The bi-vocational leader

In recent years, many new terms have entered the vocabulary of Christian leadership. Alongside the rise of the missional community has come the bi-vocational leader. It used to be called tentmaking, because that’s literally what the apostle Paul did to support himself (Acts 18:3). Maybe today, Paul would be a jobbing builder.

You can find eight reasons here for example.

There are three main ways in which one can be a bi-vocational leader. They are:

  1. Self-employed. Here you manage your own business, time and taxes and weave into this mix the work of the church.
  2. Part-time employment. This is fairly self explanatory. You work however much you need to live and then gift the remaining time to your church.
  3. Full-time employment. Again, it’s not hard to figure this one out. You do a double shift.

Over the last ten years, I’ve done all three and been employed full-time as a church leader. I know which I prefer. Here are my thoughts on the respective pros and cons.

Self-employed. There can be a tendency to think that because church planters in particular are the entrepreneurial sort then they naturally should fit this option. Starting up a business requires similar skill to pioneering a new church so just go start a coffee-shop somewhere. This option is especially fashionable for the urban hipster planter. What’s not to like about being a barista and talking to people over coffee all day?

The reality is, is that while starting up a business and starting up a church do in fact require similar skills, they also require similar levels of commitment, dedication and hard work. You have to love your business as much as you love your church. You have to be just as willing to do the dog-work for the business as you are for the church, it requires the same first-in, last out attitude and dogged perseverance.

There are various challenges to running your own business; when it succeeds and when it fails it requires considerable levels of energy and time to keep it running or to stop it from failing. Most leaders I’ve talked to about this have a) not been bi-vocational for decades and b) assume that a business will quickly hit this sweet-spot where the planter has loads of money to live on, employ new team members, fund church ministries and give the leader lots of time to evangelise and c) live in cloud-cuckoo land.

Where I’ve seen this work, is where the leader already is self-employed and running their business or sufficient experience and client base to establish themselves quickly.

My own personal experience was with a business that struggled. (I ran an independent bookshop just as Amazon found it’s stride). I never loved it or dreamed about it, like I did the church and it never got first call on my gifts, time and energy. As a result it became a drain, a heavy burden and it was a relief to be finally cut free.

Full-time employment. This was far more preferable for me; your pay cheque is taken care of and the balancing act was in time and energy. It does depend a little on whether the job in question is also a career job or just a job. This is the common pressure point for most people but I found there to be one or two unique situations that only a pastor or leader would find themselves in.

I had a career job as editor of business-to-business industry magazine that had monthly deadlines, targets and required limited amounts of travel. The challenge came that deadlines were fixed and it’s impossible to schedule your people’s pastoral crises post deadline. Pioneering ministry is a battle, it is hard, it is graft, it deals with messy lives and broken people and if it’s not then what are you doing? There is a loneliness that comes with carrying burdens that are not easily shared, and in the early days the weight of responsibility is definitely not evenly spread. Work pressures and church pressures coincide. You have to know how to rest, recover and regroup. It’s running recovery. Eventually, if your new church grows the feeling of doing two-full time jobs becomes less of a feeling and more and more reality.

Part-time employment. This is my favourite so far. The main requirement for this is having either a sufficiently high-paying part time job or sufficiently low standards of living so that your ordinary part time job is enough. The disciplines of simplicity, financial stewardship and a commitment to debt-free (mortgage excluded) living has proven to be invaluable here.

I currently work at a supermarket about 50%, I stack shelves and man the checkout. I’ve also been a part time teacher and various other roles. You work only what you need to live and the rest of your time is your own, this gives you plenty of time to pastor & pioneer. There is enough emotional room to manage when someone else can’t.

Working at a supermarket, I also have no responsibilities beyond my job. I carry no pressures from work home, the job does not follow me, when I’m done, I’m done. It also gives me plenty of opportunity to observe everyday life and pray.

The challenge is your own needs and costs, there is a certain fragility that comes when you are a low-income worker – you are the furthest possible from indispensable, and you’re only one broken appliance from financial stress or meltdown.

Yet this is the most sustainable long-term option I think and the one that conveys the most advantages (although the lowest financial reward).

What have been your experiences of bi-vocational leaders? What has worked and what hasn’t?

 

Photo by Brett Jordan

2 thoughts on “The bi-vocational leader”

  1. Steve Dunn says:

    Great piece, thanks Phil. It’s always encouraging to simply know someone else “gets” what it’s like! I’m currently working half-hours/half-wage for the ambulance service and the same for leading a church of 50-60 average attendance. Juggling the two as the church grows (particularly in light of ambulance shifts being unsocial and affecting more than one day each time) means it’s family that can get affected most amongst meeting other responsibilities. Learning to say no is an acquired but necessary art! And the church’s expectations of your availability and capacity need to be realistic too.

    We are currently working toward releasing me full-time for church leadership this year but that’s a challenge that we are trusting and seeking God in.

    In the meantime, church: regardless of their employment status, pray for your pastors!

    1. Phil Whittall says:

      Thanks Steve, I certainly identify with much of that. I’ve got a few further thoughts on it, which I hope to post this week. But agree that saying ‘no’ is crucial to survival!

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