Part XIX: Bivocational Planting: just a transitional option?

Nerger and Ramsay deny that it should be the goal of every bivocational planter to eventually become fully funded. On this issue, however, they are definitely a minority voice. The paucity of references to bivocationals in the planting literature has already been noted, but even those who do acknowledge its validity seem to do so reluctantly, and only as an interim measure.

Malphurs, for example, is unequivocal, seeming to question the wisdom of long-term bivocationalism per se. He writes, “It should be stressed that any outside employment on the part of the church-planting team must be viewed as temporary. Like most other ministries, church planting is a full-time responsibility. Anything less will hinder the work of this ministry.” He goes as far as to say of bivocational planting that “of all the options, this is the least preferable because it limits the time the planter can give to the new ministry. However, in a team context this may be unavoidable initially.”

In writing on the principles and practices of church planting, Charles Brock advocates the “five selfs” of self-governing, self-supporting, self-expressing, self-teaching, and self-propagating. The emphasis is on sustainability apart from the planter, but although it may appear to be an obvious inference, there is still not an explicit expectation that the planter themselves might or should be bivocational. This is strange, given that he writes: “Some people have the very erroneous idea that only a preacher can start churches. Some would think one must have seminary training in order to plant churches. Also, these would usually think that one must have a public ordination ceremony before being qualified to plant churches. It is amazing how man-made, extra-Biblical tradition can come to the place of being considered sacred. All of the above ideas about who can plant churches have arisen from religious/political sources.”  But could it not be equally true that many think erroneously that one must work in full-time salaried ministry in order to plant churches?  May some of the reasons forwarded for this not also be more religious and political than theological?

Ed Stetzer believes there are practical financial considerations that militate against bivocational planting: “during their years of education, seminarians sometimes accumulate significant debt that makes bivocationalism impossible.” Yet other writers maintain that one of the advantages of being bivocational is that it can allow the pastor to earn more than he or she would with a full-time stipend, thereby releasing planters and their families from the financial anxiety that may arise from fear of contract termination or possible failure.  For example, Palmer highlights the dangers and dilemmas of finding one’s livelihood at the mercy of an economic downturn or worse a church schism, where division over values vision or methodology or even theology could leave the pastor jobless.

Stetzer, however, goes on to advocate bivocationalism as a vital strategy for planting, precisely because the fragmentation of society and multiplication of “people groups” within previously homogenized cultures means that many will never be reached if the pastorate is limited to full time salaried personnel. He mentions extensive apartment complexes, mobile home villages, marinas, townhouse communities, and sparse rural areas, concluding,  “Because of their poverty, transience, size, or support base, many of these areas cannot support a ‘professional’ seminary-trained pastor expecting a full-time salary.”

The dearth of bivocational planting literature means that the few resources that are available tend to be on-line. The Church Planting Village website has individual pages devoted to contemporary “people-groups,” (including those mentioned by Stetzer), many of whom will realistically only be reached by bivocationals (e.g. ‘micro-politan’, ‘third-shift’, ‘multi-housing.’) It also has many downloads of unpublished articles, including some by Steve Nerger.

Rodney Harrison goes further than most planting writers in devoting a chapter to bivocationalism – its benefits and challenges; although he also believes that a transition to full-time is likely, especially if a plant experiences unexpected growth. Sjogren and Lewin actively recommend bivocational leadership in the early days of the plant – even if the financial backing is there – for missional reasons. They specifically highlight the benefits of missional contact, giving theological integrity to work, discouraging dependence, and encouraging identification. Drawing on Dan Ramsay’s book (below), they then helpfully point to careers that are particularly suited to bivocationals.

It is possibly significant that Harrison’s book is one of the more recent publications on the subject, as there does seem to be a developing openness to the subject not least because, as Harrison points out, bivocationalism is increasingly common in society at large. In fact he goes as far as predicting that “this is the way much ministry will be going in the immediate future.”

Frost and Hirsch concur. They believe that the sort of missional thinking and contextualization required for historic third world missions needs to be applied rigorously to more and more first world contexts, not least in this area of support. They write: “Some of our artist-missionary comrades in San Francisco and Los Angeles work similarly on mission support and tentmaking. It is the support system of the future. We suggest it is time for church planters and established churches to consider doing the same. Sustainability and organic growth are at stake.”

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