The Bivocational Question

When you consider how to pace a church plant, one of the key questions that you need to consider is whether or not the church should employ the lead planter. Depending on the decision you make, you could have the opportunity to grow the church much more quickly, but also the pressure for that growth to come in order to remain sustainable.

The decision is not an easy one, and should be approached with careful prayer and outside wisdom. Whilst most church planters are keen to move fast, there are circumstances in which slow and steady wins the day.

The purpose of this article isn’t to suggest that you should or shouldn’t be employed, but rather to set out some of the factors that you should consider as you contemplate this decision yourself.

Three Options

The first thing to be clear about is what the options before you are, and what are the pros and cons of each of these options.

1. Working Full-Time for the Church​

This is the default mode for most leaders of established churches, and it is not uncommon to see the same approach carried in to church planting.

The pros are quite obvious. It allows the planter to give their full focus to planting the church, and releases a significant amount of time for them to meet people, be hospitable, plan and organise events, pray, prepare preaching and so on.

The biggest downside to this option is the financial cost. Paying a full-time salary can make a major dint in the budget of a new church, and limits the other things that the church can invest in. It is possible that you may be able to find funding from another source, such as personal financial supporters, a sending church, or a grant from a centralised network or organisation. This kind of funding can be a significant blessing, but it is worth asking whether there are any conditions attached in terms of how the new church operates, and in the cases where the gift is for a limited time, it is important to consider sustainability once the money has been used up.

Other downsides to this approach can be that it removes the planter from regular contact with unbelievers in their workplace, it potentially makes the life of the planter very insular and church-centric (especially if they have moved to a brand new area to plant), and it can limit the opportunities for others to take ownership of the plant as since the planter is being paid, a large proportion of the ministry will fall to them by default.

2. Leading the Church In Your Spare Time

A second approach is for the planter to earn their living in a 9-5 job and to plant the church in their spare time. This is much less risky than the first approach, but will usually dictate a much slower pace for the church plant.

The big advantage of this model is that it allows the church to grow at its own pace without imposing a pressure to reach a certain income in order to pay a salary. This gives a greater flexibility to have an evangelistic focus and to work with poorer communities, without the worry of ensuring there is a good base of better-off givers to fund the work. Where money is available, it will give the church many more options what to use it for.

The disadvantage is that it puts a lot of pressure on the time of the leader. Working a full time job is a demanding thing, and when this is combined with leading a church it can squeeze out other important priorities, such as family  time, personal devotions and physical well-being. It limits the amount of things that the church plant can do, and will therefore mean missing potential opportunities that would be open if the leader had more time to invest in the church.

For a church plant that operates this way, it is imperative that the leader is able to share the load with their team, and gives away significant responsibility to those ministering with them.

3. Working Part-Time For the Church

This is a hybrid approach that looks to get the best elements of the two models above. By working part-time for the church, the planter will have some time set aside to build the church and push things forward, but because this is limited to a couple of days a week it is a much more manageable financial commitment.

When this works well, it can truly be the best of both worlds: a planter who is able to put time aside to meet with people from the church, pray, organise and prepare to teach  on their church days, and then engage in the cut-and-thrust of the market-place along the types of people they planted the church to reach for the rest of the week.

For a lot of jobs, this type of arrangement isn’t an option, so to a large extent it depends on the skill-set of the planter and the type of employment that they are able to get. Additionally, being focussed in two different directions can be energy-draining, and mean that the planter is not able to give the best of themselves in either direction.

Three Perspectives

Each of the three options has some clear advantages and other equally clear disadvantages. As we think about what is the right choice for our own situation, there are different perspectives that we can approach the decision from.

1. The Biblical Perspective

When we are making any important decision, the primary question that we should ask is what the Bible has to say on the issue. The question of whether church leaders should be employed is one that the Bible addresses, and it takes a fairly nuanced view of the matter. Biblical support could be found for each of the three options.

In the Old Testament, the ministry in the Temple was done by priests and levites, and they were paid for this ministry from the tithes given by the rest of the people (see Numbers 18:21-24). The idea of having people set aside to carry responsibilities ​amongst people and being remunerated for their service finds precedent here, although we shouldn’t apply this too directly to church leaders today, remembering that in the New Testament, the ‘priesthood’ isn’t applied just to elders and church leaders, but to all believers.

As Jesus toured Israel, preaching and healing from village to village, he was funded in his ministry by the gifts of some generous women (see Luke 8:1-3), and as he called his disciples to follow him, his instruction was to leave their jobs and join him in the ministry (Mark 1:17-18). When Jesus sent out the seventy-two to go preaching and healing, he instructed them to live off the provision of the people in the place that they were ministering (Luke 10:5-8), and summarised his rationale for this approach with the words, ‘for the labourer deserves his wages.’ (Luke 10:7)

This approach formed the ​basis of the ongoing ministry of the apostles as they travelled and planted churches. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul makes the argument that christian workers are entitled to be paid for their ministry, and he refers back to the examples of both the workers in the temple and the instructions that Jesus gave to those who he sent out to preach the gospel. In verse 6 of this chapter, Paul strongly hints that this was a right that the majority of the apostles made the most of, as he asked, ‘is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?’

This makes a compelling case that a church leader or a travelling missionary has the right to be paid for their ministry. Nevertheless, the question still remains about whether or not taking up this right will serve or hinder the progress of the gospel. As he makes his case for why gospel ministers have the right to financial compensation, Paul simultaneously explains why he personally is not willing to take up this right. He writes, ‘Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.’ (1 Corinthians 9:12) 

Because Paul was clear that taking a salary would be hindrance to the advance of the gospel in his context, he chose instead to plant churches without pay, and make his living through another job; making tents (see Acts 18:1-4).

The Biblical perspective demolishes any idea that a church planter can’t be paid for their work, and clearly affirms their right to a wage, and yet it leaves a question hanging about whether or not we should take up this right. This will, of course, vary from one situation to the next, but the fundamental issue will always be the same: what will best serve the advance of the gospel?

2. The Contextual Perspective

If the conclusion from the Biblical perspective is that the way forward will vary depending on your situation, then we must next look at the contextual perspective. Depending on exactly where you are based, the following observations may be more or less relevant for you, but hopefully they will help you to begin thinking about your own setting.

The West is entering or has already entered a post-Christian age. The time where basic cultural assumptions were Christian has gone, and with it church planting has become more difficult. There are fewer floating Christians around who might give you the initial critical mass than there were in the past, and many of the people that you are trying to reach will already carry assumptions about Christianity. These assumptions are often cynical, and may include the thought that the church is after their money. It is still important to lead people in the financial aspects of discipleship, but this may be a harder and longer process than in times past.

It is more common that churches will start with 20 people rather than 50, a scrappy entrepreneurial approach is well-positioned to succeed, and whilst the idea of a church planter working full-time for the church is appealing, for many it is not an option. In situations where the funds are available, it certainly shouldn’t be dismissed, but to see the multiplied church planting movements that we desire will mean that many will need to support themselves in another way.

3. The Personal Perspective

The final perspective to consider is your own temperament. Are you somebody who gains energy from being around people, or somebody who needs to be on your own to recharge your batteries? Do you do best when you are deeply engaged in one project, or do you enjoy having your finger in a few different pies? Are you high capacity or low capacity? Are you in a season of life where you can afford to live on a shoe-string budget, or do you need a more stable income? What needs and hopes do your family have? How can you make sure you are keeping enough time for them, being present in the time you do have and providing for them financially?

These questions won’t necessarily make the decision for you, but they should help you to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each of the choices. It is a good idea as you think through this perspective to ask others who you trust to speak into your life. Self-knowledge is a funny thing, and most us have blindspots in different areas. Listening well to the views of those who know you best will provide a different insight to that which you would have alone, and may begin to point you in the correct direction.

Three Resources

The practical challenge in whichever decision you make is being able to manage your reserves of three important resources – time, money and energy. The most difficult part of the challenge is that increasing any one of these resources will usually come at the expense of one of the others.

1. Time

Time is the most strictly constrained resource of the three. Each week you have one hundred and sixty eight hours at your disposal and you need to apportion them in the best way possible. Every hour that you spend working at your day job is an hour less to spend on the church plant. Every hour spent planting the church is an hour left with your family.

Ask yourself what is the absolute minimum amount of your time that the church plant needs, and then ask how much time you would be able to give it in an ideal world. The balance that you strike will probably need to be somewhere between the two. Ask similar questions for your family life and also for your hobbies/health etc.

How much time does that leave in the week for working a job?

2. Money

If you do not pay adequate attention to this resource, you could get yourself into a lot of trouble very quickly. You will almost certainly have commitments to a whole set of outgoings each month, and you need to ensure that you have enough money coming in to cover these. In addition to these outgoings, think of the nice-to-haves that you and your family would like (budget to have some – but not all – of them), add in the money that you need to save for a rainy day and for your retirement, and finally allowenough margin to allow to be financially generous as the opportunity arises.

Add up what kind of income you need, and then look at what you already have coming in from investments, rental properties or the income of your spouse. Then, based on the hourly rate you would be able to command, add in the money that you could earn from working the number of hours that you identified you had to spare (above)?

How do the sums add up?

Does the income meet the outgoings? If not, then first try cut down any unnecessary uses of your time in the church (are there things that you could delegate?) and streamline your own personal life. Also cut out any unnecessary expenditure until the sums balance. If you can’t make things add up, then something has to give. If you are in this position, you really have three options:

    • Get paid by the church plant for some/all of the time. This raises a whole different set of questions about whether the church budget can afford it, and you may need to do a similar exercise with the income and outgoings of the church to determine the extent to which this is viable.
    • Take a financial hit. You might need to tighten your belt for a season and give time to the church plant without pay. Be careful with this option though. This is not a long-term solution, and as soon as the church is in a position it should then look to remunerate you for the time that you do. Additionally, be careful not to take on debt in this season, nor to allow resentment to creep into a marriage if your spouse if providing for the family whilst you engage in your passion project.
    • Take a time hit. It may be that you need to get up that bit earlier in a morning and go to bed a bit later for a while to get everything done, or put other interests that use your time on hold for a season. Again, this is not a sustainable long term option. Good sleep and a balanced life will cause you to function at your best, but on a short-term basis, it may be necessary.

Clearly, the first of these options is preferable if the church is in a position to do it. If not, then seek wisdom from those leaders overseeing you about how much of a sacrifice is managable, and scale your plans for the church accordingly.

3. Energy

It is possible that your are able to find a balance of bivocational ministry that meets both the financial and time needs of your situation but so depletes your energy that you are not able to put that time to good use.

In my first experience of bivocational ministry, my part-time day-job was as a newly qualified teacher in a rough urban secondary school. Though I was able to balance my time to get the job done and be able to work on the church plant, and our finances were in good order, I would come home from work every day emotionally sapped. I would frequently need to spend time alone, I had little left to offer to any church or community meetings, and I also had less mental energy to bring to conversations with my wife than I would have liked.

I didn’t take long in this job before I realised that it wasn’t a good fit for what I was trying to do, and I adjusted accordingly, but it does highlight the importance of  finding a day-job that not only provides the time and money needed for ministry, but that also leaves you and energised and raring to go for the other half of your life.

Three Recommendations

Throughout this article, I have tried to avoid giving a prescriptive answer, but rather to highlight some of the key issues to think about in deciding whether a church planter should be employed by the church full-time, part-time or not at all.

As we draw to a close, I want to make a few recommendations and I hope you will consider how applicable they are to your own situation.

1. Iterate

Often we can put pressure on ourselves to get every decision right before we have even got going. However, as a church plant develops the needs of every phase will be slightly different, and the ‘right’ decision will be constantly changing. There is nothing wrong with starting by gathering a group in your spare time whilst you have a job, and then when you hit a point where your time feels strained look to drop a day or two at work and let the church begin to employ you gradually. Flexibility and responsiveness to the pressures of the moment may serve you much better than a dogmatic decision about how you will approach things before you even get going.

2. Skill Up

You really don’t want to end up in a position where your only marketable skill is church leadership as this instantly removes lots of options from the table and limits the type of church planting that you are able to be involved in. Develop your skills and qualifications to make yourself as employable as possible, and this will give you the greatest flexibility to make the decision that is best for your church and the people that you are trying to reach. In particular, consider developing skills in fields that allow flexibility over the amount of time you work, pay well, and are not too energy sapping.

(On a similar note, you may want to think about getting some passive income streams going – stocks and shares, property, side businesses, etc.)​

3. Three and Two May Make More Than Five

The vast majority of church plants that have financial capacity to a salary for five days a week use that money to employ somebody full-time, but sometimes the wisdom of this may be questionable.

In most circumstances, making the lead planter your first hire makes a lot of sense. But when that planter is already doing a couple of days a week for you, the extra value gained by upping that to three days may well be less than you would get if you brought on a worship leader or evangelist or kids worker or administrator for one day per week.

By spreading your staffing budget amongst a wider group of people you will be able to tap into different giftings and personalities and may find yourself moving forward much quicker than you would if you locked up all your finances in a smaller number of people (At Christ Church Manchester, we have a staff team of eight people:  one does 4 days per week, one does 3 days, three – including me – do 2 days each, and the other three do 1 day each… it works a treat!)

We’d love to know what conclusions you end up drawing on this bivocational question. Why not drop us a line on social media and let us know where you land?

P.S. – I make no pretence of being a financial (or any other kind of) advisor… just a bloke with some random thoughts about planting churches. I would strongly recommend speaking to a pro before making any big financial decisions.