What Is a Bivocational Pastor? Plus 10 Tips If You Are One

The bivocational pastor is one of the most unique, gifted, and selfless individuals in the Church. That’s because they serve churches that can’t compensate them with full-time pay (or they choose to stay in another job to save the church money). They often earn income from other means, like a job in the secular marketplace or private income.1

Sometimes churches offer a small salary, so the pastor either lives on a meager budget or juggles a second job. Often, however, there’s no salary at all—many pastors work full-time to support themselves and their families while carrying all the responsibilities of a staff pastor.

And the numbers of churches with bivocational pastors are increasing.

In his article “The Hidden Truth Behind Bivocational Ministry,” Matt Henslee affirms that bivocational ministry is growing. He says it’s “far more common” than most really understand. In fact, a recent Lifeway Research study found that 26 percent of pastors said they were bivocational.2

But even though more and more men and women consider themselves bivocational ministers, it’s not a new concept.

Biblical support for bivocational ministry

Bivocational ministry was common up until the 1950s when churches began to encourage and support paid pastors, and many denominations began to prioritize seminary education.3 But before that shift, Dennis Bickers says many ministers “served churches as the people moved west, supporting themselves as farmers, store owners, schoolteachers, and many other occupations while also providing pastoral care to their congregations and leading worship on Sunday mornings.”4

However, the “birth” of bivocational ministry goes back even further to the apostle Paul, who supported himself financially by making tents.5 Scripture tells us that when he was in Corinth, Paul lodged with Priscilla and Acquilla, who were also tentmakers (Acts 18:3; see also 1 Cor 9:1–15). The three worked together during the week, earning their living, but every Sabbath, Paul ministered in the synagogue. As a tentmaker, he had a “marketable skill that was needed wherever God might lead him to minister.”6

In his book The Tentmaking Pastor: The Joy of Bivocational Ministry, Bickers writes that Paul “continued to make tents as he traveled from city to city” so he would not be a financial burden on those he was ministering to. He reminded the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:12; 2 Cor. 11:7–9) and the Thessalonians of this—that while he ministered in their cities, he “work[ed] with his hands and [was] dependent on no one” (1 Thess 4:10b–12) and was not “preaching the gospel for money” (1 Thess 2:9; see also 2 Thess 3:8)—he provided for his own physical needs.

Silvanus and Timothy did the same. Paul recounted their labor, saying “we worked night and day that we might not burden any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (1 Thess 2:9).

Is there a benefit for churches to have a bivocational pastor?

Small churches that can’t afford a full-time pastor tend to experience instability—leadership can come and go like the wind. But when blessed with a bivocational pastor, they can increase their ministry to their people and the community without depleting their often limited budgets.

And because bivocational pastors often own homes and “are more permanent members of the community,”7 they tend to stay at churches longer than fully-funded pastors. Longevity increases the church’s stability and solidifies what Darius Salter says is essential for ministry: trust.8

The result? A healthier church and a more effective ministry.

Plus, because they’ve got one foot in the secular marketplace and one foot in the church, bivocational pastors have a unique understanding of the people to whom they minister. They, too, are juggling work, family, and ministry—all while trying to prioritize the Lord—which John Koning says “should also their preaching, teaching, pastoral strategies, and expectations.”9

Many bivocational pastors say this keeps them in touch with their congregation and spiritually grounded. Chase Replogle, who has been a bivocational pastor for Bent Oak Church in Springfield, MO, for five years (and works as a freelance web designer too) writes:

My congregation knows that I put in 40 hours, just like they do. When I ask someone to show up to a meeting or volunteer, I know what that costs. It’s helped me to not ask too much of my people. And they know what I am sacrificing to lead them. My congregation has also learned why I’m a pastor—it has nothing to do with the paycheck. That’s been a good thing.10

And even though some bivocational pastors do struggle with identity (“Who am I to claim I’m a pastor?” More on this below . . . ) Replogle says it has given him a deeper sense of his vocation. His secular job is how he makes a living, but he says being a pastor “is who I am. It is who God has called me to be.”11

And most importantly, bivocational pastors provide quality teaching that all believers deserve, regardless of a church’s size or budget.

What unique challenges does the bivocational pastor face?

Bivocational pastors have the same responsibilities as full-time pastors. They have sermons to prepare, people to counsel, conflicts to navigate, meetings to attend (and lead), and administrative tasks to check off, regardless of whether it’s a small or large church. And though most bivocational pastors say their ministry is a calling and one they willingingly accept, it’s certainly not easy and invites challenges. Here are three.

1. Demands on time

Most bivocational pastors agree: time is the number-one challenge in their life.12

Even though the pastorate might technically be “part-time,” addressing people’s needs and juggling the tasks required to help manage the church often inches up to full-time hours. Bickers writes that bivocational ministers will often spend “as much as 40 to 50 hours per week at a second job,” which doesn’t leave much room for ministry:

A minister who works a 40-hour week—as I did during much of my pastoral ministry—does not have those 40 hours available for ministry purposes. That means everything else—whether personal or ministerial—must be condensed into the remaining hours, adding enormous pressure to the ministers and their families.13

Because they often don’t have adequate time to prepare sermons and feel like they are neglecting family and church responsibilities, many bivocational ministers end up second-guessing God’s call on their lives.

2. Identity issues

Bivocational pastors typically aren’t seminary trained, and because of this, often doubt their ability to teach, lead, and shepherd their people adequately (even though Henslee says “many of these pastors have preached some of the best sermons I’ve ever heard”).

3. Inadequate support

The workload is heavy and the job description never-ending, and though the commitment of bivocational pastors helps keep small and mid-sized churches alive, they’re too often undervalued and under supported.

While pastors of mid-sized to large churches can find ample ministry support through books, conferences, fellowship, or training, few resources exist for bivocational pastors. This leaves many feeling isolated as they steer their giant ship alone. This sense of isolation, coupled with a frequent lack of respect they feel from their denominations, increases stress, which often leads to burnout and depression.14

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

10 Tips for bivocational pastors and ministers

Establishing some “ground rules” and holding to them tightly can make it a joy to work as a bivocational minister for the long haul. If you are a bivocational pastor, here are 10 tips for surviving and thriving in the ministry.

  1. Be sure of your calling. The need will always be there, and yes, anyone with a heartbeat can answer it. However, filling the need is different from answering the call. Be sure of what you sense God is asking of you before committing to the church. If you’ve been a bivocational pastor for some time, pray and evaluate your decision periodically to ensure this is still where God is positioning you. 
  2. Set priorities. Likely you’ve got more to do than hours in the day will allow. Prioritize what’s most important, and release tasks you simply can’t get to. God is aware of “all the things” that need to be done; trust him for what you just can’t do yourself.
  3. Strive for balance. As you schedule out your week, make sure to block time for work, ministry, friends, family, sermon prep, rest, and play. When one area is weighted heavier than others, evaluate if time needs to be pulled from one area and given to another to ensure nothing is about to fall off the many plates you are spinning.
  4. Give yourself margin. It’s easy to schedule more tasks than hours in the day, but remember tip 3: you’ll quickly lose balance. Build in extra time to allow for unexpected crises or needs that must be met immediately.
  5. Don’t do everything yourself. Guaranteed there are people in your church who can carry some of the responsibilities. Set up pipelines for people to become ministry/small groups leaders, elders, counselors—even a team to help with finances. Train them up, and then give your lay leaders enough leash to share ministry responsibility.
  6. Schedule study and sermon prep time. Block out time for study of the Word, research, and sermon prep planning—and guard it militantly. This will bring a sense of sanity to your week and also ease feelings of insecurity. Bible study software can help you do this more efficiently and effectively (more on this in tip #10 below).
  7. Practice Sabbath. God designed all people to rest, and this includes bivocational ministers—and though it might seem impossible, Sabbath rest is one of the best things you can do for yourself and the ministry. Why? Practicing Sabbath is a form of worship, and as Walter Brueggemann says, it “provides a visible testimony that God is at the center of [your] life.”15 Many people say they are surprised at how much more space they have in their days when they start this discipline.
  8. Be prepared. One Barna study of 1,000 pastors reports that only 1 in 4 said they were prepared for tasks of pastoring.16Though it could mean seminary study, it doesn’t have to. You can train yourself for the task (often for free or little cost) by taking online theology and ministry courses that can help prepare you to do proper exegesis (interpret the Bible accurately), write a sermon, preach the word effectively, do word studies, and even learn the basics of original languages like Greek and Hebrew.
  9. Find a mentor. Seek the wisdom of others who have committed their lives to this special calling—and glean from what they’ve learned along the way.
  10. Use Bible software to aid in sermon prep and give you back time. Software like Logos allows you to search out Scripture and add resources into a “digital library” for fast research. Plus, you’ll have several digital tools available to aid you in your Bible study. For example, the Factbook makes looking up biblical people, places, events, and even theological topics a cinch. And you don’t have to be an expert in Greek and Hebrew to interpret the Bible responsibly because Logos allows you to study a passage in its original language, find related verses, and even see how others interpret the passage in just a couple of clicks.

Being a bivocational pastor is hard, no doubt. It takes commitment, reliance on God, and a lot of faith. God’s Word has the power to change people’s lives—and the bivocational pastor has the opportunity to preach and teach that Word to people who need to hear it done well and responsibly.

And if you are a bivocational pastor, remember (as Ed Stetzer says): “You are a gift to the kingdom. That is unquestioned.”

***

Get access to everything you need to preach powerful sermons with a Logos Preaching Suite, low-priced Logos solutions focused entirely on planning, prepping, preaching, and publishing sermons—all in one spot.

See what a Preaching Suite can do and how Logos can save you time in research, sermon prep, and more—or start planning your sermons with the Logos Preaching Suite now.

  1. Today, the term ‘tentmakers’ can refer to any mission-motivated Christian who supports themself in secular work as they do cross-cultural evangelism on the job and in their free time. They may be business entrepreneurs, salaried professionals, paid employees, expenses-paid voluntary workers, or Christians in professional exchange, funded research, internship or study abroad programs. They can serve at little or no cost to the church.” https://www.tentinternational.org/why-did-paul-make-tents
  2. https://lifewayresearch.com/2019/01/11/more-than-half-of-pastors-started-their-careers-outside-the-church/
  3. Dennis Bickers, “Understanding Bivocational Ministry,” https://www.thefoundrypublishing.com/media/media_import/content/2419/2419936.pdf
  4. Bickers, “Understanding Bivocational Ministry.”
  5. Dennis Bickers, The Tentmaking Pastor: The Joy of Bivocational Ministry (Baker Publishing), 2000
  6. Bickers, The Tentmaking Pastor.
  7. Luther M. Door, The Bivocational Pastor (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1988), 66.
  8. Darius Salter, What Really Matters in Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 33.
  9. https://www.acts29.com/what-about-bi-vocational-ministry/
  10. Chase Replogle, “Thoughts on Being a Bi-Vocational Pastor,” PastorWriter, https://pastorwriter.com/being-bi-vocational/
  11. Replogle, “Thoughts.”
  12. Dennis Bickers, “Understanding Bivocational Ministry,” https://www.thefoundrypublishing.com/media/media_import/content/2419/2419936.pdf
  13. Bickers, “Understanding Bivocational Ministry.”
  14. Bickers, “Understanding Bivocational Ministry.”
  15. Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes, “Sabbath” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 180.
  16. George Barna, Today’s Pastors (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1993), 126.
Share
Written by
Karen Engle

Karen Engle is a copy editor for Faithlife. She has a master's in biblical studies and theology from Western Seminary and frequently takes groups to Israel.

View all articles
Written by Karen Engle