This week I read an article by Zach Nielsen that called for all pastors to consider becoming bi-vocational pastors, that is receiving part-time compensation from the church and part-time compensation from a second job. Zach is one of the pastors of a new church plant in Madison, Wisconsin. He and the other men he is working with have made the commitment to intentionally remain bi-vocational pastors. Their philosophy of ministry is that by remaining bi-vocational it will allow them, as pastors, to have structured evangelistic opportunities with unbelievers. As I read the article I was impressed with Zach, as well as the other men, and their willingness to live out their convictions. That being said, I was a bit disappointed with the article primarily because it did not contain a singe reference or even allusion to scripture. To be fair this was only one post, and not a philosophy of ministry statement. However, the title of the article is “Should Missional Pastor=Bi-Vocational Pastor?” and Scripture is not silent on the topic of “paying your pastor.” I would submit that it is a question that cannot be answered apart from Scripture.
The reason that I am writing this is not to criticize Zach, his ministry, or his convictions. My purpose in writing this post is to try and answers Zach’s question from a biblical perspective. Zach is not a false teacher, a heretic, or a danger to the church. As far as I can tell, he is a valuable servant God is using to grow his kingdom. I simply want to join the conversation and add what I think are some necessary biblical points.
The benefits of bi-vocational ministry are easy to point out. It allows smaller congregations to have a shepherd that is able to devote a significant amount of time to the flock. Additionally, as Zach points out, it allows the pastor evangelistic opportunities. In the realm of missions this type of ministry is often referred to as “tent-making” ministry. This, of course, comes from the apostle Paul who at times worked as a “tent-maker” to financially sustain himself while he ministered. In real sense there were times when Paul was a bi-vocational pastor! (1 Cor 4:12) At this point you might say, “Well there you go; if Paul did it shouldn’t we all do it?” The answer is no. At best, we can surmise from Paul’s example that bi-vocational ministry is acceptable/profitable in certain situations. Remember, the narrative of Paul’s life is descriptive not prescriptive. It is also important to note that Paul never exhorts other pastors to follow this example. In fact, he seems to do the exact opposite in 1 Corinthians 9:1-14:
“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? ” (1 Corinthians 9:1–11, ESV)
Add to this 2 Corinthians 11:8-9, which reveals that at least during part of Paul’s ministry Paul was completely supported by a local church:
“I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you. And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied my need. So I refrained and will refrain from burdening you in any way. ” (2 Corinthians 11:8–9, ESV)
In the end, the most that we can conclude from Paul’s example is that bi-vocational ministry is at times necessary and providentially ordained. For this reason, we should appreciate and pray for those pastors who are obedient to God’s providence and find a second job.
The bible says a lot more about this issue than just Paul’s example. We could look at many passages, but 1 Timothy 5:17 may be the most important passage:
“The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. ” (1 Timothy 5:17)
Here it is clear that the elders who are particularly gifted in preaching and teaching should be freed up financially so that they can focus on the use of their gifts within the church. Pretty simple, and it’s not new to 1 Timothy either. God has always required that his people financially support their spiritual leaders. In Deuteronomy 12:19 God commanded the people
“Take care that you do not neglect the Levite as long as you live in your land. ” (Deuteronomy 12:19, ESV)
God did not give the Levites an inheritance (i.e. land) because the people were supposed to support them. Unfortunately all throughout the OT the people of God struggled to keep this command. The results were not good. When that didn’t happen the Levites had to neglect their spiritual duties to take care of their financial needs. The perfect example is in Nehemiah 13:10-14. Here Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem to find that the people had stopped supporting the priests:
“I also found out that the portions of the Levites had not been given to them, so that the Levites and the singers, who did the work, had fled each to his field. So I confronted the officials and said, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” And I gathered them together and set them in their stations. Then all Judah brought the tithe of the grain, wine, and oil into the storehouses. And I appointed as treasurers over the storehouses Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and Pedaiah of the Levites, and as their assistant Hanan the son of Zaccur, son of Mattaniah, for they were considered reliable, and their duty was to distribute to their brothers. Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for his service. ” (Nehemiah 13:10–14, ESV)
Pastors are not priests. However, the principle of financially supporting spiritual leaders remains true. God intends for the church to financially provide for the particularly gifted elders so that they can devote as much time and energy as possible into shepherding the church. Supporting your pastor full-time allows him to spend as much time as possible studying, he is far more available to shepherding (hospital visits, emergency counseling, etc.), he can devote more hours to praying for you, and it makes it much easier for him to focus on shepherding his family in addition to the church. On a side note, a church should never make a pastor choose between shepherding his family and shepherding the church. If you cannot afford to support your pastor full-time then do not expect the same time commitment from him as you would if he were supported full-time.
Another point I would make on this issue relates to the purpose of pastoral ministry. The argument by some is that if pastors have another job it will allow them more evangelistic opportunities. However, Ephesians 4:11-12 says that the priority of pastoral ministry is the training of believers:
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, ” (Ephesians 4:11–12, ESV)
Evangelism is DEFINITELY an important part of pastoral ministry, but not at the expense of training Christians to do the work of disciple-making.
As I conclude I want to make it abundantly clear that I am not criticizing bi-vocational ministry. At one time in my own ministry I had to work four jobs just to pay our bills. As I said above, sometimes it is necessary and providentially ordained. That is why I rejoice to hear about Zach in Wisconsin obediently serving. Bi-vocational ministry is a noble calling, but it shouldn’t be the norm for all pastors. Scripture does not call for this, in fact scripture seems to indicate that it is the exception not the norm (1 Corinthians 9:1–11).