Is Bivocational Ministry the New Normal?

Even though accurate data is unavailable, it is still obvious to many Southern Baptist leaders that bivocational ministry makes up 50 percent or more of our total profile — and it is growing.

The statistics don’t show the full picture because many churches do not turn in an annual church profile, and many who do so fail to check the “bivocational” box even when they have bivocational ministers. Still, the estimates we do have are compelling.

About 10,000 bivocational ministers were working in the Southern Baptist churches in 1998. By 2004, that number had doubled, to 20,000. In 2014, Frank Page, the president of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, said, “I’m convinced that in the 21st century, the best stewardship is bivocational. Some would say 35,000 of our 46,000 churches — maybe more than that — are in the two categories of small church or bivocational.”

Some observers have indicated that as many as 80 percent of all ministers are bivocational, while others fix the number at 40-60 percent.

Bivocational ministry is when a pastor or staff member holds a full-time job while also serving a church. Different names have been applied to this practice — like “tent-making” ministry, taken from Paul, Aquila and Priscilla’s work as leather crafters while planting churches and doing the work of ministry (Acts 18:3). Others like to refer to this type of service as “marketplace ministry,” because the minister works in the marketplace.

With the SBC’s and South Carolina Baptist Convention’s emphasis on church planting and international missions, bivocational ministry is becoming more and more prominent in discussions about mission and ministry strategy. Page noted: “People are beginning to realize that the best way to be a church planter is through bivocational ministry.”

An increasing number of ministers are choosing to be bivocational not because of financial necessity, but as a missiological strategy.

We have heard it repeated over and over that we are a denomination of small churches. With rising health costs and other expenses related to having a fully funded pastor and/or staff, small churches especially may be able to better fulfill their ministry with bivocational servants.

In a recent Barna Research project, “The State of the Church in 2016,” the authors stated: “The largest group of American churchgoers attends services in small churches: 46 percent in churches with 100 or less members, and 37 percent in churches over 100 but not over 499.”

Our denomination has megachurches, but that does not accurately portray who we are. We are a denomination of small- to medium-sized churches. With our emphasis on revitalizing our diminishing congregations and planting new churches, how will we be able to do it?

Ton Cheyney, author of “Spin-Off Churches,” writes that “nearly 30 percent of Southern Baptist ministers are older than 55, while 10 percent are younger than 35. That fact alone could result in an approaching lack of pastors and church staff leaders within congregations nationwide.”

If there is a shortage of pastors, bivocational ministers can fill that void and be a key in helping SBC churches reach more people, disciple those we reach more effectively, and revitalize established churches while starting new ones. Matthew Hall, vice president for academic affairs at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said, “I do think there’s an upcoming renaissance of men seeking to be bivocational.”

Aaron Coe, a vice president at the North American Mission Board who focuses on mobilization, said a couple of years ago that “a big part of the conservation we’re trying to lead is that bivocational ministry is the new normal. We really believe that to reach North America, we can’t do it through full-time clergy. It has to come through a multiplicity of pastors in all kinds of contexts.”

Michael Summers, director of church services at Wayland University, stated, “The future of Send North America (a NAMB initiative) is going to be based on an apostolic approach and using lay people and bivocational pastors right where they are.”

Bivocational ministry may be God’s tool for such a time as this. It continues to grow and can make a big difference in strengthening existing churches and helping to launch new ones.

Ed Stetzer has observed, “If you are a bivocational pastor, you are a gift to the kingdom. That is unquestioned.”