today, I’m reading over the recently approved statement of goals for the M.Div. program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in preparation for two meetings I’ll have this morning. It’s all a part of my new job.

I am excited to be taking on the challenge of coordinating the Church Planting Emphasis at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The seminary feels like home to me. Conversations with students and faculty bring joy to my heart. I see great potential in this program, and am both humbled and delighted to participate in something that has such power to shape the future of the Church.

But I am truly going to miss the cafe. When my co-pastor and I answered God’s call to plant The Upper Room five and a half years ago, we chose to become bivocational pastors. Like the Apostle Paul, who had a trade of making tents which at times supported his ministry, we chose to take second jobs that would both ease the financial burden of starting a new church and give us additional ways to build relationships for our ministries.

I wanted a job in the neighborhood which would allow me to meet people I wouldn’t meet inside the walls of a typical church. The 61C and 61B Cafes gave me more opportunities to develop meaningful relationships than I could have ever imagined. Over five and a half years, these relationships became so strong that stepping back from them now brings about a genuine feeling of grief. On my last morning of work, I cried as I handed my keys back to my manager and friend Keith. Then I sobbed as I sat in my car, preparing to go directly from the cafe to the seminary.

This is week three of my work at the seminary, and it’s going quite well, but I don’t want to forget the things God showed me over my years at the cafe. So I hope to do some writing here in the coming months which will intentionally reflect on the things the Lord taught me through my work at the cafe. After my trip to Brazil next week – where PTS students and I will study how the Brazilian Presbyterian Church plants new congregations – I’ll put together a series of posts here about what my ministry at the cafe taught me about prayer, relationships, mission, and work. Especially work. It seems that many of us have under-developed theologies of work, and God used my years in the cafe to teach me much about the purpose and value of our daily labors.

Time to get ready for work. If I hurry, I might be able to grab a cup of coffee on the way.

“If your church disappeared overnight, would your neighborhood notice? Would anyone miss you?” More than once, I’ve heard a speaker at a church-planting conference ask questions along these lines. The speakers intend to be provocative, to ask questions which will make leaders wonder whether their congregations are making an impact on their cities by meeting real needs in their neighborhoods. The question is a simplistic test of any congregation’s connection with its surrounding, but it’s particularly relevant for church-planters. In some understandings of church-planting, the pastors or leaders of the church seem to succeed because they are great community organizers.

Take Richard Allen for one example. I’m now reading Richard Newman’s Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers. Allen is known as the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which began when Allen planted Bethel Church in Philadelphia. Allen was by nature entrepreneurial, and founded businesses and social organizations as well as his church and denomination. In all of these ventures, Allen was thinking beyond himself, seeking the good of both free and enslaved African-Americans and the new country in which they lived. Because of this, Newman even argues that Allen should be considered among the “Founding Fathers” of the new United States. He writes, 

Allen believed himself to be a member of two founding generations. He was a black leader who built reform institutions to redeem African Americans and he was a broader moral leader who wanted to redeem the American republic from the sin of racial subjugation. (p. 21)

What made Allen a successful “founder” involved more than simply his vision for change or his entrepreneurial personality. Allen had a gift for bringing people together, and he connected with his diverse community in such a way that people joined and followed him. Two events which took place early in Allen’s career display this gift:

As mentioned above, Allen founded Bethel Church and the AME denomination. These institutions started when Allen and several other black Christians walked out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in protest of newly enforced segregated seatingAllen had been born into slavery, and it was while a slave that heard Methodist preachers proclaiming the Gospel and its liberating message. When Allen entered the ministry, he did it as a typical itinerant Methodist preacher. He was bi-vocational, preaching early in the morning and then working a variety of day-jobs to support his ministry. Once he settled in Philadelphia in 1786, his congregants were primarily the black men and women who attended St. George’s Methodist Church. The black population of the congregation grew so much under Allen’s leadership that the white leaders of the congregation became anxious. At some point during Allen’s years there, the white leaders built a balcony and declared that a new policy of segregated seating in worship would be enforced. On the Sunday that the policy was first enforced, Allen and all the other African-Americans in the church walked out as one “body” (p. 64). 

But the events of that day were not spontaneous. The date of this legendary event is uncertain, but Newman seems to favor a later date, around 1792 or 1793. Several pieces of evidence suggest that the walk-out Allen helped lead was an intentional act of non-violent activism, planned in advance in order to make a point to the white church members. Allen dreamed of leading an independent black church long before that fateful day, as evidenced by his efforts to have the Free African Society (which he also founded) consider supporting an independent black church as early as 1789. This suggests that much went on behind-the-scenes to rally the black members of St. George’s to respond together to the discrimination they experienced. The events which took place later in St. George’s were choreographed to make a point: racial discrimination had no place in the Kingdom of God, and Allen’s followers would accept it no longer. 

Allen’s response to Philadelphia’s 1793 outbreak of Yellow Fever and its racially-charged aftermath also displays Allen’s gifts in community relations. When the Yellow Fever struck Philadelphia, Benjamin Rush, a famous physical and signer of the Declaration of Independence, invited Allen and his flock to respond to the crisis. Rush did so on the basis of the mistaken belief that black people were immune to the Yellow Fever. Inaccurate as that assumption was, Allen and his friend Absalom Jones agreed to help because they believed that “black aid to white citizens would help the cause of racial justice” (p. 88). Throughout the crisis, Allen and other black leaders rallied black volunteers to serve as nurses and aid workers, often doing work that involved physically touching those who would have considered their caretakers virtually untouchable because of their skin color.

Racism resurfaced after the crisis ended, though, with whites accusing blacks of exploiting whites and profiting off of their suffering. Allen and Jones responded to the criticism in print, publishing an essay which defended their motives and documented the sacrifices blacks had made to serve their white brothers and sisters. In doing so, Allen stepped boldly into both the public sphere and the use of new media and technology. These steps strengthened his influence in the community beyond his congregation.

Allen’s leadership in each of these instances raises questions for us who claim to be “church-planters” today. First, if the leaders in our community needed something, would they call us? Today, will respected community members or civic leaders call upon us when the neighborhood is in crisis? I have a friend who pastors a church in Rockford, IL, who joined the local chamber of commerce precisely to build the relationships that could lead to such service. How can we build similar relationships in our own contexts today?

Second, Richard Allen’s life challenges us to consider if we are both confident and shrewd enough to act prophetically when necessary. When we react to injustice, are the measures we take as carefully calculated and wisely executed as those Allen took? Are we such examples of integrity that when criticized, we can respond with dignity and confidence? The more we are able to answer these questions affirmatively, the more our churches will leave a positive impact upon their neighborhoods.

A few nights ago, I started reading Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude, and Prayer by Catherine Doherty. Tired from a busy day, and not looking forward to my early-morning shift at the cafe the next day, I started crying when I read this passage:

If we are to witness to Christ in today’s marketplaces where there are constant demands on our whole person, we need silence.  If we are to be always available, not only physically, but by empathy, sympathy, friendship, understanding, and boundless caritas, we need silence. To be able to give joyous, unflagging hospitality, not only of house and food, but of mind, heart, body, and soul, we need silence. (p. 4)

Poustinia is the Russian word for desert or wilderness.  Following the pattern of the monastic saints of the early Church sought who communion with Christ in the desert, the Russian Church developed a tradition of the poustinik, a person who retreated to solitary and silent places in search of deep communion with God.  For the person seeking poustinia, the “desert” could be any secluded place to which one would retreat for a time, short or long.  Perhaps you build a hut or cabin in the wilderness, like the one pictured on the cover of the book. Perhaps it’s a corner of your home dedicated to prayer. Wherever your poustinia is, go there alone. Listen to God. Take only your Bible. Fast. Listen. Pray. Wait for God in solitude and silence

It was this sort of solitude and silence that I had in mind when I read the quote I shared above.  To be available to others, to witness faithfully in the midst of our crowded lives, we must have a rhythm of life that allows us to retreat periodically into silence and solitude. At least that’s what I thought she meant. And that’s what I wanted. But the further I read in the book, the more I realize that the quote above referred to what Doherty calls a “poustinia of the heart.” Not all of us can practically get away for solitary retreats as often as we’d like.  Nor would it be faithful for some of us to hide in solitude when we’ve been called elsewhere: I would have been like Jonah on the ship to Tarshish if I had awakened Tuesday morning and decided to take a solitary retreat that day instead of fulfilling my obligations to work the opening shift at the cafe.  Apparently I need a way to learn to listen to God in the midst of life just as I would in the midst of the desert. But how?

In the chapter “Poustinia in the Marketplace,” Doherty provides the image of a womb in which Christ is present within us. Like Mary, we have a poustinia within us, a place where we can internally commune with Christ in the midst of the world and from which we also bear Christ’s light and presence into the world. This poustinia within us doesn’t require us to hide in the desert to commune with Christ. Rather:

It means that within yourselves you have made a room, a cabin, a secluded space. You have built it by prayer – the Jesus Prayer – or whatever prayer you have found profitable. You should be more aware of God than anyone else, because you are carrying within you this utterly quiet and silent chamber.  Because you are more aware of God, because you have been called to listen to him in your inner silence, you can bring him to the street, the party, the meeting, in a very special and powerful way (p. 64).

Notice that she says this inner desert has been built by prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer.  She goes on the following pages to describe in different terms what the desert monks called watchfulness, the capacity to objectively observe our own thoughts and attentively respond to them.  In the midst of a crowded room, the watchful person can be non-anxiously aware of all that is happening within themselves and submit those internal operations to Christ. This requires the cultivation of an interior silence which quiets all voices but God’s. And how do we cultivate this? Doherty says, “The answer is simple: you pray more” (p. 65). 

She recommends other practices as well: attentiveness to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, occasional solitary retreats, fasting, vigiling, simplifying our schedules, and limiting our recreational activities.  But the goal of all these practices remains prayer. By praying, we learn to pray. By communing with Christ in prayer and worship and simplicity, we learn to commune with Christ in the inner desert of the soul. After listing examples of saints whom she thought achieved this, Doherty says, “The secret of all those people I am talking about is that they prayed continually, while all the time they served their people” (p. 69).

This is a difficult calling, but if Doherty was right that we really need silence in order to minister effectively today, then we have no choice but to accept the challenge.  So, I accept the call. I want to pray for my cafe customers while I make their drinks. I want to pray for my congregation in the midst of meetings about budgets and the expansion of our space.  I want to pray while leading a wedding rehearsal tonight and officiating a wedding tomorrow. I’m not there yet; I’m a long way away. But I want the poustinia of the heart. Lord have mercy on your servants, and grant us the gift of unceasing prayer.

I’m headed out of town today for a Company of New Pastors retreat where we’ll be discussing Alan Roxburgh’s book The Sky is Falling.  Despite being a church-planter, it’s been a while since I’ve read one of these “the world is changing and we have to become missional before the Church dies” books.  As I’ve discovered the fruitfulness of reading works from the early Church, books in Roxburgh’s genre have become less appealing.  But this book did have some important ideas regarding the formation of leaders for the Church in our context and the roles those leaders then fill. I want to comment on these because I find his proposal both promising and lacking.

Anyone considering reading this book should know that the first nine chapters (140 pages) of the book are designed to set up the final 3 chapters (48 pages).   This last section of the book is where it actually gets exciting. As for set up, here’s what you need to know: The Church in our context is in a situation of liminality – a period of change in which one is in-between two different stages or places, a prolonged time of standing in a threshold. Think of Israel wandering in the wilderness, living in-between the life they’d known in Egypt and the life they would know in the Promised Land.  During such periods of liminality, the people going through this change discover a new sense of connection or bonding called communitas.  If you’ve ever been on a mission trip, you know what this feels like. It’s the sense of connection that you develop with that team of people while you’re experiencing an adventure in an unfamiliar context.  Roxburgh sees the Church in a period of liminality, and argues that both traditional and non-traditional leaders need to work together to create communitas in order to survive the transition.

Once you get to Chapter 10, Roxburgh starts to lay out a vision for leadership in the Church which sees Christian leaders with various roles and gifts and united under the leadership of an “Abbot/Abbess”.  These leaders with differing functions and spiritual gifts would ideally be trained not in modern seminary environments but through hands-on apprenticeship under masters of the faith. These ‘masters’ should be characterized less by academic credentials and more by experience, wisdom, and spiritual maturity.  Ideally this is already the goal of apprenticeship programs such as The World Christian Discipleship Program. Here I agree with Roxburgh’s general observations about leadership formation. After describing some of the roles which these leaders fill – poet, prophet, pastor – Roxburgh moves on to his proposal for an office of “Abbot”. The Abbot or Abbess functions less as a manager of an organization and more as a curator of an environment. Borrowing a term from Lawrence Miller, Roxburgh calls this person a synergist, defined as “a leader with the capacity to unify diverse and divergent leadership styles around a common sense of missional vision for a specific community” (p. 155). Surprisingly to me, Roxburgh envisions the Abbot not as the leader of one congregation, but as an overseer of many various ministries and congregations. (If you have the book, see the chart on page 182 which makes this clear.)  Essentially, Roxburgh is proposing having a bishop.  He avoids this word, probably because of its authoritarian and institutional connotations, stressing that the Abbot is “not a denominational executive” (p. 182), but I can’t help but think that Roxburgh’s Abbot is close to what a bishop should be. This is good, and I find it particularly relevant to our own context where Pittsburgh Presbytery is implementing a new mission plan which will eventually lead to us having four “branch ministers” who could each lead just as Roxburgh envisions his Abbot or Abbess leading. Good.

Promising as this is, there’s something missing in Roxburgh’s ecclesiology. And it’s something big. The problem with this book, and with so many other books on missional ecclesiology, is that it totally neglects the role of the sacraments in shaping and sustaining the life of the Church.  Despite occasional suggestions that we look to our history for guidance, Roxburgh doesn’t always present an accurate reading of Church history.  Contrary to the overview of early Church history in pages 148-150,  the early Church did have a defined pattern of leadership in which hierarchy did not always equal bureaucracy. The office of bishop evolved very early in the life of the Church not out of captivity to our culture’s professionalism or bureaucracy, but out of a desire to ensure proper celebration of the sacraments. Ordination was practiced by the Church to set people apart for the leadership of worship, not administration. Like other similar books, Roxburgh at times reflects anachronistic projection of contemporary emergent distrust of hierarchy onto the history of the Church. The primary concern of the early Church’s first bishops wasn’t paperwork.  It was a life of worship culminating in the celebration of Eucharist each week.  And if that’s the primary job description of a bishop, I see no reason to fear using the word bishop. Roxburgh’s choice of the word Abbot reflects a low ecclesiology, rather than a true sense of monasticism, in which the Abbot also lives a life of worship.

But this correction is no reason to abandon Roxburgh’s vision. Rather, the book’s proposal for leadership should be deepened to reflect the spirituality necessary for leadership of the Church in our context.  What if the Abbot or Abbess whom Roxburgh pictures overseeing multiple congregations and ministries was primarily concerned with cultivating environments of holy and beautiful worship? What if prayer and spiritual disciplines were essential parts of the apprenticeships which prepare the leaders who serve under the Abbot? What if remembrance of our Baptismal identity and celebration of the Lord’s Supper provide the connections to the “core Christian narrative” which Roxburgh says we need to recover? That’s a vision for the Church that I find appealing.

A few evenings ago, I stood in the kitchen peeling a yam. Eileen and I were making dinner, using what we had available.  The previous Saturday, I had taken a friend to a food distribution event sponsored by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Foodbank, where he had received a generous amount of free food including frozen chicken, potatoes, apples and yams.  “I won’t use the yams,” he said, “Do you want them?”

So I stood in our kitchen, peeling a yam for Eileen to roast with some other vegetables on a night when I frankly would have preferred to be at D’s, our favorite local bar and hot dog restaurant.  Eileen and I had just had a conversation about our finances in which I tried to romanticize making do with less. “God is faithful to provide for all we need,” I’d said. As I peeled the yam in the kitchen I realized: This is how God’s providing. It’s not what I wanted or what I’m asking for, but it’s feeding us tonight. That yam was a gift of grace.  But the more I thought about it, the more my thoughts landed on the but it’s not what I wanted part of the sentence, rather than on God’s providing. I felt like one of the Israelites in the wilderness, complaining, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.  But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Numbers 11:4-6 NIV).

Manna was not what the Israelites wanted. And in their grumblings, they blamed God for not meeting their desires. But the problem wasn’t on God’s end. The problem was that they measured the goodness of God’s provision by Egypt’s standards. Today I fear that in an affluent society like America, we don’t even recognize how often we measure God’s goodness by Egypt’s standards. Maybe manna is all we need, but we’re not going to be content with it if our minds are focused on the things the empire tells us we need. To learn to receive God’s provision with gratitude, many of our worldly appetites have to first be put to death.  Back in Egypt we may have lived the high life.  But God has called us out of Egypt.

As Jan at A Church for Starving Artists wrote recently, there is a cost to following the call God has placed on our lives.  Eileen and I are feeling part of the cost of God’s call right now.  We’re not at home in Colorado, not near family, not making much money, not taking much time to rest, and not always happy. But along with the cost also comes a certain joy.  It’s the joy of looking at a yam and realizing that God really is providing for our every need. It’s the joy of seeing the beauty of creation in the daffodils blooming in our yard right now, a sight we’d see less if we went out every time we wanted to.  It’s the joy of having several friends cheer my soul by visiting me at my cafe on a day where our espresso machine was in need of repair and where I’d started my shift by dealing with a leaky milk dispenser. It’s not always what I would have chosen, but there is room for joy in this life.

And I’m finding that the joy increases when I measure the cost by God’s standards rather than Egypt’s. Egypt may tell us our manna is flavorless and that giving up the delicacies of Egypt was a high cost to pay for following this call. But the Lord can gives us eyes to see manna as the “grain of heaven” and “bread of angels” (Psalm 78:24-25), even to seek the Manna which is the “bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33).  Egypt may tell us we need a second car, a new computer, a real vacation, etc., but these are small costs compared to the life of the One who “had no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:21). Egypt may say that the Lord’s provision of yams is laughable, but by the Lord’s standards it was confirmation that he is faithful to provide abundantly more than our daily bread (Matthew 6:11). May the Lord continue to multiply our joy by exposing Egypt’s lies and leading us toward the Promised Land of his goodness and truth.

How do you learn to love and serve God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind? Not by using the conventional ways the world approaches learning.  I’m a pastor who’s been to seminary – a very good seminary for which I am grateful and which am happy to support – but I think the Church has become a bit too worldly in the way we train our leaders.  Learning to love and serve God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength is not merely an academic exercise.  It requires the use of all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  Discipleship is meant to be holistic, teaching us to love and serve God using relationships, our experience, prayer, worship, mission, service, and the intellect.

This is why I love the World Christian Discipleship Program. It’s a nine-month program designed for recent college graduates who want to learn to follow Jesus in community together.  The goal is to prepare them to live as missional Christians in any vocation.  Participants study early Church writings, create rules of life as they learn about spiritual formation, and  world mission.  During this time they’re volunteering in a local church and learning to practice living missionally in their workplaces. Participants also go on a short-term mission trip (international or domestic), giving them a cross-cultural mission experience as part of their missional and spiritual formation.  And this isn’t just for people who think they’re called to traditional ministry. It’s open to anyone. The congregation I pastor now has three people participating in it – one’s a nurse, one’s a social worker and future missionary, and one’s a seminary graduate preparing for overseas mission. And I believe that WCD will prepare each of these young women to glorify God wherever he calls them after this.

The biggest reason why I’m excited about WCD, though, is that I’ve experienced the transforming power of its components myself.  One of the books participants read is The Philokalia, a collection of monastic writings from the early Church which has completely transformed my own personal discipleship, the way I pray, the way I read scripture, and the way I approach my role as a pastor. In short, writings like this have encouraged me to pursue prayer and holiness in ways that I never before thought possible.  And with the way WCD is designed, such powerful material for spiritual formation is connected directly to mission.  Participants seek sanctification for the sake of mission in the world.  So they read Lesslie Newbigin beside St. Teresa of Avila. They learn to pray without ceasing while working part-time jobs in the neighborhoods where they live. They laugh and cry together and learn from each other what it means to be the Body of Christ.

I’ve spent three years as a church-planter doing bi-vocational ministry, learning what it means to be engaged in mission in a post-Christendom environment.  WCD offers both the training that I wish I had when preparing for ministry and the transformation I want members of the congregation I lead today to have. Anyone who wants to be truly transformed by God for the life of the world should consider applying.

I think I’ve found a new spiritual role model.  I just finished reading Charles de Foucauld: Essential Writings in Orbis Books “Modern Spiritual Masters” series.  Brother Charles (b. 1858) was a French man who converted to Roman Catholicism after serving in the French military and exploring the deserts of northern Africa.  Following his conversion, he became a Trappist monk at a monastery in Syria, but even this life was not rigorous enough for Charles in its discipline or asceticism. Inspired by God to imitate what he called “the hidden life of Jesus of Nazareth”, Charles moved to Nazareth and took a position as a servant at a women’s monastery there. There he sought to live a simple life of poverty, prayer, and service, just as he imagined Jesus had during the first 30 years of His life.  Eventually, Charles felt led to pursue even greater degrees of solitude, so he moved to the deserts of Algeria and Morocco to pursue a life of poverty, prayer, service and quiet witness amongst the region’s Arab Muslims and the nomadic Tuaregs.  In 1916, he was martyred there.

I found may things about Charles inspiring, but I want to highlight three in particular here.  These were his approaches to work, Eucharist, and witness.

Work: Foucauld believed that a life in imitation of Christ was a life of ordinary work, often doing the lowliest and most humble tasks available, but working to support oneself in ministry.  (In this sense his ministry is both inspiring and challenging for those of us in tentmaking and bi-vocational ministries.)  But work wasn’t about money for Charles.  Instead it was about learning humility and obedience.   He journalled Christ’s voice speaking to him about Christ’s hidden life in Nazareth: “How clearly I preached humility at Nazareth, by spending thirty years in obscure labors, and obscurity by remaining so completely unknown for thirty years – I who am the light of the world – and obedience, in that I, who am God, made myself subject for thirty years to parents who, although unquestionably holy, were human beings nonetheless” (p. 48).  Humble and obscure work for Charles equalled intimate imitation of Christ.

Thus it makes sense that for Foucauld work went hand-in-hand with simplicity of life.  He journalled in the voice of Jesus speaking to him, “Work hard enough to earn your daily bread, but less than ordinary workers.  They work to earn as much as possible.  You and I work only so as to earn a very frugal diet and the poorest of clothing and lodgings, together with enough to give small sums in alms” (p. 57).   In the Rule he wrote for the monastic order he hoped to found, he said the brothers would be forbidden to receive any gifts.  Instead, “We will live solely by the work of our hands. . . . On Saturday, when the weekly pay is received, all money that is left over from the week before will be given to the poor.” They would earn their living doing ordinary labor and give away (rather than save) that which exceeded their simple needs.  Surely this example raises serious questions for the state of Christianity in America today.  Too many pastors and church workers understand their careers in terms more similar to climbing corporate ladders than to this example of simplicity.  How much more could ordinary church members give to mission if they simplified their lives in such a way?  Would not joy replace much of the stress in our lives if making money were not the goal of work?

Eucharist: Brother Charles was so in love with Jesus that he spent hours upon hours meditating upon Christ’s presence in the sacraments. “You were not nearer to the Blessed Virgin during the nine months she carried you in her womb than you are to me when you rest on my tongue at Holy Communion,” he wrote (p. 52).  This sense of sacramental intimacy with Jesus was like Foucauld’s approach to work: all he did was for the sake of drawing closer to Christ.  But this also translated into the fruit of witness and mission in Foucauld’s life.  Writing about his vision for a monastic community following his pattern of life in the Moroccan desert, he said that the men would live in adoration of the Holy Sacrament, because the practice both bore witness to the real presence of Christ with them in the desert and inspired hospitality and love toward every human being they came into contact with.  Meditating on Christ’s presence in the Eucharist led him even more deeply to sense Christ’s presence in “the least of these” (Matthew 25).  Personally and pastorally, I rejoice that many people are saying the sacramental piece of our church’s life is a place where they meet Christ. I pray that it will inspire mission as the Eucharist did for Foucauld and his followers.

Witness: One does not normally think of a hermetic monk in the African desert as an example of mission or evangelism. But Foucauld believed he was called to “cry the Gospel” with his life, just as every follower of Jesus is called to do. He wrote, “the salvation of one’s neighbor is as important as the salvation of one’s self.  Every Christian must be an apostle. That is not advice; it is a command – the command of charity” (pp. 80-81). By living in imitation of Jesus in the deserts of northern Africa, Foucault believed he was participating in apostolic presence among unreached peoples.  And what was his method of sharing gospel amongst non-Christian people groups? Prayer. Intimacy with Jesus. And presence.  The prayerful person who lets Christ’s presence shine through him or her becomes a conduit through which others are drawn closer to Christ. Hence he writes, “By entering into friendly relationships with people totally opposed to religion we can, by our goodness and virtue, destroy their prejudices and bring them completely to God” (p. 83).  I find this personally inspiring because it’s what I pray could happen through my presence working as a barista at a local cafe.   Indeed, Foucault has much to teach those of us who are engaged in mission in the post-Christian west. He realized a hundred years ago that the West was becoming as much of a mission field as the rest of the world: “One has to be as much a missionary in France as in a country of unbelievers, and being so is the duty of us all, priests and lay people, men and women” (p. 83).  He wrote that in 1914, decades before talk of the “missional church” became a trendy topic in our context.  Now, as the Church in the West is awakening to the reality that it lives in a mission field, I think we need to recover much of the spirituality of people like Foucault.  Simply put, a culture that likes Jesus but not the Church needs to see Jesus. A culture that’s spiritual-but-not-religious needs to see true spirituality in action. Witness in our context will not succeed unless it boldly displays Christ-likeness and intimacy with Jesus.

There are two kinds of work at the cafe where I’m a barista: behind-the-counter work and over-the counter-work. By over-the-counter work, I mean all the tasks that customers typically see. When we make a drink, ring up a sale, or interact customers, the customers are aware of what we’re doing to serve them.  But they’re not always aware of the behind-the-counter work that went into preparing for those interactions. It takes time to bake the croissants and muffins we sell, time to grind and brew the coffee, time to stock cups and fruit and half-and-half.   Making a chai doesn’t just involve pouring the chai and milk into a pitcher and steaming it.  Making a chai involves the behind-the-counter work of measuring out the spices and teas for our homemade blend, brewing it well in advance, steeping it for hours, draining the tea and spices from the pitcher, and eventually chilling the chai. The typical customer does not see all this.

I think there’s a parallel here with ministry.  In my role as a pastor, I spend a lot of time doing the over-the-counter work.  Leading worship on Sunday, preaching, meetings with my co-pastor, meetings with our leadership team, meetings with people from the congregation, spending time building relationships with people outside the church, etc.  But in order for all that to go well, I have to spend extensive time doing the behind-the-counter work: prayer, study, writing, planning and strategic thinking.  Writing a sermon is like making a chai. It takes a lot of time behind the scenes for the ingredients to steep, to ruminate in a pastor’s mind, to write a good sermon.  And just as dishes have to be done at the cafe, emails have to be answered, mail has to be opened, and the church website needs to be updated. The dishes don’t seem exciting or meaningful, but they’re necessary.

Sometimes the over-the-counter work means we fall behind on the behind-the-counter work.  Like yesterday at the cafe when the dishes were piling up, I needed to brew more iced  tea, the half-and-half pitcher was empty, and someone came in to order a smoothie.  I explained twice to him that he had to choose one ingredient from each column.   “Okay, then I’ll have a cherry smoothie,” he said. Annoyed, I impatiently responded, “I can’t just blend up frozen cherries for you.  You have to pick one from each column.”  Eventually he did, and while I juiced the oranges by hand to blend with the cherries and yogurt, the dishes continued to pile up. 

Such is life in ministry sometimes.  Which is why I’m realizing I have got to be more intentional about making time and space for the behind-the-counter work.  I enjoy opening at the cafe each Monday morning because from 5:45 to 6:45, I have an hour alone to do the necessary behind-the-counter work.  The door is locked, the sign says we’re closed, but I’m baking, brewing, and preparing for the day.  If that time gets shortened, I know it’s going to be a rough morning.  Now I need to find a way to make similar space in my church schedule . . .

Today I get to speak at Pittsburgh Seminary‘s Evangelical Student Fellowship about tentmaking, or bi-vocational ministry.  At Upper Room, Mike and I are both “tentmakers”, meaning that we earn part of our living from jobs outside of the church we serve.  The phrase comes from Acts 18:3, which says that the Apostle Paul practiced the trade of making tents, a trade which he explains elsewhere (such as 1 Thess 2:9-12) he practiced to provide his own financial support.   While it’s been common in missionary situations since the days of Paul, and is not uncommon in other denominations, it still seems like a new concept in our denomination, the PC(USA).  Thankfully, though, that’s changing, and more presbyteries are thinking outside the box about what ministry is and how ministers can be supported.  For a great example, see this recent article from the Presbyterian Outlook about Erin Dunigan (which also happily mentions Upper Room). 

Today at ESF I’ll be sharing some stories from my work at the cafe, the joys and challenges of balancing it with ministry at Upper Room, and why I felt called to this particular work. More importantly, I’m going to talk about the need for other pastors to consider bi-vocational models of ministry both for the sake of mission and to be able to serve growing numbers of congregations which can’t afford full-time pastors. 

For those interested in tentmaking or bi-vocational ministry, Bi-vocational.com has excellent summaries of the potential benefits and pitfalls of tentmaking, as well as reflections by other bi-vocational ministers.

A couple weeks ago, Mike and I were interviewed by Leslie Scanlon for an article in the Presbyterian Outlook about The Upper Room’s approach to bi-vocational ministry.  (It’s available now online here, if you want to read it.)  Bi-vocational ministry simply means working another job outside of one’s formal church work to pay the bills.  It’s also called tentmaking because of Paul’s example in Acts 18:3.  It was the way much of the church functioned in its early history, and it’s the way many pastors earn a living in other parts of the world where Christianity is rapidly growing. 

In last Monday’s (May 11th) episode of God Complex RadioBruce Reyes-Chow and Carol Howard Merritt talked about the lack of full-time positions available in ministry for recent seminary graduates.   The problem is the relationship between the cost of education – very high - and what churches can afford to pay their pastors – in most places, not much.  (See Carol’s post We can no longer afford an educated clergy for more background.)  So, we need to find other models of ministry and preparation for ministry.  One such model may be bi-vocating for full-time tentmaking, which Bruce and Carol start talking about twenty minutes into the episode. 

Bi-vocating has worked for us, at least so far, but only for a number of reasons which are unique to us.  First, financially:  Mike and were able to go into bi-vocational ministry because we didn’t have loads of student loans to pay-off. (Thank you donors to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary!)  On top of that, Mike and I are still paid half-time salaries out of grants for new church development.  Because Presbyterians traditionally pay their pastors well, a half-time salary is still reasonable compensation.  Second, we like what we’re doing.   As Carol says 21 minutes in, bi-vocational ministry is resisted because a lot of pastors don’t know how to do anything else.  Even though Mike and I are bi-vocational, we’re definitely in this boat.  My other job is serving coffee at the 61C Cafe.  I love coffee, love being a barista, and love my job and coworkers at the cafe.  I don’t want to do anything else. And to be honest, educationally, I’m not prepared to do much else.  When I graduated from college with a degree in Religious Studies and Creative Writing, I said to myself: “I can two things with this degree, work in a coffee shop or go to grad school.”  Hence where I am today.  Third, The Upper Room is at a stage in its life right now where bi-vocating is necessary both for financial support, and for the growth of the church.  As a church-planter, my time at the cafe is my largest chunk of time each week spent getting to know the community we’re trying to reach.  Fourth, it’s consistent with the vision for Upper Room to have us be bi-vocational.  By bi-vocating, we don’t surround ourselves with other Christians, thus forcing us as pastors to live as missional examples for the people in the congregation.  All of that having been said, bi-vocating has worked for us in our context, but it won’t in every context. 

But for the past two weeks I haven’t stopped thinking What if we’re not radical enough?  What if the day comes when we will have to, by necessity, be full-time tentmakers  What if I’ll have to go back to school or take a job in another field someday in order to fully support a family while still working for the church?  To prepare people for this kind of ministry requires a completely different kind of seminary, or model of ministry training.  Perhaps it would be something like the World Christian Discipleship Program.  Near the end of that episode of God Complex, Carol suggests pursuing creative forms of education which can be done alongside other work (whether full-time ministry or other employment).  I have a friend who will be going to seminary in Bolivia next year and taking distance classes from Fuller all while working in university ministry.  What other possibilities might there be?

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