When the Pastor Is Your Plumber


Lovett H. Weems Jr. writes about the long and rich history of bivocational ministry in the Bible, throughout the generations of American history and around the world today. He says bivocational ministry is one lane in the pathway to the future that needs careful and sustained attention as more churches face declining memberships and other economic pressures.

Ronda Rich, a syndicated columnist about southern life, tells about driving some of the backwoods of her native north Georgia mountains with her husband, who grew up in California. Now, they had left the paved highway onto a graveled dirt road. “This is a little church that Daddy used to pastor,” she said, motioning ahead to a simple white clapboard structure on a picturesque hill. There was a sign that gave the name of the church, the pastor, and meeting times. Her husband read the pastor’s name aloud and asked, “Do you know him?” “Yeah,” Ronda replied. “He’s my plumber.” Her husband wasn’t sure if she was joking or not.

She was surprised that he was surprised. In those parts, bivocational pastors were common and had been for years. For their pastors, the denominations that flourished as the mountains were settled depended on relatively uneducated persons who had a call to ministry but little formal authorization beyond the congregation. Ronda’s father pastored churches while serving as a teacher, undertaker, farmer, and car salesman. She also reminded her husband that “my cabinet maker is a preacher, too.”

Through the years, many congregations and church leaders assumed that the goal for every church was to have a full-time pastor with a seminary degree. However, this model has never been the actual staffing pattern for many congregations. History, tradition, and financial realities have led many churches to meet their pastoral leadership needs in a variety of ways, including the deployment of part-time, bivocational, and shared pastors, along with lay leaders and volunteers.

A long and rich history

Bivocational ministry has a long history beginning with the “tentmaking” example of the apostle Paul, who supported himself by making tents while living and preaching in Corinth (Acts 18:3). Paul did not insist upon his model for all situations. There were times when he accepted gifts. However, his model often fit churches with few resources. Drawing from Paul’s example, versions of tentmaking ministry have continued across the centuries. It is not a new practice even if it seems so to some modern constituencies. For many traditions, bivocational ministry is the norm rather than the exception. Bivocational ministry has been a common form of pastoral ministry around the world throughout generations as well as today.

The tradition of the Black church provides perhaps the richest history in the practice of bivocational clergy. Bivocational ministry as well as unpaid volunteer ministry in the Black church provides generations of experience from which others can learn. Another example is the Church of the Brethren. For the first 200 years of Church of the Brethren history, paid ministry was against Brethren practice. The Church of the Nazarene also has a long history of bivocational pastors. In many Pentecostal traditions, bivocational clergy are common.

Multiple sources estimate that bivocational pastors are serving about 30 percent of churches. There is some debate about whether, in the current context, the numbers and proportions are remaining relatively stable or growing. Often differences in numbers and interpretation depend on how bivocational pastors are defined and counted. Personal and congregational circumstances vary so greatly that, while there are some similar and common dimensions of bivocational ministry, often neat categorization for reporting purposes is not easy.

Renewed interest today

There is renewed interest in bivocational ministry today. Several factors are now bringing bivocational ministry to the attention of new constituencies.

One major factor is the considerable increase in the number of very small churches with the consequent economic limitations these churches face in providing pastoral leadership. Fewer congregations now can financially support a full-time pastor. In the United Methodist Church, the number of churches with average attendance of 25 or fewer increased by 2,059, from 8,530 in 2000 to 10,589 in 2019. This increase in churches occurred as the overall number of churches in the denomination declined by 5,233. As in other denominations, many of these churches, of which there are more every year, are served by bivocational pastors.

Even churches with full-time clergy where participation levels have not declined significantly find themselves each year facing economic challenges. They faced declining income first from a recession and then a pandemic while, at the same time, costs are increasing beyond their income. Such increases are especially evident in the cost of personnel and particularly in the substantial increases in funds required to cover personnel benefits.

While declining constituencies and income, along with increasing costs, appear to be the dominant factors in more churches turning to part-time and bivocational pastors, there are missional goals for which many have found bivocational clergy appropriate. Church planting is one example. When limited funds are available to establish new congregations, especially among the poor, bivocational clergy can often get a new worshiping community off the ground. For many of these churches, the bivocational pastor model will continue after the early days. Many denominations that assume full-time clergy is normative are finding it difficult to go beyond their traditional constituencies to reach growing populations that are more diverse and less affluent than their typical members. Often such cross-cultural outreach requires partnerships with those available to serve as bivocational clergy or lay pastors.

Looking ahead

Bivocational ministry is one lane in the pathway to the future that needs careful and sustained attention. There is much history and experience from which to draw for it to be practiced in ways that sustain and enrich both congregations and pastors. Perhaps the first step is to develop new mental models of what faithful and fruitful pastoral ministry looks like today in ways that are far more expansive and inclusive than more limited images that shape current policies and practices.

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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.

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