Part XVI: Bivocational? Tentmaker? What’s the Difference?

So by bivocatonal do we simply mean what is commonly called “tentmaking’? There is some ambiguity regarding definition throughout the literature. Drawing on Paul’s experience, the phrase “tentmaking” has entered the Christian vocabulary to refer to bivocational ministry. Of course, the term “bivocational” is itself misleading, since it could be interpreted as advocating two vocations rather than two arenas in which a Christian lives out a single vocation under God. Paul Stevens actually refers to the term as “misleading and incorrect”, and J. R. Rozko in a helpful blog sees the bivocational terminology as justifiable so long as it refers to vocation as being “a compensated way in which our singular calling gets lived out”. But since the term “tentmaking” may not be as familiar outside the context of Christian missions, the word bivocational is preferable.

One writer who uses the terms interchangeably is Craig Blomberg in his commentary on 1 Corinthians. Similarly, Australian David Jones in a denominational report, refers to “bivocationalism (formerly known as tentmaking)” and “tentmaker: another name for bivocational;” later concluding “there is no difference at all. Bivocational is a modern term for what used to be known as tentmaking.”

However, the literature is not universally in agreement regarding the synonymity of the terms.  Malphurs clearly differentiates between the two, defining tentmaker as when (in church planting contexts) planters “turn to a particular trade or profession only when there aren’t enough funds available for their support. They may work one week and be off the next.”  He believes these were the precise circumstances of the Apostle. He continues: “Another kind of personal employment is the bivocational minister. In this situation, church planters find regular employment that occupies a certain portion of their time every week. The disadvantage … is that ministry has to be scheduled around the particular job” [italics mine].

Al Barth similarly wishes to “distinguish bivocational from tentmaking which is generally temporary in nature.” James Lowery also makes a clear distinction: “Bivocationals are men and women who simultaneously pursue two endeavors or callings, both of which have value to them. Tentmakers simply have jobs which support religion’s ministry.”  He does not substantiate this division of terms however, and then manages to use the terms interchangeably throughout the booklet!

J. D. Payne in a paper to the Evangelical Theology Society states: “though some have attempted to equate tentmaking with bivocational ministry, I refrain from doing so.”   He defines tentmaking as “the concept whereby the church planter is supported financially by a non-clergy-type of employment; they rely on a marketable profession, skill, or trade”; and a bivocational as “someone who receives a portion of his salary from a church and/or denomination, and a portion of his salary from a non-clergy-type of employment.”

Unsurprisingly, for an author whose work consistently upholds the integrity of all work and who sees vocation, work and ministry, as part of a complex whole, Stevens struggles to differentiate the terms. He dislikes the term bivocational and also views tentmaking as “a ‘slippery term’… best defined as the path of those who are called to a specific ministry… that is unrelated to the job or work by which they maintain themselves.”  This is in contrast to those for whom work is their primary area of ministry:  “sometimes tentmakers will deliberately choose a less fulfilling and less demanding job to release time and energy for ministry.”  Later, he writes: “I define tentmaking as giving oneself primarily to ministry while supporting oneself by other work.”  However, this is from Stevens’s earliest book on the subject and some of the implications of his categories remain undeveloped. His later writings display a more nuanced and holistic approach to work and ministry.

Bob Mills covers bivocationals and tentmakers under three categories of tentmaker: the intentional tentmaker – one who has an equal call to both vocations; the circumstantial tentmaker – who has no strong call to his area of employment but uses marketable skills to fund ministry and mission with the hope that it will become fully funded some day; and lay tentmaker  – those without any formal theological education who are serving primarily in another vocation but who can use their resources to support service in some ministry capacity.

Denis Bickers, who has probably written more extensively than anyone on the subject of bivocationalism, introduces an extra dimension to the definition debate when he defines bivocationalism as “anyone who serves in a paid ministry capacity in a church and has other personal sources of income”.  By this definition he precludes those who “don’t take a penny from the church”. Such a person, he writes, “should not be considered bivocational as he or she is not earning the additional income”.

Terry Dorsett, a New England practitioner, agrees: “It is important to note that bivocational pastors must actually be working for churches in a vocational way in order to be considered bivocational. Bivocational pastors are not just a higher class of volunteers. They are actually employed by churches to do some type of ministry… Some financial support for the church-related responsibility constitutes bivocational, as distinguished from volunteer.”

However, this raises a number of issues relating to the role of financial remuneration in one’s calling and identity, especially in the light of the more comprehensive understanding of writers such as Volf and Stevens. Is it valid to link vocation and pay so closely?  If our other vocations – to be a Christian or mother or husband, for example – are not linked to finance, why should our ministry or career be so linked before being considered a vocation?

Stevens recognizes that many people are actually trivocational and that the balancing of these commitments can be enriching, while an over-emphasis on one can be unhealthy:  “Work, ministry and family – each of these could be a rewarding full-time job. Yet each is dangerous if it possesses us exclusively and entirely.” Elsewhere he writes that there is good reason to rediscover tentmaking in a culture where “church ministry and mission work has become almost totally professionalized.” This championing of the harmonization of vocations often evident in the bivocational’s life and ministry counters one of the most quoted and, on a superficial level, most obvious disadvantages of bivocationalism found throughout the literature: that of potential burn-out.


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