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. Every index of the church as it has been indicates a decline, and many indicate a precipitous decline. So what might tomorrows different church look like? What should we call it? And what are its qualities?
We believe the bivocational congregation (not to be confused with but related to bivocational pastors) offers a viable model for tomorrow’s church. A bivocational congregation is a local church that operates upon (and may even self-consciously understand) two callings: the calling of function and 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
We’ve observed five scenarios that help to illustrate these qualities of bivocational congregations as they exist in very different settings.
The Always-Been Bivocational Congregation
In a little town there is a small church with two to three dozen people that gather on Sunday mornings. They know each other well, and each of them has a role to play that helps keeps 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 members’ relationships with one another have morphed over the years so that they function as a team. People realize that energy is limited and do not waste much of it 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. 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.
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.
The Rooted-Here Bivocational Church
In an ethnic, blue-collar section of a large city, a federated church has over the years combined congregations from several different faith traditions. The parish has existed for over a century to minister to the people of its neighborhood and is an example of what happens when a congregation is truly bivocational. When, after a successful 20-year part-time ministry, the pastor left , 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. They understand the need for a presence in the local setting—a presence from which outreach programs can flow. 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 while this congregation lives incarnational ministry right there in their neighborhood, and consequently it, too, lives.
The Transitional Bivocational Congregation
One congregation emerged from the closing of three Methodist churches in 1966. Today it 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 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 church 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 English-speaking 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! It 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, this congregation 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.
An Experimental Bivocational Congregation
Five small, centuries-old Episcopal churches sit sprinkled around a 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 a concept he called “clustering,” an arrangement in which certain functions are co
llectively managed by a board comprising members from the different churches in the 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. 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. 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.
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. One congregation that was originally organized in 1893 as a mission in recent years has not been able to afford a full-time pastor. They have been served by a succession of bivocational pastors and 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. 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 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. Exhausting resources 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 of these examples lift up qualities of faithful congregations that may foreshadow the characteristics of the church in the future: the power of focus and complimentary functions; the value of presence, rootedness, and the primacy of mission; the importance of 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 the last example 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.
Adapted from “The Bivocational Congregation: Tomorrow’s Church?” in Congregations Winter 2009 (vol. 35, no. 1), copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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