The Bi-vocational Revolution Most Churches Are Missing

You must be careful when you label something a revolution. After all, if everything is a revolution, then nothing is a revolution.

But I call the bi-vocational movement a true revolution in the church. The revolution is taking place right before our eyes, but most church members and leaders don’t see it. And it is a movement that has accelerated the past two years.

The Extent of the Movement

Though we don’t have precise data, we estimate that there are over one million bi-vocational pastors and church staff in North America alone. That number is increasing during the pandemic. Indeed, most churches have at least one bi-vocational staff member. I was working with a church averaging 175 in worship attendance last week. I asked the pastor how many bi-vocational staff he had. Much to his surprise, he counted six.

He was not even aware of how extensive the movement was in his own church.

That church is the rule, not the exception. We only expect the numbers to grow.

Understanding What Bi-vocational Mean

In its simplest definition, “bi-vocational” means a pastor or church staff member does not depend on the church as his or her primary source of income. These persons have another line of work that provides their primary income and benefits. In many cases, the pastor or staff member puts together several side gigs to provide additional income.

We sometimes use the word “co-vocational” to define a type of bi-vocational pastor or staff. This person has chosen to be in both the vocational church and the vocational marketplace. They have a keen sense of calling to remain that way even if the church could afford to compensate them full-time.

A Need for a Spirit-led Strategy

Here is the challenge: Most church leaders are not thinking through the implications of the bi-vocational revolution. What ministry positions in the church should be strategically planned to be bi-vocational? When a full-time staff person steps down or retires, should we replace him or her with one or more bi-vocational staff? How do we provide training and resources for these people?

We are in uncharted waters. To be clear, the waters have existed and grown for the past several years, but we have not charted them. To mix the metaphors, we are going along for the ride instead of planning for the next wave.

What Can We Do Now?

We are in the process of creating more resources for bi-vocational pastors and staff. I pray many churches and organizations will intentionally join this movement and see where God’s Spirit will lead.

We must rethink our staffing structure in light of this movement.

We must seek to provide resources for the bi-vocational pastor and staff person. Most of the focus has been on the full-time person in vocational ministry.

We must rethink educational models in light of this movement.

We must retrain lay leaders who provide oversight and accountability for bi-vocational staff.

We must help pastors know how to lead the bi-vocational staff effectively.

We must be prepared for many pastors moving to bi-vocational status.

Forward into the Future

This revolution should neither intimidate us nor scare us. It is a movement that should have profound implications for the health of the church, specifically for the improving health of the church.

God’s Spirit is always at work. Sometimes we recognize these movements clearly. Sometimes we need a better focus.

I truly believe the bi-vocational movement will be both disruptive and positive. But we ignore it at our peril.

It is time. It is time to understand the bi-vocational revolution. It is time to respond to the bi-vocational revolution. It is time to embrace the bi-vocational revolution.

It could be one of God’s great movements in our churches in recent history.

I would not want to miss it.

 

Posted on October 4, 2021


With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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38 Comments

  • As Unity Director of a smaller congregation we have been leading in this bi-way since April 2012. I run a small bookkeeping service as well as serve our ministry as pastor. Lead speaker/minister on Sunday’s never really suited me. I enjoy writing more. In 2012, our fulltime minister left the church, after a huge market/economy crash in Michigan. Our new way of functioning happened as a God thing. We were left with a large mortgage, half the congregation and no minister. It was plain to see hiring a minister wouldn’t work without a way to pay them. All we could do was pray and work with what we had. All has moved forward now. My question is – regarding the resistance in the minds of people in the congregation. People have grown up with the ideas of ministers running a church and being there whenever they felt the need to share with them. You cannot change a pattern that has been taught for generations yet is what works in today’s world, right? I also pray for those in larger churches over the time required with their larger groups of members and balancing that with their outside jobs. Seeing good for all as I still feel a church community is a blessing to us all.

  • Dr Mark Osa Igiehon says on

    This subject is so close to my heart as a senior pastor who has operated as such for more than 20years and leading in a bivocational church setting.

    In the RCCG Redeemed Christian Church of God that I am part of, we operate a mixed approach worldwide as many RCCG local church pastors are bi-vocational. One benefit of the approach is that it provides more manpower for growth of missions as growth is not limited by the number of staff members.

    The bivocational approach has its challenges. One that I have struggled with as senior pastor is how to ensure that the right aspects of church life and leadership are led by full-time pastoral/staff members and which ones are not – with hindsight, I have made doubtful judgments in few cases which hindered church health and growth.

    Bivocational model could make sucession planning easier as you have a wider pool to draw from. Converseley, that approach could also make sucession planning harder as the career/business aspects of future leaders may mean that they are not available when they are are most needed per the succession plan.

  • Teresia Muli says on

    My husband and I are Pastoral ministry, as a new church plant. We cannot afford to leave our business, and so we have been trying to adopt the bi-vocational model, to enable us take care of the family needs and at the same time support the ministry

  • After serving as a full-time lead pastor for 8 years in our church, I made the decision to move our church to a bi-vocational model. I wanted to go this way for several reasons:
    1. I had the ability and desire to provide for my own family. I am a self-taught software developer whose skills are in high demand.
    2. Our church would never be able to support more than one person. We are in a poorer town in Central Illinois. We average around 100 attendees.
    3. If our church allowed multiple people to share the work, we would be able to make a meaningful financial impact on their life (enough to pay their mortgage plus some).
    4. This has allowed our church to have a pastor, youth pastor, and music pastor and bring on a paid intern while still saving money for a building expansion.

  • I like the idea of bi-vocational ministry. Infatuated somehow. Post pandemic church will be a much smaller & poorer given the fall off of faith & fall out of needs not made.
    Given in Asia most pastors in small size church is poorly paid. Some leaders even carried the idea that we should walk & live by faith to earn the strips to preach & teach. Seeing that pastoral ministry in itself is demanding & at times cruel somehow.

    How is this bi-vocational work arrangement helps to keep balance & healthy life & ministry? Seems to be an insurmountable task.

  • This is absolutely nothing new or a revolution. Many small and minority churches always had bi-vocational pastors. I have been one since the founding of our church for 13 years. It has been extremely beneficial to the church spiritually, financially and experientially.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Terrence –

      I did not say it was new, but I did indeed say it was revolutionary. If something doubles in five years, which has happened in bi-vocational ministry, it is absolutely fair to say it is revolutionary. Please feel free to share your data which points otherwise.

  • I have been a bi-vocational Senior Pastor for the last 14 years. I’m currently serving as the Senior Pastor in a bi-vocational capacity. This is not a revolution in small churches in rural areas. I’m in OKC in an area where full-time staff is the exception, not the rule.

  • Lanuwapang says on

    Thank you Sir for sharing this profound article. I also feel the importance of bi-vocational ministry and believe its coming on the scene is not about replacing the full-time staff but to help the Church with the ministries. You duly called it a positive movement in the Church. Just one reason to encourage sort of the likes is that the church is simply not capable of keeping so many workers as her full-time staff though the services of the bi-vocational workers are required.

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