A Snapshot of Bi-Vocational Ministry in the UCC

This blog post is adapted from a PechaKucha presentation that Kathy Clark and Elizabeth Dilley, members of the Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) team at the national offices, shared at an ecumenical gathering of denominational leaders in January 2015. Click here to see a video presentation of this presentation, recorded in Cleveland at the UCC Polity Teachers gathering in February 2015.

Bi-vocational ministry is being lived out in a number of ways in the United Church of Christ. Rather than defining what it means, we have taken a praxis approach which allows us to reflect theologically and practically on lived experiences, listening to bi-vocational ministers tell their own stories, while at the same time looking at the data we have on this growing phenomenon within the life of the church. We are in a theologically reflective moment, where we can examine theologies of bi-vocational ministry – addressing its history and roots from the earliest apostles, including the example of Paul – as well as the practical and economic realities facing many settings for ministry that call forth the need for bi-vocational ministers.

In the past, we have often seen ministers theologize back into their lives, applying Pauline notions of “tentmaking ministries” to their own situations, whether or not they began their call to ministry with this understanding. Often this happens in response to congregations that can no longer afford a full-time minister. We see growing numbers of congregations that have not yet adapted to multiple income streams or simply expect their pastors to work fewer hours for less pay. One-third of all pastor positions in the UCC are part-time, and at least half of all interim, associate or assistant, or youth minister positions are part-time.

Full and Part Time Employment by Position (Percentage)

The good news is that we have also seen a shift from a narrative of loss, where churches and clergy in these situations mourn “the way church used to be,” to a narrative of call to bi-vocational ministry and a recognition of the abundance of gifts available for ministry among the whole congregation. Is this part of a generational shift? We see Gen X and Millennial clergy in particular interpreting their call as not necessarily connected to their financial livelihood. This results in entrepreneurial ministries that recognize the need for and value of multiple income streams within the church and for its pastoral leadership, and ministers who are well-suited to adaptive, flexible and less-than-fully-compensated pastoral positions. One colleague says, “In a sense you could say that I have a vocation to a ministry of teaching and just happen to serve in several settings at once.”

So, while economic realities sometimes dictate the terms of bi-vocational ministry, theological reflection can also lead one to fulfilling one’s call within multiple settings. Sometimes a second job is “just for fun” or to fill different needs in the life of an individual. Still others, supported by a spouse or partner’s finances or retirement from a first or second career, enter ministry without need for compensation. We want to make clear what these ministers have told us: bi-vocational ministry is not about full-time versus part-time ministry. ALL ministry is full-time, and what we are talking about when we say “full-time” is really congregations and other settings of the church who “fully fund” – or not — the ministry of their clergy.

Bi-Vo jobs

In the United Church of Christ, bi-vocational ministers hold a variety of jobs both inside and outside of the church. Some have obvious connections to ministry. Others are wholly different. Some, for example, consider parenting their “other” vocation. Some prepare for two professions at a time, such as social work and chaplaincy. Nearly all describe a sense of satisfaction at doing ministry in unconventional and/or multiple settings. Everyone agrees that boundaries and clear guidelines for what a church can and should expect from their pastor must be explicit, particularly when a congregation or specialized ministry setting is moving from full-time to part-time compensation.

The flexibility of ministry is a great gift for those who hold additional jobs, but it can be taxing. The differing rhythms of a church’s liturgical year and another employer’s schedule may mean that the minister is always busy, not just during Advent and Lent. And it can wear a minister down. One minister shared how difficult it is to not have a day off. And yet, he knows how crucial this is to his and his congregation’s health and wellbeing. He declared, “Sabbath observance…is another expression of how we are called to be Christians; ….[it is] a form of social justice.” In fact, this entire notion of “rhythm” – a dynamic, constantly-shifting beat, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, sometimes silent, sometimes noisy – makes more sense than talking about “balance” in the lives of bi-vocational ministers, and in the congregations or other settings where they serve. How do we all faithfully discern and live within these rhythms?

We wonder about other things, too: what role does compensation play in determining whether a call is ordainable or authorizable? What, if any, is the relationship between lay or licensed ministry and bi-vocational ministry? How can we move with the Spirit at work in our world in new ways, while holding accountable our settings for ministry and welcoming the diversity of leaders in the church – not merely the independently wealthy who can work for free, but also not “ordaining into poverty”? We would like to assert that the gifts and skills of bi-vocational ministers, especially those with secular jobs, bring needed, vital and entrepreneurial competencies to the exercise of ministry in the 21st century.

The UCC once prayed for an abundance of leaders to lead our congregations and our denomination. Now, with far more active clergy and members in discernment than positions available, perhaps today’s question is: For what abundance should we pray now?

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One thought on “A Snapshot of Bi-Vocational Ministry in the UCC

  1. Pingback: Bi-Vocational Trends and Part-Time Realities for Ministers Serving Congregations | Vital Signs and Statistics

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