As I walked towards the conference room a sense of dread overtook me. I didn't want to go to this breakout session. If it wasn't for my pastor asking me to go I wouldn't have gone near this meeting. I walked in and quickly found a seat. Arms crossed, trying to hide the anger and dread I felt inside, I waited for this thing to start.
"The future of church planting is bi-vocational ministers. We have as a goal to plant 15,000 churches by 2022. Even if each of those churches were able to get by with a $100,000 yearly budget that would be 1.5 Billion dollars. The math doesn't work."
Everything within me wanted to run from the room. What little patience I may have walked into the room with was quickly being exhausted.
"We need more men who are willing to be Iron men who work 40 hours a week to support their families, give spiritual leadership to their churches and remain engaged in the lives of their families."
While this talk may have only been an hour long it felt like hours. I left the room frustrated, angry, blood boiling, and ready to punch something.
As I walked through the maze of hallways back to my group for lunch I spoke to God through tears. I questioned, I vented, and I pleaded for peace and understanding. I reclaimed some sense of peace.
When I met back up with my group we each reported on what we heard in the breakout sessions we attended. Rehashing what I heard during my session quickly drained what little peace I had gained on the walk back.
So, you might be wondering, why the anger? Why are you so frustrated? If you aren't well versed in church culture you may even be asking questions like "what is church planting?", "why plant so many churches?", or "what is a bi-vocational pastor?"
Why you mad bro?
Up until June 2015, I had been a bi-vocational pastor for a decade and in that time I have observed and experienced two consistent themes when it comes to bi-vocational ministry.
First, those trying to persuade others to enter into this challenging work are not bi-vocational themselves. In fact, many of them have never been bi-vocational. While the pastor leading my breakout session was talking I did what I always do whenever I hear someone telling me how awesome and vital bi-vocational ministry is. I check their credentials.
He had never held a job outside of a church in his professional life. Graduated from a christian college went to seminary and then became a full time pastor. Now, here he stood trying to convince a generation of pastors to do something he has never done himself. This is a constant theme with people encouraging bi-vocational ministry.
The problem with this comes down to understanding and support. How can you encourage something that you don't understand, that you haven't engaged in yourself? How will you support those you encouraged to enter into bi-vocational ministry when it gets hard? What I have found is that there isn't much understanding of the sacrifice and difficulty involved with being a bi-vocational pastor.
Which leads to the second theme I've observed and experienced in bi-vocational ministry, a concerning lack of support. When I say support, I mean spiritual, relational, financial, and professional. The support system for bi-vocational pastors is completely broken and it leaves behind a trail of broken pastors with it, including me.
The prevailing feeling that I had during my time as a bi-vocational minister was this: I'm broken and alone.
Often in articles, talks, and blog posts I hear a common refrain, bi-vocational ministers shouldn't be treated as second class citizens of the church. Yet that is exactly how I've felt at every stop.
The one voice that we actually need to hear from in all this is the veteran bi-vocational pastor. Where is the pastor, who has worked bi-vocationally, REAL bi-vocational (not this "sort of bi-vocational" where I work 20-40 hours for a company related to my church or a christian publishing company or a job where I perform speeches at churches or whatever), for 30 years, has a family, has led faithfully, has a good marriage, finances in order, kids who have a good relationship with their Dad, kids who still love God and the church, good personal health habits, healthy relationships ...look, I'm gonna stop there. This person doesn't exist.
An Iron Man and a Time Lord walk into a bar...
The North American Mission Board (NAMB) calls bi-vocational ministers Iron men. It is an attempt to make you feel better about all the work you are putting in. However, anyone can give a compliment since words are easy to give away. It is easy to say that your work has value, and more importantly, that you and your family have value. It is easy to say that we support you. But it is a whole different thing to back those words up with actions.
Does this strike you as a page for something vital? Check out the links at the bottom of the page, the first 2 link to pages no longer active. There is an audio file for a talk about how bi-vocational pastors are the future of church planting given by a guy who has never been bi-vocational.
And then you have the ONLY piece of real support aimed towards bi-vocational pastors. NAMB, in an attempt to support their Iron men who are working a full time job to provide for their families while also serving and leading a church, offers online classes at a seminary.
On the face of it, that seems like an awesome thing. Free education. But do you know what classes take, time. TIME. The one thing we DON'T have. And not just time, mental capacity. A person can only take on so much in their mind before becoming overwhelmed. Not only that, but there was limited access to the program. It was first come first serve and available to only a few select people. Not much of a reward, if you were lucky enough to make the list, since your reward was more responsibility.
This type of thing shows the tone deafness associated with the church and bi-vocational ministers.
Yet, YET, there is a great call being put out for people to enter into this challenging position. We have no idea how to support you well, but come on in anyway.
You'd have to be some sort of Time Lord with your very own Tardis to be able to do it all.
The refrain that the money math doesn't work when it comes to planting so many churches may be true, but the time math doesn't work either. Since other bi-vocational pastors and I aren't Time Lords (at least not to my knowledge) it means that when time gets short something gets sacrificed.
So you shortcut something. Your personal health. Your job. Your church. Your spiritual health. Your FAMILY. Relationships. You just can't be on all the time and if you try you'll burn out.
My experience as a bi-vocational pastor was not a good one. You know what I experienced? Unrealistic expectations. Burnout. Spiritual fatigue. Weight gain. Unhealthiness. Loss of job. Technical skill atrophy. Switching back and forth between short-cutting my job as an engineer and my job as a pastor. Financial despair. Neglect. Being misunderstood by my very own pastor(s) and congregation. Loneliness. Being left behind in shambles to pick myself up off the ground. Want to sign up?
I'm still a part of the church where I've experienced some of what I mentioned in this post. I have friends who think that is ridiculous. I've had many encourage me to leave. At times, I too have wanted to leave. In some ways I believe it would be easier if I left.
But in the end I'd be following a lie. It is a lie to believe that my family could move on to another church where there aren't any problems or where we won't get hurt. That church doesn't exist.
If it is true that being a part of a church is to put yourself in a position where you know you will be hurt then why stay at all? Why even stick with all these church folk?
It's a complicated thing when you have a relationship with people who can breathe life giving words from God while also able to speak equally or more destructive words from the same mouth. And we are all those people, we all have vicious life giving tongues. An ability to speak grace, truth, love, encouragement and forgiveness. We also have the ability to tear down, destroy, gossip, slander, lie, and spread hate.
How then can we have a God honoring community with such people? With such hypocrites? Liars, slanderers, selfish, and all the rest. How can God use such people?
God has chosen to use broken people to continue in His work of restoration. And it doesn't make any logical sense. Would you restore a broken home using a shattered window?
God does, but the beautiful thing is this, he is restoring the window while using it to restore the building.