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 Radio, Bruce 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?