If you have bi-vocational pastors at your church, you’re not alone. More and more responsibility is being taken on every year by these heroes of ministry. The question is: what can we do to support them and ensure their longevity?
Researcher Thom Rainer called the bi-vocational movement “a true revolution in the church.”1 He estimates there are over one million bi-vocational pastors in North America alone, with that number consistently increasing since the start of the pandemic. According to a recent Lifeway research study, over 26% of pastors surveyed reported being bi-vocational with at least one job outside of the church.2
So, what does this mean? It means that bi-vocational pastors aren’t going anywhere and the way we care for and develop them will have a direct correlation to the successful impact of our ministries.
Being a bi-vocational minister is hard. It’s not for the faint of heart. So, what can we do as church leaders to support them? How can we give our bi-vocational ministers the resources and tools they need to be successful?
The #1 thing we can do to support a bi-vocational pastor is give them a canvas.
I’ve heard it said that clarity is kindness, and the bi-vocational pastors on your team need even more clarity than a full-time pastor. Think about it: the bi-vocational pastor doesn’t have any time to waste! Their time is the most precious thing they have and it has to be split between their day job, the church, and their family. Hands down, the best thing you can do for a bi-vocational pastor is to give them the gift of clarity.
And one of the best ways to think about the gift of clarity is to picture an art canvas.
To a non-artist, a blank canvas can be intimidating. But to an artist, a blank canvas provides a boundaried space full of possibilities! Upon this surface, defined by its four sides, artists have the freedom to create whatever they want. And nothing they create on the canvas can be labeled wrong. The confidence that comes from knowing “this is mine to paint” and to not have to worry about any other canvases allows for focus and attention to be directed rightly.
The canvas you give your bi-vocational pastors works largely the same way. Each side of the canvas represents a different type of clarity bi-vocational pastors need. As they use these four lines to guide their work, they’ll experience freedom to pursue all sorts of possibilities and the confidence to live into the plans God has for them. Instead of frustrating bi-vocational pastors with choices about what they have time to accomplish and what they must ignore, a canvas of clarity allows them to operate freely in the sweet spot of the ministry they’re called to. Let’s take a look at this canvas:
Side #1: Clear Boundaries
The first side of the canvas represents clear boundaries. To say the bi-vocational pastor has a lot on their plate is a massive understatement. Without clear boundaries around family, rest, and vocational availability, what often gets sacrificed first is the pastor’s own health and family. When that happens, their ministry will always suffer.
The most effective ministry comes from the most healthy pastors with healthy families. These are exactly the things this side of the canvas protects. The first gift we want to give to a bi-vocational pastor is to give them clear boundaries around family, rest, and availability. Help them set clear time frames around when they will be available and when they will not. Help them find the limit to their availability, as well. Because they will have a limit and they need to know it’s okay to step back when they’ve hit it.
We also want to help them set boundaries around family. A pastor’s first ministry is always to their family. Help your bi-vocational ministers to identify where their family will always come first. What will take precedence when ministry and family compete? How often are they willing to miss family dinner? When is it okay to choose work or the church over their child’s birthday or an extracurricular event? Clarity around these items will help the bi-vocational pastor choose – in advance – who gets their time when there’s not enough to go around. As a bonus, their family will be more supportive and bought into the ministry because they’ll have an understanding of the boundaries, too, and the priority they are.
Finally, help your bi-vocational pastors set boundaries around rest. When will they sabbath? How will they protect the sabbath? How many weeks do they need to take off each year to stay healthy? What will they do when they start to feel burnout or exhaustion coming their way? Answering these questions will pay major dividends for the church and the pastor down the road.
Side #2: Clear Expectations
What are your expectations for the bi-vocational pastor in their role? The answers to this question are represented in the second side of the canvas. Do you have a clear job description with areas of oversight designated specificaly to them? How many hours, on average, do you expect them to be available each week? Are your expectations hours-based or task-based? Is there a cap you don’t want them exceeding or a “this must get done” list for each month?
Finally, what results do you expect? If we don’t connect clear expectations to well-defined results, it becomes difficult for leaders to know if they are being effective or not. Identifying the key responsibilities a leader must accomplish to be successful provides thoughtful direction to both the minister and the ministry.
Side #3: Clear Plan for Work & Care
Even with clear boundaries and expectations, this isn’t all the bi-vocational pastor will need. They will also need your help to create a work plan that works for them. The first part of a clear work plan is a strategy for time management. Again, the bi-vocational pastor’s time is their most precious resource, so why not help them plan how to manage this limited resource?
The second part of a clear work plan will be helping them outline weekly priorities. When they don’t have enough time to get everything done, what do you want them to focus on first?
Lastly, what’s the best rhythm to help hold the bi-vocational minister accountable and proactively get their feedback? This part of the plan ensures you, as their support, stay in the know and any problems that arise can be addressed as early as possible.
Side #4: Clear Path to the Future
Now we’ve made it to the final side of the ministry canvas: a clear path for the future. This part of the canvas is all about outlining hopes and dreams for the future. Is there a pathway for the pastor to eventually join the staff full-time or is this role best served by someone willing to invest part-time? Does the leader want to let go of their other job and solely focus, full time, on this work, or do they prefer being bi-vocational? If the pastor does desire to go full-time in the future and that is a viable option, when and how will it happen? By answering these questions together, the bi-vocational pastor and the church leadership get to paint the same picture and significantly decrease possible frustrations or issues from popping up later.
If you want to support the bi-vocational pastors in your congregation well, the best gift you can give them is a clear canvas for ministry. When you do, they will thank you.
Let Jeff know if you would like to talk more about bi-vocational ministry. He’d love to hear from you and learn what sides of this canvas make the most sense, or what’s missing, and how you support the bi-vocational heroes in your community.