What I Learned from Being a Bi-vocational Pastor

Sam Rainer

July 25, 2010

Today I attended the funeral of a 95 year-old man. He was a bi-vocational minister. He paid the bills by working as an electrician.  But his calling drove him to the tent revivals and churches.

Bi-vocational pastors serve outside the spotlight. In my denomination, however, approximately half of all pastors are bi-vocational. They are many, but they get only a fraction of attention given to pastors of larger churches. They receive little recognition, but they are the workhorses of churches that do much of the heavy lifting.

Though I now pastor full-time, I served for two years as a bi-vocational pastor of a tiny church in central Kentucky. We started with 6 people. It was my first pastorate, and I had no idea what I was doing. I drove 2 hours one-way to get there. My preaching was awful, and I had to lead music with a karaoke machine while my girlfriend (now wife) played an out-of-tune piano. The church was dying. The people were tired. The building was falling apart. And there was no air-conditioning.

I loved that church. Still do.

The people forgave my less-than-spectacular sermons. I encouraged them to reach outward. And, truly by the grace of God, the little church grew. Not to 500. Or 250. Or even 100. More like 40. But we knew God was working. It was great.

God revealed much to me while I was their pastor. I know I learned more from them than they got out of my sermons. I’ve still got a long way to go, but let me share with you a few things I figured out during my short time as a bi-vocational pastor.

Ministry is not about ideals. I had several ideals, a big vision, and grand hopes for the little church. My plans were not wrong. But the people had heard it all before from other short-term pastors. I learned that before a church family follows the grand vision of a new pastor, you must first love them where they are.

Ministry means working alongside people. One of our first projects was to paint the church and install air-conditioning. If I hadn’t shown up with a paintbrush in hand on work day, then I would have lost the respect of the people. At the end of the work day, the folks gave me the honor of painting the church bell red—it was a big deal.

Ministry requires you to laugh at yourself. I made more mistakes than I had successes as a younger pastor. And the people knew it. You can laugh at yourself and help everyone feel comfortable. Or you can pretend and make everyone feel awkward (or angry).

Ministry means loving people deeply. I will never forget the gifts people gave Erin and me when we left the small church. The church was poor, but the people lavished love on us. I didn’t deserve it, but they gave anyway. The love between a church and pastor should be like nothing else. I pray they understand how much I loved them.

I wasn’t a great bi-vocational pastor (or even close), but there are many who have served faithfully for years. They love their churches. Their churches love them. And God’s Kingdom is larger because of their faithfulness.

13 comments on “What I Learned from Being a Bi-vocational Pastor”

  1. Doug Allison says:

    Great blog I enjoyed reading your heart

  2. Rich Marshall says:

    Excellent. As a pioneer pastor of two successful church plants (’83 and ’95), and 25 year veteran in ministry, I commend you, Sam, for this article. I hope that your next book inspires both bi-vocationals and average community-sized pastors to grow 20 pct. in new converts. Everyone will wonder where the revival came from. The overwhelming majority of Christianity resides in regular sized congregations and their valiant, persevering Pastoral couples. That’s reality – strong may it ever grow!

  3. Good article. I am a 75 year old biovo. I was first pastor at age 20. Early in my pastoral roll, I was working a full time secular job. After age 35, I became self employed which gave me a lot more freedom to be there for surgeries and other timely critical things. Part of the time, I was working shift work which helped in scheduling. I have “retired” twice. I love people and can’t seem to stay away from being sure that people are loved. Cell phone is necessary. My kids reminded me that I had one in 1971 (car phone). It costs to be a biovo time, money and family. It’s rewards are out of this world.

  4. Dave Ingland says:

    Thanks for not only bringing attention to those who work bi-vocationally and remain faithful in ministry to the smaller churches, but thanks also for sharing your great story and reminding me of my earlier days in ministry. It was a reminder I needed to hear.

  5. Gus Macaulay says:

    I’m a bivocational pastor in Scotland, where there aren’t many of us at all. So your article has been a great encouragement to me. Thank you and God bless you in your ministry, Gus.

  6. Tom Jamieson says:

    As a bivocational pastor, I appreciate this post and your heart. Thanks for writing this and for bringing attention to bivocational and small church pastors.

  7. Priji says:

    Thank you Sam for the article. I am a bi-vocational pastor, and i am experiencing very much the same things you have mentioned. I believe God honors humble beginnings!

  8. Great blog post. I put it on my blog: http://jaxworld.blogspot.com/

    I’m a Bi-vocational Pastor and have been for quite some time. Planting churches or sustaining ministry in this way is usually not held up as a standard – but it is the reality for some of us.

  9. Excellent! I loved your comment, “(Bi-vocational pastors) receive little recognition, but they are the workhorses of churches that do much of the heavy lifting. That is so true. They do this workload for 1/8-1/4 of the pay of full-time ministers. Great insight!

  10. L.F. says:

    Appreciate your story. I was bi-vocational for about 5 years back in the late 70’s early 80’s. Experienced deep joy as well as deep disappointments. I discovered that small churches often want a chaplain rather than a pastor. I learned a lot about people (especially rural folks) from those years of being bi-vo.
    Sadly, while the vast majority of churches in my denomination (SBC) are small, most effort and attention is given to the mega churches of the “Golden Boys” who’s fathers are/were superstars in the convention and who can afford to put on the best show in town.
    Too bad that a lot of our younger folks are being inculturated into a theology of fluff…

    God bless the small church pastors who never make the list or are asked to speak…

  11. I have been both a bi-vocational pastor and a full-time senior pastor. I love and much prefer being bi-vocational! Of course, I am self-employed, and that frees up more time for me to volunteer, and serve without compensation. My expereince is that the bi-vocational pastor/leader can be a more effective leader. We HAVE to train and equip others!

    Thanks for sharing your story!


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