5 Reasons Bivocational Church Planting is a Good Idea
My wife and our four boys moved to Brooklyn a little more than three years ago. To say that the process of starting a church in a large city like New York has been challenging would be a major understatement. God has used this to humble us, give us grace, and shape us in many ways.
The process has gone much slower than we originally thought. One reason for this is that we parachuted into the city - we didn’t have a ready made core group or major connections in our neighborhood that would enable us to quickly launch. God was inviting us into a process of enculturation and contextualization that was tremendously formative. We have been learning to navigate the city by building relationships, knowing our neighbors, and hearing stories. One of the primary vehicles of this process has been the secular job I have worked for the majority of our time here.
What is biovcational ministry?
Bivocational ministry involves earning a wage outside of the church context. And I have become a bigger advocate of this kind of church planting as we have moved forward. This is a particularly great model when the job is sustainable in terms of hours and wages. It is probably helpful if the job isn’t overly physically exhausting and doesn’t require too much travel or time commitment. These things are not black and white - some people can manage physical exertion much better than others! But let’s just say I have found it helpful that my work can be done on a laptop in local cafes and hot spots around the neighborhood.
Working part or full-time, especially in the early days of a church plant, is advantageous in a number of ways.
1. Contextual Understanding
Having a secular job allowed me to understand the pressures everyone in my community feels. From the reality of an urban commute, to balancing time and family life, to understanding the normal rhythms of life in the city, when church planters have a job they will better understand the people they are trying to reach.
If I had never worked outside the church, I would have had a very limited understanding of the experiences of the people I’m trying to reach. Not only would I have had blind spots when it came to the reality of city/life rhythms, people would likely have felt I couldn’t understand their challenges without having walked the same path.
2. Relational Pathways
Beyond just understanding the community better in a conceptual way, secular work provided me with many relational pathways into the community. From coworkers to other folks in the industry, I instantly had a number of relationship building opportunities. Depending on the kind of work and the work context, having a secular job could literally provide hundreds of new connections to a church planter right away. The tremendous value of these relationships cannot be overstated.
3. Team Building
An unexpected - but very real - reason bivocational ministry is desirable is the way it has forced me to take a team approach to discipleship and leadership overall. Since I have a lot of responsibilities outside the church, I haven’t had the time and resources to “do” all the ministry of the church. For a person like me, who defaults to doing things alone, bivocational ministry enabled me to embrace my limitations and lean on others within the team. That means I’m not doing all the preaching, pastoral ministry, children’s ministry, and more. I serve on teams where all these things are done, but I’m forced to trust, empower, and release others to use their God-given gifts in each of those spheres.
4. Pacing Yourself
When we moved to the city, we were excited to get rolling and have our church fully functioning within the first year. For a small fraction of churches, there is outward success very quickly. But for most of us, growth and impact will happen over time. That has been our experience. As we have plodded forward, trusting Jesus to build his church, we have begun to see impact only after we have poured years into the work.
That’s not what I wanted to hear in the early days of church planting, but that has been our reality. And I don’t say that begrudgingly - God has done so much in us in preparation for what He plans to do through us. These past few years have been tremendously formative and, in retrospect, I’m thankful that we walked through it, rather than fast-forwarding to immediate outward “success.” Having work outside the church has allowed me to embrace this tension more than I would have otherwise.
5. Alleviating Financial Pressure
On a more practical level, having a secular job has allowed us to take more of a slow cooker approach to church planting that I believe will be more fruitful in the long term. In NYC, there are many churches that pop up and disappear within a short period of time. The most common reason for this is running out of money. Church planting in an urban center costs a lot of money! Many people I met in NYC weren’t interested in joining a church that had just popped up. There was no trust. We didn’t begin to attract more rooted New Yorkers until we had been around for a couple years. And reaching rooted New Yorkers is still a major focus for us.
But how could we have been here, building relationships for a couple years, without draining the church bank account unless I had a secular job? This has enabled us to lengthen our runway before the church is self-sustaining. Otherwise we would have already left or been living in tremendous poverty! If we want families to be able to move into major cities to start new churches, secular jobs are the sustainable way in.
While I’ve painted a very positive picture of bivocational ministry, please don’t think it’s without any drawbacks. The biggest issue we’ve had to face as a family is the reality of burnout and exhaustion. Church planting has been more spiritually, emotionally and physically demanding than we could have imagined.
At times, maintaining a secular job leaves little margin in our lives to process pain and difficulties, as well as to plan for the future. Planters must be intentional about setting an appropriate amount of time off during this season of life. Marriages need space to flourish, children need dedicated time with their parents, individuals need to experience and enjoy solitude in God’s presence.
This is something individual leaders need to keep an eye out for, but all the more for those that are overseeing church plants. Self-awareness in this area has been tremendously difficult for me and church planters need others outside the situation to call this out before they completely burn out or go off the rails. We need each other and can do so much more together than we ever could apart - including avoiding burnout!
Finally, to plant a church bivocationally doesn’t mean that you need to retain your secular employment forever. There may well come a time when the planter can give themselves fully to building the church. When trying to decide if it is time to focus full-time on the church, it is important to be sensitive to the leading and timing of God. There are obviously many factors that will go into this decision - ministry needs, growth of the community, financial standing, etc - but it will likely always be a step of faith. Spend plenty of time in prayer as a community to discern the timing of this step. You might be surprised by how God leads!