By Brad Brisco
Over the past several years there has been an increasing interest in church planting. As a result of declining attendance and the closing of many existing churches, every major denomination is focusing more resources toward starting new congregations. In recent years, we have also seen the creation church planting networks that emphasize church planting across denominational lines.
In the midst of this proliferation of church planting, one of the most significant trends is the starting of new churches by bivocational leaders. Historically the phrase “bivocational pastor” was used to refer to a leader who served a church that was unable to compensate a pastor with a full-time salary. Therefore, the pastor would work a second, or third job, to supplement what the church could provide. In many cases, it was out of necessity not preference. However, today there is a new movement among bivocational leaders. More church planters who are choosing to plant bivocationally. They are making this decision out of conviction that bivocational church planting actually provides a more desirable way to plant a new church, rather than on the basis of limited funds. In other words, it is becoming a first option, not a last resort.
While there is no need for bivocational church planting to compete with the more traditional approach—it is clearly a both/and proposition—there are some significant benefits to planting bivocationally, especially in a post-Christendom context. Lets consider three.
1. Missional engagement
Perhaps the most significant benefit of planting as a bivocational leader is that it gives the planter greater opportunities to connect relationally with people in the community. Their jobs give them access into a mission field that is not readily available to a full-time pastor. Many traditional pastors find themselves working inside a church bubble, spending the majority of their time talking with church people about things of the church.
Even when a full-time pastor makes the effort to engage people in their community they often find it challenging to fully relate. It is not until a person actually incarnates into the local context that they begin to understand the values and interests of the people. It is difficult to really love and serve the people God has sent us to from a distance. We might call this approach “marketplace planting” because the majority of relationships that are developed are the result of the planter’s vocational connections. Their marketplace job isn’t a hindrance to what God is doing; it’s actually an advantage to engaging God’s mission.
Bivocational planting also helps to diminish the sacred-secular divide when it comes to vocation. The congregation has the opportunity to see the church planter model the fact that all vocations are sacred. Regardless of what God has called them to do, if it paid or volunteer, or if it is inside the home or outside the home, it is a sacred calling. As a result, the benefits of being in the marketplace are multiplied exponentially as ever member recognizes how their vocation fits into the mission of God.
Additionally, working a job in the community builds credibility with both those inside and outside the church. In a post-Christian context, where people are skeptical of the church, it is important for non-Christians to see that church leaders have jobs like everyone else. In a time when Christianity doesn’t have the best reputation, it can provide significant “street-cred” with those outside the church.
It is important to understand this new breed of “bivo” planting is missiologically driven. Planting the church begins by engaging in missionary behaviors in the local context, rather than focusing on the creation of a Sunday morning worship service. The planter allows their missiology to inform their ecclesiology. By thinking and living like a missionary in a local context, new communities of faith are birthed out of missional engagement.
2. Financial Stability
A second major benefit of bivocational church planting relates to the financial stability it provides in at least three different areas.
The church planter.
When the primary financial support comes from a marketplace source rather than the church plant, there is usually less financial strain on a family. This is especially true when the planter is employed full-time in a vocation that provides benefits like insurance, vacation and retirement.
The new church.
A church led by bivocational leaders usually finds its financial base is much stronger. Without the need to provide full-time salaries and benefits the church can put more of its financial resources into mission and ministry.
The church planting entity.
Many denominations have made the commitment to plant hundreds, if not thousands of churches over the next several years. However, there simply aren’t enough finances to plant the needed churches with the current funding model. Bivocational planting provides the opportunity for funding entities to embrace more sustainable church planting practices. This is especially necessary for planters who are engaging socioeconomic diverse contexts that are made up of the very poor or immigrant populations.
Many traditional church plants start with a large annual budget supported by multiple funding streams, including partnering churches and denominational entities. Because most funding models are structured over a three to five year period, it puts pressure on a church planter to grow the church quickly so it can become self-sustaining before funding runs out. The unfortunate reality is that a planter is often forced to attract financial givers rather than engaging the brokenness in their community. Bivocational church planting, on the other hand, provides a more viable financial model that allows the planter to focus primarily on mission.
3. Shared Leadership
Bivocational church planting creates opportunities for leaders in the congregation to use their God-given talents to create a culture of participation rather than one of spectatorship. More church members, out of necessity, become involved in the mission of the church. Bivocational leadership helps to diminish the laity-clergy divide. If pastoral leadership is reserved only for the “professionals” then many gifted leaders will miss opportunities to pursue what God has called them to.
It is important to understand that bivocational church planting is not simply about having two or more jobs; it is really about aligning one life. It’s about blending our calling to support our families and ourselves, with our calling to live a life engaged in God’s mission. We are called to be a missionary people sent into the world to participate in God’s redemptive purposes. One vital and urgent means to accomplish that task is to plant new communities as bivocational, kingdom leaders.
Brad is currently the Church Planting Catalyst with the North American Mission Board in Kansas City. He holds a doctorate in the area of missional ecclesiology; his doctoral thesis was on assisting existing congregations in transitioning in a missional direction. Brad is co-author of Missional Essentials, a twelve-week small group study guide and The Missional Quest.
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