Part-time pastors: what the church needs now

An argument for bivocational ministry

“No offence, but …”

That’s often how you begin a conversation that is inevitably going to involve some element of disagreement with the person you are in dialogue with.

In my discussions around the topic of bivocational mission and ministry, I discovered that I have been unexpectedly messing with a sacred cow. I have been reminded again just how deeply ingrained the idea of the ‘full-time’ pastor is and the associated roles and tasks he or she must perform.

And yet the more I talk about the importance of the bivocational approach to mission, the more I am increasingly convinced of its great value to the church in this increasingly post-Christian, secular context.

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We need the church, a family of people, to come around at difficult times, rather than just one paid specialist …

In a recent conversation where I was advocating for the bivocational pathway, I was challenged by a man arguing that a pastor needed to be available around the clock for pastoral care needs and for funerals and the like. His argument was that a ‘part-time’ pastor may not be able to respond immediately to the needs of the community. I could only agree with him; of course, that will be the case. But that is why we need the church, a family of people, to come around at difficult times rather than just one paid specialist who may not even be gifted as a pastor.

Andrew Hamilton, author of The Future is Bivocational

Andrew Hamilton

I agree that reshaping a church’s expectations can be a challenge, but it can also be done – if the church community is willing. A bivocational pastor needs to know their gifting, their role and their boundaries. When we began leading Quinns Baptist Church (in Mindarie, WA) in 2009 it was with an understanding that I would work two days a week for the church and I would spend three days in our irrigation business. It meant that I couldn’t be at every event or attend to every need, but the reality is that this actually formed the church in a healthier way than if I had dropped tools to be at any and every pastoral need. I attended a few pastoral needs over the years, but they were not my top priority and generally, they were done at a time that suited my schedule, or if no one else could get there. Usually, someone more competent than me would find time to get there first.

What I did say clearly was that I would:

a)     give leadership to the team;

b)     teach on Sundays and oversee the teaching program;

c)     meet with men.

These were the skills and gifts I could bring to the church that few others would be able to replicate. And yes, there were other bits and pieces that popped up and I would attend to them if I could. But if I couldn’t, then they just didn’t get done or they got done at a later time. Being OK with that is a challenge to many pastors. Leaving jobs undone can feel irresponsible or lazy, but maybe it’s just the exercising of healthy boundaries. Whether you are part-time or full-time, there is always more to do.

Many of our smaller communities would be better served by a team of bivocational staff.

Perhaps some of our larger, more complex church communities may need a couple of full-time staff who are able to dedicate their entire focus to one role, but I imagine many of our smaller communities would be better served by a team of bivocational staff. Perhaps I can even suggest that our primary expression of pastoral leadership should be bivocational – with maybe a few exceptions.

I feel our inclination towards full-time paid pastors as the norm is possibly fuelled by several things:

a) The historical expectation that ‘the pastor’ will be full-time and that this is the preferred way for a church to operate. I don’t think you could easily make a strong biblical case for this being the preferred scenario.

b) The church’s need for someone to do the work of ministry and shoulder the load – as distinct from the church itself doing the work of ministry. Whatever happened to the priesthood of all believers?

c) A pastor’s own need for a full-time role – either because he/she has no other marketable skills, their identity is too deeply tied up in their role, or because he/she doesn’t feel they can split their time and energy.

I have spoken with a few people who indicate that the ‘split vision’ just doesn’t work for them, and I hear that. But, I would want to push back and say that our focus is always going to be on multiple areas when we are pastoring. We will be focused on preaching one day, pastoral care the next and leadership development the following day. Each requires a change of gears.

What if this was a key to catalysing some new expressions of church and breathing some new energy back into our mission work?

I get the sense that few will want to actively pursue the bivocational path unless they reach a point where they have no other choice. But what if this was a key to catalysing some new expressions of church and breathing some new energy back into our mission work? Would we be willing to leave our safe full-time pastoral positions to re-enter the workplace and experience life as most of our congregations experience it daily? It is no secret that some pastors have become so immersed in church world that they have lost connection with their community in significant and meaningful ways.

I sense pastors expect and pursue full-time ministry because we have been conditioned to think in this way. Had we taken this route at Quinns Baptist Church, then I would probably have had the full-time role and the other four staff we appointed – to oversee youth, kids, admin and pastoral care – would probably not have been employed on any level to serve the community. We would all have been the poorer for it. Those ministry areas would have suffered, and I would probably have suffered too because I would have overseen it all and actually done a lot of it as my job.

So, no offense, but … if we were able to lead the church more effectively and engage in the community more easily by pursuing this route, would you consider it? If it meant you could no longer work full-time for a church but you were able to engage more effectively in your local community, would you give it a shot?

The Future is Bivocational

The Future is Bivocational, by Andrew Hamilton

Andrew Hamilton is the author of The Future is Bivocational: Shaping Christian Leaders For a Post-Christian World, which has been nominated for the 2023 Sparklit Christian Book of the Year award. He lives on the Northern beaches of Perth with his wife Danelle and has been a pastor for 31 years. Virtually all of that time has been spent bivocationally.  Along the way, he has been a Phys ed teacher, run three businesses and managed to lead and plant a couple of churches.

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