Why I Keep Saying “Thank You But No Thank You” to Full-Time Church Ministry

no thank youFor the past 8 years, I have served in cross-vocational ministry.  I have willingly, intentionally, and consistently turned down several gracious invitations to return to “full-time” church-based ministry.  “Why did you say no?” you might ask.  Please let me explain.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with full-time, church-based ministry.  It is a high calling and something I believe firmly in.  As a ministry professor, I am thrilled when I hear that my students have accepted their first FT position on a church staff or in a para-church organization.  I remember well my first FT ministry position and how it changed my life forever.

However, I am seeing some trends in the larger landscape of ministry today that compel me to stay in a cross-vocational role with no plans of making a change in the future.

What are some of those larger landscape trends?

1. Issues with insurance.  While none of us enter into ministry to make the big bucks, the reality that self-employed insurance premiums can  drain our monthly budgets very, very fast.  Even with new government-subsidized insurance plans available, the cost is still significant to a ministry family.

If there are on-going medical needs, monthly prescriptions, or the desire to have a large family full of little ones running around, you could see a fourth of your monthly take-home pay devoted to medical expenses.

Churches are doing their best in trying to help their ministerial staff, but in all honesty, they are only able to provide a small portion of what is actually needed.  Going cross-vocational can assure that a second employer is there to help with medical expenses and possibly even provide medical insurance as a benefit over and above the salary.

2. Access to influence.  Everyone knows that the community influence once held by pastors and ministers is waning in the US.  The church is being pushed further and further to the periphery of society, being displaced from the central position it once held.  A voice once sought after in community affairs is slowing being silenced from the public dialogue.

Yet, by remaining cross-vocational, you’re influence in not tied to your church position. It’s tied to the relationships and networks you’ve built within your community. Because you work in this industry or are a member of that professional group, your voice within community is held much stronger.

3.  Invitation to conversation.   There are two types of people never invited to the party: the pastor and the police.  Yet, Jesus was constantly being invited to gatherings of all sorts.  He was invited because people wanted to hear what he had to say.

When you’re only answer to the most avoided question – “What do you do for a living?” – is pastor or minister, you know the conversation will quickly end as walls go up and stereotypes flood in.  But if your honest answer is teacher, nurse, sales, event planner, web designer, then you have a chance for the conversation to move forward. You will be given the opportunity to build a relationship and engage in a conversation which eventually could lead to the topic of faith.  When your lead is “preacher,” the conversation is pretty much over.

4.  Financial freedom from the finance committee.  Lastly, I continue to say no to opportunities to return to FT ministry because, frankly, I don’t trust a committee or volunteer group to hold my financial future in the palm of their hands.

I am not opposed to churches utilizing finance or stewardship teams in making decisions on salaries and compensation.  I actually applaud congregational leadership and place value in seeking and hearing from wise counsel in decision making.

Yet, I don’t want an argument or disagreement I’ve had with one member of a single committee to become a foothold in my heart, creating fear and anxiety about my next paycheck or raise.   Nothing makes my blood boil more than a volunteer committee using the pastor or church leader’s salary as leverage to get what they want.

“If you don’t bend to my way, you will never see an increase as long as I am on that committee.”   This mentality is the exception to the rule, I assure you, but I have seen it with my own eyes and know it happens all the time.

The FT minister can be stuck between leading with courage and boldness and facing fear about feeding their family all because of a disagreement with someone on a volunteer committee.  When you have an income coming from somewhere other than the church, you can lead far more courageously.

For these reasons, and others, I am happy to say “no thank you” to the gracious invitations to return to FT church-based ministry.

Personally, I see the cross-vocational calling aligning well with the words of the Apostle Paul,

For you remember, brothers and sisters, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. (1 Thessalonians 2:9)

 

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Cross-Vocational Thinking in a Full-Time Ministry World

full timeIt seemed the goal of every seminarian I studied with was to be called as a full-time pastor, minister, missionary, non-profit leader, etc.  Rarely did I meet anyone whose desire was to be cross-vocational.

The singular aspiration was to find full-time support with full-time benefits, combing with a full-time salary, resulting in full-time demands in their ministry calling. The idea of going cross-vocational (my terminology for bi-vocational) was the furthest thing from their mind.

And to be honest, as a 20-something seminarian, I had the same mindset. While I served cross-vocationally my entire seminary life (i.e., working at a publishing company, a community center, a toy store, parking cars at a country club, substitute teaching while serving as a part-time youth minister), I dreamed of one day being on full-time staff.

I desperately wanted to be called to one place serving them full-time so I could be single-minded in my vocation and not so tired from running all over the place trying to make ends meet.

So when seminary graduation came, my hopes for full-time ministry were finally fulfilled.  I was called to serve a church as a full-time associate pastor.  That is what I did for the next 5 years.  I served full-time, 40, 50, 60 hours per week, week in and week out.  I thought I had finally made it to the big time.

But quickly I started noticing something I had not anticipated.  I started noticing that I was constantly surrounded with Christian people.  All my friends were Christians.  All the people I interacted with on a weekly basis were Christians.  Most of the time the only people I saw were church members and their families.

The demands of full-time ministry pushed me further and further into an entirely Christian sub-culture.  I rarely heard cuss words anymore.  I rarely saw people get drunk and stumble out to their car.  I rarely heard any of the office gossip I remembered from the publishing company, because my office was now a church office.

My full-time ministry was pulling me further into a vacuum-like tunnel where all I did was serve Christian people, teach Christian people, counsel Christian people and walk alongside Christian people.  Encountering someone without a relationship with Jesus Christ was rare.

This is the danger of full-time ministry, particularly in a local church.  On the mission field and in the non-profit world, there are plenty of interactions with unbelievers, but church-based pastoral ministry can be very insulated from the real depth of spiritual lostness.

That is why I have loved (and thrived) in cross-vocational ministry on the Christian college campus.  My university admits all sorts of people, believers and unbelievers, domestic and internationals.  While I am still somewhat in a Christian bubble, I do interact with all sorts of people who know very little about Jesus or even nothing at all.  They are students in my classes, athletes on scholarship, internationals studying abroad, and non-traditional students giving college a second chance.

I still serve the local church and love preaching and teaching God’s Word to God’s people, but being connected with unbelievers reminds me that Jesus came into the world to save sinners like me.  He came and died and commissioned us to live sent, live missionally, live in a world that desperately needs to know Him.

Cross-vocational ministry has provided a much easier path to missional living than full-time church ministry ever could have.  I pray that more and more pastors, ministers, and seminarians will consider giving their lives to cross-vocational ministry as a life calling.  Full-time is nice, cross-vo (in my humble opinion) is better.

Go Cross-Vo Not Bi-Vo

I have been involved in bi-vocational ministry for the past 6 years.  This simply means I work a normal, full-time job (for me on the faculty of a Christian university) and serve part-time in local churches.  I have loved every minute in this dual ministry role.

What I do not love is the terminology: bi-vo.  Bi-vo, short for bi-vocational, has a negative connotation to it.  To most people in the pews it means that their pastor or church staff member is split in two.  That your heart is divided.  That you have to focused on one job to the detriment of the other.  As if you are in a tug-of-war between two jobs – one will win, the other will lose.

tug-o-war1

In bi-vo ministry, someone wins, someone will lose.

While more and more churches are considering going bi-vo because of financial constraints and/or declining attendance, they feel having a bi-vo pastor or bi-vo worship leader is a sign of defeat and impending death.  In all actuality, bi-vo can be a huge boost in lay-ministry involvement, community engagement and potential outreach.

Therefore, I think we need to change the language.  I think we need to reframe the vision and conversation surrounding bi-vocational ministry.

From this point forward, I will use the phrase “cross-vocational” instead of bi-vo.

  • Cross-vocational means you are living equally in two worlds: the marketplace and the ministry location.
  • Cross-vocational means you have on-going relationships with two groups simultaneously – your brothers and sisters in Christ and those you serve in the workplace.
  • Cross-vocational means you are fluid, entrepreneurial, creative, willing to be flexible, able to lead and succeed in both contexts.

Cross-vocational ministry has been the calling card of our missionaries and church planters for centuries.  They all have had to work both sides of the ministry field, in the world and out of the world, serving those who have yet to hear and to those who are fully committed to Christ.  I believe the cross-vocational spirit will come to more and more pastors and church leaders in the days ahead.

I believe a cross-vocational shift is coming in America for three primary reasons.

1.  Significant differences between the Builders & Boomers and the X’ers and Millennials in giving and stewardship patterns will result in precipitous declines in church budgets.  There will simply not be enough resources to fully-fund church staff, especially in light of health care cost.  (See my recent post on the ending of full-time paid youth ministry.)

2.  As evangelism and baptisms decrease, pastors and church leaders will demand freedom to engage unreached people within their communities.  This access will only come from unhinging themselves from a pervasive Christian sub-culture inside the church and interacting with more non-believers out in the real world.

3.  As churches streamlining and simplifying their ministry efforts and programming (aka the winnowing effect), they will have to say “no” to the secondary, more peripheral ministries in lieu of keeping the essential ministries.  The end result will be less day-to-day work to do.  This means less needed, fully-funded paid staff.

I do not see any way around this ministry shift.

I do see a large number of churches really struggling with this new reality.  But if they want to be proactive, they might consider going cross-vo now when its their choice instead of going cross-vo later when they have no choice.

(To be continued. More on cross-vocational ministry in the days to come.)