Bivocational pastors called, challenged and fruitful in variety of settings
by Amanda Phifer
FRESNO - If you're a member of New Life Community Church in San Jose and you need surgery, your pastor may also be your anesthesiologist.
If you're a member of Gualala Baptist Church in Gualala and you go to one of the two grocery stores in town on a Tuesday afternoon, you'll see one of your pastors working at the deli counter.
And if you're a member of Iglesia Bautista el Faro in West Sacramento and you call the insurer Liberty Mutual, you might find yourself talking to your pastor.
It's called bivocational, a word spell-check may not recognize but a concept that is as old as the church herself.
Since the days of the Apostle Paul church leaders have had "day jobs" in the marketplace. This bivocational ministry continues throughout the church all over the world, and Southern Baptists in the Golden State are no exception.
Amos Yang, an anesthesiologist and church planter in San Jose, wouldn't have it any other way. His church planting team all have second jobs.
"We're bivocational by choice, not out of necessity," Yang explained passionately. "Everybody on the team holds the perspective that bivocational is the preferable way to do ministry. Even though New Life probably financially could support a pastor full-time, we're choosing not to. And probably always will."
He cites three advantages, in his view: first, having a bivocational pastor does not place an undue financial burden on the church.
"It would take at least $70,000 to support a pastor here in the Bay Area. That's $70,000 that can't be invested in outreach, better venue, books and Bibles, equipment. Being bivocational frees up funds for the church to do its ministries."
Secondly, Yang said bivocational pastors, because their financial stability is not dependent upon the church, have a greater measure of freedom in teaching and ministry.
"It allows us to do ministry without ever being tempted to compromise," he explained. "It's so disheartening to see fellow seminary grads being abused or compromising in ministry settings, pressured by an angry deacon, an angry family, etc. Pastors who are not bivocational depend on the church for financial security. Do I compromise for my financial stability? Or no?
"These are powerful pressures, and cause a lot of suffering to pastors who by-and-large want to do right and be obedient to God."
The potential downside, which Yang recognizes, is that a bivocational pastor "could not be as dependent on faith, on God's leading. I don't have to depend as much, in theory, on God, when I can 'support myself.'"
Jason Baker, the associate pastor at Gualala Baptist who also works as a deli employee, takes a similar slant.
"I view my secular income, which is steady, as part of God's faithfulness as well, because even the job is His provision," Baker said.
Yang and Baker also agree on the third key advantage of bivocational ministry: the inherent "credibility" factor.
"Being bivocational allows us to continue to understand the world our people live and work in," Yang explained. "Having to work around nonbelievers, maybe have them as your boss, you know the pressures your people deal with. It helps pastors stay in touch with the same world as people, because they're in the same world."
As Baker put it, "People see me as a real person. I'm not this name up on a pedestal. People think of me as their pastor, but because they also see me working at the store, I think they think, 'Oh, that's just Jason.' In such a small town where basically everybody knows everybody, our store is one of the hubs of the town. The two days a week I'm there I can see so many people come through, and even though I can't sit and talk, those small little interactions have many times opened to something larger outside of the store."
This occasionally has a downside for Baker: "Sometimes people, whether they're members of our church or not, because they know I'm a pastor, tend to think they can talk to me about pastoral-type things while I'm at work. It's difficult to say, 'I care ... but now is not the time!'
"The deli counter really isn't just another church office!" he laughed.
A corollary to this advantage of bivo-cational ministry, Yang said, is that when he or other members of the church planting team say to new believers, "Follow my example," those new believers actually can.
"In an apostolic way, we model what our people should imitate," he said. "By living in the same day-to-day world as my people, there is a naturalness of discipleship, men-toring, and modeling."
There are of course disadvantages, most obviously the issue of time, that ever-short commodity. Yang recognizes that even though it's not an issue for him now, he's in a unique season of life: professional career, without children.
Baker deals with the disadvantage despite not working full-time in his "day job" - he and his wife have three young children, and there are many days, he said, that just don't have enough hours.
Joe Puente of the West Sacramento church, at an age when he could be retired (65), admitted "my wife and I don't have much quiet time. The church has so many needs, she spends a lot of time ministering when she should be resting. We don't have enough people."
But he added, "It's a lot of sacrifice on the part of the family, but where else would you serve? What else would you do? It's worth the sacrifice."
For these three pastors at these three rather different churches, it's working.
Yang and his team are reaching their own reflection: young professional Asian-Americans in Silicon Valley, and they're using, naturally, social media as a primary tool.
Baker has returned to his old stomping ground to minister to the youth of his own church, simultaneously discipling their parents through a weekly after-school program.
And Puente, native Texan and retired Army lieutenant colonel who has worked in safety, transportation and insurance for decades, pastors a Latino church in the blue-collar community of West Sacramento.
Puente has employed every traditional strategy of church planting: prayer-walks, block parties, marketing, flyers and old-fashioned walking the streets and talking to people. He's now recognized when he walks into Wal-Mart; the church has baptized 50 new believers in four years; and it's planning its fourth Vacation Bible School.
These ministers are no more or less called, they insist, than the pastor who occupies the church office full-time. They have simply chosen to be in the world, and in the church, in a challenging but potentially rewarding way.
Bivocational is not for the faint of heart. But then, no life of obedience is.
Last Published: June 26, 2014 9:51 PM