Transitioning from Bi-Vocational to Vocational Ministry: 3 Questions

Three questions that can help guide you and your churches if you are considering this transition.
Transitioning from Bi-Vocational to Vocational Ministry: 3 Questions
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Most churches in America are ‘small churches,’ having less than 100 people. Most of these churches have a bi-vocational pastor; one who does not receive full-time financial support from the church they serve. Having an outside job may be part of a plan.

But there is a growing movement of intentional bi-vocational pastors who will remain so regardless of the future growth of the church. Others take the path of vocational ministry from the start through various means. Still others will start out bi-vocational with the anticipation that at some point they will transition to full-time vocational ministry.

Making the transition from bi-vocational to vocational can seem like a dicey proposition. Faith and obedience will obviously be at the center of the decision, but there are several things to consider, including the make-up of the leadership team and size of the church.

So when should one move into vocational ministry? When should churches make this all-important decision? Three questions can help guide you and your churches if you are considering this decision.

First, “Can we afford this?”

This kind of decision warrants that finances be at the core of the issue. Any conversation that doesn’t include financial feasibility is not helpful. I’m not suggesting that money is the determining factor. God calls us to take steps of faith that involve not seeing the end result. But he also expects there to be wisdom in the transition.

A bi-vocational pastor who believes it is time to move into vocational ministry should figure out the financial number that person needs in order to make the change. Then, it’s best that 75% of the funds should be there. You don’t really have to wait until the church is at 100% because if you work hard and well, the momentum will actually grow the church enough that you can make up the rest of it soon thereafter.

When adding a second staff member, the church should be at 50% of what they should get paid before hiring that person. Within a year, you should be able to grow that and you can repeat that pattern and move people onto vocational staff.

Second, “Does the ministry require it?”

Some churches will never bring on a full-time vocational pastor because they don’t see the need due to small size, or whatever. Generally, however, if a church is going to grow large enough, it is going to be important to have a vocational pastor. This is primarily true because the growing systems will require more dedicated oversight and leadership.

A question that can lead into transition is, “Have the systems of the church grown to such complexity that they require somebody to oversee them on a full-time basis?" We are talking about ministries that are growing up. Small group discipleship, children’s ministry, outreach, assimilation, etc., are systems that can grow to a point where there is a complexity which requires specific oversight and care by a dedicated person gifted in that area.

There are only two ways around this. One is to develop such a robust volunteer structure that a paid position is not necessary. Another is to remain small. Generally speaking for most church models, however, there will come a time in strong growing ministries when hiring a full-time leader is beneficial.

Finally, “When is the church big enough to support vocational leaders?”

There is no magic number that triggers the transition to vocational ministry. But it seems that when a congregation hits around 150, the weight of effective ministry begins to show itself for a pastor who is also a manager at Office Max. As the church approaches 175, full-time support needs to be a part of the leadership conversations.

I sometimes talk about the difficulties of “breaking the 200 barrier.” It goes without saying that it is unrealistic to expect a pastor to be as effective in a bi-vocational role with a congregation of 197 as the pastor was with a congregation of 38.

Some choose to remain bi-vocational throughout their ministry and that’s a good plan for them. I’m just offering a few helpful ideas for those who are looking to make the transition. As with all important life transitions, there will be tension, but there will be other issues to deal with if we don’t make changes that reflect the needs of a growing vibrant church.

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.

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