Friday, May 15, 2015

Think Broadly About Bi-Vocational

Busking in the church

It feels like this year the slow-burn of concern about the future of the institutional church has reached a new level of acceptance.  I find this interesting.  There is still a great deal of talk about revitalization and church growth and there should be.  At the same time, we are also recognizing that the world is changing and--for most congregations--what is coming will be very different than what has been.  Some churches will "die" and must choose whether to do so gracefully and authentically or whether to dissolve into a big hot mess.  Other congregations will change into something that none of us can quite anticipate or predict.

General Synod of just one of the "teams" I play for. (UCC)
Honestly, I am not worried long-term for the future of our deeply held faith traditions.  They will survive and flourish in whatever is to come.  Our institutions (things like denominations, traditional town-square church buildings, and full-time traditional ministries) will probably change quite a bit or cease to be relevant.  Is this a bad thing?  Not necessarily.  My faith is not a building.  Nor is it a job.  Nor is it centered on a particular "team" of buildings and jobs.  Like most people, my spiritual life is growing and shifting along its own lines.  Our faith is transcending old forms of identity (like denominations) and moving out into...something...

That said, I do have a very specific investment in the old institutions.  I am a full-time pastor and I love both my congregation and my job.  I like what I do.  The problem is that it isn't all that clear what the future will bring.  What if at some point I can no longer be full-time? Church budgets are pressed everywhere.  More immediately, what about the younger, newer ministers entering the profession now?  A few will truck right along, I know.  Others will discover that the "career track" in the ministry is in the process of exploding.

All of this means that you and I--ministers, congregations, seminaries, individual lay-people--need to start thinking creatively about bi-vocational ministry.  At the seminary level, it might make sense to partner with a community college or trade school.  At the congregational level, it might make sense to adjust to the fact that your pastor may not be a "suit" for much longer.  For individuals (ministers and seminarians) it would be a good idea to get down learning different skill sets.  People should take this up this early on before they get old like me.

So...we need to think broadly about what those skill sets might be.  Right now most seminaries can train you up to simultaneously be a minister in another kind of non-profit.  These dual-degree programs work best when someone is in fact called to both disciplines.  Also they reflect a bias toward the old-school "professions" that isn't helpful.  The problem for many of us is that we aren't interested in other traditional professions. I looked at similar fields and chose the ministry because it fit my skill set and enabled me to do the things I like more than the things I didn't.  So why would I want my other job to be something that is kinda like the ministry but not as fulfilling (for me)?

What should happen instead is that we seek out this new vocation the way we sought out the old one.  What are we called to do?  Where can we continue to give to world while our spirit simultaneously gets filled?  If my church said they didn't need me full time, I would probably attempt being a busker/brewmaster/ukulele-maker/baker.  Then I would narrow it down.  None of these are taught in seminary. All of them take time to perfect.  All of them cost money to get started and a while to build up a customer base (yes, even buskers).  But I would love the work just like I love the ministry.

Anyway, those are my thoughts for the day.  The fact is, pretty much any minister born today will have to be part time at some point and probably for an extended time.  If we think of the ways this is a good thing then perhaps we will have more creative and energized ministries in the future.

Here are some links.

This one is to a recent Peacebang essay about some of the stresses on our congregation.

Here is a link to the book we are reading for our Parish committee retreat which discusses asking the right questions as we enter the unknown.

1 comment:

  1. When I was a young ministry student in an evangelical tradition, I decided to be bi-vocational. Specifically, I intended to go to Brazil doing mission work, and I would be partially supported by churches in the US, with the remainder being made up from earnings teaching English as a foreign language. Unfortunately, I received no guidance in preparing for this future, and I had a few detractors. One person told me flatly 'that will never work.'

    It didn't work, but not because it was a bad idea. The difficulty was that in Brazil, people want to study English either early in the morning or after work in the evening. This left the middle part of my day 'free' for family and church work, yet since the church gatherings during the week were all in the evening (of course) this mean that I only saw groups of people from the church on the weekends. Also, it was exhausting.

    I left full-time ministry years ago, and am currently a project manager working in tech. I'm now an organizer with Sunday Assembly NYC and intend to become a Humanist Celebrant later this year. In the future I see myself pursuing UUA ministry, though I suspect my ministry will be non-traditional and largely focused outside the local parish, at least until 'retirement age.'

    In short, I'm willing to give bivocational ministry a try. Anyone who is going to do it, though, needs to think it through long and hard beforehand. It isn't for everyone.