Many pastors are finding unexpected blessings for themselves and their churches navigating the unique challenges of bivocational ministry.
By Bob Smietana
Bivocational ministry is often a necessity for pastors in today’s economy.
However, some are choosing bivocational ministry as a means to better know their communities and live on mission in the marketplace.
Whatever the reason, many bivocational pastors are finding unexpected blessings for themselves and their churches while navigating the unique challenges of bivocational ministry.
Here’s some advice from well-seasoned bivocational ministers for those considering a similar path.
Put your family first.
One of the biggest strains of being a bivocational pastor is the stress it creates on your family. James DeBoe, a longtime bivocational pastor and doctor, served 28 years as pastor of a Brethren in Christ church in rural Virginia while running his medical practice.
One of the best decisions in his career was setting a regular lunch date with his wife. The two had been at odds. He was spending too much time at work, causing a strain on their marriage.
In the middle of a medical exam, he says, he felt God tell him he needed to take his wife to lunch. The feeling was so intense he walked out of the exam room—leaving a patient on the table—and called his wife to invite her to lunch.
“After repeating this lunch date a few times, she was much happier,” he says.
Finny Kuruvilla, a bivocational pastor in Boston, takes Fridays off to spend time with family. In the winter, that often means ice-skating or other activities. He teaches science to his kids, who are homeschooled, and once a week, he takes one of the kids to a local Mexican restaurant, where they snack and chat.
“We sit for an hour, eat chips and salsa—it costs me $2,” he says.
“Guard the hearts of your spouse and children,” says Philip Nation, teaching pastor at The Fellowship in Nashville, Tennessee, and director of content development at Lifeway. “Don’t let them be ministerial widows and orphans. Love them well and you will lead better in the church.”
Find a second job you like.
Andrew Weaver, pastor of United Lutheran Church in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, has an unusual job for a bivocational pastor. He is a balloon artist, specializing in giant art installations such as a 70-foot-long balloon river—complete with kayakers—he did for a local art fair.
Weaver says having a second job is good for a pastor’s mental health.
“If all the pastor does is serve the church and lives within the church walls, that can be very isolating,” he says. “Getting beyond the church walls is important for every pastor.”
Remember the mission, even when money is tight.
Most bivocational pastors will hit a rough spot, says Jorge Garcia, pastor of Gracia y Paz Covenant Church in Chula Vista, California. Sometimes money is tight. Sometimes there is too much to do and not enough time.
Don’t give up, says Garcia, who works as a sales engineer during the day. Just do what needs to be done and press on.
“You have the opportunity to serve God as a pastor for a particular flock of people,” he says. “If you need to sell pizzas, you sell pizzas.”
Learn to say no.
Randy Singer, a lawyer, writer, and pastor of Trinity Church in Virginia Beach, tracks every hour he spends on each job. Those hours add up quickly, and there is usually still work to be done even after he reaches 60 or 70 hours.
Singer has learned to do only the things that matter most. He even pauses before answering an email, knowing he can easily be caught up in a time-consuming conversation. He skips social media and limits meetings.
Sometimes, he says, you have to leave things undone. “You can work yourself to death trying to do both jobs.”
Make developing leaders a priority.
Bivocational pastors can’t do it all, says Brian Dye of Legacy Christian Fellowship in Chicago. Dye, who pastors a church plant on the city’s West Side, stresses the importance of sharing responsibility with the congregation and developing leaders for the church.
It involves some risk. Lay people will need time and space to grow into a leadership role, and they won’t always get it right the first time. Having faith that God is at work in everyone at church helps, says Dye.
“Trust that God will raise up leaders to fill the need,” he says.
Delegate as much as you can, says Singer. “Find and develop leaders who can run ministries at the church—and let them do their jobs.”
Ministry always requires the power of presence, whether a pastor is fully supported or bivocational.
Gary Mitchell, a longtime bivocational pastor and consultant in Louisiana, recalls serving at a small church in the 1980s. A couple in the church asked Mitchell to visit their estranged son, who was dying of AIDS.
Mitchell was afraid. This was early in the AIDS epidemic, when no one understood how the disease worked. The young man, thin and covered in sores, was in an isolation ward.
Mitchell eventually was able to talk and pray with the young man. That made all the difference in the world to the young man and to his parents.
Mitchell believes some pastors forget that caring for people is an essential part of ministry.
Love your work in the “real world.”
Or, at the least, learn from it. Many of your church members struggle to even like the job they have. According to Gallup’s 2015 State of the American Workplace report, 68 percent of American workers are “not engaged” or are “actively disengaged” from their workplaces and less likely to be productive.
“It’s a good thing to admit we sometimes struggle like everyone else,” says Nation. “It’s a better thing to show how faith intersects our work and guides us through the struggles. In your full-time work, learn how God is shaping your character and leading you to ministry opportunities that would not happen otherwise.”
Don’t be too busy for God.
Sometimes even a pastor with two jobs has to slow down and listen.
That’s a lesson John Pippin, who stepped down last year after 30 years as a bivocational pastor at Corinth Church of Christ in Sparta, Tennessee, says he sometimes forgot.
Pippin says he’s thankful for the time he spent in bivocational ministry, but he’s glad for a break. At times, he felt as if he were on a treadmill—always preparing for the next sermon but not growing spiritually.
One of his professors warned him early on that Sunday comes every seven days, and he had to have a sermon ready—or, in his case, two sermons a week, along with pastoral care and visitation.
The deadlines were unrelenting.
Looking back, Pippin says he developed some bad habits. He was spending a great deal of time studying the Bible, but he was always preparing for the next sermon.
“That doesn’t help you grow,” he says.
Pippin’s advice for other pastors: Don’t always be in a rush to write the next sermon. Instead, listen to what the Scriptures are teaching you.
“Slow down and give it time to stick,” he says. “That’s the part I think I missed.”
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.