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Surviving Bi-Vocational Ministry

Imagine you’re living the life of an overworked pastor. On Monday morning you enter the study, turn on the desktop …


Imagine you’re living the life of an overworked pastor. On Monday morning you enter the study, turn on the desktop and review the task manager. The upcoming sermon is incomplete, the mid-week Bible study is approaching, the bi-weekly prayer sessions need to be planned, hospital visitations must be arranged, and a dozen people have asked for prayer.

The nagging red light on the answering machine represents a stream of incoming requests that still need to be addressed, and the email inbox indicates that there are 62 unopened messages. Unpaid church bills are spilled over the desk, covering a stack of missionary support letters and multiple invitations to various social celebrations. Through the window an unannounced visitor is preparing to enter the building.

Your cell is ringing. The boss from your other job is calling. Yes, you can make it to the meeting by five, and no, Sunday will not work. How many times have you told them that you’re a pastor?

It may sound stressful, but there are dedicated leaders working within church and para-church environments that are balancing both ministerial and secular jobs in order to make ends meet. Understanding the difficulties of such a life, they strive to turn their current part-time ministry into a full-time routine, but a lack of money, experience and volunteer support may force an individual to obtain one or more secular vocations in order to supplement their work as a church leader. For these dedicated servants, the obstacles of maintaining a healthy balance between church, home, relationships, secondary jobs and a spiritual life are more difficult than the average around-the-clock employee.

Some bi-vocational leaders are serving as replacements for those who have either retired, quit, or possibly even fired. Others are working for ministries that are unable to afford permanent workers, or are involved in rigorous college programs. Some are just grassroots workers trying to build a self-sustaining ministry. Whatever their circumstance, modern day tent-makers need an extra amount of support, prayer and accountability to avoid burnout and bitterness.

Bi-vocational challenges derive from both internal and external sources. Like most Christian leaders, they feel called by God to minister within a specific circumstance. Frustrations often occur when these individuals personally set unrealistic and overwhelming goals, or have improbable expectations thrust upon them by pastors, church-members, and co-laborers who are accustomed to (and unfairly expect) full-time dedication and results.

The challenges are both material and spiritual. The Westernized church takes for granted the vast abundance of money and resources available to it, and we often demand modernized ministries that are equipped with fancy media presentations, famous public speakers and services that meet our every want and need. Organizations and ministries are unfairly judged by these standards, and thus part-time staff (and their ministries) are often seen as unsuccessful and insufficient.

Spiritual expectations are even crueler. Bi-vocational leaders are sometimes misdiagnosed as having a lack of faith simply because they hold a secular job. They may face pressure to raise support or pray for additional income instead of splitting time between a job and ministry. Another common curse is to judge a ministry according to numbers and growth. Part-time workers, especially those new to a position, often face this daunting pressure, if not outwardly, then internally.

For many, an increase in growth is the only path towards obtaining a full-time position simply because additional numbers means additional money. When growth fails to happen, leaders (and sometimes the surrounding staff and congregation) are left wondering why God refuses to miraculously increase attendance or bless the ministry with an abundance of money. Unless there is a network of accountability and a personal dependence on God, depression and disappointment are quick to follow.

The comparison game is a knock-out punch for part-time ministers, especially for those who are working in an environment surrounded by full-time coworkers. No expression is truer than “all ministry is full-time.” No matter what the official W2-form claims, if you’re involved in a ministry you understand the work, dedication and energy that goes beyond the time-clock. Ministry is a 24/7 commitment. People get sick, have concerns and face difficult life decisions. They need prayer in the middle of the night, during dinnertime, at the crack of dawn and during every other part of the day. And while this demand is easier for someone with a schedule entirely devoted to these commitments, bi-vocational leaders naturally have a narrower time-frame to meet these needs.

Bi-vocational workers may feel guilty or see themselves as inadequate due to their inability to be a constant minister. In order to alleviate this problem they often overcompensate their time and energy to make up for a perceived failure. This in turn affects their family and personal relationships, causing additional stress.

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As a part-time youth pastor, I recently faced all of these pressures during our denomination’s annual summer camp. I quickly became devastated as I compared my youth ministry with the ones around me. The Bose sound equipment, the obscenely large groups of students and the latest worship songs–being played on a Fender guitar by a pastor who had a voice like Sufjan Stevens–served as a constant reminder of how second-rate I was.

The small group of students (who I had to beg to attend) from my church were dwarfed by groups five times our size. And while the other youth leaders had spent large portions of their summer planning the camp sessions together (causing a strong relational bond that I could never manage to be a part of), I was doing all I could just to juggle my second job as a bell-hop in order to attend and lead our summer mission trip.

I was ready to give up, but fortunately my wife took me aside and set me straight. She reminded me that God had me where I was for a reason, and her accountability came at the perfect time.

For those balancing multiple jobs and devoting themselves to ministry, I offer the same advice. Keep being loyal to God’s calling on your life. Be careful not to judge success by the standards of the world, or by similar ministries around you. Set boundaries for yourself. Accept your situation for what it is and try not to make up for the lack of time and resources available to you. Trust in God to use you in the current ministry, and remember that it was because of His small and ragged band of unequipped disciples (one of which betrayed Him to the cross) that the gospel was ultimately spread throughout the world.

Are you a bi-vocational leader? What obstacles have you encountered in ministry and how have you overcome them?

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