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To the Ends of the Earth: A Case for Bi-Vocational Church Planting

April 6, 2017

by alum Andy Smith

Like most newly-minted seminary graduates looking for work, I am continually checking my e-mail, eagerly anticipating an update concerning my future employment. Unlike most seminary grads, the emails I’m looking for are not from Covenant Presbyterian Church or Christ Reformed Church, but from Liberty Mutual and Wyndham International. Why? I’m hoping to plant and pastor a church bi-vocationally.

Even though bi-vocational ministry is an ancient strategy dating all the way back to the Apostle Paul (Acts18:1-4), it has been underutilized in the US today. This sort of arrangement is viewed as a last resort in desperate situations, and thus the bi-vocational pastor in the US is normally found in small, rural congregations that can’t afford a full-time pastor. While acknowledging that pastors can be forced into bi-vocational ministry through hardship,  I believe that church planters should consider embracing bi-vocational ministry as a way to make church plants more efficient and viable.   

The idea of church planting is popular these days, but the boots-on-the-ground specifics are not always clear. The denominational church planting handbook for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church helpfully parses out the four phases of planting a church. The first is making contact with a group of people who want to be involved in the new church plant by the presbytery. Once a good number of contacts commit to a possible church plant, they form a core group, and begin meeting regularly as a prayer group or Bible study. Once this core group reaches a certain tipping point, measured by participation and financial support, it is organized into a mission work which calls an organizing pastor and begins holding worship services. In addition to an ordained pastor, the mission work receives an assigned session of elders from the Presbytery to care for its members, as well as financial support from the denomination. Once the mission work can elect its own church officers and be financially independent, it become an organized church, the final stage phase of church planting. To summarize:

Contact → → → Core group → → → Mission work → → → Organized Church

This process works well, but the involvement of a bi-vocational church planter would be of great benefit. Notice that an ordained man is not intimately involved until this process is 50% underway1. This is not an oversight by the church; it is the only practical option. There are limited funds to pay full-time pastors, and there simply is not enough money to fully support pastors in all areas where presbyteries have contacts, let alone the places they have no contacts at all.

But what if money was no object? What if seminary-educated, ecclesiastically vetted men moved to these target areas in the early stages of church planting? What if potential church plants didn’t have to account for a full-time pastor salary?2 What if the only money needed for a new church work was a meeting-space rent check?

Presbyterian and Reformed churches are uniquely suited to utilize bi-vocational pastors. We have many organized churches with qualified elders who could help oversee these plants, thousands of members who may be willing to join a young church plant, and regional bodies to support the bi-vocational pastor and, if necessary, offer help in particularly busy seasons. A presbytery could target a particular area, city, or neighborhood, aggressively recruit a qualified man willing to work in the public sector, and put the two together. Contacts and bible studies could be expediently gathered and organized, with a place to begin meeting if the pastor is willing to host. The normally short timetable for judging the success or failure of a plant could be considerably lengthened, as the church planter is financial stable on his own and the presbytery is committing less financial support than in a traditional church plant.

From my experience, there are plenty of men in seminaries with marketable skills who are leaving their careers for the ministry. Here’s to hoping that a few presbyteries ask them to go back to those careers with an Evangelistic Call in their hands.

Now if only Liberty Mutual would email me back…

 


1I say “intimately” involved because of course there is much work done by ordained men in the Presbytery during the founding of any church plant. Unfortunately, these men are juggling these duties with their own pastorates or other church plants.

2 I am not at all suggesting church planters shouldn’t be full-time, merely that some situations would benefit from a bi-vocational pastor.