A few weeks back I started to form up the shape of a book I would like to write around the place of the ‘bi-vocational’ pastor in the future of the church, as I sense it will become increasingly the norm for our communities. It will share some of my own learning – most of it accidental and only gleaned in hindsight.
I started by using Covid as an analogy for being forced into change – 3 weeks ago – before any serious changes – let alone church shut downs and pastors cutting their working hours. My question was ‘if we had known Covid-19 was coming would we have changed how we operate as a society?’
My hunch is probably not – because we usually wait for the effects of change to impact us before choosing to act. We are notoriously capable of looking away until we feel pain.
This is certainly true of us as the church. I was asked recently what shape I imagined the local church in Australia would take over the next 20-30 years – hardly a long time, but given our current rates of change still a significant enough period. I gave the same answer I gave when asked that question 20 years ago:
‘The big will get bigger, the small will get smaller and those in the messy middle will find it harder and harder to survive.’
I gave the same answer as 20 years previous because I have observed it happening in the time since I was first asked. Bigger churches are merging with (or taking over) smaller ones, smaller churches are sometimes calling it quits or joining with larger churches, while those who are neither big nor small are running harder and harder just to keep pace with what is required of them. Its exhausting just watching it all unfold.
Recent years have seen church life become more complex and difficult by the day no matter what size you are. Government compliance regulations for Not For Profit organisations have created a whole raft of administrative challenges for the church to engage with. It all takes time – and money – and lots of it. The Royal Commission into institutional abuse has exposed our failings and forced us to review our practices and develop new ways of operating that are safe, albeit onerous.
And while pastors are currently able to earn a fairly decent income thanks to the non reportable fringe benefits tax, it seems only a matter of time before this ‘benefit’ is removed (or surrendered?) and the ground shifts yet again, as churches are faced with significant pay increases as they are unable to provide the equivalent pre-tax wage – or pastors choose to live at a much more moderate level.
Add to this an aging boomer generation who faithfully bankrolled much of the previous era of church life and we find ourselves with an emerging generation who (we have conditioned to) think in terms of ‘user pays’ rather than regular, cheerful, sacrifical giving. It’s not that this new crew aren’t capable of generosity, but simply that they often prefer to target their giving to specific causes rather than contributing to the ‘family budget’ in the form of staff salaries and operational costs. Perhaps the church needs a ‘gofundme’ page?… Although I doubt these will exist in 30 years time either.
We are already facing an adminstrative squeeze and it is inevitable that this will flow over into a financial squeeze, requiring us to think more creatively about how we sustain ministry as churches.
The struggles we face are those that come from the ‘professionalisation’ of the pastoral vocation – struggles that wouldn’t have existed 50 years ago. In the 60’s and 70’s Pastors earned a very moderate stipend from a supportive and stable congregation who gave regularly, if not always joyfully, to the work of the church, but the pastoral role in that time was primarily a vocational one rather than the ‘career path’ it has now become for some. While the ‘calling’ may still be there, there is a much greater expectation that the role will be a full time, professional one and paid appropriately so that the pastor will be able to live at approximately the same standard of living as the congregation.
My strong hunch is that in this rapidly changing world the majority of what I will refer to as ‘neighbourhood churches’ – those of 60-150 people – will sooner or later go the way of the local hardware store when confronted with a monolith like Bunnings entering their territory. A small minority of these churches will find a way to survive and thrive against the odds, but most will be unable to compete with these franchised behemoths who enter cities and suburbs with seemingly limitless resources and launch an instant church complete with, full band and stunning social media library all within a few months.
Our culture, and to some extent the church itself, has raised a generation of consumers so we shouldn’t be surprised when our congregations behave in consumeristic ways. When faced with the choice of the small church with the struggling kids and youth groups and the barely passable music or the glitz, bright lights and amazing programs of the super-churches your average consumer already knows instinctively which way to jump.
That said, unless healthy ‘neighbourhood churches’ continue to exist as prophetic alternatives to a ‘bigger is better’ mindset, then I suggest that in the next 20-30 years we will see Western Christianity become so conflated with consumerism that we will lose any right to speak of the ‘good news of the Kingdom of God’ when the good news we are drowning in has more to do with our own affluence and aspirational lives that any priorities Jesus spoke of.
In coming years it is my prediction that countless smaller churches will ‘merge’ with larger churches as they drown in administrative overload and as they struggle to pay the wages of their staff and keep their buildings maintained. It will just be easier to shut up shop and collectively move to join with another larger group who have already got admin, legalities and finances under control.
A small number will will move into homes and find their community in that way, but most will choose the ‘services’ offered by a larger organisation.
If the neighbourhood churches are to have any kind of future then one of the re-thinks we need to begin doing is around the place of the ‘pastor’, or whoever the primary leader of the church turns out to be. Of students in theological seminaries in preparation for pastoral ministry, my hunch is that very few are considering that they will work in anything less than a ‘full time’ ministry situation. However full time paid roles are going to be much harder to come by in the years ahead and I would suggest now is the time to be considering how we can help our pastors be genuinely and effectively bi-vocational.
If we start to shift the thinking now then we will be ready for what lies ahead. That is a purely pragmatic and to some degree economic reason to pursue bi-vocational ministry but after 12 years of running a business and leading a church I would suggest there are multiple benefits that come from this approach to pastoring (none of which were apparent to me until I found myself actually in the space and experiencing it.)
The time to adjust the rudder is now – to begin pointing the ship in a different direction. It’s less a nuance and more a brutal paradigm shift for pastors. We have seen full time ministry as the goal for so long that it will challenge us to both release ourselves from that identity and release the leadership of the church from such a tight grip.
I wrote that 3 weeks ago and now we are scrambling and wondering about the shape that the future will take. I believe we ought to think seriously about how we create a number of models of bi-vocational ministry that allow pastors to bring the benefits of the marketplace into the church while also creating an income stream that sees them not dependent on the financial capacity of the church.