The alarm rings at 5:00 a.m. on Wednesday morning. He fumbles down the stairs. Shower, coffee, Bible, prayer, and out the door to work. Today will be a long day. He starts his delivery route at 6:30 a.m., does the first leg of his route and comes back to the warehouse. He changes into a suit, and drives to a funeral home. Phil had cancer, and passed away a few days before. He officiates the funeral, seeking to serve the family and proclaim the gospel.
After the graveside service, he returns to the warehouse for the second leg of his delivery route. He finishes around 4:30 p.m., just in time for a quick dinner with his wife and kids, before leaving the house again to lead prayer meeting at the church, and have a meeting with one of the deacons about the Thanksgiving potluck that weekend. He gets home at 9:00 p.m., debriefs with his wife, and collapses in bed. Tomorrow will be full, too. He is behind on Sunday’s sermon.
Welcome to bi-vocational pastoral ministry.
The unique challenges of pastoral ministry are well known. These unique challenges are only compounded when the pastor is bi-vocational. Time constraints, financial concerns, and difficulty accomplishing basic pastoral priorities often define this ministry. These constraints cause a unique temptation for the bi-vocational pastor to neglect caring for his own soul.
If I have learned anything in my first two years of bi-vocational ministry, it’s this: I must give strategic forethought for caring for my own soul. How can a bi-vocational pastor maintain a vibrant, dynamic, and realistic relationship with Christ?
Before we get strategic, we need to feel the weight of the war. Consider two unique weights bi-vocational pastors carry:
Bi-vocational pastors experience unique spiritual opposition. All Christians wage war against his own flesh (Gal 5:17), the world (1 John 2:15), and the devil (Eph 6:12). But bi-vocational pastors often experience this war in unique isolation. Bi-vocational pastors often serve small churches with limited or elderly congregants at the end of their life, and are not able to give the spiritual support and friendship a pastor needs. The bi-vocational pastor can be viewed as a chaplain who preaches sermons, visits hospitals, and conducts funerals, but not a growing Christian in need of normal spiritual relationships just as much as his congregants.
The heaviness of the opposition is compounded by the second weight: bi-vocational pastors experience unique limits. All faithful pastors regularly feel pressed to their limits. Bi-vocational pastors feel this pressure especially in the area of time and energy. By definition bi-vocational pastors are balancing pastoral ministry, family, and another part-time or full-time job.
Even if bi-vocational pastors manage to make all their responsibilities fit “on paper” they often experience lack of energy by grueling work, church, and family schedules.
Burnout is the all too common result of these unique weights on the bi-vocational pastor. Families are damaged, churches are neglected, and the pastor’s own soul becomes embittered at those he is called to shepherd with joy (1 Peter 5:2).
The bi-vocational pastor carries unique weights that call for a unique posture. If the bi-vocational pastor approaches his ministry expecting the same speed, productivity, and time as the full time pastor, he will quickly falter. He must take a lowly posture in his ministry that, if embraced, will lead to two unique blessings.
First, the bi-vocational pastor will recognize and rejoice in the centrality of weakness for fruitful ministry. He boasts in his weakness because he sees it as essential to experiencing the power of Christ in ministry. God even gives Paul a thorn in the flesh, a persistent and painful limitation that hindered his effectiveness in ministry but increased his dependence on Christ (2 Cor 12:9).
Bi-vocational pastors, then, are perfectly positioned to experience the power of Christ. For they walk weekly on the razor edge of weakness as they experience each pastoral task crying out for more; a few more hours on the sermon, a few more people to counsel, a few more minutes to prepare for that meeting. Yet, God ordains that bi-vocational ministry to have its unique and persistent thorns, not so that a pastor may avoid his limitations, but so he can boast in them to allow the Spirit of Christ to empower him in his weakness. We are called to rejoice in this reality and expect power from Christ.
This rejoicing leads to the second blessing of our lowly posture: embracing our limitations rather than fighting them. We are called to make deep sacrifices for our people (Col 1:29), but are servants of Christ, not Christ himself. We must have a biblical anthropology if we will survive in this unique calling. We are men of dust (Gen 2:7). It’s God’s good design for the bi-vocational pastor to need sleep, food, and relaxation. The bi-vocational pastor must remember God’s high expectations on him as a man called to lead other believers (1 Timothy 3:1-7), but also God’s low expectation of him as a finite creature. God remembers that they are dust (Psalm 103:14), and treats them according to their limitations. God even criticizes pastors who would forego sleep because they anxiously think they must do the work that only God can do in their churches (Psalm 127:1-2).
We must not only rest in God’s power in our weakness, but also in his compassionate understanding of weakness. We must remain lowly.
As you feel the reality of your unique burdens and embrace the opportunities of your unique position, there are four basic, obvious rhythms I would commend to you as a bi-vocational pastor:
1) Remain vigilant over Bible meditation and prayer. Get up earlier. Stay up later. Leave the email unanswered. Answer that text later. When we neglect our souls, we become disoriented and overwhelmed. When we drink daily from the fountain of life it transforms the way trials are received, weaknesses are handled, and limitations are confronted.
2) Develop leaders. We are not spiritual renaissance men who are gifted in every area. We need support. Start a bi-weekly discipleship group and invite any person who is eager to serve and learn. Pray, share your burdens, generate ideas, and dream about the church. You don’t need young men to do this. Pour into that deacon who wants your church to revive. This fights against the isolation so many pastors feel.
3) Create a “pseudo-elder board” from pastoral friendships. Most bi-vocational pastors are solo pastors who serve with a handful of deacons. Whether the bi-vocational pastor is in a rural setting with no surrounding churches, or in an urban setting neighboring several like-minded churches, tremendous encouragement and insight can be given to the intentional bi-vocational pastor. Through a monthly face-to-face meeting, video or phone call, or even email, the bi-vocational pastor can build a “pseudo-elder” board of like-minded pastors who can confess their sin in safety, get trusted counsel, and build friendships. Although bi-vocational ministry often occurs in isolation, the bi-vocational pastor does not have to feel alone.
4) If possible, take regular preaching breaks. Regular breaks from preaching promotes opportunities to breathe, meditate on God’s Word, and spend time with family. Take the time you normally spend on sermon preparation to spend some extended time in prayer, or to take your wife out for the day. This will aid your ministry, not hinder it.
Spencer Harmon is Senior Pastor of Vine Street Baptist Church in Louisville, KY and a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Taylor and they have three children.