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The Bivocational Pastor
Mark Wastler gets up most mornings between 5:30 and 6:00. Before doing anything else, he pulls on his work clothes, heads out the kitchen door to the enclosed field behind his house, and checks on a flock of some seventy sheep. Wastler has lived on this farm for just under ten years. He tried a few ways to make it sustainable before settling on sheep farming. He can show you a spreadsheet in which he has carefully plotted out his costs for obtaining and feeding the lambs, the amount he projects the sheep will grow in weight, and the amount of profit he can expect to receive when the sheep go to market — assuming, that is, they all stay healthy and out of the clutches of the coyotes that range across his part of northwestern Virginia.
Sheep farming is a hard life. It makes for early mornings and, very often, late nights. When lambing season comes, sleep is a rare luxury. And notwithstanding the sweet image that most urban dwellers hold, sheep can be cantankerous, unpleasant, and clueless when it comes to keeping themselves out of danger. Come to think of it, that may be why for centuries the ordained leaders of congregations have been called pastors — a direct borrow of the Latin noun pastor, shepherd. People — at least people in the church — can be a lot like sheep.
In Wastler's case, the term turns out to be more than a little bit appropriate. Because he is also an ordained minister, and he serves as the rector — the senior (and in the case of his congregation, the only) ordained minister in an Episcopal church — in his parish. It's a parish seventy-three miles and two state boundaries away: Saint Paul's, in Sharpsburg, Maryland. It's a parish of some 170 or so members; on any given Sunday, about fifty-five of them are in church.
Mark Wastler is a bivocational pastor. So is Joseph Wilkes; he's the rector of Saint Andrew's in Methuen, Massachusetts, and an oral surgeon in Boston. So is Kate Harrigan; she's the rector of Saint Paul's Church and the chaplain at Saint Stephen's Episcopal School, both in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. And so, as it turns out, are an increasing number of pastors across the mainline Protestant traditions.
Many pastors are part-time. More often than not, their status, as a wise mentor of mine once quipped, would more accurately be summarized as "partially compensated." They provide ordained leadership in the increasing number of faith communities that can only afford an ordained minister on a part-time basis; but the seeming limits on the time they give the parish are rarely rigidly observed, and the paradigm shaping how ministry is structured and shared between ordained and lay members of the community is still strongly shaped by the ideas and expectations of the "Standard Model" of ministry that takes for granted the presence of a full-time, benefitted professional in the clerical role. The expectations of the community, often based on an understanding of ordained ministry formed by decades of that model, as well as the discomfort that deters many pastors from insisting on the limits to their presence when there is work to be done, often make the idea of "part time" more of a semantic construction than a reality shaping the structure of ministry in a community.
But for bivocational pastors, those limits are very real. They exert strong grip on the whole parish, because they make it necessary for all members of the community — not just the pastor — to find different ways of sharing the responsibilities of ministry. Said plainly, the clear and unavoidable limits around the availability of bivocational pastors, the plain result of the restrictions placed on all of us with jobs in the secular world, requires the whole community, and not just its ordained leader, to come to terms with some basic questions about what ministry is. The good news is that, in a moment of tremendous change in the circumstances of the church, this confrontation with the meaning and structure of ministry may just be about the best thing we could ask for.
It's no longer the case that pastors like Mark Wastler, Joseph Wilkes, and Kate Harrigan are anomalies. As we will see in later chapters, the institution of the church may not yet be fully aware of, or fully responsive to, this bivocational reality; nonetheless, the weaving together of a number of economic, cultural, and societal forces have made it an adaptive response to a fundamentally changed set of circumstances.
The idea of ordained ministers of the church also working in a job outside the church is by no means new. On the contrary, it is very old indeed — just about as old as the church itself. In the eighteenth chapter of Acts, we find the apostle Paul in the midst of his second missionary journey, arriving in Corinth after leaving Athens. He ends up staying there for a year and a half, with Aquila and Priscilla, a married Jewish couple recently exiled from Rome. As Luke reports, "because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together — they were tent-makers" (Acts 18:3).
For many years it has been a commonplace to refer to ordained ministers working outside the church as people in a "tentmaking ministry," using the imagery of Paul's example. It is a tradition that has been expressed, in various ways, from the founding days of the church. Over the centuries of Christian history, the form and social structure of ordained ministry has taken on a variety of forms, ranging from monks in religious orders cloistered away from the secular world to Mennonite deacons working at a trade while pastoring their church. Each of these expressions, and countless more besides, are equally valid as expressions of a response to God's call to ordained ministry. The question that each must answer has to do with the gifts of the individual, the needs of the community, and the working of the Holy Spirit in a particular set of circumstances and within a particular gathering of the faithful. The instinct to define in narrow terms what ordained ministry should be, and then to make dogmatic significance of those contingent choices, is another example of our well-developed tendency to confuse the human instinct for creating systems of disposing power with God's relentless purpose to reconcile and restore humanity.
* * *
You may be reading this book because you're a member of a faith community — or maybe the leader of a faith community — on the cusp of having to make some hard decisions about the future structure of the ministry you offer. Or you may be reading this book because you're an ordained pastor thinking about taking on a pastorate in which you'd be spending some of your time in a job outside your role in the church.
In either case, there's one overarching reality to grapple with up front: the successful implementation of a bivocational model of ministry is a work of the entire faith community, and not just the ordained member (or members) of that community. "Bivocational ministry" is much more than a shorthand description of the working life of the pastor of a church. It's a way of describing a different way of thinking about how the ministry of the whole community works.
So at the outset, it's necessary to understand that much of the responsibility for the success of a bivocational model of ministry lies with the entire community; it's in the pews, not just in the pastor's study. Chapter 2 will deal more directly with the sorts of qualities that characterize congregations that make a success of bivocational ministry. Here, I want to focus first on the pastor. I do this not because all ministry begins with the pastor; all ministry begins with baptism, and with God's call to us in community. Instead, we'll begin with the pastor because, whether we like it or not, that is how our history, our institutions, our polity, and our organizational culture have taught us to think about ministry.
The Pastor in a Bivocational Community
What sort of pastor flourishes in the setting of bivocational ministry? Some of the qualities that contribute to success in this revisioned way of structuring the work of the faith community are obvious; some are less so. One thing is certain: The sort of person who tends to succeed in this reimagined expression of community ministry is in many ways quite distinct from the kind of person the coffee-hour ladies and the commissions on ministry have long thought would be "ideal" for the pastor's office.
Of course there's no one set of requirements for a pastor in bivocational ministry, just as there isn't for a pastor in the traditional "Standard Model." But there are some things to think about, if you're a person contemplating taking on such a role — a self-assessment that you might walk yourself through to come to a considered understanding of whether such a step might be a good expression of your gifts for ministry.
Let's group them into three categories: professional skills and interests, personal gifts and talents, and leadership style.
A. Your professional skills and circumstances
Professional skills. It may seem obvious, but bears stating plainly, that a precondition to success in bivocational ministry is a set of skills that equip you for work in the world outside the church. In practical terms this probably means that you have had a career of some sort before thinking about preparing for a role in the ordained ministry. Said differently, if your career path has been predominantly in an ordained role within the church, and you're now thinking of moving into some kind of role in which you'd also pick up another job alongside your work in ministry, your choices are likely to be fairly limited.
As the average age at ordination has increased across many denominations, the good news is that more and more people coming to the ordained ministry of the church bring with them professional accomplishments in the world outside the church. But those of us considering a bivocational path need to bring some holy scrutiny to our curriculum vitae. How current are our skills? How recent are our experiences?
Flexibility. A second consideration is the flexibility of your secular employment. The professional engagements among the bivocational clergy I surveyed in researching this book were tremendously varied, but the clear theme in all of them was a fair degree of latitude in setting one's own schedule. Pastoral needs, like the hospitalization or death of a member of the community, do not neatly schedule themselves around other professional demands.
Of course, there are two dimensions to this flexibility. One is the willingness of a cleric's employer outside the church to be understanding when an unexpected absence arises. The other, which we'll explore more fully in the next chapter, is the flexibility of the parish itself in adapting its expectations around the pastoral presence of the ordained minister, whether that means lifting up a stronger pastoral visitation ministry of the laity, or (as seems more frequently the case) finding comfort with the practice of holding funerals or memorial services on evenings or weekends, when more people are likely to be able to take part anyway.
A couple of points are worth considering here. It might seem as though the ordained minister in a self-employed position outside the church — a sheep-farmer, like Mark Wastler, or an oral surgeon, or a realtor, or a therapist, or a software coder — might have the greatest degree of flexibility. It turns out that this is not necessarily the case, as any self-employed person will quickly tell you. Any form of work that is clientfocused — even if the clients are lambs — needs to be responsive to the needs of clients, and conflicts will inevitably arise between those demands and the expectations of the faith community for the presence of its pastor. The single most important aspect of managing those conflicts is not to find ways of avoiding them; they can't be avoided. Rather, it's to anticipate them, discussing together as a faith community how everyone together will handle them — rather than dealing with them as they arise.
Integration. One other consideration in a self-assessment for bivocational ministry is a reflection on how, and how naturally, you feel the ideas and insights of one area of your professional life integrate with your work in the ministry of the church (and vice-versa). This turns out to be crucially important, for a number of reasons.
First, and perhaps most important, your own spiritual health depends on how well you can integrate these two aspects of your working life. If your work outside the church is in a setting in which your organization's goals conflict with the ethical claims of your faith — and you feel unable to articulate that conflict in ways that will be heard — you'll quickly become less effective in both spheres. Less obvious, but equally as difficult, are circumstances in which your workplace outside the church has an organizational culture indifferent or even hostile toward the influence of religious belief in shaping choices about life priorities. Many workplaces set out policies of neutrality toward, or acceptance of, all faiths in the workplace, but then actively promote a working culture that effectively creates conflict between success in the organization and the choices we make to devote time, the only finite resource, to our spiritual lives.
Still, there's a profound gift in this conundrum for the ordained minister in a bivocational role. It's simply this: it places us in exactly the same circumstances that every other member of our faith community already confronts in their own working lives, and by doing so places us alongside our people in living out our shared call to Christian ministry. It gives us deeper familiarity with the pressures every Christian in the post-industrial twenty-first-century economy has to make, and through that familiarity gives us greater credibility as leaders in those communities, helping people to navigate those choices. This is a source of informal authority, as contrasted with the sort of formal authority that hierarchy confers; we'll take up this distinction more deeply in chapter 3.
Here's one example. At one point in my own work in ministry, it became clear that the job I held outside the church — a grant-funded job in higher education — was likely coming to an end. When it became evident that I would need to be focusing time and energy into a search for a new position, I spoke to members of the parish vestry — the governing body of the congregation — and, eventually, to many members of the parish. It was a moment of considerable stress; my work outside the church provided not just a salary but health insurance for my family, and the possibility of investing in a retirement plan. Eventually a new job came along, and what had loomed as a transition that would bring some hard decisions instead brought some new commuting patterns, and not much else in the way of change.
The real lesson of this experience came later that year — at stewardship time. I gave what I regarded as a middling sermon on Stewardship Sunday, and as the service ended I found myself walking into coffee hour thinking of all the things I wished I'd said. My epiphany came when another member of the parish — a man about my age working in the private sector — approached me privately and gave me a compliment I didn't feel I deserved. But then he explained it: "You know, somehow it was different this year, listening to you. I knew — we all knew — you had a hard moment there about the job. A lot of us have been there. I don't know, maybe it made it easier to believe you or something. I get it that you have to earn a paycheck just like I do."
I still think about that conversation. It had never occurred to me, in the years I worked full-time in (and only in) ministry, that when I stood in a pulpit and presumed to speak about the economics of stewardship, or the way we all share in carrying out the financial responsibilities of the parish, that at least some folks were having a hard time taking me seriously. From their perspective, my family didn't experience anything like the economic risk they faced every day. Even the most accomplished and well-compensated members of a parish can experience sudden and precipitous reversals; living with that knowledge can make people under-standably risk-averse when it comes to judging how much they should commit in their annual gift to the parish.
At least for that member of my parish — and, I now realize, many more besides — a full-time minister didn't have any way of understanding the way their economic lives had to be lived. But that changed, significantly, when my own principal source of income and access to benefits became a job outside the church — a job with all the ups and downs, all the vicissitudes and all the risks, of the jobs people hold in the pews of our church.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bivocational"
Copyright © 2018 Mark D. W. Edington.
Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1. The Bivocational Pastor,
2. The Bivocational Congregation,
3. The Bivocational Polity,
4. The Church: A Bivocational Theology of Ministry,
5. We Can Get There from Here,