No Offense 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.

I don’t mean to offend – but I am now going to say some things that will show I disagree with you and that may cause offense. They may cause offense for a couple of reasons – a) I may present my thoughts in a confronting and offensive manner, b) Even if i present my thoughts carefully and calmly you may still choose to take offense.

So I’m gonna try and be nice…

Over the last month as I have had a few conversations around bivocational mission and ministry, I have realised that I have been unexpectedly stepping on landmines, or seen to be messing with sacred cows. My interactions have reminded me again just how deeply ingrained the idea of the ‘full time’ pastor is and the associated roles and tasks he (because very few think ‘she‘) must perform.

And yet the more I talk about the importance of the bivocational approach to mission, the more I am increasingly convinced both of its value to the church in this secular context and as churches struggle to make ends meet financially.

This week as I discussed some of the ideas on Vision radio, a listener called in from rural NSW because he didn’t agree at all with my premise at all. He insisted 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 (yeah that’s me…)

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 bivo pastor needs to know their gifting, their role and their boundaries. When we began leading Quinns Baptist Church in 2009 it was with an understanding that I would work 2 days/week for the church and I would spend 3 days in our irrigation business. It meant that I couldn’t be at every event or attend to every need, but 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 blokes, and this was what I stuck to as my essentials. 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 stuff 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.

I sense more of us need to discern what is core to our role, what is good and what can be left alone. For example I was a regular non-attender at local pastor’s gatherings – not because I didn’t want to mix, but because in 2 days/week networking simply falls off the priority list. I never attended or took any interest in the ‘World Day of Prayer’, because it was just another thing to participate in. I did circulate the email around our leadership team and if I remember right someone picked it up and ran with it.

So 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 the one role, but I imagine many of our smaller communities would be better served by one or more 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 really don’t think you could easily make a biblical case for this being the preferred scenario. Feel free to prove me wrong…

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 skill, their identity is too deeply tied up in their role, or because he/she doesn’t feel they can split their time and energy.

The Future is Bivocational by Andrew Hamilton | Koorong

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.

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 churches as they are required to use muscles that may have atrophied over time and, dare I say it into pastors who have become so immersed in church world that they have lost connection with their community in significant and meaningful ways.

In my conversation this week, Neil asked what we do when a church grows and becomes larger and more complex – 200, 300, 500… Surely then?… My first response was to ask ‘why would we aspire to larger churches?’ Could it not be equally effective to have 5 communities of 100 or 10 communities of 50 who are networked in some way? Certainly there are things that can be done with 500 people that cannot be done as easily with 50 or 100, but simply creating more complicated environments adds a layer of complexity that is not necessarily required.

I sense we as pastors expect and pursue full time ministry because we have been conditioned to think in this way. Had we taken this route at Quinns then I would probably have had the full time role and the other 4 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. I sense 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.

Career Building vs Calling

In my discussion this week I was asked about how the bivo role affected people’s pursuits of a ‘pastoral career‘. I paused for a moment before replying as I simply don’t believe there is such a thing as a ‘career‘ in ministry. I know there is a vocation – a calling – but there is no career ladder to climb or pinnacle to aspire to. One day you could be leading a megachurch in a city and the next you could be deployed to a tiny town church or vice versa. Both are valuable ways to serve and you go where you are sent.

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?

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