Part XVIII: Bivocational Planting- a ‘suicidal option’?

While bivocational ministry has a long pedigree and is becoming more common in trying to resource smaller and more isolated congregations, what of its potential as a model for the planting of new churches? One of the most commonly articulated reasons for approaching bivocational planting with caution is burn-out due to the inability to cope with conflicting and demanding time constraints. An unattributed blog on a church planting network site  goes as far as to say: “It is generally accepted that bi-vocational church planting is suicidal. Church planting is so demanding and time-consuming that a man (sic) just can’t work a regular job and plant a church at the same time. In general, this is true.”  

In an effort to get away from the emotionally draining (and ministry-interrupting) job of deputation fundraising, the writer of this blog admits there is a need to rethink financial support policies. However, in spite of the many safeguards that could be put in place, he advocates being “bi-vocational [only] for a brief time-period, hopefully a year or less.”

Paul Stevens, however, disagrees:  “What keeps some people from choosing the tentmaking option is fear of burnout. However, tentmakers seldom experience burnout because they have a natural rhythm in their lives as they move from work to ministry to family. Professional ministers or full-time homemakers are more susceptible to burnout because they tend to invest too many expectations in one commitment.”

Or, as J. R. Rozko asserts: “Embracing an ecclesiology which practices bivocationalism probably makes for all-around healthier churches and healthier pastors.”

However, are the particular demands of planting such that bivocationalism is less feasible than in more established congregational ministry? This appears difficult to substantiate, considering that the biblical precedent for tentmaking was a prolific church planter. In an email to the author, experienced consultant Al Barth, whilst recognizing some benefits (it maximizes the gifts of the people; pushes priesthood of all believers; makes ministry an option for more people, particularly businessmen; financial viability in early days) nevertheless pleads caution on the grounds of sustainability: namely, that bivocational plants can find it difficult to transition to “a normalized pastoral situation.” Furthermore, he writes, “in most professional demographic situations bivocational leaders don’t have time to create ministry at the levels of excellence demanded, often resulting in stymied growth.” This of course begs the question of what constitutes “a normalized pastoral situation”.

It is noteworthy that in spite of the recent plethora of church planting literature, very little has been written or researched on the subject of bivocational planting. While a number of works have been written on bivocational pastoring, this has not been extended to the subject of bivocational planting. A look at the extensive bibliography and research list on a New Churches’ website revealed no titles or articles obviously dealing with bivocational church planting. In fact, personal support raising is pre-supposed throughout the literature, traditional and on-line, and is often granted an entire section or chapter. Even Ed Stetzer and David Putman, whose book displayed creative and imaginative thinking in so many areas, still adhere strongly to traditional and expensive methods of support-raising when it comes to staffing a plant. They write, “We are learning that it is generally wise to raise…two or three years of salary support for each full-time member prior to starting the church-planting process.”

Similarly, Doran McCarty’s comprehensive anthology on bivocational ministry has no chapter on planting, although it is mentioned occasionally in passing, with one contributor asking the stark question: “Who ever said you paid people to start churches?” Similarly, Tom Jones’s compendium, forward-thinking in so many areas, acknowledges the increase in bivocational planters, particularly in ethnic churches, but donates only three lines to the concept.

The exception is the short work by Nerger and Ramsay. They believe that “the primary place to look when starting churches, especially in the rural and urban contexts, is to bivocational church planters.” Reviewing this,  J.D. Payne commends it for filling the “gap in church planting literature today. There is a great need for additional writings on bivocational church planting.” The authors define a bivocational church planter as, “someone who starts a church and gains a part, if not all, of his personal income from an outside source other than the church.” They note that in the North American context, within the Southern Baptist Convention, although bivocationalism had been part of the fabric of the denomination since its inception in terms of pastoring small and remote churches, only as recently as 2005 had it finally been extended as an option to planters. “Bivocationalism,” they write, “is now seen as a strategy in building the core of a new church, as well as a financial consideration.”

The middle part of Nerger and Ramsay’s book, like Lowery’s booklet, is taken up with first-hand stories, significant for their breadth and diversity of contexts and styles. They do, however, give a robust defense of bivocational planting in Part One. They offer perhaps the most comprehensive list of why planters may choose the bivocational route, and these include not just financially driven reasons but also intentional strategic ones. They agree with Stevens on the issue of burn-out, believing that bivocationalism can just as easily be a cure for stress as a cause of it. They argue, “The life and rhythm of a bivocational church planting pastor are energizing. The daily experiences of ministry alongside people in the community can actually invigorate you and your life.”

The authors explode some myths, mainly centered round the need for a seminary degree. “Our ‘one seminary trained man-one church start’ model, which usually costs the new church 50 percent or more of its budget, is too financially taxing.” However, it is not only the financial argument that is compelling. They also query whether a formal theological education is the best preparation for a number of contexts where planting is needed.  They highlight the main problem with those who restrict themselves to seminary-trained full-time leadership, commenting: “Reaching a continent with the gospel and multiplying churches is not possible if the primary paradigm requires individuals to be removed from their cultural contexts for three years to study at theological institutions and only then to return to the fields and serve as missionaries.” In fact, there appears to be historical and contemporary warrant for suggesting that an exclusive focus on full-time ministry has hindered, among other things, church planting and church growth.

Finke and Stark show that, in North America at least, this is not a new phenomenon:   “In 1776 the Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and the Presbyterians seemed to be the colonial denominations…By 1860 there were actually fewer than 500,000 Congregationalists in America, while Baptists numbered nearly two million. What happened?…Other groups depended on a well-educated and well paid clergy…The Baptist farmer-preachers came with the people because they were the people. Baptists operated with incredibly low overhead. Baptist clergy received little, if any pay…The average value of local church property was very low for Baptists.”

David Jones, having cited the examples of Bunyan (the preacher-tinker) and Carey in England, lists the plethora of bivocational early American Baptist preachers: “(They) made their living in vocations other than preaching. They were bivocational: farmer-preachers, teacher-preachers, doctor-preachers, storeowner-preachers, sheriff-preachers, cowboy-preachers, merchant-preachers, and the list of occupations goes on. There was no policy or program that produced this model of evangelist, church planter and pastor. Within the American context it just happened.”

Former Irish Presbyterian Moderator, Stafford Carson, is in agreement. N a personal email, he explains: “Historically the reason why Baptists and Methodists dominate the midwest of the US is because the Presbyterians were sitting at home getting their theological colleges organized while the others just got on with evangelism at the frontier.  Another Irish Presbyterian pastor, Alistair Kennedy, concludes in an article in the Presbyterian Herald, that beyond the Appalachians many Scots-Irish “found the disciplines and stolidity of Presbyterianism too confining on their practice of what was essentially a lay religion, and moved towards the Baptists and Methodists.”

Church historian Finlay Holmes comments on how Presbyterians found pioneering ministry as difficult in Gaelic Ireland as their American brothers did at the Frontier; except in this case there were few or no evangelical Irish counterparts to the American Baptists: “There was some recognition that the Presbyterian presentation of the gospel was too cerebral and intellectual to appeal to illiterate peasants. ‘Preaching will not do’ reported one missionary ‘for the majority could not understand it.’”  There was seen the need for lay evangelists to communicate “the doctrines of salvation more to the level of their capacities than ministers can accomplish.”

Holmes also quotes the interesting observation of American historian David Miller, who claims that “in targeting the poorest of the poor in Catholic Ireland… the Presbyterians were seeking to win from the Catholic community the very stratum which they had already lost within their own community.”  Contemporary nineteenth century Presbyterian historian James Seaton Reid remarked, “It has often been said that Presbyterianism is not a religion for a gentleman, but the statistics of the Ulster workhouses rather seem to indicate that it is not a religion for a beggarman.” An exception to this general belief that Protestant mission was more successful among the socially better-off, is Gideon Ouseley, the renowned Irish-speaking Methodist preacher, who gained widespread respect for his work in the South and West. In contrast, the openness of Baptists and others to bivocational preacher-planters appears to have been a contributing factor to their growth.

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