Bivocational/covocational pastors: Serving God in the marketplace and in the church

Common calling offers benefits of financial stability, greater community awareness

By Margaret Colson
The Alabama Baptist

Mike Perrigin works as a machinist at the University of Alabama and has pastored Chapel Hill Baptist Church, a 150-year-old-plus congregation in rural Fayette County, for a little more than five years.

Jason Harris is a distributor of Western wear to stores throughout the southeast and recently was ordained and accepted the pastorate of historic Greenwood Baptist Church, just across Alabama’s border in the Florida Panhandle, a small church with members coming from Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

Grounded in Scripture

Both ministers serve as bivocational pastors — serving their churches while also working secular jobs. It’s an approach grounded in the Scripture, with the Apostle Paul described as a tentmaker in Acts 18. And it’s an approach that has long been embraced among Southern Baptists. While no “exact numbers” are available, an estimated 50 to 65% of churches, “with a probable error of up to 10%,” are served by pastors who also work in secular jobs, said Joe Wright, executive director of the Bivocational and Small Church Leadership Network (BSCLN). In Alabama, an estimated 55% of pastors are bivocational.

The impact of Southern Baptists’ bivocational pastors is far-reaching. In June 2019, Ronnie Floyd, president and CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Executive Committee, told a group of bivocational pastors who gathered during the SBC annual meeting in Birmingham, “My entire life as a child and teenager, I had a bivocational pastor. Some were schoolteachers, some were doing other things and others were painting houses … but that’s who poured into me. That’s who really taught me the importance of the inerrancy of the Word, how to witness and share my faith. … Thank you for what you have done to help people like me.”

Today, the term “bivocational,” long used to describe these ministers, is in some circles being replaced by the term “covocational.” 

Brad Brisco, director of bivocational church planting for the North American Mission Board (NAMB), said the “language of covocation pushes against the temptation to compartmentalize different aspects of our lives.”

Brisco believes “all vocations contribute to God’s redemptive mission.”

Serving in his position with BSCLN for almost two years, Wright has been a part of discussions regarding the terminology describing ministers who work other jobs in addition to their ministerial positions; he offered “multivocational” as yet another descriptive term. 

“In my experience,” he said, “there is very little difference (in the terms). I have spoken to different individuals who espouse different definitions, but it always boils down to individuals supplementing their income through an alternate means along with their ministry position.”

From his perspective, he said, “Those who do the work don’t really care what you call them just as long as they are called and recognized for their work within the Lord’s kingdom.”

Benefits and challenges

While some have observed a decrease overall in the number of men called to small church pastoral ministry, Wright said he sees an increasing number of young ministers who intentionally choose the bivocational path as their means of doing ministry. 

“They are not bivocational because a specific church requires it, but they see it as a way to achieve doing meaningful ministry while being invested within the community which surrounds their place of ministry,” Wright said.

Brisco believes ministry leaders get to know community members better when they get out of the “church bubble.” Secular employment is one way to do that. Wright agrees.

“The number one benefit reported by bivocational pastors is a closer daily relationship with lost people through their work in the social marketplace,” said Wright.

Perrigin, who was recognized for his faithful service as a bivocational pastor by NAMB at the 2019 SBC annual meeting, said serving as a bivocational pastor is a “blessing.” Through his job at the University of Alabama, he gets to meet a lot of people, he said, and at his church, he gets to preach.” Building relationships and preaching are two joys in his life, he said.

A second benefit of bivocational/covocational ministry is financial independence, which may give ministers greater “freedom to speak prophetically without the threat of losing their primary financial stream,” Wright said.

With such benefits, the most significant challenge facing bivocational/covocational ministers is time. 

Bivocational/covocational ministers can feel time pressures in accomplishing all they want to accomplish in their churches, in caring for their families and in mentoring and discipling others, Wright said.

Perrigin understands the challenge of time. He and his wife have two special needs children, and his commute to his job at the University of Alabama takes a chunk of his precious time each day. 

“I don’t want to shortchange the church or God,” he said. Still, after five years he has found his rhythm. “It seems always to work out,” he said.

However, even the challenge of limited time among bivocational pastors has the potential to strengthen churches and lay leaders. Pastor Joe McKeever, speaking to bivocational pastors at the 2019 SBC annual meeting, said his time as a bivocational pastor taught him to delegate work and train others for ministry. 

“I’ve learned that God does not send us to do all these jobs ourselves but to train others to do them,” he said.

Looking ahead

With its strong roots biblically and in Southern Baptist life, bivocational/covocational ministry is here to stay, Wright said. When he speaks with denominational leaders, “They almost universally answer that they see bivocationalism [as opposed to full-time ministry positions] increasing in the near future. With the rising costs of living coupled with the increasing numbers of smaller-attendance churches, this strategy of financial support within church leadership must by necessity increase in the future.”

_____________________________________________________________________________

Understanding bivo/covo ministries

God has called all of us to unique paths within His kingdom. No two pastors are alike. No two ministries are alike. 

When it comes to bivocational and covocational ministries, one of the key things we need to remember is not every pastor is hoping to become a full-time pastor, said Rick Barnhart, director of the office of associational missions and church planting for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. “A bivocational pastor often is hoping to grow that church to a point that it’s going to be fully funded, but a covocational pastor knows he’s going to continue to be a lawyer and a pastor or an accountant and a pastor. He’s going to share his time.” 

For more information, contact Barnhart at 800-264-1225 or rbarnhart@alsbom.org. (TAB)

_____________________________________________________________________________

Covo church planting creates opportunities

Church planters often come to the role of pastor differently than others in ministry, which may be one reason bivocational/covocational ministry is common among this group.

For some church planters “their hope is that the church will eventually be able to provide the financial support for the planter to leave his bivocational job to focus full-time on the church plant,” said Brad Brisco, director of bivocational church planting for the North American Mission Board (NAMB). 

For others that’s not the case.

“A covocational church planter is one whose primary vocation is in the marketplace and [who] at the same time is called to start a church. A ‘covo’ planter is one who has a clear calling in the marketplace that they never intend to leave. They know God has called them to be a teacher, mechanic, graphic designer or doctor, and they desire to weave that calling into the plan to plant a church.”

Bivocational/covocational church planting provides financial stability for the church planter, the new church and the church planting entity, according to Brisco. But among both bivocational and covocational church planters, holding a second job is about more than a paycheck.

First option

The decision to serve bivocationally comes from the “conviction that bivocational church planting actually provides a more desirable way to plant a new church. … In other words, it is becoming a first option, not a last resort,” Brisco wrote in a blog post, “What is covocational church planting?”

In his book “Covocational Church Planting,” Brisco writes, “Covocational church planting creates opportunities for leaders in the congregation to use their God-given talents to create a culture of participation rather than one of spectatorship.”

And, he adds, “perhaps the most significant benefit of planting as a bivocational leader is that it gives the planter greater opportunities to connect relationally with people in the community.” 

Secular employment helps ministry leaders get out of the “church bubble,” where they might spend most “of their time talking with church people about things of the church. … It is not until [people] actually incarnate into the local context that they begin to understand the values and interests of the people. It is difficult to really love and serve the people God has sent us to from a distance,” Brisco wrote in a blog post, “Covocational Church Planting.”

“Without a doubt” bivocational/covocational church planting will become increasingly prevalent in the coming years, Brisco said.

“As we live in an increasing missionary context, we will have to plant more and more churches with bivo/covo planters. I think it will become one of the best missiological and financial strategies for church planting.” (Margaret Colson)