Bivocational?

I’ve been reading a book called “Marathon: A Manual for Bivocational Ministry” by Doug Black Jr, which has raised some interesting ideas, and is making me revisit some of my assumptions around ministry.

The thrust of his book is that Self Supporting Ministry (which he calls Bivocational) is better than ’employed’ ministry in his case. Or to put it another way, that he has become a more effective minister/pastor since he stopped doing it as his employment and started doing it unpaid while in full-time (secular) employment.

This is quite a radical notion. (At least to me).

It seems to me that the often unspoken assumption is that ‘full-time’ ministry is the ideal or gold-standard. In my case, my presumption is that if I were stipendiary then I would be more effective in ministry than I am on my one day a week. Of course the key phrase here is “one day a week”, as this immediately limits ‘ministry’ to when I am in the parish. That aside, it otherwise seems self-evident – surely doing 6 days a week must be more effective than doing 1 day a week? But I think it is this that Black is pushing against; he argues that I might actually more effective in ministry (even if you limit it to just parish ministry) on only one day a week than I would be if I were full-time!!

I wouldn’t be comfortable going that far myself – but it has given me some serious food for thought. The notion that I might be as effective in the parish as I would be if stipendiary hadn’t even crossed my mind, if I’m honest.

Now, we need to tread carefully with words like ‘effective’ and ‘better’ in the context of ministry, not to mention the word ‘ministry’ itself. And there is also a translation piece to be done; as Black is writing in a North American context, which has many differences from the parochial context of the Church of England. However, there is common ground, and some of the principles and arguments have something to say to us on this side of the pond! I’m not saying I agree with everything he says; but it has made me stop and think, which is almost always a good thing.

Accepting the likelihood that I am misrepresenting his arguments, this is my understanding of what Black says in his book, which I’m putting in terms of time, money, and ministry. There is of course overlap between these categories.

Time

As an employed SSM you don’t have as much time available in the parish, that much is indubitable. However, there are some significant benefits this limitation brings:

  1. It is well established that work expands to fill the time available. If you have all day (or all week) to do a certain task, it may end up taking all week. If you only have 2 hours, that’s how long it will take!
  2. You can’t do everything – hence you have no choice but to identify and focus on the core, and furthermore:
    1. You have to delegate to and empower others.
    2. You have to disciple others.
    3. You have limited opportunity to view yourself as indispensable.

It is only fair to highlight some of the drawbacks – relationships (and pastoral care) take time, and this is something I feel keenly when it comes to visiting and funerals. I simply don’t have the flexibility or availability to go and visit someone at the drop of a hat. I suppose Black’s argument is that I would therefore have to empower, equip, and release a pastoral team to do this, but I am not convinced.

Either way, the fact does remain that procrastination and “wasting” time is in the human condition – and it is much harder to resist this when your working pattern is unstructured with little accountability or visibility, as is the case for most stipendiary clergy.

Money

The money thing is interesting, and doesn’t directly translate from the American model of ministry. Never-the-less, Black makes some interesting observations:

  1. If the ministers/staff are unpaid, it means the church has more money for mission (by which he really means helping the poor, it seems to me).
  2. Being paid is a right of a worker, therefore to not be paid is a spiritual act of service.
  3. Not being paid helps with the sense of “being” rather than “doing” – it’s hard not to feel you should be “doing” if you’re being paid.

The comparison breaks down a little, in that in Black’s context him taking a secular job was a cut in pay and security – whereas the opposite is likely true in the Church of England. Certainly it’s not normal for C of E vicars to fly around in private jets! So to cast not being paid for ministry as a spiritual service doesn’t ring entirely true.

But it is interesting to reflect upon the double impact of not being stipendiary on the church’s budget – not only am I not drawing a salary/stipend, but my regular giving is almost certainly greater than it would otherwise be.

Ministry

This is perhaps the more interesting consideration. I touched on this already above under “time” with the observation around empowering and discipling. This is foundational to Christianity and Christian ministry – we are called to make disciples. If the option to “just do it all myself” is removed, it sharpens the thinking somewhat!

However, there are further benefits, some of which you may find as surprising as I did:

  1. You spend your days actually on the mission field.
    So on my ‘parish’ day it is not unusual for me to have no contact with any non-Christians. The other 4 days of my working week, my contact is almost exclusively with non-Christians.
  2. You are modelling mission and discipleship in your life and work.
  3. You are also modelling it from a more comparable starting point to those in the congregation.
  4. It helps to challenge the secular/sacred duality.
  5. It gets you out of church, both physically and in terms of world-view.
  6. It helps bring the world-view into the church / church leadership.
  7. It takes “the church” out into the world/workplace.
  8. It is a better modelling of the priesthood of all believers.
  9. You understand first-hand the pressures the congregation are facing.

I was particularly struck my whole sacred/secular divide thing, and I haven’t completely grasped Black’s argument here. I think it’s around challenging the notion that you are either “a minister” OR “a worker”. That those “in ministry” work for the church and exist in sacred space, while everyone else has to get by in the secular space, and never the twain shall meet. To be both a minister and in secular employment explodes this fallacy.

There is also a bit of an assumption that the members of the congregation are themselves employed – but you can perhaps start to see how the benefits from a ministry perspective start to weigh up against the limitations of time and availability…

There is also something extremely powerful in the message that ‘ministry’ is something we do full-time, and the business of the church and the parish is something we do alongside it, to enable the ministry. It is an antidote to the ever present danger that ministry is something which is ‘done’ to the congregation by the clergy.

Finally, I love the prophetic/liminal edge here, in terms of both the secular workplace and the church. I have a real sense that just being an SSM unsettles and challenges both worlds (in a good way).

 

So, in conclusion, I am not disputing Black’s personal experience of being ‘better’ for going bivocational. But neither do I think it’s a blanket principle. So much of it hangs on what is meant by ‘ministry’ and ‘parish ministry’. Or more specifically which aspects of ministry you are talking about. I am very obviously nowhere near as present or available as the traditional parish priest, and this severely inhibits pastoral and occasional ministry. Likewise I am simply not ‘around’ for discussions, meeting, strategy, leadership. And lest we forgot, I have no  first hand experience of stipendiary parish ministry to compare with.

However, if  you are talking about the aspects of ‘ministry’ such as being Jesus to the world, and making disciples, the picture changes somewhat. I’m not for a moment doing parish or stipendiary ministry down. And I certainly not claiming that I somehow do as much on 1 or 2 days a week as stipendiary clergy do in 6. But I am perhaps starting to appreciate a bit more the contribution I can make as an SSM to the parish context, and how I think I may have been undervaluing it.

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