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Confessions of a bi-vocational Baptist preacher.

How does a Baptist preacher manage to work a full-time job and pastor a church at the same time? The answer--it is extremely difficult!

In spite of the difficulty, bi-vocational pastors have comprised the majority of pastors serving Baptist churches. Biblically, the precursor was Paul, the apostle, who was a "tentmaker-preacher." Historically, the forerunner of the modern bi-vocational pastor was the "farmer-preacher," who farmed to provide for his family's needs but preached on Sunday to fulfill his calling before God. Among the Georgia delegates to the first meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 were thirty-nine farmer/preacher pastors and only twenty-two full-time pastors. (1) Surprisingly, many Baptist preachers today are still bi-vocational, although their secular jobs now vary greatly from farming. (2) I have known other bi-vocational ministers, including a shift manager in a textile place, a retired military officer, a hospice chaplain, a college profession, a college administrator, a professional counselor, and a high school teacher. All of them will admit they make the time to pastor their church because of their sense of calling to preach the gospel.

Even though being a bi-vocational pastor can be a challenge, it also can be highly rewarding. I have been both a preacher and a full-time employee outside the church for several years, and I have gained some "pearls of great price" by being bi-vocational in a smaller Baptist church.

First, smaller churches practice discipleship not by programs but through relationships. Bi-vocational ministry allows for the building of relationships that are often deeper than those found in a large church setting. Healthy relationships are essential to the smaller church, and our church members model what it means to become a follower of Christ.

Much has been made of the idea of "seekers-oriented services," services that allow people to feel anonymous inside the large crowd. Several years ago I attended a week-long seminar at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, Illinois. Willow Creek is a very large church, but the method the leaders of that church use to keep large crowds connected to the community of faith is to "re-create" the small church. They work hard to connect new members or seekers to a small group. Essentially, Willow Creek leaders are seeking to establish what is already present in my small church.

A second "pearl" that I have gained in my work as a bi-vocational pastor is that my small church has offered me great support and compassion. My children have grown up in this smaller, bi-vocational church. Their best friends are active in the activities of this church. My wife and I feel that our very best friends are the people we worship with. We are often invited to family gatherings and treated as if we were truly members of those families.

Our church is not segmented by age groups as sometimes happens in larger churches. Our senior adults know the young people and the children even though they are not biologically related, and our youth and children know the senior adults. Our church family has truly become an "extended" family. In my experience, a deep level of support and compassion is pervasive in the smaller church.

A third "pearl" that I have gained is a sense of freedom in the pulpit. Because I have "another" job, I do not feel restrained by unrealistic congregational expectations. I believe we are living in a Baptist epidemic for preachers. Preachers are being fired or forcibly removed by their churches at an unheard-of rate. Many of these preachers have no skills outside of ministry. To compound the pain, if the pastor's family lives in the pastorium, they are often left with no place to live. I believe the fear of being fired often cripples a preacher's courage and hamstrings his or her convictions. Sermons become benign packages of the collective congregational convictions or prejudices. This reality does not constitute anything wrong for the preacher. But it can take away his or her role as prophet, as an advocate for the poor, or as a "troubler of Israel." Preachers should be free to preach the gospel without fear of detrimental repercussions.

I have discovered a fourth "pearl" in my work with Baptist deacons. Teamwork or partnership in ministry best describes my experience with deacons and lay leaders. As one who works a full-time job outside church work, I have learned just how hard it is for the laity to be involved in numerous church events. They honor and respect our work together. We all contribute our gifts and talents to make our ministry vital and healthy. An active deacons ministry is invaluable and necessary for bi-vocational preachers.

With all the restraints of limited time and resources, I have discovered several helpful resources. In terms of preaching itself, I joined a "support group." Eleven years ago, I joined the Knights of the Koheleth. No, this was not a secret society, nor was it a therapy group. The Knights of Koheleth was a group of preachers who sought to improve in their role as proclaimers of the gospel. Taking the name Koheleth, which is Hebrew for "Preacher," we met once a month for the sole purpose of discussing the art of preaching.

We tried not to let this become a "group therapy" session, in which we dealt with all the our "ministry hang-ups." Instead, we deliberately met with an assigned topic in hand. We read sermons, books about sermons, and articles on the work of the pastor. We listened to taped sermons. At each meeting, we put our energy into improving our preaching skills. We read Fred Craddock's writings. We read lectures on preaching. (Lyman Beecher series). We asked critical questions: "What makes a sermon good? Where does the passion come from in preaching?" We never argued theology. Our discussions were always focused on the art of writing and delivering the Word of God on Sundays.

In the early days, all the members of the group lived close to one another. Over the past few years, several members have moved, and we now are too far apart geographically to meet. But I still find myself living on the refreshing memories of those discussions. I learned more about preaching in the Koheleth sessions than I learned in seminary. Having a forum to discuss preaching, not just sermon ideas, has been critical for me as a bi-vocational preacher.

In addition to finding a support group, I have found that reading good books, especially books of sermons and books about sermons and the preaching task itself, is critical to my work as a preacher. I recently met with a new minister in my community. I asked him what good books he had read recently. I was shocked to hear him admit he had not read much in years. As a bi-vocational pastor, I believe that my reading of good books fills me with ideas toward a sermon. I am forced to make my reading time a priority because of time restraints. After the death of a minister friend of mine last year, his widow gave me a set of books by Frank W. Boreham. I must say I have never found a Baptist minister who has stimulated my imagination and creativity like Boreham has. I now have almost all of his works. Reading good books keeps me fresh, creative, and interesting.

Time management is a concern for any preacher. Bi-vocational preachers know much about the constraints of time. Being bi-vocational is not an easy calling. Balancing a full-time job, family, church, and a personal life is challenging task. After working all day, I sometimes make hospital visits late in the evening. I have found myself going to bed knowing there was more to do that day than I had time for.

Fortunately, new technologies have contributed to good time management. I use a cell-phone and a palm pilot to keep up with my pastoral care. Setting priority is critical. I always set my preaching and sermon preparation as top priorities each week. Because bi-vocational pastors have a second job, which may or may not be their primary job, they often face the dilemma of getting time off to go to conventions, associational meeting, and seminars. Sometimes they cannot attend these meetings because of their schedules. Deciding what meetings to attend for a bi-vocational preacher is a matter of stewardship of time.

"Acquire a parergon" has been good advice for me from William Barclay. A parergon is a second interest in life that gives you pleasure and makes your primary work more enjoyable. (3) Baptists have historically emphasized the idea of a calling for the preacher. Many Baptist preachers have found their calling in a smaller bi-vocational church. Some acquired a parergon to become a preacher. Others found their second interest in a career. Still, both situations should be seen as vital to Baptists. Bi-vocationalism does not mean second-rate. Any ministry, full-time or part-time, demands excellence. It is God's ministry.

(1.) Robert G. Gardner, A Decade of Debate and Division: Georgia Baptists and the Formation of the Southern Baptist Convention (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995), 29.

(2.) Today about half of all Southern Baptist churches have bi-vocational pastors. See Norm Miller, "Bivocational Pastors Need Support, Encouragement, Says Gilder, Baptist & Reflector, http://www.tnbaptist.org/BRARticle.asp?ID=788 (accessed on April, 12, 2005).

(3.) William Barclay, Daily Celebration (Waco, TX: Word Book Publisher, 1971), 18.

M. Greg Thompson is the pastor of Central Baptist Church in Gray, Georgia.
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Author:Thompson, M. Greg
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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