This March will be nine years since I was baptized after coming to faith in Christ. Since then, I married a wonderful woman, finished college, acted on a call to ministry, finished seminary and have had various ministry roles and opportunities. It sounds like a pretty typical timeline for a pastor right? Yet for me there is this other life that I have been leading alongside this ministry life. I was a cook for five years at an Italian restaurant, I was a bank teller for about a year and a half, and currently work in a corporate job which I have had for about five years. It is weird for me to say, but I have been in bi-vocational ministry now for about seven years.
I spent the majority of those seven years fighting against the fact that I was actually in bi-vocational ministry. A good friend told me once that I was reluctantly obedient in my dual calling. That reluctant obedience basically characterized me only until recently. When a person is discerning a call to ministry there is this notion that you will go to Bible college and/or seminary and pop out on the other end in a pastorate sipping coffee at Starbucks, reading books and discipling people. That simply isn’t everyone’s story. I really, really wanted it to be my story though, so much so that if I am perfectly honest I was probably angry at God that it wasn’t. This angst fueled an incredible discontentment in my spirit that I carried for years. It was really quite brutal and only understandable if you have experienced something of the like. It affected everything for me. I thought about it every day and obsessed about my “calling” constantly. It drove my wife and I crazy.
I longed to be in full-time ministry and told my mentors and Christian friends all about it. It seemed that the more that I wished for it and prayed for it, the more unlikely or far off it seemed. It didn’t help that I had the regular frustrations of a day-to-day job. The particular jobs I have worked are no more challenging than what others have worked. Yet, the daily work grind amplified my discontentment. I was saved when I was working as a cook, so I was on fire for the Lord in those first couple years. I wore Jesus pins on my chef hat, invited people to church and Bible studies, tried to share my faith with those around me and tried to regularly pray for my coworkers. Over time my passion waned as the frustration with my work and my desire for ministry grew simultaneously. My attitude with work became so bad that my witness for Christ was largely ineffective. I left and started fresh as a teller at a bank. I honestly laid low for quite some time with my faith until opportunities to share just started springing up. I found myself sharing Christ with customers and praying for them. I couldn’t keep quiet any longer.
During the same time I was leading a Bible study on Monday nights at a men’s homeless shelter. I was also attending seminary full-time. Soon after, I had the opportunity to apply where I currently work and obviously got the job. The work eventually became frustrating as work often does. A couple years into my time with that job, I had completed an internship at my church and my wife and I were sent to a small church to do an interim pastorate. I was working full-time, attending seminary full-time and pastoring a church. It was exhausting. Despite my exhaustion, when my interim pastorate was over I was so ready for my next ministry. However, we took some time to recuperate at the church where we had been prior to the interim pastorate. During that time, I graduated from seminary and we had our first child. My ministry involvement at my church was not like it was before. I wasn’t ready to jump into something new quite yet.
Throughout that time God began putting other things on my heart. It was something that stretched back to my days in the interim pastorate. I developed an interest in church planting. I did lots of reading, talking, praying and researching about it. The more I researched, the more I felt drawn to it. Meanwhile, work began feeling like a ministry. I began to feel like the pastor of my department. I had a few requests to officiate weddings (which I couldn’t do because I was not ordained yet), some folks dealt with the loss of a parent or loved one, and there seemed to be this group of people whom God had called me to disciple. Meanwhile, God led us to a friend’s church for a few months. It is a church plant that is just a few years old. It was another stage of learning for us. Most recently God brought another opportunity to us that we did not see coming, which was to serve as a pastoral intern at a church. I continue to work full-time at my corporate job and am now a few months into my new role in a different department.
I share parts of my story so that you might be able to understand the unconventional nature of my journey in ministry. That is of course considering a conventional journey to be attending Bible college and/or seminary and then stepping right into a pastorate. At times, the nature of my journey has admittedly been a struggle for me. Desiring one thing and experiencing another is tough. Also, just having an expectation of what you think will happen and not in fact having that happen is also tough. So I would say that the first and perhaps greatest challenge with bi-vocational ministry is acceptance and/or discerning that this is in fact your calling.
As you may have been able to deduce, I slowly accepted this calling rather than discerned it. I would like to say that I discerned it in a very mature manner with Godly counsel, prayer and reading scripture, but I would be lying. I pursued each of those things, but I am far too stubborn to have submitted to God’s call through those avenues. I had to be beat over the head with it a bit. None of us can say that our calling is forever, therefore if God has called any of us to a bi-vocational life there is nothing telling us that it is for life. This may be a season that God is using to prepare us in some way. Then again, it may be a lifelong calling. I kicked against this calling for most of the last seven years all while in fact being bi-vocational. The result of all that kicking was a significant discontentment that stole my peace and probably rendered me a bit less effective. If you have reached the kicking stage, start accepting that this is what God has called you to. If you haven’t reached the kicking stage, start discerning if this might be your call.
A second challenge is that of balance. Everyone is searching for balance in their lives so this isn’t a challenge just for bi-vocational ministers, but it is nevertheless a challenge to be faced. Most pastors work anywhere from 45-60 hours a week (based on some firsthand knowledge I have and an educated guess). If you are bi-vocational and work full-time that means, like me, you already have at least 40 hours a week accounted for (not including commute time). That leaves you with 5-20 hours of time to do ministry. Yes, ministry can be done at work during your 40 hours because all of life is a ministry, but I am talking about all the other stuff of ministry like sermon prep, lesson prep, administrative work, discipleship, counseling, meetings, etc. You will have to decide what works best for your schedule and how much extra you can allow into your already full schedule. Of course, if your non-ministry job is part-time you are in even better shape, because you now have at least another 10 hours to add to your ministry time budget. Whatever your schedule, get to it before others get to it, as one of my mentors would say.
After you figure out your schedule, you still will not have enough time for ministry. Let’s just be honest, 5-20 hours a week sometimes just isn’t enough. Take this week and last week for me. I work 40 hours a week, plus have a combined hour commute each day. I am preaching two Sundays in a row, plus teaching at our Wednesday night service two weeks in a row. When we are faced with these kinds of pressures, we have to get creative. I work on sermons and lessons on my lunch hour at work. Having brought what I need for sermon prep, I go off in a room away from everyone and plug away for a bit. Also, if things are slow at work, I may set aside a half hour or so to finish up some things. I listen to the Bible on an app while I work as well as podcasts and other resources when I can. Also, my commute is usually filled with some kind of podcast. I have also recently started enjoying audiobooks; Knowing God by J.I. Packer was the first one that I finished. The point is, you have to get creative with your time and try to use it as wisely as possible. This will help bring balance for time with your wife and/or kid(s) if you have either.
While there are other challenges with bi-vocational ministry, I don’t want to leave out the blessings of this calling. When I stand on Sunday mornings as I have opportunity to preach and I look at the congregation, I know what many of them had to go through the week prior because I probably had a similar experience. The daily work grind can drive people crazy and I don’t think you can truly understand it unless you have done it for a length of time. Pastors have their own daily, weekly work grind, but it’s not quite like the rest of the working world. A great way to get to know what your congregation goes through every week is by essentially living in their shoes, so to speak, during the week. That is precisely the perspective that you gain as a bi-vocational minister.
The church that you are a part of as a bi-vocational minister may not be able to hire you full-time and that is why you are currently serving as you do. Or perhaps like me, you are in some sort of internship or residency program at your church where the intention at the moment is not to hire you full-time but to give you experience and help you discern what is next for you. This time is a blessing for you and for your church. You’re not an unnecessary burden to a church that can’t afford to take you on full-time or you’re able to serve a church on a little more advanced level due to the monetary, perhaps contractual and time commitment you and the church have made with each other.
Lastly, you are able to gain a respect and a hearing among the community you find yourself in at work easier than if you were not with them every day for 8 hours a day. The fact is, when you work with people you get to know them and they get to know you whether you want to or not. And this is precisely what you attempt to do in ministry. You try to get to know people, find out their stories, find out what God is doing in their lives and find out how you can be a part of that. Working with people gets most of that done for you simply due to consistent proximity.
Conclusion and Challenge
If this be your calling, keep going. Don’t let the frustrations of it all render you ineffective. Don’t fight against this if this is what God has called/is calling you to. Don’t try to manufacture another calling for yourself. Be what God has called you to be. This calling, like any other, is hard to do without support. Seek support from your wife (if you have one), your pastors and elders at your church, any other mentors and lastly seek out others that have your same calling. There are others like you, possibly even working with you or in your circles that have a similar calling. Meet up with them and be a support to them and receive support from them. Most of all, let’s trust the One who called us. “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it,” (1 Thessalonians 5:24, ESV).