Bivocational Ministry, Part 4:
Bivocational Ministry is Normal

April 4, 2012

Dr. Dorsett is a bivocational pastor and church planting missionary in Vermont. He is the author of Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church and Bible Brain Teasers: Fun Adventures through the Bible. He also serves as a church planting catalyst with the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. He has a passion for helping the next generation discover a meaningful faith and become leaders in sharing that faith with others.

This series looks at the importance of bivocational ministry and bivocational ministers in today’s church. The previous articles in this series are:
Part 1: Bivocational Ministry is a Growing Method for Ministry.
Part 2: Lay People Are Willing to Help Pastors – But Only If They Are Trained.
Part 3: Rethinking Our Perception of Bivocational Ministry.

In part 3, I wrote about the need to rethink our perceptions about bivocational ministry. The main point of that article was that bivocational pastors are not second-class pastors. In this post I would like to develop that idea further. I believe that not only are bivocational pastors not second-class, they represent the “normal” way in which God intended pastors to serve. I understand that some of my fully-funded peers will struggle with this concept. Therefore, let me explain why I believe this.

The New Testament demonstrates that bivocational ministry was normal for the church during the New Testament era. Though many twenty-first century church attendees in North America do not understand that New Testament churches were often led by bivocational pastors, this does not change the reality of history. The most well-known New Testament example of bivocational ministry is the Apostle Paul. Luke records one of Paul’s bivocational experiences in Acts 18:1-4:

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.

This passage indicates that Paul was a tentmaker. This was not just something that Paul did before he went into the ministry but a vocation he was involved in while he was also in the process of ministry. The word for “tentmaker” (skenopoios) used here actually refers to leather working. When Paul came to minister in Corinth, he met Aquila and Priscilla, who practiced the same trade. They apparently entered into some kind of business arrangement and worked together in their trade. Paul worked his trade during the week and then on the Sabbath he would go to the synagogue to persuade people to become followers of Jesus.

Paul’s efforts to persuade people to become followers of Jesus in the synagogue were not just casual conversations he was having with individuals after the synagogue gathering. Darrell Bock, an expert on the book of Acts, points out that the word reasoned comes from the Greek word dialegomia, which refers to “giving a discourse or to debating, depending on the context. Its combination with the next verb suggests debate in the synagogue” (578). Each Sabbath, Paul was having intense debates which were designed to convince people of the truth that Jesus was the Messiah. This would have required much thought and preparation. Paul found time for this preparation, in addition to working in his trade as a tentmaker.

Bivocational ministry also was normal in North America until fairly recently. The term was not used because almost every pastor was bivocational. This was simply how ministers survived in the early days of American life. The transition away from bivocational ministry came as a result of the desire of churches to have a more educated clergy. Denominations across the nation established a number of colleges and seminaries. As the clergy became more educated, they also began to see themselves as “professionals” who could not be expected to work a second job. Many churches now falsely believe that a professionally trained and fully-funded clergy has always been a significant part of church life from the New Testament era until now. History simply proves that idea to be incorrect.

This does not mean that it is “wrong” to be a fully-funded pastor. It simply means that a fully-funded clergy is actually the exception instead of the norm. We must help church members learn a correct New Testament theology of church leadership and a correct history of church leadership in North American church life. As churches rediscover these truths, they will be able to return to a normal way of functioning. Once churches are functioning normally again, there will be a lot less stress on the church than what often exists in small churches that are trying to be something God never intended them to be.

The above comments are adapted from Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church by Dr. Terry W. Dorsett. Published by CrossBooks, the material is full of practical advice to both pastors and the small churches they serve. Many fully-funded pastors are using the ideas to empower the laity as well.