Any garden-variety atheist, agnostic, or even religiously indifferent materialist knows that if—and we do mean if—the church is to survive well into the future in the northern hemisphere it won’t be through a linear extension of today’s church. (The only ones who don’t seem to realize this are pastors, seminaries, and some denominational people!) Every index of the church as it has been indicates a decline, and many indicate a precipitous decline. So what might tomorrow’s different church look like? What should we call it? And what are its qualities?

We believe the bivocational congregation offers a viable model for tomorrow’s church. We begin with the initial premise that a bivocational congregation is a local church that operates upon (and may even self-consciously understand) two callings: the first is the calling of function and the second is the calling of mission. We believe the bivocational congregation is more likely to survive into tomorrow to do God’s will and be God’s people because it is essentially organized around spiritual realities in tune with God’s redemptive work.

These include:

  • healthy team functioning
  • a high commitment to place and to being a ministering presence in that place
  • a willingness to die to self, if need be, in the cause of serving others
  • an acceptance of this expression of the church as a full expression of the church, not a second-rate, temporary, expedient form of the church
  • a willingness to experiment and trust that a higher power has something wonderful in store for tomorrow

The following five cases will help to illustrate these qualities of bivocational congregations as they exist in very different churches.

Case 1. The Always-Been Bivocational Congregation

Sixty miles south of Boston, in the little town of Dighton, is a small Baptist church that recently celebrated its 175th anniversary. The two to three dozen people that gather on Sunday mornings know each other well, and each of them has a role to play that helps keep the church going. A shopkeeper is their pastor, a school teacher their treasurer, and a retired woman their clerk.

This congregation needs someone to fill the pastoral role, but a very strictly defined role of preaching and pastoral care. Otherwise, the people expect to work together to accomplish whatever needs doing. “The pastor preaches and guides us, but he doesn’t really have to do much else,” they told us. “We know what needs to get done and we each pitch in and do it. If something out of the ordinary arises, we huddle up and figure out how to handle it.”  

The members’ relationships with one another have morphed over the years so that they exhibit a high degree of complementarity. They function as a team. People know what motivates their fellow members and for the most part they stay out of each other’s way. Realizing that energy is limited, they do not waste much time on turf battles. New members are incorporated slowly into this dynamic organism. Giftedness and interest are discerned over time and offered and used for the common good. Occasionally something may happen that galvanizes the congregation around a new opportunity or threat, but usually business as usual prevails. The members are “not anxious about tomorrow.” They are comfortable living out the mutually determined roles that are so familiar to them as to hardly need conscious definition. This semi-aware team functioning may not respond well to a rapidly changing environment, but since it has a nearly two-centuries-long life, that fact is seldom brought to mind. This bivocational congregation functions as a simple organism. Each part has a role to play. The pastor is important but not crucial. In fact, this type of congregation can keep on going for long periods of time without a pastor, if need be.

Recently we have had conversations with two people from different congregations. Each of their churches has a full-time pastor and each is considering closing! Why? Fatigue. “We’re just too tired to do everything,” one explained. In contrast, Dighton, despite the fact that it does not have a full-time pastor, has members who have developed focus and complementarity. They know what needs to be done (and what doesn’t) and who is going to do it (and who isn’t). Yes, their ministry is basic and not extensive. But they own it, they do it, and they will keep on doing it indefinitely. And maybe that is enough.

Case 2. The Rooted-Here Bivocational Church

Grace Federated Church is located in East Boston, an ethnic, blue-collar section of urban Boston that the majority of the residents have made their permanent home. Most can tell you where their best friends in elementary school lived—and often where they live now—and whose mother always set an extra place for you for dinner.

Today Grace Federated Church is a federation of Episcopal and United Church of Christ congregations, but at least two other neighborhood churches and their members have been subsumed into it over the preceding half century. And now its ecumenical spirit is even greater, as Roman Catholics from St. Mary’s Star of the Sea, shut out of their old sanctuary just around the corner, are finding their way into Grace. Their bishop intended for them to move into a Roman Catholic parish a mile away, but that parish just doesn’t seem like home to them. Instead, they have found a home at Grace, which has existed for over a century to minister to the people of its neighborhood.

Here is an example of what happens when a congregation is truly bivocational: When, after a successful 20-year part-time ministry, Grace Federated’s pastor left for a university position, the congregation began a search process for a new pastor. Their goal was clear: they desired a clergy companion for a bivocational ministry. There were no illusions about getting a replica of their outgoing pastor nor any about switching to a full-time pastor. They sought someone who could serve as pastor and who was as committed to bivocational ministry in this place as they were. That meant having local roots and being committed to doing outreach to the local community.

This bivocational congregation has a ministry not only to its own members but also to its community. They understand the need for a presence in the local setting—a presence from which outreach programs can flow. Since their pastor’s departure, Grace Federated has received a national award from the United Church of Christ for exemplary work in operating a successful food pantry. The commitment of Grace Federated to the East Boston community was also seen when, upon the closing of St. Mary’s Star of the Sea, Grace immediately extended an invitation to St. Mary’s to continue the work of its branch of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, an outreach program, from Grace’s facilities. Today the St. Vincent group is operating from Grace Federated. Although they could have relocated to another Roman Catholic parish, they, like the members of Grace Federated, understood the need to stay in the neighborhood where they had been serving.

Grace Federated members told us that even if they had the funds available for a full-time pastor, they would use those funds in other ways, especially for community outreach. The congregation understands the need for roots in a community, and it also understands that the concept of bivocational ministry is not just a clergy thing—that it needs to be imbedded in the minds and hearts of all of the members.

This bivocational congregation was missional long before the term came into vogue. They know that their internal life and health depend on their external service. Churches in their neighborhood that didn’t understand this have long since closed. Grace Federated lives incarnational ministry right there in their neighborhood, and consequently it, too, lives.

Case 3. The Transitional Bivocational Congregation
In Medford, Massachusetts, on a residential street near Tufts University, is the Wesley United Methodist Church (WUM), which emerged from the closing of three Medford Methodist churches in 1966. Today WUM is in the midst of what it calls its Five-Year Holy Experiment, which involves two congregations working together in the same building. One is a small congregation of English descent and the other is a new, large, and growing congregation primarily of Korean heritage. The English congregation of WUM is bivocational, with a call to live its own life as a congregation, yet also with a call to house and nourish the Korean congregation.

A WUM Council, made up of five members from each congregation, meets monthly. Church committees also comprise members from each congregation. The treasurer of the church was appointed from the Korean congregation, a move supported by the English congregation. The budget for the church is supported by both congregations, with some help from the Methodist District organization. Lay leaders in the English congregation monitor telephone calls coming to the church answering machine and follow up as
needed—for both congregations. They also lead a weekly Bible study session open to all. One Sunday a month both congregations worship together.

The church has a paid staff, including two paid clergy. One is a Korean-speaking man who works with the Korean congregation full time. The other is a woman who works with the English congregation 20 hours per week. The two pastors see themselves
as sharing worship and preaching responsibilities.

The two congregations also share a custodian, and one church member is a choir director who supervises a full music program and leads a choir largely composed of Koreans, many of them students. The choir performs primarily for the Korean congregation but also for the English congregation on special occasions.

The English congregation is concerned about its continuing decline in numbers, but its overall attitude is one of joyful celebration for the blessings of the present and the unknown but promising future of this vibrant parish venture. Where will they end up? God only knows, but this transitional bivocational congregation is enjoying the ride!

WUM is ready to die to self—the worship style they are accustomed to, their identification with “our” pastor and building, indeed their whole self, if need be—to see that ministry to their community continues. Unlike so many other congregations that ensure their death by holding on tightly to life as they have known it, WUM will live on—possibly in resurrected form and speaking Korean! They understand that letting go of what has been is the only way to see what will be.

Case 4. An Experimental Bivocational Congregation

Five small, centuries-old Episcopal churches sit sprinkled around the Connecticut River valley. A few decades ago, each struggled to make ends meet, to maintain its high-maintenance building, to keep its Sunday school staffed, and to manage with a part-time rector. Then along came a rector who introduced to them to a concept he called “clustering,” an arrangement in which certain functions are collectively managed by a board comprising members from the different churches in the cluster. He had heard of such arrangements in Nevada and had developed one in northern Vermont. He was convinced of the efficacy of clustering. He had charts and reports to show that clustered congregations were better off and did more mission than isolated, atomized, suffering-in-silence parishes. One by one, the five congregations agreed to cluster.

Under the cluster arrangement, each parish maintains its own building and vestry. Each votes its own budget and raises its own funds. Each may have its own ministry in its own community. And each sends representatives to the cluster board. There, such synergies as common missions, Christian education, music, and social activities may be developed. But the critical task of the cluster board is to develop and execute a plan for a staff of professional leaders. Typically this is done by assessing the needs and desires of the constituent parishes and, within the various parish contributions to the cluster budget, call and deploy an array of leaders. Clergy coverage for the worship of each parish is arranged on a rotating basis. Other staff members contribute from their skills and calling as the cluster board determines best. What this means in practice is that any one parish has access to a wider array of skills than it could afford on its own. But it also means that their pastor is a functionary, rotating in and out of their pulpit every eight weeks or so, according to a set schedule. So parishioners do not develop the same kind of dependence on their pastor that they might otherwise.

Although potentials are always variously attained, clusters offer the potential for parishioners to develop the kind of ownership and commitment that occurs in what we are calling the bivocational congregation. Clusters call forth the lay leadership of the congregation. Clusters clearly say: The responsibility is yours. The rector will assist you in achieving your call, but he or she is not going to do for you what is yours to do. You are the permanent part of this equation.

That is both freeing and challenging. Clusters are hard to sustain over time. In fact, this one is currently in the process of breaking up—but after 27 years! Cluster boards have to keep working constructively together while being pulled in various local directions. Another layer of organization is added, and some may mourn the lack of a priest they can call their own. But clusters also allow congregations to mature in vibrancy and self-direction if they are willing to accept a new role for pastoral leadership. This is not always easy. As one weary vestry member notes, “The cluster fosters independence. [The clergy] were able to keep their distance and let the lay people do the work. We found and are still finding it hard to balance doing the deeds of Christ and learning the Mind of Christ and sharing the love of Christ and still have a family and a job.” Even so, she concludes, “the premise of the cluster model is a very good one.”

Clusters are one experimental form that aligns with this emerging concept of the bivocational congregation. Undoubtedly others will become visible now that we know what we are looking for.

Clustering invites lay ownership of the ministry. Yet there are dangers inherent in this model, which  tantalizes the laity with the ability of more professional resources, inviting more extensive ministries, and—due to the additional time and energy necessary to manage such ministries—eventually resulting in more fatigue. Clearly this model will not work everywhere, nor forever. But for churches willing to define their ministry and focus it offers hope.

Case 5. The We-Backed-Into-It-and-We-Want-Out-of-It Bivocational Congregation

Unless the concept of bivocational ministry is firmly rooted in the minds and hearts of the congregation, it can fall apart when the pastor leaves. St. Andrew’s Church in Grafton, Massachusetts, is such a church.

St. Andrew’s was originally organized in 1893 as a mission of what is now the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts. It provided worship, fellowship, and settlement help to the town’s small Anglican population, most of whom had moved from the British Isles and the Canadian Maritime Provinces to work in the town’s mills. In 2002, after serving for 119 years as a mission, the congregation finally attained the status of parish. However, in spite of growth in the town and, to a lesser extent, in the size of the congregation, in recent decades St. Andrew’s has not been able to afford a full-time pastor. As a result, it has been served by a succession of bivocational pastors.

Today the congregation continues its original mission of worship, fellowship, and help, and it has turned outward to provide the same opportunities to people in the area who are not members of the congregation.

Strong lay leadership has emerged in order to maintain and expand the ministry of the congregation. The Sunday school, youth ministry, routine pastoral care, and outreach efforts are organized by members of the congregation. One person has organized a weekly women’s spirituality group. It has grown over time to include a number of people living in the community who would not consider themselves members of the congregation. The pastor orders the worship services, presides over the parish vestry, gives encouragement and counsel to the lay volunteers, and makes emergency calls on parishioners.

After their last “permanent” part-time pastor of seven years retired, the congregation struggled to find a successor. In the course of searching for three years, the vestry decided to use the congregation’s small endowment to seek a full-time pastor. They hope to be able to support this person at full time for three years, during which time the congregation may grow sufficiently to be self-supporting. If not, they will have exhausted their financial reserves, failed at growing, and possibly become terminally discouraged. Though the laity have taken on significant and fruitful responsibilities in mission and in the life of their church, this church seems to have been simply a congregation with a bivocational pastor rather than a bivocational congregation.

This Grafton example, replicated so very often, is not a particularly hopeful one, barring a miracle. The desires deeply rooted in the hearts of the parishioners for their own full-time pastor, to be a “legitimate” church, and to have someone to define and do ministry represent a model of doing church that is unlikely to lead us very far into the future. Spending broke in that quest will not be as productive as learning the lessons God desires to teach us in order to move into a new future.

Embodiments of Change

Each of the first four of these examples lifts up qualities of faithful congregations that may presage the characteristics of the church in the future. Dighton illustrates the power of focus and complementarity of functions. Grace Federated is an example of presence, rootedness, and the primacy of mission. WUM embodies the willingness to take risks and even die to self, if need be. The cluster model demonstrates a willingness to experiment and take responsibility for one’s congregation. And Grafton teaches us of the danger of giving in to the constant temptation to slip back into old patterns.

Does a congregation need to have a bivocational pastor to exhibit the positive qualities of a bivocational congregation? We think that, though it may help, it is not necessary. What makes a congregation bivocational and more likely to thrive into the future is the dual calling of the congregation to fresh understandings of mission and function—mission that is rooted locally, focused, and so primary that the church is willing to risk self in the cause, and functioning that is responsible, complementary, experimental, and not pastor-dependent but lay-owned. Such a church, we believe, will warm God’s heart and serve its neighbors for years to come.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Which case comes closest to describing the character of your congregation?
  2. Under what circumstances would your congregation consider becoming a bivocational congregation” as distinct from offering a bivocational-level clergy salary package?
  3. Would your congregation ever consider engaging a bivocational pastor to work in a bivocational setting?
  4. How might your congregation develop the qualities identified in this article?