The Ambivalence of Bivocationalism

I’ve come across a couple of articles on Bivocationalism recently and, as someone who has been a bivocationalist for a number of years now, pretty well acquainted with the good and bad of it, I though I might get my 5c worth in.

First things first: What does this ugly word refer to? In my context, it refers to ministers who have a non-church (“secular”) job as well as a ministry job – they do the former to fund the latter. In evangelicalism it is known as “tent-making”, like St Paul who supported himself in this way. Musos, artists, writers, actors, and the rest of the creative world call it your day job.

The other bit of necessary groundwork is to briefly account for myself. Why do I think I have anything to say about it? I have been a part-time minister in my community (Cafechurch Melbourne) since 2007, and the main leader since 2009. As well as that, I was studying for my MDiv until the end of 2012, and working 3 days a week, generally doing software development for a medium sized financial services company in Melbourne. That convenient arrangement came to an end in the first half of last year, leaving me somewhat in the lurch.

So, I’ve done it a lot, and, it turns out, I have a lot to say about it. So, without more ado, here are my thoughts.

The best thing about bivocationalism, the big win, is that it gives you freedom. You can follow your passion, your sense of God’s call on your life, in situations where the institutions do not see the value of what you are proposing, or in marginal situations where there is no immediate likelihood of a full time wage. So, it’s ideal for starting up something small and experimental – a little church in a bar perhaps.

It lowers the stakes a lot, so it allows you to be experimental. If there is some funding body looking over your shoulder the whole time, continually hassling you for results, then it would make it hard to be creative. The pressure to conform to the expectations of someone external to the situation would be strong, and it would be hard for them to give you the necessary permission to fail. And fail you will – often. The challenge is to learn from your failures, and it might press the patience of a funder further than it could bear. But when you are paying your own way, it localises this to you, and your community.

My perspective of full-time ministers is that they can live in a bit of a bubble. It must be hard to keep connected to what life is like for everyone else. So, for instance, if church is the biggest thing in your life, it is hard to understand the priorities of people for whom it is not. The temptation to imperialise people’s time to an unhealthy extent must be strong. If you have been working all day yourself, it is less likely that you will expect people to be in meetings every night of the week – it will give you a better appreciation of the constraints around people’s time and energy.

Even more than that, it brings you into contact with unchurched people. If you only talk to churched people, how on earth can you have any idea of what people in the outside world think, or value, or worry about? How can you possibly bring the good news to people’s situations when you don’t understand it, at quite a deep level?

If your relationships all revolve around you in your ministerial role, then it must be hard to relate to people outside the role. In the church, you are a big deal. In the outside world? Perhaps not so much. And that can be highly salutary, if painful.

I’ve also observed that ministers can be really odd around power. If you are used to being the central figure all the time, it must be hard to give power away. But you can’t do everything – and even if you could, you really shouldn’t, not if you believe in “the priesthood of all believers.” In the outside world, people work in teams, power and responsibility is shared and devolved. That’s a really important lesson for ministers to learn.

Having said all that, here are the hard things about it. Firstly, make no mistake: it is very hard to combine ministry work with a secular job. It can feel like you are always working, and it is very hard to have time off. In his (generally pretty good) article David Fitch suggests keeping your secular job to 40-50 hours a week, and being a pastor outside that. I think that seems like a really big ask, especially if you intend to do this for a prolonged period of time. Pastoral work is very demanding, and if you are doing something risky, marginal, missional, then that carries its own burdens. If you are trying to create new things, and you don’t have a regular system, that takes a lot of creativity, and if you are exhausted, it won’t be easy to keep it up.

It is hard to keep up a secular job if you aren’t committed to it. I don’t know if it is particularly true of Melbourne, or of IT, but the years I committed to working part time were years that I was neglecting my IT career – with the result that, when my regular 3 day thing ended, I was put in a very difficult situation, with outdated skills.  It did take quite a while though – pretty well the six years it took me to finish my MDiv.

If you are drawn to ministry, then you are probably someone who strongly wants to work in something you find meaningful and worthy. So it is then hard to spend a lot of your time invested in something else. I know people whose aspiration is avowedly to have a job that is good enough. But if you want to do ministry, then that’s painful. All that time you spend sitting in dull meetings, listening to people droning on, trying not to look too bored – it can feel like a waste of life when you could be doing things that nourish the soul instead.

It is very hard to change people’s expectations of a minister. Even though, intellectually, they may realise that you have a day job, some people can be quite disappointed and upset when the group does not have the same sort of pastoral resources as a larger church with a full time minister. It’s true for all churches of course, that needs seem to be infinite and resources very limited, but it is particularly true when you only have a day a week to do everything church related in. Even though people will often get that your time is limited and try not to put unfair pressure on you, it’s frustrating to know that there are important conversations you could be having, but aren’t because you are trapped at work.

Beyond all these practical considerations, there is a deeper dynamic at work. When you are part of an organisation, or practicing some profession, you are being formed into a certain sort of person. For instance, when I worked (briefly and unsuccessfully) in sales, there was a lot of pressure, both conscious and unconscious, to make money the measure of all things, and to see people as tools to reach my financial goals. Similarly in working in software development for so long, you develop various mental habits and outlooks – a bit of a sneering attitude towards non-technical people, a fondness for the snappy comeback, an impatience with complex answers, a certain lack of emotional awareness. The problem with all this is that, while these sorts of traits probably have their place, it gets in the way of being Irenus’s “human being fully alive.”

This is a problem for all of us who have to live in the so called “real world”, and part of the job of church is, surely, to call us back to who we are meant to be. It is much harder when, as the person who is supposed to be doing the calling, you are under considerable pressure to be “conformed to this world” yourself. And that’s even before it is overlaid by the practical problems I raised above. If you’re tired, over-stretched, resentful and just generally over things, then this subtle pressure to be conformed to this world, must reduce one’s effectiveness.

Though, of course, every weakness has a corresponding strength – it puts you very closely in touch with the pressures that everyone else in your church is facing, which can’t be a bad thing.

To sum up, being bivocational, like most things, presents both opportunities and costs. The opportunities are around freedom to do what you and your community think needs to be done, and to fail creatively without lots of external pressure, and around your knowledge-by-acquaintance of the pressure that everyone else is under. The downsides are both practical – it is hard to get the rest and recreation time you need, which can really start to tell over the long term, failure to develop your career can leave you exposed – and the subtle pressure to conform to the world, which, looping back to the beginning, gives you a clear sight of what life is like for the other people in your community.

My final word: if you are considering being bivocational, then I want to encourage you. Freedom really is a big win here. But try to make sure you have support in your group, from your partner if you have one, or from at last someone who knows what you are going through, and make sure you get adequate time off and sufficient rest, recreation and excercise. It can easily move from a challenging, though worthwhile, way to live to an abusive one, and you can’t rely on anyone outside the situation

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