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

  • I have been a boy vocational pastor since 1984. I am a registered dental hygienist. Presently I am a traveling pastor/evangelist/ revivalist ministering throughout New England .I live in the Holyoke Massachusetts in the least Christianized metropolitan area in the United States. I would love to cut down from five days a week to three days a week but I cannot find a church to
    Partially support me as their pastor!
    Renzo Ventrice

  • Hi

    Another option we are exploring in South Africa is a Shared Ministry where two congregations that are struggling financially share a Minister. We have successfully done this in Soweto.
    Particularly helpful if the congregations are close together in proximity.
    How much is this model being used in the United States?

    Yours in Christ

    Brendon

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Brendon –
      We see this approach taking place on a consistent but small basis. I have seen Methodist churches use the shared model more than others;

  • I suggested a Bi-Vocational model in 1978 when I was serving a church in Lynchburg, Virginia. Our denomination said I needed to be in full-time ministry to be ordained a full elder in the church. It was not fair for a church to be stressed with paying a full-time pastor’s salary. The church voted for me to have the option to become bi-vocational. I believe the work of the church can be just as effective with less than full-time clergy. Each church must assess what is best for that congregation. Larger churches will look at full and part-time staffing for some ministries. Good article.

  • I have been bi-vocational for 40 years.

  • Ronnie Naidoo (Pastor) says on

    Hi Thom. Thank you for the article on Bi-vocational Pastors and staff. Indeed I believe there will be an increase post Covid, hence a revival. However, bi-vocaltional Pastors in South Africa is not a new phenomenon. Largely because of the economy over the many decades, many Churches were led by Pastors who held market place employment. Yes, I agree, it will be great to train and prepare Leaders et al for what’s to come.
    Blessings
    Pastor Ronnie Naidoo
    Durban, South Africa.

  • Steve Reynolds says on

    I am doing a retreat for our denomination (ABC) in late October on this very topic. Most our our churches in rural upstate NY could best be described as co-vocational churches. May I suggest a book that I have found helpful. It is called “Part Time is Plenty: Thriving Without Full-Time Clergy” by G Jeffery MacDonald. While this book is written primarily for mainline denominational churches ( thus is more theological diverse than I would be), yet I think it makes some valuable points in that being bi-vocational is not necessarily a bad thing and that churches can thrive. I found especially helpful was that often churches that are considered bi-vocational carry a certain stigma even by denominational leaders that sees them as less credible than a church with a full time pastor.

  • It is easy to see why some pastors would like bi or co vocational status as it would get some out from under heavy handed elder boards that so many churches have gone to. It gives them more freedom and less dependency on the organization of the local church. I consider writing books like Joel Osteen does gives them even more independence. I think it is good for some for a chance to see the real world, as well. When I knew of a pastor leaving the ministry, I feared he would be shocked and even disillusioned when he dealt with a world that has become more and more corrupt and pagan.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks, Bob.

    • Bob,
      There were few places more pagan than Athens, Corinth, and Rome. Yet, illegal Christianity thrived there where temples to the Greek and Roman gods were on every corner and what occurred inside them makes a frat house look like a kindergarten. A pastor who is disillusioned today has never studied history and everyday life in those cities. Sounds like someone should get outside more often.

  • Selwyn Brathwaite says on

    HI Thom,
    I have been ruminating on this reality for a while and its something that is both exciting and frightening. For a while we have seen financial aupport waning in my side od the world and the pandemic has exposd it. Now from where I sit the reality is.churches in this climate no longer have the fiscal room to maintain full time pastors and if this pandemic continues many congregations will find it hard to make paying pastors sustainable because the reality our end is, Sunday is the main income earner for churches.

    We have not got into the habit of online giving as yet. However Thom what I really need some insight on is how are pastors who have been full time all their lives going to make the transition when this is all they know and they are heading close to the end of their road? When they were hoping for a safe landing they may find themselves circling in the air with a plane that has lost two of its engines and fuel is escaping rapidly. This is a conversation I will be having with some of our leaders tomorrow and it could be scary at this point since 75 percent of the denomination’s leaders are full time and over 60. I would appreciate your guidance

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Selwyn –

      Thank you for your comments. There is no one path that pastors are taking if they need to move to bivo status. I’ve recommended to many pastors to research the side gigs available today. It is easier than ever to find a second or even a third job. If possible, ask the church to retain your benefits, particularly health insurance, even if they reduce your pay. I realize it’s a scary world, but God’s got this situation. Many of the pastors, even older pastors, with whom I have spoken, are loving the opportunity to be in the marketplace while shepherding a church. Blessings to you.

      • Selwyn Brathwaite says on

        Thanks Thom
        I am in the Caribbean and side gigs may not be as forthcoming. What would be your idea of side gigs though? I think that most of the side gigs that pastors would be disposed to are church related and its there where funds are scarce. I am not sure if on our environment if pastors would be as happy to get back into market place especially if it will not produce income. We have been so far removed from it that it seems like an indictment. People are actually calling for pastors to go and work. Its just a strange journey. I would appreciate your prayers for the Pentecostal Assemblies of the West Indies Barbados District.

      • Thom Rainer says on

        My prayers, Selwyn.

  • Thanks for this article.

    It is encouraging that this is happening around and materials are prepared with all of us in mind and that the group is growing.

  • I have been trying to pastor churches for over 50 years, and until about six years ago, was bi-vocational. The reasons I went “full-time” were related to age and our church growth. In many ways I still miss the secular workplace (teacher in public schools). I made many friends and acquaintances at school and was able to better keep a pulse on the community. It takes a strong work ethic and dedication to priorities, but bi-vocational pastoring has its pluses.

  • David B. says on

    Thank you for bringing this subject into the spotlight. I have always been a bi-vocational pastor simply because I have pastored smaller churches that could not afford to pay a “full-time” salary or a salary proportionate with the local economy or economic needs. Too often church leaders seem to frown on this subject yet it is one that needs to be understood and embraced as church congregations decrease in membership and the ability to sustain the operational funds of the church decrease as well.

  • Hey Mate,

    You wrote… 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 did this from 1989 – 2009 then resigned and in 2011 became full time Entrepreneurs building several businesses trained by a marketplace ministry known as KI Kingdom Investors domiciled in Australia.

    Doing business God’s way this impacting 65 million people world wide and this year 2021 we joined took the Kingdom Entrepreneurs Challenge domiciled in California 3 years ago and impacting 1,000’s of bi-vocational pastors, leaders and those whom God is raising up.

    Love what you’re doing.

    Chris Tutauha

    • Thom Rainer says on

      That is an incredible story, Chris. Thank you for sharing. You are obviously doing something big for the Kingdom!

      You are up late if you are in Australia!

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