Part XVII: The Rich History of Bivocational Ministry

While there is biblical warrant for teaching and shepherding the flock being seen as vocations, and for those who preach the gospel earning a living from the gospel, a variety of reasons – lack of financial resources, a desire to continue serving in some capacity within one’s field or profession, a more flexible view of calling – have led many contemporary pastors to work “bivocationally” in both the church context (part-paid or unpaid) and in the non-church context (from which they receive their main salary).

Since Roland Allen published his classic work The Case for the Voluntary Clergy in 1930, two significant works on the subject have been those by Luther Dorr and Doran McCarty, and the subject has been taken up more recently by Dorsett and especially by Denis Bickers. McCarty’s volume is an anthology of writings from a number of practitioners and comprehensively covers issues such as the benefits and drawbacks of bivocational ministry (whilst concentrating firmly on the former); plus insight into family relationships, scheduling, financial management, and denominational helps and hindrances. He also has chapters on the New Testament evidence and examples of the historical heritage of bivocationalism. The book, in common with much of the later literature, is written from and into the Southern Baptist constituency.

Luther Dorr’s The Bivocational Pastor was probably the first book in the modern era that sought to advise individuals and churches for whom bivocationalism might be a real, even a preferred option. Written in 1988, in his preface he says it grew out of three concerns: first, bivocationalism as an increasing fact of life (he claims there were ten thousand bivocational pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention at that time), secondly, “a commitment to the validity and legitimacy of bivocationalism as a needed form of ministry,” and thirdly, to give those currently serving as bivocationals the recognition they warrant.

Dorr acknowledges his indebtedness to Roland Allen, a pioneer who, some six decades earlier, argued vehemently that denominations (in his case the established Church of England) needed to look seriously at the vital role which “voluntary clergy” could play in meeting the ministry demands of the future. As a missionary, his first booklet was written with the needs of the global church in mind, but this vision was later applied across the board in his influential book The Case for the Voluntary Clergy.

Allen’s biographer David Paton reproduces much of Allen’s correspondence with bishops and leaders of Third World churches – some of it quite feisty. In a letter to the Anglican bishop of Melanesia who had appealed for priests from England, he wrote:

“There is only one alternative… to cut out this sort of appeal altogether, and to plan your work no longer on a foundation of priests from England. When the Apostles went out into the world the converts were before them, the priests before them, the Church before them. They set their faces steadily forward and never looked behind them for supplies of men and money. That way has hope…. It is not only good for us but good for those to whom we go, for it calls out spiritual service, instead of teaching them to rely on others. There is a great difference between going to people with the power of Christ to say to them ‘Rise up and walk in the Name of Christ,’ and going to them with the message that you hope one day to find a man in England to hold them up, if you have any luck in the next scramble for men.”    He had similar correspondence regarding the work in Tanganyika , Western Canada and Assam.

Allen believed that even in the rapidly changing West of the early twentieth century, the church was clinging onto outdated models of ministry – models that actually hindered mission. He noted, “The stipendiary system grew up in settled Churches and is only suitable for some settled Churches at some periods: for expansion, for the establishment of new Churches, it is the greatest possible hindrance.”

Moreover, this is borne out by the evidence from the early church in its centuries of rapid expansion. Paul Stevens argues that “in the first three centuries, tentmaking church leadership was the norm, not the exception,” and Allen points to numerous fascinating examples from ancient church history both in terms of individual church leaders who simultaneously plied another trade, and in terms of decrees from the early councils.

Zeno, bishop of Majuma (late 4th C) pursued “his trade of weaving linen,” and Spyridon (above) the early fourth century shepherd-bishop in Cyprus “continued to feed his sheep during his incumbency of the bishopric.” Theodorus “presbyter of the saints and silversmith,” is also named and Epiphanius (c.404) mentioned in general how the priests in the most part “in addition to the preaching of the Word, labored with their hands.”

The ante-Nicene Apostolic Constitution II.63 says of ministers of the word: “some of us are fishermen, some tentmakers, some husbandmen, that so we may never be idle.” Allen believes that this “certainly represents the mind of the Church in the second and third centuries.” Eusebius also criticized the heretic Montanus for providing his preachers with salaries to promote his doctrine.

Chester and Timmis draw attention to the Moravian missionary movement of the early eighteenth century, which they claim “was a movement distinguished by the ‘ordinariness’ of the people sent out. The first missionaries were a potter named Leonard Dober and a carpenter named David Nitschmann who went to the Caribbean island of St. Thomas.” In one article, Jerry Smith refers to the Reformation-period examples of Oecolampadius (below) and Jacob Hutter.  In nineteenth century America, it seems that bivocationalism was indeed the norm amongst the Baptists.

McCarty reports that an association in Texas in1880 sought to redress the inequalities suffered by some pastors and challenge the church to take some financial responsibility. Their report effectively said that if the farmers could hardly manage to run a farm and attend church once a month, how could they expect their pastor to make a living from the land while preparing, preaching, and pastoring. As a result, it was only early in the twentieth century that more full-time pastors emerged. But, of course, the tradition of bivocational ministry does not begin in church history, not even with the post-Apostolic church, but rather in the pages of the New Testament itself.

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