Confessions of a Bi-Vocational Baptist Preacher
Thompson, M. Greg, Baptist History and Heritage
How does a Baptist preacher manage to work a full-time job and pastor a church at the same time? The answer--it is extremely difficult!
In spite of the difficulty, bi-vocational pastors have comprised the majority of pastors serving Baptist churches. Biblically, the precursor was Paul, the apostle, who was a "tentmaker-preacher." Historically, the forerunner of the modern bi-vocational pastor was the "farmer-preacher," who farmed to provide for his family's needs but preached on Sunday to fulfill his calling before God. Among the Georgia delegates to the first meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 were thirty-nine farmer/preacher pastors and only twenty-two full-time pastors. (1) Surprisingly, many Baptist preachers today are still bi-vocational, although their secular jobs now vary greatly from farming. (2) I have known other bi-vocational ministers, including a shift manager in a textile place, a retired military officer, a hospice chaplain, a college profession, a college administrator, a professional counselor, and a high school teacher. All of them will admit they make the time to pastor their church because of their sense of calling to preach the gospel.
Even though being a bi-vocational pastor can be a challenge, it also can be highly rewarding. I have been both a preacher and a full-time employee outside the church for several years, and I have gained some "pearls of great price" by being bi-vocational in a smaller Baptist church.
First, smaller churches practice discipleship not by programs but through relationships. Bi-vocational ministry allows for the building of relationships that are often deeper than those found in a large church setting. Healthy relationships are essential to the smaller church, and our church members model what it means to become a follower of Christ.
Much has been made of the idea of "seekers-oriented services," services that allow people to feel anonymous inside the large crowd. Several years ago I attended a week-long seminar at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, Illinois. Willow Creek is a very large church, but the method the leaders of that church use to keep large crowds connected to the community of faith is to "re-create" the small church. They work hard to connect new members or seekers to a small group. Essentially, Willow Creek leaders are seeking to establish what is already present in my small church.
A second "pearl" that I have gained in my work as a bi-vocational pastor is that my small church has offered me great support and compassion. My children have grown up in this smaller, bi-vocational church. Their best friends are active in the activities of this church. My wife and I feel that our very best friends are the people we worship with. We are often invited to family gatherings and treated as if we were truly members of those families.
Our church is not segmented by age groups as sometimes happens in larger churches. Our senior adults know the young people and the children even though they are not biologically related, and our youth and children know the senior adults. Our church family has truly become an "extended" family. In my experience, a deep level of support and compassion is pervasive in the smaller church.
A third "pearl" that I have gained is a sense of freedom in the pulpit. Because I have "another" job, I do not feel restrained by unrealistic congregational expectations. I believe we are living in a Baptist epidemic for preachers. Preachers are being fired or forcibly removed by their churches at an unheard-of rate. Many of these preachers have no skills outside of ministry. To compound the pain, if the pastor's family lives in the pastorium, they are often left with no place to live. I believe the fear of being fired often cripples a preacher's courage and hamstrings his or her convictions. Sermons become benign packages of the collective congregational convictions or prejudices. …