Bivocational ministry is on the rise, as it has been for the last few decades. About a third of American pastors are now bivocational, and 30 percentof seminary grads say they expect to be bivocational after graduation, according to the Association of Theological Schools. In response to the growing number of pastors who are working two or more jobs, some seminaries and some denominations have integrated bivocational ministry into their strategies for planting and sustaining both rural and urban churches.
Are seminaries training students for bivocational ministry? In most cases, the answer is “not yet.” Consequently, many students are entering this kind of ministry without a rigorous theological framework or a clear understanding of its challenges and benefits.
I was in that situation myself when I first began bivocational ministry 12 years ago. My undergraduate and graduate-level theological studies prepared me for pastoral ministry in general, but in more than six years of seminary education, bivocational ministry was not addressed at all. I had to learn about it on the fly, and this was decidedly not ideal. Bivocational ministry is challenging enough, but going into it blind means missing out on the benefits while stumbling over challenges that could have been prepared for. This can result in a needless lack of self-confidence.
Despite the general lack of bivocational ministry training, a few recent improvements are worth mentioning. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention — the American denomination with the highest number of bivocational ministers — now offers a certificate in bivocational ministry studies through their seminary extension program. The certificate program covers the biblical and historical roots of bivocational ministry and the trends affecting its development and future.
Another example: This year, Earlham School of Religion in Indiana launched a graduate-level certificate program in bivocational ministry, which can be taken for credit and used toward a master of divinity degree. Phil Baisley, professor of pastoral studies at Earlham, says that the program is aimed at both current and future bivocational pastors.
When I asked Baisley how he determined that there was a need for a course like his, he explained that three years ago, he spent six months visiting churches whose pastors were not paid full-time salaries. “From the pastors and congregation members at these churches that I spoke with, I learned what training was missing in their seminary or Bible college education,” he says. Next he designed a new bivocational ministry course as an elective in Earlham’s program in pastoral ministry. The new course is also the gateway to the new bivocational ministry program.
The new Southern Baptist certificate program and the new program at Earlham are steps in the right direction. If other theological seminaries are to remain relevant in today’s ministry landscape, they too should plan how to incorporate the training of bivocational ministers into their curricula.
Questions to ask about bivocational ministry
- Is your theological school collecting data on how many current students expect to enter bivocational ministry, and on how many graduates are actually bivocational?
- How would a course or program on bivocational ministry fit into your existing academic program?
- Is adding additional training or formation in bivocational ministry worth exploring at your institution? What research do you need to conduct to see if adding additional courses or programs would be worthwhile?
- Who are your peers and conversation partner in these discussions? Do you have the right people at the table (or on videoconference)?