A Practitioner’s View of BiVocational Ministry

NOTE: the following is a guest post from friend and colleague Dennis Lundblad. Dennis serves as the Pastor and blogs at Sojourner Church in Asheville, NC and Lecturer in Humanities at UNCA.


A Reply to “Some Thoughts on Bivocational Ministry”

I have been a bi-vocational minister for about seven years. I am fortunate in that I have found a way to earn money by doing something that I really love while still being able to serve the Church as a pastor. This topic has come up more and more in recent years, and it has been interesting to observe the different approaches people take to the question of bi-vocational ministry.Some folks see bi-vocational ministry as the inevitable future of the church. The shrinking value of stagnant wages for most people ensures that churches and other charitable organizations receive less and less money in contributions, and that the contributions they do receive can buy less and less. If we can’t do anything about the economic issue (wage stagnation, income inequality, high unemployment) then fewer and fewer congregations will be able to pay a full-time salary to pastors. In this view, bi-vocational ministry is a thing the church must face as an unpleasant reality.

Others see bi-vocational ministry as something to be fought against; it’s a compromise that devalues the professional education of seminary-trained clergy and contributes to the further decline of the institutional church. Congregations need full-time, seminary-trained pastors more than ever, and rather than accept part-time and under-trained ministers as the new status quo, congregations must dig deeper, renew efforts in evangelism and devote more resources to caring for the ministers who care for them.

Still others see bi-vocational ministry as neither a sad inevitability nor a problem to be avoided. Bi-vocational ministry can be a positive choice even for those who are seminary graduates. It seems to me that the changing nature of the Church may require more people who earn their living doing something other than ministry so that congregations can find their purpose and vision for ministry without money and finances as the primary driver of decision-making. The founders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) didn’t desire to designate clergy as a separate class of people; when I was in seminary (Lexington Theological Seminary, class of ’87), most of the professors were ordained clergy, but none of them had the title “The Reverend” on the nameplates of their office doors. I was told that this was because of our tradition of not buying in to the idea of a “clergy class,” which in frontier days was viewed (and justly so) with a fair amount of suspicion. I am a volunteer pastor; it allows me to connect with my parishioners in a direct way (I used to hear fairly often about what I would understand if I actually “worked for a living” as my parishioners did) without fear that my income (already less than that of a seasoned public school teacher) would suffer if I didn’t see things their way. It’s a very liberating thing not to worry about folks in the church using my salary as a lever or a wedge. The emotional systems of congregations can’t seem to resist using money to increase anxiety and lower the challenges of the pastoral vision.

I’m not worried that the Church is dying, as some are…the institutional church may be in decline, but the Church Invisible is not in decline, in my view. It is, however, changing, and if our approach to ministry is dependent on the institutional model of the last few hundred years, and if we see full-time ministry with salary and benefits as the best way to fulfill the calling of the contemporary congregation, then at the very least our congregations and denominations had better make a priority of addressing income inequality, because that’s what is desiccating our institutions.

On the other hand, if we see smaller congregations with greater involvement in the community as the best fulfillment of God’s expectations for the contemporary church, then we should do a few things:

1. Make seminary free. It’s hard to consider part-time or volunteer ministry if there’s an enormous debt-load to worry about.

2. Find a way to make retirement and health insurance for part-time and volunteer pastors a priority. I have had very little opportunity to contribute to my retirement accounts in the last ten years or so, and I suspect other bi-vocational ministers have some trouble with that, too. And don’t even get me started about health insurance.

3. Change the way we label seminary classes so that our 90-hour advanced degree will be recognized as having value to secular employers who don’t know much about the Church or the Master of Divinity. Identify “homiletics” as “public speaking,” “church administration” as “non-profit management,” “church history” as “history,” and so forth. If we are expecting pastors to get secular jobs, then our advanced degree should help, rather than hinder, that effort.

Time to “fix” Social Entrepreneurship?

Peter Thiel thinks so: … I prefer to focus on the mission of a company. And the mission has a story that is about more than making money, some transcendent purpose. But I distinguish mission from convention; if it involves an idea that’s totally different than what I’ve seen before, that’s what feels very powerful. The creative part of the process is to think really hard: What are the great new things that we can develop today in 2014?

This quote gets to the heart of Theil’s argument on FastCoLabs.

He’s looking at it from an investor point of view, not a “this is a worthwhile endeavor” pov. Presumably every “social entrepreneurship” venture has an important mission, a “transcendent purpose” -isn’t that kind of the point? From a business/investor perspective, the issue of how an enterprise distinguishes itself from the crowd is vital. The compelling mission and story help your project stand out and get the attention of others who will want to be part of what you do, either as investors, partners, team members, community advocates, or consumers.

The issue seems to be one of innovation – how do you pursue your wild imagination and take the big risk, follow the BIG IDEA and get out in front of the crowd. Honestly, creating an environment where people can be more free to take risks will be good for everyone, not just investors. The Big Problems need Big Solutions. On that score, I’m glad to be part of The Grove Dallas where we are creating just this kind of space.

 

 

Some thoughts on bivocational ministry

Back then (almost 15 years ago),
we weren’t talking much about bivocational ministries.

Bivocational chuck lawless (2)I came across this blog from Chuck Lawless on Tom Rainer’s site. He provides some compelling reasons for promoting bivocational ministry. BVM is nothing new to pastors among racial/ethnic and poorer communities, along with certain streams of pentecostal and charismatic churches.

For me the most telling sentence is the one quoted above. Something dramatic has happened in the last 15-20 years. The landscape of the historic mainline and mainstream evangelical churches has shifted dramatically, as a part of the much larger and broader changes taking place across our modern/postmodern world. Those are too many to catalog here. What we do need to recognize is how significant the shift has been and how it impacts clergy incomes and relationships to congregations.

I graduated with my Master of Divinity in 1996, and it never occurred to any of us (at least not straight white guys – no, there’s also not room to unpack all of that here) that we would struggle to find a life giving and meaningful ministry staff position where we could support ourselves and our families. Only a few years later and the majority of seminary students ought to be thinking seriously about a parallel or alternative source of income, and one preferably that they can also see as a meaningful contribution to the world and God’s reign.

Questions:

  • How are we helping current and prospective seminary students prepare themselves for this new reality with hope and expectation, not a defeatist “well, if I have to…” attitude?
  • How are we helping congregations think differently about their expectations visavis the roles of clergy and laity in ministry leadership?
  • How are we helping current clergy adjust who, like myself, were not trained or prepared for any career options outside of a local congregation?

 

Sermon prompts for 10/26

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Your investment now enables others to live their destiny in the future.

God used Moses in amazing ways, doing miraculous things in and through him. Yet the people Moses called and led eventually went on without him. We are always preparing others to carry on without us. Will they be ready?

A feast prepared for all people

Sermon Notes 10/12/14      Isaiah 25:1-9      Psalm 23     Philippians 4:1-9


A feast prepared for all people.

God’s feast is for all people – not just the chosen, or the faithful, or the believers. God lifts the veil and sets the table for all people and nations. How have we as church tried to share or limit God’s generosity?

Questions to ask ourselves:

  • Where do I live under the shadow and fear of scarcity?
  • Where do I live the generosity of abundance and enough?
  • Where do I or have I experienced a feast? How does that story help me understand God’s goodness and provision?
  • When have I been welcomed to someone else’s feast? What was that like?

A feast prepared for all people.

When is the last time you attended a feast? How do you know? How do you draw the distinction between a meal, a banquet, and a feast? I suspect that every culture has an image of a feast – usually in honor of an individual or communal life event – a birth, coming of age, marriage or death. In the US we have some 20 & 21st images that often come to mind – the iconic paintings of the First Thanksgiving with American Immigrant Pilgrims in black hats and Native Americans in feather headdresses all gathered around a table overflowing with all kinds of natural bounty. I can’t hear the word feast without thinking of Dr. Seuss and all his Whos down in Whoville celebrating Christmas, and the Grinch carved the Roast Beast. More recent film has given us the Hogwarts feasts with never-ending food that just keeps appearing.

In the New Testament we see Jesus perform his first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana (John 2). These were celebrations that went on for several days – sometimes as many as 7 days. Jesus uses the image of a feast to illustrate the Kingdom of God in Matthew 22. The point in these two stories as in the passage from Isaiah is similar – God desires that we would relish in the bounty of God’s goodness. Too often, however, we choose the scraps we can produce for ourselves rather than the abundant good that is available to us.

In the passage from Isaiah 25, the prophet recalls how God humbled the proud and powerful. At the same time, God has been “a refuge to those in distress” (25:4). Then comes the promise of ultimate restoration and renewal: On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines… (25:6) The feast will be “for all peoples” – i.e. all nations, tribes or people groups. The vision offered starting with Abram and Sarai in Genesis 12 is that all people will be blessed. Yes, God calls a people to be set apart and holy – first Abraham and his descendants, the 12 tribes of Jacob / Israel. Later the church is grafted in to the people of Israel and the covenant is renewed – a New Covenant in water and in blood, in the Spirit and Fire. All of these are not simply because God plays favorites – they are called and formed “to be a blessing”. They are called to communicate that

A feast will be prepared for all people.

This story moves in three stages:

  • We recognize our current state. Are we those of power who have been brought low, or are we the poor and needy who find refuge in the LORD? Perhaps both?
  • We understand and accept that God is calling us to the feast that is being prepared. God wants us to live in abundance and blessing. God continually works and calls out to us. Finally, we come to the end of our striving, and we accept that God loves us and receive the blessings that God has for us.
  • We follow Christ out to the world to proclaim the feast for all and to bring others in.

Part of the challenge for a church is that simultaneously we include people who are at each of these three stages. Some folks are just coming to terms with their reality. Others are receiving the call to discipleship and beginning their journey with Jesus. Still others are venturing out of the boat to walk with Jesus to the ends of the earth. And honestly, each of us at that third stage circle back to stages one and two occasionally.

There have been seasons in my life and ministry when I have awoken as from a dream, only to realize that I’ve built a house of cards that is beginning to collapse around me. This can happen in any area of our lives – our profession, our marriage, parenting or other relationships, our physical health. It happens at the personal, communal, national and global scale. When a major financial collapse comes as in 2008-9, what can be said but that people of pride and power built a house of cards using their own cleverness and capacity rather than leaning on the wisdom and power and grace of God. There are multiple explanations for why the collapse happened – globalization, a weak dollar, deregulation of banks and the subprime mortgage fiasco – but any version is still a house of cards horror story with hubris and blind ignorance as the central narrative.

That same scenario could be repeated with any of our crisis and collapse chronicles. Think of the current Ebola crisis, or the efforts to respond to the shifting landscape of militaristic misappropriations of the Islamic faith. We ignore warnings, and the evidence before our eyes, because we think we know best. We desperately want to believe our own version of events. One of our difficulties is that we believe the lie of limited resources. The result is that we often fight over what resources we perceive in a perpetual win/loose downward cycle of decay.

The Truth is completely opposite. We live in a world of abundance, a universe of unimaginable capacity, and serve a God of limitless possibilities. Each of us has limits, certainly. Collectively we are limited too. Even if you and I pool our resources, it won’t be enough to do all we want or desire. BUT… if we will recognize our limitations, accept the grace and power available to us, we will find that we have enough. The path forward is the same for all – the three stages identified above.

The feast is not the end of the story. Isaiah continues: And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. (25:7) A veil of fear and darkness prevents us from seeing God’s abundant provision available in creation and in each other through community. We cannot lift the veil off our own eyes. Only the power of Spirit can do this. We must be willing to let it be lifted. When Jesus said to Lazarus, “Come out!” Lazarus might have chosen to stay in the tomb. (John 11) Even when he did come out there was work to be done: “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (11:44) “Remove the veil of darkness, the covering of death!” And the next scene is a feast – “they gave a dinner for him…” (John 12)

Jesus has now given this ministry to his disciples. We are given the privilege of speaking these word to one another and the world that Jesus has spoken over us:

  • Come out of your tomb – God’s power and our response
  • Have the veil of darkness removed – the support of our community
  • Join in the feast

Now this could all lead us toward a name-it-and-claim-it prosperity gospel or some Polly-Anna-ish version of our faith that says if we will just believe in Jesus then everything will work out great for us. This of course is not true, at least not in the present physical realm. We know at least three reasons for this:

Paul offers us some very useful counsel at this point as he writes to his friends in the Philippian church in chapter 4:4-9. He tells us how to pray. He assures us not that everything will magically be fixed, but that we will receive peace in heart and mind, even in the midst of difficulty. Then Paul proceeds to tell us how to manage our thoughts, where to focus our attention. He says, “Don’t worry,” but he does not leave it at that. He understands that we have some choices that we can make:

  1. Where we look for strength and security (ourselves or God)
  2. How we respond to situations (Fear and grasping or gratitude and generosity)
  3. How we treat other people (with harshness or gentleness)
  4. What we think about (what is difficult and dark or what is good)
  5. What we do as a result of these thoughts (what we want, or what Jesus has taught us)

When we who are people of faith and have known the goodness of The Lord and the bounty of His feast find ourselves in trouble, Paul offers us a way forward. If we will make ourselves available to others in openness and generosity of spirit, they will tell us where they hurt and struggle and need support. God will then work through us to offer them hope, to welcome them to

the feast that is prepared for all people.

Fruitful Vines – God wants to work through you

Sermon notes 10/5/14; Isaiah 5:1-7Psalm 80:7-15Philippians 3:4b-14


God wants to work through you.

God has planted the people of faith to bear fruit in the world –
personally and collectively.
God desires and requires that we do our part,
that we allow ourselves to be fruitful.

Questions to ask ourselves:

  • In what ways have we been fruitful? A vine provides food for others that is sweet and good. A wild vine represents sourness, bitterness and lack of good fruit.
  • In what ways have we been like a wild vine and wild grapes? How have we not produced as much good fruit as we could?
  • What good is in our past that we do well to remember and celebrate?
  • What greatness lies in our future that compels to not be held by the past?

God wants to work through you.

You came to this place, to this day, because God wants to be a part of your life, and because God wants to work through you. One of the images that scripture uses for this idea is fruitfulness. Jesus talks about fruitfulness in the gospels. We see the fig tree in Mark 11 and the parallel passages – it has no figs on it so Jesus places a curse on it and it withers. Jesus has work to do – a gospel message so share, people to redeem and set free, a kingdom of righteousness and peace to build here in the world, in the very midst of all the chaos and heartache that surrounds us. To do this, He needs plants that will be fruitful.

And he doesn’t want just any fruit – he wants good fruit. 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Mt 7 sermon on the mount) The good fruit is sweet, refreshing, a delight to the soul. When you bite into a great Texas peach, and the juice drips down your chin and over your hands, a wide grin spreads across your face. You can’t help yourself. When you buy one that looks, smells and feels wonderful, but bite into Styrofoam or cardboard, you feel utter disappointment. Better to not eat peaches at all than to eat bad peaches. A friend of mine just moved back from central California and was bemoaning the loss of good strawberries. People who have only ever known subpar fruit are surprised when a juicy, fresh from the field, vineyard or orchard piece is handed to them. They just don’t know any better.

Paul talks about the need for us to bear fruit and grow (Rom 7:4; Eph 5:9; Col 1:10). Our faith may be an inward experience of the head and the heart. Even so, it is meant to produce outwardly so that others can see, experience, and be blessed. When we taste good grapes we don’t thank the vine, we thank the one who created the vine. In the same way our fruit, our good works, are meant to point back to the one who created us and made those good works possible. They point to God in Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Jesus puts it this way:

1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (Jn 15)

God wants to work through you.

None of this is surprising, given the way Isaiah uses this image. And he is not alone. We find the theme repeated in in Jeremiah 2, almost verbatim. Similar passages are found in Jeremiah 8 and Ezekiel 19. God formed a people, Israel, for relationship and partnership in ministry to the world. Israel’s purpose was to proclaim, represent and demonstrate God’s faithful love. Instead, they became self-absorbed and so concerned with their own power and preservation that they utterly failed to fulfill their calling. Even so, God always kept a remnant from which to raise up a new generation. God never wants to give up on us. God always wants to redeem and restore, but can only work with us when we are willing to show up, stand up, and be filled up with God’s love and mercy.

Hear how Zechariah describes God’s intentions: Zechariah 8: 11 But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days, says the Lord of hosts. 12 For there shall be a sowing of peace; the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things. 13 Just as you have been a cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so I will save you and you shall be a blessing. Do not be afraid, but let your hands be strong.

“You shall be a blessing” –  God wants to work through you!

We find a similar message in Psalm 92: 12 The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; 13 planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. 14 They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, 15 proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”

One of the things that got Israel into trouble was spending too much time looking backward. They tried to live as though things were still like the days of David, the days of glory. Each group with any authority tried to claim a royal or priestly heritage that gave them the right to rule. Israel certainly had days of glory, and God wanted the people to remember that God had made those things possible. It is God who gives us the ability to grow and be productive. God gives us the power to effect positive change in the world for His glory.

What the Israelites forgot is the reason why God has chosen David in the beginning – because he was humble, had a servant’s heart, was compassionate and just. David ruled through his righteousness, and Solomon through his wisdom. But each generation must live with righteousness and wisdom for themselves, not simply harken back to the days of their ancestors, or even their own previous accomplishments.

Our past matters, because it shapes our present. But our past does not define our present, nor determine our future. Our failures and sins need not separate us from receiving God’s goodness and blessings. Our past accomplishments cannot put food on the table tomorrow. Last year’s harvest is already gone. If we do not plant and tend a new harvest this year, everyone will go hungry. The grapes picked last year have already been put up in barrels. Unless we tend the vineyard continually, we will not have good wine in years to come.

Paul understood this well. In Philippians 3 he makes clear that his past is difficult to beat, but is insufficient for securing his future. The only thing that matters, Paul says, is Christ living in me today. Neither yesterday’s sin or righteousness can determine my tomorrow. What I do today matters.

I have been fortunate to do some cool things in my life. I’ve traveled to Europe, Central America, Canada, Mexico and Hawaii. I started and ran a soup kitchen that fed over 200 people each time it opened. I taught at two colleges. I have memories from those things, but none of them matter much to you today. Sure, they’re interesting, but, as the saying goes, “What have you done for me lately?”

Imagine a marriage where one spouse says to the other on their 20th wedding anniversary, “You know, I don’t really feel loved anymore. You never hold me. You never spend time with me. You never look at me or talk to me. You never tell me that you love me.” The grief stricken and dumfounded reply comes after several long moments of silence…. “But, what about those first five years? I did all of those things faithfully every single day. I still remember each day of it. Don’t you? Isn’t that enough?” “Yes,” the first replies, “I do remember, and it was wonderful, but no, it is not enough. I need all of that still, today and tomorrow and every day.”

When we put it this way, it would sound absurd if it were not so painfully common. Perhaps not quite this stark, but nonetheless real. Our relationship with God is no different. God want’s us to show up today, to communicate today, to listen and share today. And God wants us to be fruitful, today.

God wants to work through you.

Paul says “forgetting what is behind, I press onward…” Now, of course he hasn’t forgotten, because he has just told us. And he understands that those things mattered then and still matter. He is being hyperbolic to make his point. “Knowing Christ matters so much that everything else pales in comparison.” Paul values his background as a Pharisee or he would not continually reference it. That history shaped him to be the vessel that Jesus needed to carry his message. You see that shift – what you were and what you did and what you experienced made you who you are today, and that’s what God wants to use now and in the future. God honors your past also, redeeming and making it holy by working through it today. God wants us to be fruitful, today.

During our time together in the coming months we will focus on three tasks:

Honor our past. Understand our present. Live faithfully into our future.

I’m looking forward to joining with you individually and in small groups to hear your stories and help you hear each other. We want to honor the history of this congregation, as well as our individual histories. One way we will do this is by meeting in homes over the next several months. Some of you love to provide hospitality, and I hope that you will open your homes for 8-12 people to meet for coffee and desert and sharing. These will be scheduled for mornings, afternoons and evenings, and even weekends, so that everyone has an opportunity to attend at least one. You probably have other great ideas for how we can get to know one another and hear our stories so that we can honor our past.

In the weeks ahead we will say more about the other two tasks. For now, I’m just excited to be among you and to learn from you.

I am confident that, as Jesus said at the Last Supper, “you will do even greater things that what you have already seen.” (John 14:12)