Part XX: Bivocational Planting: this side of the Atlantic – why not??

On this side of the Atlantic, Scottish Presbyterian minister and missiologist Peter Neilson has published an important series of lectures on the future of the church in Scotland, which is not without relevance to the Irish Presbyterian context. In it he coins the phrase “portfolio ministry” to describe tentmaking, giving some urban examples of it in practice, and arguing that even if such ministry does result in a lower standard of living, this could be (as in Paul’s day) a powerful counter-cultural and anti-materialistic statement which could play a part in softening the hardened attitudes of skeptical post-moderns. He shares: “We live in the age of “portfolio working” when people can earn a living on two or three part-time jobs….That assumes certain life-style choices about simplicity of living, but part of the Generation X critique of church life is that we have become too sophisticated and ministers have priced themselves out of the mission-field.”

In England, Chester and Timmis, regard the issue in a straightforward way: “The challenge for us is to make the gospel the center of our lives not just on Sunday mornings, but on Monday mornings. This means ending distinctions between “full-timers,” “part-timers” and people with secular employment in our team and leadership structures. We need non-full-time leaders who can model whole-life gospel-centered missional living. It means thinking of our workplaces, homes and neighbourhoods as the location of mission.”

It is not yet clear why established “mainline” denominations such as the Presbyterians have not tended to adopt bivocational leadership as an option. It is undoubtedly related in some measure to the importance attached to the understanding and preaching of the word of God, and the consequent emphasis on “an educated ministry.”

Stafford Carson who, as well as being a pastor, spent time as academic dean at Westminster Theological Seminary, writes: “[It is right to highlight] the issue of quality of education provided [and] the understanding of the importance of educated ministry. The ministry-based guys get very annoyed when the academic side insists on doing everything according to their standards. Great tensions are created, not just in terms of the integrity of the program of study, but with regard to finances, relevance to ministry, and time taken to complete a standard MDiv program…The Presbyterian commitment to a learned ministry is cumbersome, middle-class, and financially draining. But there are benefits.”

Nevertheless, it is difficult to find anything in the literature that explains why an educated ministry need be incompatible with bivocationalism. Graham Beynon reminds his readers that, in many situations, a full-time pastor is not primarily needed. Rather, “what there is, is a need for leadership, teaching and pastoral oversight.”

Doran McCarty sees the key issue being not the vocational status of the planter but the needs of the church. This is, he argues, how it was in New Testament times: “Appointment to the ministry is primarily determined by the situation and the needs of the missionary task and of the congregation…At the end of the New Testament you have mixed strands: official, unofficial. The essential issue is, how does the ministry meet the needs that the early church faced?”


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