Bivocational Ministry Summary report

Background & Objective

ESR has received a grant from the Lilly Foundation to explore the topic of Bivocational Ministry.   For the purposes of this project, we shall use a working definition of bivocational ministry as when a pastor of a congregation works less than full time and also works at another vocation or job for the purpose of increased financial support.  This is relatively common in areas in which churches are small (under ~200 members) such as in the rural Midwest.

The objective of the study is to understand bivocational ministry from a number of different perspectives and in a number of different dimensions.

The end product of this study will be a presentation in 2015 at the Pastor’s Conference on the topic of Bivocational Ministry.

The aim of this account is to report on the findings of five preliminary interviews that were used to develop the discussion guide.


  • 3 In depth telephone interviews with 3 bivocational pastors 
  • 2 Interviews with 2 congregation members


Below are the findings from this limited sample.  These results are very preliminary and should be used only in developing hypotheses for further exploration in more interviews and should not be taken as indicative of broader group.

Self definition:  The three ministers who were spoken to all defined themselves first and foremost as pastors, and that their other paying work was not their purpose.  They related this to their calling, that they had a calling to be a pastor, and that is what God wanted them to do.  At least one seemed to feel that the other work was the means that God provided in order for the ministry work to happen.    When discussing the alternative, that the other job is the primary source of income and that the church was tent making, they didn’t relate to it very well.  This may only reflect the sample of these three ministers.

Who these ministers are:  All three of those people who participated in this small sample of interviews were career changers, who had worked in another area first and then gone back to school to get preparation to be a minister.  In these cases, their previous occupations gave them skills that enabled them to earn money in a separate manner – two as substitute teachers, and the other as a financial planner.    None of them would choose bivocational ministry if they had a choice, they would like to devote all their time to the church.  As one said, “I would prefer not to be bivocational… there’s a lot of things that I could be doing that I’m not for the church.”  That person continued on to say< “If you are going to minister properly in my view, you can’t do that part time.”  They recognize  trade off they are making, but all freely chose to be in place they are in, one of them turning down a full time position to take a part time position because of geographic location.

Income:   Of the three interviewees, at least half of their income comes from outside the church.

How they spend their time:  The three bivocational ministers I spoke to devote at least the equivalent time of a full time job to their ministry (~40 hours per week) and also spend 30 to 40 hours per week at their supplemental work.  They all seem to work a total of about 80 hours a week.  Because this sample is only of bivocational ministers, it is unclear how this workload compares to those pastors who don’t hold outside jobs.
Of the seven tasks that the Unitarian Universalist denomination identifies as tasks of a pastor (listed below), these pastors feel that they are obligated to work at all of them.  If there is one that they can let go of, it is witness to the outside community.  For one of them, the congregation explicitly takes on that witness role.  These bivocational ministers also may occasionally make less than ideal effort at worship preparation, taking a short cut, because they feel it is invisible and the least likely to be detected. If they need to make a hospital visit, then that’s where they cut.  But if they aren’t available when they are needed in a crisis or don’t do Sunday school, they believe that they have fallen down on the job.

Tasks of a minister:

  • preparation for worship,
  • rites of passage,
  • pastoral care and presence,
  • spiritual development,
  • witnessing,
  • administration,
  • personal renewal and professional development,
  • denominational service and future leadership.

These bivocational ministers don’t set any boundaries of what is appropriate or not appropriate or tell their congregation that they can’t do something.  They don’t say no to the congregation, the congregation’s needs usually come first, before anything else.  As one of them explained, “The ministry doesn’t happen in nice neat little compartments.  It would be really hard to draw those kind of boundaries… people have needs and it’s difficult to box those in…. (I can’t say) I can’t meet your need this week, you can meet me next week.”  A minster who only does preparation for worship is not fully meeting the needs of the congregations, in the view of these interviewees and they speak in a somewhat derogatory manner about that type of ministry.

There were a few examples given of when the pastor did put their own needs/abilities first ahead of the congregation:  during personal crises in the pastor’s life (such as with a family member), when there are things they have no ability to do (such as mechanical or fix it type things) or due to an unshakable previous commitment. In the case of a personal crisis or lack of ability, there is no discussion, but in the case of a previous commitment, there may be negotiation.

The congregational members spoken to about time and jobs that the pastor does indicated that they payment of the pastor was chosen based on what the church felt they could pay, not based on how many hours the pastor was going to work or the type of work the pastor would do.  There was no discussion about cutting responsibilities so that it might be a manageable part time job or even recognition that what the church was asking might not be possible on a part time basis.  When asked to itemize the tasks the pastor accomplishes, they were able to recognize that the pastor was spending a lot of time on church work, but they hadn’t ever thought about it at all, nor did they add up the time in their head and realize that it was a true full time job. (Note that both these people were from one congregation so this may not be representative.)  Interestingly, both congregation members seemed to place a greater emphasis on time a pastor spent inside the church building than time spent away, even if the pastor was working on church related business (perhaps at home) and even if they were reachable by telephone.

Money in the church:  The pastors are well aware of the finances of the church and why they are only being paid a part time salary.  They note the stresses of a declining/small congregation, congregation members struggling financially themselves, that elderly members make up most of the budget but are dying and that the physical demands of aging buildings and insurance is a burden.  They recognize that the churches are doing the best they can and accept that.  They are caught in taking the perspective of the church as well as their own.
The major way out of this situation that they see is to attract new members, which can be problematic/impossible in a rural area with a declining/aging population.  Solutions found by one of the churches were to rent out the church to another group and to find a lower cost way to heat/air condition.  This took some of the burden off of the congregation.  However, they still only pay the pastor a part time salary.

How these pastors make bivocational ministry work:  There are two major tools which these three ministers use to make bivocational ministry work: flexibility and integration.  To aid in flexibility, they have found jobs that enable them to set their own schedule (substitute teaching, financial planning entrepreneur).  The other tool they use to make this work is to integrate other parts of their lives with their ministry – bringing kids with them when they do church work, having kids that come home from school and go to the church to do their home work or homeschooling, or doing other work while substitute teaching.  They all also spoke about relying on God for their strength as another coping mechanism but there were few details other than to say that God finds a way to make it all work. 
The overwhelming feeling I had interviewing these ministers is that these were high energy people and that there is a high risk of exhaustion.  One spoke about not attending to her own health, and seeing the effects in cholesterol levels.  That person doesn’t read books or watch TV or do anything for themselves.    That same person warned potential future bivocational ministers that” if (you).. could do anything else and live with …(your)self, … do that...  Bivocational ministry is not glamorous and you have to be 100% sure that that’s what you’re called to do or it’s going to drive you nuts.”  But that person also recognized that she wasn’t going to be able to do this at this pace for the rest of her life.

Attitudes toward bivocational ministry: In some cases, the ministers recognize some tiny advantages:  that they can reach more people if they work outside the church. But mostly, there are no advantages to bivocational ministry from these ministers’ perspective. 
The major disadvantages come in times of crisis.  A personal crisis in a pastor’s life can lead to loss of income (when they can’t work) and then they can’t keep up with their bills.  This happened to two of the three ministers interviewed and, in both cases, the churches did continue paying the pastors but one of the outside jobs didn’t.


  •  The combination of declining populations in rural centers and decreasing interest in established denominations has lead churches to decrease in pay for ministers so that they are paid less than a full time/living wage.  This pillar of rural life is in danger of failing and the pressure for keeping it going falls primarily onto the minister.
  • In addition to population issues, congregations are stressed by the burdens of their physical plant of their churches which tend to be old.  In some cases, physical plant expenses (including insurance) take a large proportion of the budget reducing the amount possible to pay a minister.
  • The decline in congregation size might be expected to potentially lead to a reduced workload for a minster in terms of pastoral care needed; but working against that is aging of the congregation which would lead to an even greater need for hospital/nursing home visits.
  • The demands of those congregations on the minister’s time have not decreased proportionally with the pay.  Churches still seem to expect ministers to fulfill the same functions that they always did.  Congregations seem unconscious of the demands that this places on their bivocational ministers.  Without realizing it, they are expecting these ministers to play “Super-(wo)man.”
  • Bivocational ministers respond to these pressures believing this is what the job is and that God will give them strength to do it.  They believe that this is what bivocational ministry is, that they are “supposed to be able to do it” and may even look down on those who can’t/won’t.  They work incredibly long hours between their sources of financial support and don’t take time for themselves.  They run the risk of harming themselves and their family life.
  • Bivocational ministers coping strategies include choosing flexible work outside the church, and integrating different parts of their lives together so they accomplish more than one thing at a time. 
  • These coping mechanisms may fall apart when faced with a major life crisis and can lead to financial problems.  While two of these churches have responded well to personal crises that happened in the life of their ministers, this also places stress on the churches.

Which leads to some questions:

Is bivocational ministry only for those who have been gifted with incredible stamina? What happens to them when the stamina runs out?  Is it God’s will to put the burden of maintaining rural churches on the back of the bivocational minister?
Is there a way to help churches become aware of what they are doing and help them make trade off so that they don’t continue to expect their ministers to do a full time job on a part time salary?

Can the physical plant needs of churches be alleviated in some way to reduce the financial difficulties that lead to low pay for ministers?  Perhaps loans to update boilers/air conditioners so they become more efficient and require less money to heat/cool churches, which would also address climate change concerns.

Is there a way to provide financial support for ministers who are in crisis and/or for churches that have ministers in crisis?

And the bigger question, is there a different model to provide pastoral care and leadership to rural congregations that doesn’t place such a stress on human beings to be all things to all people?