In the final scene of the film Risen, after Jesus ascends into heaven, the disciples go out to spread the gospel with new purpose in their lives. As they’re departing, Peter asks Clavius, the Roman military tribune, “Will you join us in Jerusalem? This Spirit we are promised, we are called to receive it!” Confused by this declaration of a new vocation, Clavius asks, “But you are called to be a fisherman.” Peter replies, “Aye, for men! How can I now do anything else?”
Peter’s single-minded focus seems consistent with Jesus’s words about what it means to follow him. In Mark 12, Jesus gives the rich young ruler, a man divided between his faith and his wealth, a new commandment—one requiring all his life to be subject to Jesus. The message is clear: The lordship of Christ demands a life of devotion, and all competing good things must fall in line behind him and his cause.
Paul teaches that the life of a minister should exemplify wholehearted devotion to God. To support this all-consuming vocation, the church should financially support his work: “The Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should make their living by the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14).
Paul, however, chose not to claim this right of support at times. Sometimes he received the support of churches (2 Cor. 11:7–9); other times he constructed tents to meet his financial needs. He was vocationally nimble, not wanting to burden local congregations who couldn’t bear the financial costs of his ministry. When there was money to support him, he received it. When there was not, he worked.
This kind of vocational nimbleness can be challenging for a minister. I’ve served as the lead pastor of my church for seven years, setting forth a city-focused gospel mission, mentoring men and other leaders, spending time with members in fellowship, investing myself in extensive biblical and theological reading, and serving on the boards of two gospel-focused organizations. During this time I’ve also worked full-time as a software executive—a position that requires not just my time but also my leadership focus and creative energy.
When fellow believers hear about my two roles, I am often commended and congratulated. Yet I usually don’t feel praiseworthy; I usually feel conflicted. I’ve worried that, when I stand before the Lord, instead of hearing, “Well done,” I’ll hear, “Why didn’t you trust me? What were you afraid of? Did your life as a pastor model wholehearted devotion to me?”
Theologically and practically, how should we view bi-vocational pastors? Should they be commended for their sacrifice and the special burden they carry? Or should they be challenged to surrender their lives fully to the calling God has placed on them?
As a bi-vocational pastor, I’ve thought deeply about this and would like to offer three considerations.
First, most bi-vocational pastors serve in churches that cannot afford to pay them a livable wage. Depending on your source, the median American church size is 75 to 90 people. Many of these congregations are vibrant, healthy, effective, and gospel-centered—yet they remain small. Their budgets are often tight, and they provide the level of support they can. Such churches and their pastors should be commended for serving God to the best of their ability while the pastors concurrently labor in full-time, non-pastoral employment.
Second, a bi-vocational pastor should examine his life and endeavor to be in full-time ministry if possible. He should assess his priorities and conform his material expectations to the Lord’s calling on his life to proclaim the gospel—all the while not neglecting his family. His wife and children shouldn’t have to embrace a vow of poverty, but his family should live simply and with little debt (2 Cor. 2:17; Heb. 13:5).
Third, churches led by bi-vocational pastors should examine their commitments and priorities. Many Christians don’t see the necessity of pastors working full-time in gospel ministry and don’t perceive the spiritual implications when a pastor’s attention is divided. When Paul discusses the call to proclaim Christ in Colossians 1:28, he is speaking about preparing God’s people for judgment before God himself. There is nothing of greater importance for the pastor. Even sheer spiritual self-interest should stir God’s people to do all they can to enable their pastor to devote himself fully to the work of caring for their souls. A congregation makes a meaningful and tangible impact when they sacrifice so that their pastor can minister on their behalf and labor to expand the kingdom of God.
The full-time pastor, of course, shouldn’t squander the sacrifices God’s people have made to enable him to devote himself fully to ministry. How severe the judgment must be for those pastors who take this liberty, made possible by the sacrificial commitment of believers, and then waste it through laziness, irresponsibility, or sin.
Variations of Grace
Bi-vocational pastors seeking to be devoted full-time to their churches can pray vigorously for the Lord to change their circumstances through church growth, an increased commitment from their members, or a stronger contentment resting on fewer things. Such pastors recognize they cannot give themselves fully to the ministry of the Word and prayer when most of their days are given to work outside of the church.
Nevertheless, bi-vocational pastors can give themselves meaningfully to kingdom work—even as they accept that God may continue to exhibit his sovereign power in less than ideal circumstances. Bi-vocational pastors are not spiritual failures who have faulty faith; they are variations of God’s multifaceted grace. On that great day when they stand before God, they will be grateful for every inconvenience they embraced for the glory of the Savior and the joy of the flock.
In the meantime, may bi-vocational pastors guard their hearts and minds vigorously as they give themselves to the work given to them, knowing the One they serve is faithful and will not forget their labors (1 Cor. 15:58).