Editor's note: This article was published online Nov. 25, 2020. The Christian Reformed Church's Council of Delegates has since canceled Synod 2021. Parts of that synod's agenda that cannot wait will be taken up by a special meeting of the Council, in much the same way as occurred in 2020, the first time synod was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pastoral leadership in the church is changing. The old model of a sole pastor with perhaps a part-time secretary no longer fits many congregations. In 2019, the synod of the Christian Reformed Church (the annual general assembly) commissioned a committee to look at one type of change in pastoral leadership: bivocational pastors. That committee is reporting to Synod 2021, expected to convene in June. The report is now available for congregations to review.
Bivocational pastors are those who have two jobs—one in the church and another outside of the church. The second job can be ministerial, as when a pastor works part time in a local congregation and part time as a chaplain for another institution, or apart from ministry, as when a pastor works part time for a church and part time for a business. The classic example of bivocational ministry is the apostle Paul, who was a tentmaker as well as a missionary (Acts 18:3).
Discouraged in the Past
Despite the example of Paul, the Christian Reformed Church has not traditionally encouraged bivocational ministry. The Church Order (the rules that churches of the denomination covenant together to follow) allows pastors to take a second job “by way of exception and with the approval of the classis” (a regional assembly of churches). The assumption is that as soon as the local congregation is able, they will move the pastor’s position to full time (Art. 15). In another article, the Church Order implies that employment deemed to be “non-ministerial” is incompatible with the office of Minister of the Word (Art. 14d).
There have been other practical impediments to bivocational ministry, including barriers to participation in the denominational pension and health insurance plans and a lack of proper support and supervision.
The study committee report addresses these and other issues.
The committee decided to include an evaluation of what it calls “nontraditional pastoral arrangements” that are not, strictly speaking, bivocational. These include covocational ministries in which the pastor’s occupation outside the church is directly related to mission, such as when a pastor of a local church operates a coffee shop as part of the mission of the church. Another nontraditional arrangement involves clergy couples who together fill a single pastoral position. And sometimes a pastor might serve part time without other employment or volunteer with no compensation at all.
The report argues that these and other nontraditional arrangements for pastors are already important for the denomination and should be supported.
A Growing Trend
The report cites an informal survey of ethnic subgroups within the CRC indicating that up to 75% of pastors in African American congregations are bivocational, along with 65-70% of pastors in Hispanic churches and 40% of pastors in Chinese congregations. Among Korean churches, most lead pastors are employed full time, but a majority of associate pastors are bivocational. In new church plants, according to Resonate Global Mission, about half of the leaders (48%) are bivocational.
If these trends continue, the report says, bivocational ministry will become more common across the denomination. Christian Reformed congregations are, on average, smaller than they have been. Shrinking churches in urban and rural settings find it challenging to support a full-time pastor.
A Way Forward
Besides fitting the demographic trends, bivocational ministry can offer strategic advantages for the church going forward, the committee reports. It allows the flexibility to begin and maintain congregations in settings that lack the numbers or wealth to support a full-time pastor. It allows larger congregations to add staff without having to support a full-time salary. It gives small and struggling congregations the “toughness” to survive in difficult times. And it provides flexibility in missional settings.
For these reasons, the committee recommends that the CRC take steps to encourage bivocational ministry. These steps include modifying Articles 14 and 15 of the Church Order to remove language that characterizes bivocational ministry as an exception. They propose adding a supplement to Article 15 that defines what “proper support” of pastors looks like for full-time and various part-time pastoral arrangements. And they suggest adding language to Article 23, which concerns commissioned pastors, to support bivocational ministry in that office as well.
The committee also asks the pension boards of the denomination to come up with an option for pastoral couples serving one church to be treated as a single entity, lessening the burden on the couples and the church who otherwise would have to fund two pensions. Finally, the committee makes various proposals for assessing the health and welfare of bivocational pastors and providing them with stronger support.
The heart of the report is support of bivocational pastors. Ministry is hard, and it is often harder for bivocational pastors, who must balance two jobs, sometimes lack financial and other support, and can feel isolated from the life of the denomination. The committee’s recommendations are aimed at stepping up denominational and congregational support for these pastors who serve the church well in a variety of strategic ministries.
The report is one of three study committee reports coming to Synod 2021, expected to be convened June 11-17 in Sioux Center, Iowa. All three are available online from CRCNA synodical services, and summaries are published there in English, Korean, and Spanish.