So here's a short version of what I mean when I say "bivocational ministry":
God calls some people to work in ministry while also working either part or full time in secular jobs to supplement their income. Bivocational ministry is when a person serves in a ministry while also being employed in a secular job, whether or not they get paid for their religious service. There is a growing conversation among those involved in the training and hiring of pastors, inside and outside the Religious Society of Friends/Friends Church (RSoF), about the need for bivocational ministry. Unprogrammed Friends have been talking more about preparing and supporting all the diverse ministers among us, but may be more familiar with the term “released Friend.”Bivocational ministry was an essential part of the founding vision of Quakerism, when early Friends railed against the abuses of “hireling ministers.” Even where Friends have hired pastoral staff, we have sought to employ those who are called to the ministry by God, rather than relying on credentials or pedigree. We have acknowledged that a calling to a particular ministry may be for an undefined period of time, and yet not a permanent condition. Throughout our history, with variations depending on the region and the century, Friends have shared the burdens and the joys of ministry widely in our communities. As part of our uniquely Quaker spiritual inheritance, it’s a model that we can share with the world.
Bivocational ministry is quintessentially Quaker, but many meetings and churches are struggling today:
- Many meetings can’t find enough volunteers to populate their elaborate committee structures.
- Even full-time pastors are not equally gifted in all areas of ministry assigned to them by the classic Protestant model.
- Many Friends have a calling to do more for their meeting or for the wider Friends Church, but can’t afford the loss of income.
- Many pastors are receiving the equivalent of part-time salaries yet expected to do full-time (plus your spouse) work.
- Friends from the programmed and unprogrammed traditions are going to seminary to prepare for service to the RSoF, often incurring substantial student debt, but there aren't enough paid jobs in Quakerism to absorb them all.
- Many meetings and churches don't know what to do with strongly gifted Friends.
- Friends feel both guilt-ridden and dismissive of their part-time pastors instead of celebrating this balance.
Many yearly meetings have approached the training and support for bivocational ministers in various ways: weekend workshops, spiritual formation cohorts, pastors’ conferences, support for continuing education. Some local churches and meetings have developed innovative approaches to calling, supporting and releasing ministers. However, most of the best practices among Friends are not well known outside of their immediate geographic area or branch of Friends. The divided branches of the RSoF have a lot to offer one another in tackling the problems and celebrating the strengths of bivocational ministry. Their different perspectives complement each other.
As just one example, an unprogrammed meeting in an unaffiliated yearly meeting that I know had burned out two clerks of their Ministry and Oversight Committee in a row. Several contributing factors were identified, but both of the individuals in question said, “I don’t even want to come to worship on Sundays. It’s not like worship for me any more, it’s just a time when people come to tell me all their problems.” It occurred to a member of their M&O committee that this was a situation that people who are pastors deal with for their whole careers, not just a 1-3 year term on a committee. By inquiring with personal friends who were pastors in evangelical Friends churches, she heard some of their strategies for coping. One said his approach was two-fold. First was to accept that Sunday mornings were his time of service to the community, not his time of communion with the Holy Spirit. Sometimes that happened too, but changing his expectations helped him not to be annoyed when people just wanted to ask him, “where is the big coffee pot?” And second, he had to seek out other times for deep contemplation of the Divine, and he found that in a midweek gathering with other pastors for what was essentially unprogrammed Quaker worship. And so an evangelical Friend had learned from unprogrammed Friends, and a liberal Friend learned from an evangelical Friend. But too few of us know each other to be able to benefit from this learning.
How could Friends address this in a way that would be useful to the whole Religious Society of Friends/Friends Church? To the local meetings and churches that are struggling? For all the people who are struggling to find a way to use their gifts and live into their leadings?
How can meetings and churches have an honest and conversation with each other and with the individual Friends who are called to serve the RSoF about how to make the best match between gifts and needs?
How can we amplify the work and learning that has already been done about calling, training and supporting ministry, by individual Friends and Quaker institutions, to benefit Friends more widely?
Frankly, I think the survival of the Religious Society of Friends/Friends Church in this century depends on us figuring this out better.
Full disclosure: I am, for the first time in my life, blessed and honored to be paid a full-time living wage for Quaker work. But I know, from 20 years of experience, what it is like for that not to be true. Also, this post reflects my personal leading and not that of my employer.