The Turbulent Calling of Bivocational Ministry

Three honest stories about its rewards and challenges.
The Turbulent Calling of Bivocational Ministry
Image: Photo by Eugenio Marongiu / Getty

Ministry is changing, and so is the profile of those going into it. For many, it is no longer about leaving another life behind; it is about answering God’s call alongside—or even within—the vocation one already has or wants. One study in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion found that an increasing number of female and single ministers are going bivocational, and that the ministry model is becoming more popular in secular regions of the country. In 2017, the Association of Theological Schools reported that 30 percent of seminary grads expect to be bivocational.

Many sing the praises of the bivocational model—and not just for the economic stability it provides. With one foot planted firmly in the secular world, bivocational pastors are able to form relationships with people unlikely to step into a church unprompted.

While pastor and missional thinker Lance Ford has seen more and more church planting lean toward a bivocational model, he has also seen its downside. “I know of two or three heartbreaking instances,” said Ford, “where planters started a coffee shop and planted a church at the same time, and then lost their marriages. It wasn’t through sexual sin but through emotional abandonment.”

For bivocational pastors, challenges abound. As the stories below demonstrate, bi-vocational ministry comes with plenty of benefits, but also burdens worth considering before jumping in.

Panha Mey: Bivocational by Necessity

Panha Mey, pastor of the Cambodian Baptist Church of Houston, had already graduated from college with accounting and management degrees when he was called into ministry. With his wife still in school and the couple starting a family, he couldn’t afford to quit his full-time accounting job at a large telecom company. This is becoming more and more common, according to Packard Brown, who owns a bivocational ministry consulting firm.

“A lot of seminary graduates believe they are going to have to resort to bivocational ministry,” said Brown. “The big question for them is, ‘Once I get a degree, can I get a job making enough money to pay the bills?’ ”

After Mey felt God’s calling to ministry, he began working on his seminary degree and doing lay ministry. He arranged to work longer hours four days a week and attend seminary classes one day a week, dedicating weekends to ministry with South Main Baptist Church’s Cambodian congregation.

When Mey’s wife was accepted to medical school in San Antonio, Mey arranged a job transfer. Moving didn’t mean leaving his congregation behind, though. For four years, he traveled back and forth between San Antonio and Houston, juggling his responsibilities as an employee and minister.

Mey admits that trying to work a full-time job while shepherding a church more than 200 miles away took a toll on his work and family life.

“I really struggled with time,” Mey said. “A preacher can spend 20 to 30 hours a week on sermon preparation alone, and I didn’t have 20 to 30 hours to give. Going back and forth, strategizing, planning, doing visitations and sermon prep—it all takes a lot of time. I worked hard at my job as an accountant so I could get the flexibility I needed, but ultimately I felt I couldn’t do all I needed to do as a pastor without stealing time from my employer.”

When Mey’s wife graduated from medical school, he decided to go into full-time ministry—first at a Chinese church in San Antonio and finally back at the Cambodian church in Houston.

Dave Frederick: Bivocational by Choice

Though Mey started as a bivocational pastor out of financial necessity, eventually transitioning to full-time ministry, other pastors have discovered benefits to a second job beyond the paycheck.

Dave Frederick was already the lead pastor at Lincoln Avenue Bible Church in Bremerton, Washington, when his journey to bivocational ministry began. He started volunteering as a chaplain for the local police department in order to become more connected to the community.

“Riding with the police, I began to get a glimpse of the underside of our community. It really opened my eyes,” he explained.

Frederick and his wife, Cindy, began opening their home to foster children and homeless youth. In 1996, ten years into his work as a missionary and pastor, he resigned from the pastorate to start a street ministry called Hope in Christ Ministries. His goal was to “bring the hope of Christ to the pain on the streets.”

Not long into his street ministry, however, Frederick found they needed a place to gather. When he stumbled across The Coffee Oasis, a hangout for troubled youth, he caught a vision for how God could use the space and purchased it.

“This place, which had become so dark, became a place full of hope,” he said.

After renovating it and running it by himself for a year, he gave the coffee shop to Hope in Christ and began simultaneously growing the business and building the ministry under one umbrella. A few years ago, Frederick changed the name of the nonprofit to The Coffee Oasis, and it has expanded to include multiple café locations and a coffee roasting business. It also offers a wide array of services for homeless youth, including youth centers, job training, mentoring, case management, and a shelter.

As youth began coming to The Coffee Oasis, worship services also sprang up. Eventually attendance at these services grew to several hundred people, and it spun off to become its own entity, The Refuge, which holds services at one of the larger locations of The Coffee Oasis.

Brad Brisco, director of bivocational church planting for the North American Mission Board, believes the financial factor is only one of three elements worth considering for those in bivocational ministry: money, time, and relational capital.

“If you’re sitting in a cubicle all by yourself, five days a week, that probably is not going to help with your church planting. Ideally, you would find a ‘smart job’ where you’re making a decent living, not working too much, and you’re connecting with others.”

Brisco contends that one of the greatest challenges facing pastors wary of bivocational ministry is their own mindset. He warns against seeing ministry as something that just happens inside a church building. Frederick struggled with that when he first transitioned from full-time to bivocational ministry with The Coffee Oasis.

“In the tradition I grew up with, I had a sense that pastors and missionaries were the only ones who could serve the Lord full-time. It was quite a challenge starting the coffee business, because I felt like I was abandoning my calling,” Frederick explained. “God needed to show me that he put this together. Our employees—we have about 75 now, from coffee roasters to case workers—honor the Lord through every aspect of our ministry.”

Beket Griffith: From Bivocational to Covocational

Beket Griffith, pastor and co-founder of Season’s Harvest Café in Cypress, Texas, was in prison ministry for years before God called him into bivocational work. He began working on his seminary degree but also wanted to support his wife, Joanne’s, dream of starting a restaurant.

At one point, Griffith was doing three jobs at once: prison ministry, church pastoring, and restaurant management. Eventually, the restaurant did well enough that he could quit his prison ministry and focus on Season’s Harvest and his small home church congregation. He says the connections with others at the restaurant make a big difference.

“We look at our lives from two different angles: our evangelism life and our equipping life,” Griffith explained. “The restaurant is our evangelism life. We get to meet a lot of people we never would have met in any other circumstance. We get to be the salt and light of Christ, listen to them, and pray with them. A lot of people in our church came through the restaurant.”

While flexible side jobs and complementary para-ministry work are two proven approaches to bivocational ministry, Brisco sees a third approach—what he calls “covocational ministry”—growing in popularity.

“In traditional bivocational ministry, we separate a person’s ministry calling and vocational calling. There’s the mindset of ‘I do this over here to do ministry over there.’ With covocational ministry, it’s about bringing more than one thing together,” he said.

While Griffith has been successful in his covocational ministry efforts, he cautions that it is not an easy road. He and his wife have five children, all of whom have been homeschooled—their classroom is in the loft above the café—and two of them now work in the restaurant. He estimates that the restaurant management alone takes up to 80 hours a week of his time.

“One hundred percent of our kids’ lives are the church and the restaurant,” he said. “It’s easy to have a ‘sand dune’ mentality, waiting for the oasis of more available time. But the oasis never comes, and suddenly your kids are grown. It’s the whole enjoying-the-journey thing: you have to make the time within the time.”

“When we started this restaurant, it was a lot of fun, but it’s also been very hard work. My kids would ask me—and I went to the Lord with the same question—why it felt so hard. His answer was that ministry is a sacrifice,” he conceded.

Nevertheless, Griffith views the blessings of a bivocational ministry as far greater than the challenges.

“The advantage of being an entrepreneurial bivocational pastor is that, even though there’s a lot expected of me at all times, I can largely arrange my schedule to do the things I need to do,” he said.

“Owning our own business gives us a lot of freedom,” Griffith continued. “I can pray with the customers, talk to them about their lives, and open up the Bible. For those who wouldn’t feel comfortable in a traditional church, this is the most Christian experience they may ever get.”

Brisco encourages up-and-coming pastors to shift their perspective to think like missionaries. “What does it look like to engage with people in in the workplace, and in their social space?” he asked.

“We’re seeing a sense of shared leadership, breaking down the clergy-laity divide,” Brisco explained. “Just because you have a calling in the workplace, it doesn’t mean you can’t start a church. Today, bivocational or covocational ministry can be your first choice, not your last option.”

Linda W. Perkins is a freelance writer and the author of Spring Sight, a Christian devotional blog offering hope to people with chronic illnesses.

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