The Coming New Normal

One of the problems with the stadium events of Big Eva to which I have occasionally pointed is that they showcase pastors who by definition do not have pastorates that are in any sense normal.  There is thus a danger that they foster unrealistic expectations among potential pastors and even congregations.  Most seminary students are not going to be the next John Piper, and the Bible church at the corner of your street is not going to be the next Redeemer, NY.  Yet the resistance to highlighting normal pastors and pastorates seems deeply ingrained.  My own plea to the T4G leadership in 2012 to include one unknown and normal pastor in the lineup in 2014 fell on deaf ears.  No-one in Big Eva seems to have the courage to showcase the truly ordinary and normal.

I suspect the disconnect between the gospel grandees and the pastoral proletariat is set to become even more dramatic in the near future.  Bivocational pastoring will be the new normal for churches of, say, 200 members of less.  The cost of salaries, benefits and pensions is such that it will be very hard for such churches to cover all those in addition to the routine expenses which being a church entails.  Add to that the student debt incurred by those who wish to be trained in a manner that reflects the Presbyterian ideal of a learned ministry and the situation is even more pressing.  This all means that bivocational pastoring will become more common, if not standard, in the next decade.

That is my own position.  Some years ago I accepted the call to be pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Ambler, Pa.  For Presbyterian ecclesiology geeks, that makes me perhaps the only person in the OPC who presently has two calls: one as pastor of CPC, one as professor at Westminster.   Of course, I have it fairly easy. I have two jobs which I love, and which have significant overlap. But my church only has a pastor because my main salary and health care are covered by my day job.  The congregation simply cannot afford to pay a living wage.  Still, I may be bivocational but my life is considerably easier than many ministerial colleagues.  I have known pastors who drive school buses or stack shelves or sell furniture in order to put bread on the table and thereby subsidize their pastorates.  They are the ones who have it truly tough.

Yet the advent of bivocationalism, whether of the easy kind I enjoy or the tougher kind experienced by many, cannot stand alone.  It has obvious implications for the church as a whole and requires a change in thinking on the part of congregations.

First, the congregation's perception of the minister’s task must take his situation into account.  The pastor who works another job Monday to Friday is clearly not going to be as available for consistent pastoral work during the week.  Burn out and exhaustion will be potentially far more common.  I am grateful that my elders are increasingly pro-active in making sure I take some rest.

Second, I would argue that the bivocational pastor’s focus must be upon preaching the word and administering the sacraments.  He may not have many hours to devote to church work but what time he does possess needs to be focused on the basics of ministry, especially sermon preparation.  Ruling elders can help on other matters; only the man called to preach the Word can do the sermon.

Third, our understanding of the importance of the ruling elder must change.  If the minister is less available, then ruling elders must be prepared to step in and take on some of the tasks which have traditionally been more the preserve of the minister, such as pastoral visitation.  Ruling elders are vital.  I could not manage if all of the men with whom I serve did not carry significant responsibility for the pastoral care of the congregations.

Fourth, seminaries must start to cultivate an understanding among pastoral students that bivocationalism is likely to be their typical post-seminary experience, rather than a sign of failure or of not being a ‘real’ minister.  At a minimum, this would seem to require that bivocationalism be modeled by some faculty.  It would also entail some kind of education about what bivocational pastorates typically entail.

Bivocationalism is here to stay.  We really do need to accept that and start to think about its implications for biblical eldership.