Megachurch pastors get most of the headlines, but bivocational pastors outnumber those big names. And their numbers are only likely to grow.
By Bob Smietana
A few months ago, Jim Black found himself in a familiar spot. Black was associate pastor of a small church in Minnesota that had hit a rough patch. The senior pastor had resigned and money was tight.
There wasn’t enough to pay the bills, including Black’s salary, and the congregation feared the church would have to shut down.
Black told them to have faith and assured them things would work out.
“I told them, ‘You are going to see God provide for us,’” he says, during a break from painting a barn in rural Minnesota. “Then I went home and wondered, Why did I say that?”
Not long afterward, Black, who is 57, grabbed a paintbrush and got to work. So far, he’s picked up nine jobs in the area, with hopes of more to come.
When he’s not painting, Black is helping restart the church, Catalyst Covenant Church, in Alexandria, Minnesota, with about 40 people. He’s serving as a bivocational pastor.
“God opened up the doors,” he says.
Black is an old pro at bivocational ministry, having held a second job for most of his three decades in ministry. He’s part of a growing trend of pastors whose churches can’t afford—or have chosen not to have—a fully supported pastor on staff.
These days, megachurch pastors get most of the headlines. They write books on church leadership, speak at conferences, and shape the way many churches operate.
But bivocational pastors—such as real estate brokers, information technology professionals, house painters, teachers, and lawyers who work both in the church and in the secular world—outnumber those big names.
And their numbers are likely to grow in the future.
Fewer than two-thirds (62.2 percent) of churches in the United States have a full-time pastor, according to the 2015 Faith Communities Today survey. That’s down from 71.4 percent in 2010.
Median Sunday attendance dropped from 105 people to 80 during the same time, and the median annual budget fell from $150,000 to $125,000.
“A lot of churches can’t afford to take care of their pastor,” says Ray Gilder of the Nashville-based Bivocational and Small Church Leadership Network.
In those churches, the pastor often has two options—live on a very small salary or take a second job.
Getting a job is often preferable, says Gilder. He suggests aspiring young pastors—and those already in the pulpit—develop marketable skills for the secular marketplace. That might mean putting a college major to use or applying skills developed in the church—such as counseling, organizing people, or raising money—to work in the outside world.
In some cases, it might mean picking up a paintbrush and getting to work.
Find the right ‘second’ job
One of the biggest challenges bivocational pastors face is finding the right day job. For Black, at least, finding a second job was relatively simple.
“Painting is what I know,” he says.
Black learned painting from his dad, a schoolteacher who ran a painting business during the summer. He started working at age 5 and has painted ever since.
Painting houses allowed him to work his way through seminary and support himself as a pastor. He prefers to work with paintbrushes and rollers, as opposed to spray painting, because he believes the finished job looks better. People hire Black because they trust him to get the job done right.
Working by hand also gives him time to talk to his customers. Those relationships often endure, long after the job is done. In that way, ministry and painting go hand in hand.
“Bivocational ministry is not about the money,” he says. “It’s about the mission you are on and finding a way to do it.”
However, bivocational pastors have to be careful to choose the right second job, says Chris DeBlaay, pastor of the Branch church, a 10-year-old congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Don’t take a job that’s a bad fit for your ministry, he says—one that pays poorly or takes up all a pastor’s time and energy.
“You have to choose something that’s not going to drain you,” he says.
DeBlaay first discovered bivocational ministry about 10 years ago, when he and a friend were thinking about planting the Branch. They wanted the church to be sustainable and didn’t want to spend years planting the church only to burn out or see the Branch fail for lack of finances.
Ten years later, he’s glad to be a bivocational pastor.
“For me—and I think for our church—it still makes a lot of sense,” he says.
Still, being bivocational wasn’t always easy. DeBlaay left a fully supported job at another church to plant the Branch. And it took him a bit of time to find the right second job.
DeBlaay, who studied health science in college, began working at a corporate wellness company about the time the Branch launched. The job was fortuitous—DeBlaay’s wife worked at the company and introduced him to some colleagues, which eventually led to a job offer.
That first job, however, meant he was often on-site with his company’s clients, setting up programs and running seminars. He enjoyed the work, but it left him drained at the end of the day.
“By the time I got to church stuff, I had so little left to give, because I was using all my skills, talents, and intellectual energy at work,” he says.
He eventually switched to a job that wasn’t hands-on with clients and left him a little more time to breathe.
Be willing to share responsibility
Having a bivocational pastor means congregation members need to take leadership roles. At the Branch, everyone has to be all in to make the church work, says DeBlaay.
Being bivocational means everyone in the church is in the same boat, says Black.
When he asks church members to handle a task at church, he knows the toll it can take.
“I’m just as tired as they are,” he says. “I know I have to depend on them.”
Randy Singer agrees.
Singer, a lawyer by trade, has been a bivocational pastor at Trinity Church in Virginia Beach the past nine years. He also runs a law firm and writes novels on the side.
The church could afford to pay him full time, but Singer isn’t interested. He believes bivocational ministry helps bridge the gap between professional staff and people in the pews.
“Being bivocational sends the message that we need all hands on deck,” he says.
Having a secular job also keeps him from being trapped in a church bubble, where his primary social contacts are with fellow Christians. Being in the courtroom and working at his law firm keeps him in touch with the rest of the world.
“I am no less a minister of the gospel when I’m at my law firm than when I’m at the church,” he says. “I’m on mission just as much at one place as I am at the other.”
Singer believes bivocational pastors need to share leadership in order to be successful. At times, he says, pastors are afraid to give lay leaders control over essential parts of the ministry.
His advice for bivocational pastors: Delegate as much as you can. Find and develop leaders who can run ministries at the church, and let them do their jobs.
“It’s really hard to be a control freak and be a bivocational pastor,” he says.
Gary Mitchell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Chataignier, Louisiana, often tells young pastors to befriend an older church member, who can look out for them. Mitchell, a longtime bivocational pastor and consultant for small churches, learned that lesson early.
“The most important thing is building relationships with church members,” he says. “If you can’t build relationships, you’re not going to last long.”
Use your time wisely
Another key to bivocational ministry is setting clear expectations for both pastor and church. The first step is determining which tasks the pastor needs to do and which responsibilities lay people can take care of.
“Does the church need me 40 or 50 hours a week?” asks A.J. Jones, pastor of City of Hope Covenant Church, a 5-year-old multicultural church plant in Bolingbrook, Illinois.
For Jones, a longtime IT professional who now runs a real estate business, bivocational ministry is part necessity and part design.
The church has limited financial resources, and he’d rather see money go into outreach ministry than salaries.
“Being bivocational allowed me to make enough outside of the church that I was able to support my family. It also blessed the church because I wasn’t drawing a salary.”
It’s a win-win, says Jones.
Along the way, he’s discovered some tricks of the trade to make the most of his time. Among them: Don’t write your sermon by yourself.
On Monday nights, Jones meets with about a dozen pastors for Bible study and sermon preparation. They all preach from the same text and do background research as a team.
It’s a technique borrowed from pastors of larger churches.
“You have the collective knowledge of 12 teaching pastors in a room,” he says. “Within two hours of study, we do what would take me 10 hours on my own.”
He doesn’t see himself as any less of a pastor than those who are paid full time at their churches.
“I care for the people of my church—I am very much involved,” he says. “I don’t just show up on Sundays to preach.”
For Chris DeBlaay, being bivocational means focusing on the things he does best. That’s a luxury fully supported pastors don’t always have.
“If you’re a full-time pastor, you’re going to have to do things you either don’t like or are not good at,” he says. “You’re getting paid, and someone has to do it.”
For Singer, the central tasks for a bivocational pastor are preaching and pastoral care. He preaches about two-thirds of the Sunday services at Trinity and spends the rest of his pastoral time doing weddings, funerals, and hospital visits. He entrusts staffers with administration and running other ministries.
He’s become ruthless in asking himself about every task—even answering emails—Do I have time for this?
“Time is my most valuable commodity,” he says. “You have to be able to live with a low level of frustration that you can’t get everything done.”
For Finny Kuruvilla, being bivocational means simplifying his life. He doesn’t have a television, a Facebook account, or other social media.
Still, his life is full, with six kids, a busy job as chief investment officer for an investment firm based in Boston, and his responsibilities as a church planter. He also teaches New Testament Greek and apologetics to college students on the weekends.
His advice for bivocational pastors: Don’t waste time.
“If you cut away the extras, there is time,” he says. “I think a lot of people will look back and regret how much time they wasted.”
Kuruvilla has also learned to find joy in his work as a pastor. He loves studying and preaching, finding it refreshes his soul rather than draining him.
Bivocational ministry values both the calling to a vocation and to pastoral ministry. But balancing the two requires commitment and reliance on God.
That’s a lesson Jim Black learned while in seminary. Feeling worn out from balancing his studies with his work as a painter, he went to see one of his teachers, a now-retired theology professor.
“Why does God make me do this?” Black asked.
The professor sat quietly for a minute and then gave him some advice.
“Pray the paint strokes,” he told Black.
That advice has stuck with Black, turning his secular work into a time that nourishes his soul.
“When I paint, I have time to think and pray,” he says. “It’s a really sweet time.”
Bob is the former senior writer for Lifeway Research. In September 2018, he joined Religion News Service, where he currently serves as a national writer.
Featured Image: Gary Bistram/Genesis Photos