From Necessity to Opportunity
Three pastors share lessons learned as bivocational ministers
A substantial minority of American pastors are bivocational.
In the Assemblies of God, for example, the percentage of pastors who claim income from a second job is 38%, according to a 2016 study commissioned by the AG’s Center for Leadership and Stewardship Excellence.
For most of these pastors, bivocational ministry is an economic necessity. The churches they lead are small and may be unable to support a full-time pastor. Sixty-eight percent of Assemblies of God churches report fewer than 100 people in weekly attendance, according to 2018 statistics. Approximately one-third have fewer than 50 attendees.
It’s no wonder, then, that small-church guru Karl Vaters calls bivocational ministry the “new normal.” And yet, economic necessity is not the only, or even the best, way to frame this form of ministry. In 1 Corinthians 9:23, the apostle Paul wrote that he did all things “for the sake of the gospel.” This included Paul’s choice to refuse the Corinthian church’s financial support, which he otherwise described as a “right” (verses 4,6,12).
Paul’s argument suggests missional opportunity provides a better framework for practicing bivocational ministry than economic necessity, even as it acknowledges the financial need to work a second job.
To get a better feel for how a missional-opportunity framework changes how we understand and practice bivocational ministry, I interviewed three pastors who have started or revitalized churches while working second jobs. Let me introduce them to you first, then share what I learned from my conversations with them.
Saul Gonzalez is pastor of LifeHouse Church (AG) in Bakersfield, California. His ministry there began in 2001 as a church-revitalization project when the church had fewer than 20 weekly attendees.
While leading the church, he served local public school systems in a variety of roles, including teacher, principal and superintendent. During this period, the church grew to over 500 in weekly attendance.
In 2017, Gonzalez began transitioning from working full time for public schools to working full time for the church. LifeHouse has since grown to 2,400 in weekly attendance, with satellite campuses in Delano and Wasco. (We’ll return to his transition at the end of this article.)
John Aniemeke is pastor of Bethel Covenant Assembly of God in San Antonio, Texas, a church he planted in his living room with eight people seven years ago. Aniemeke is a dentist specializing in periodontal surgery, dental implants and jaw reconstruction.
Bethel Covenant has experienced rapid growth — “by the grace of God,” in Aniemeke’s words — and now averages about 1,400 in weekly attendance. It is preparing to move into a new 60,000-square-foot facility along a major highway in the city.
Svetlana Papazov is pastor of Real Life Church (AG) in Midlothian, Virginia, which she planted in 2016. According to the church’s website, the ministry has “a heart for de-churched people and bridging the sacred and secular divide.”
With more than 50 in weekly attendance, plans are already underway to start a network of smaller churches with a similar mission.
Papazov, who describes herself as a serial entrepreneur, is founder and CEO of an entrepreneurial incubator and coworking center. Her small business consultancy practice coaches startups to launch and scale their enterprises. With a background in landscape architecture, she has led or co-led five for-profit startups, as well as two nonprofits, one of which is the church.
Real Life Church and Papazov’s business, Real Life Center for Entrepreneurial and Leadership Excellence, share the same facility. The rentals from the business offices and co-working space help fund the ministry of the church.
Despite the differences among these pastors, four common themes emerge from their stories.
The Sacred Secular
Many Christians draw a hard distinction between the sacred and secular, assigning a higher value to the former. They figure truly spiritual people will become pastors, evangelists and missionaries. These folks view secular work, however important it may be, primarily as a source of funding for full-time ministry.
Such a theology fits hand in glove with the economic-necessity framework of bivocational ministry. The assumption is the primary value of bivocational pastors’ secular jobs is funding ministry — the sacred work.
All three pastors reject this common theology of work.
Gonzalez always viewed his bivocational work as one mission field with two ministry assignments: pastoring a church and leading public schools. For him, both are God-given opportunities to influence people.
“God is calling me to shepherd,” Gonzalez says, “so I’m going to pastor these kids [in public schools]. And while I pastor them, my mission is to teach them English.”
Though there has long been a disconnect between religion and the marketplace in American culture, Aniemeke says this does not have to be the case.
“God always has different people in different areas of life, and I’m just very privileged to be one of the people He’s chosen in the dental field to serve Him,” Aniemeke says.
Both Aniemeke and Papazov cite Psalm 24:1 as a favorite verse: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”
“All callings have Kingdom value, worth and dignity,” Papazov says.
Papazov points to the example of Daniel in the Old Testament, noting that his secular work and prophetic ministry operated together, not separately.
“I don’t see the strict separation between the labor we do as though it is sacred or secular,” she says.
Because Papazov believes both her jobs have Kingdom value, she prefers to call herself a “covocational” minister, rather than a bivocational one.
“Everything I do aligns in one direction,” Papazov says.
This has obvious application to the lives of the church members Papazov leads. She has made the theology of work a matter of formal academic study. Papazov revised and published her doctoral dissertation as Church for Monday: Equipping Believers for Mission at Work.
Reflecting on the work of the Church, she says, “God is guiding us into bringing His solutions literally from heaven to earth, as we reflect His answers to our problems that we have. We bring them through our work to lift our communities very holistically — spiritually, socially and economically.”
Such a theology of work fundamentally changes the way bivocational ministers view their second jobs. Obviously, those jobs retain their instrumental value as a source of funding for pastoral ministry. But the jobs also have intrinsic value because they extend the rule of God into the nooks and crannies of life.
In the process, the secular becomes sacred because bivocational ministers are “working for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23) in both their jobs.
One of the greatest challenges bivocational pastors face is that they cannot perform both jobs full time. This requires them to approach time management and delegation of responsibility with deliberation.
All three pastors intentionally carve out time in their busy schedules for God, family and personal care. Moreover, their churches schedule events well in advance so everyone involved in leading them has adequate time to prepare.
The most crucial element, however, seems to be the development of other leaders to share the burdens of ministry.
“You need the ability not just to balance [your time] but also to grow teams,” Gonzalez says. “Grow teams. I can’t overemphasize this enough.”
Those teams include both pastoral staff and lay ministers. As their churches grew, both Gonzalez and Aniemeke hired full-time pastors to give leadership to various ministries within the church: worship, children, youth and administration, for example.
Though her church is smaller, Papazov likewise shares pastoral responsibilities with two other bivocational ministers.
Bivocational pastors don’t just share ministry with pastoral staff, however. They build churches that identify and develop lay ministers as well.
“All callings have Kingdom value, worth and dignity.”
— Svetlana Papazov
Gonzalez says team members — whether pastoral staff or lay volunteers — need to exhibit the five C’s: 1) Character, 2) Competence, 3) Commitment to the church’s mission, 4) Chemistry with their co-ministers, and 5) Consistent performance.
For Aniemeke, shared ministry begins with passion.
“If you’re passionate about God, God will want to entrust things into your hands,” Aniemeke says.
Despite growing up in a pastor’s home, Aniemeke never expected God to call him into ministry.
Still, whatever he did as a church attendee, Aniemeke did with passion.
In the last year of his dental residency, Aniemeke sensed God saying, “I want you to begin the work in San Antonio to advance the gospel of Jesus and bring about a revival.”
Aniemeke says God commissions those who are passionate, but many church people today are passive — and that can make it difficult for leaders to get the help they need.
Bivocational ministers cannot do everything God calls the Church to do. They must share the responsibility of ministry with others. This is not merely an issue of expediency. It is also a matter of biblical principle.
After all, the practice of shared ministry flows directly from passages in the New Testament about the spiritual giftedness of all believers (e.g., Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; Ephesians 4:7-13).
If bivocational pastors can have secular jobs, then it’s just as true that their church members can have sacred ministries.
All three pastors say their second jobs have given them greater credibility as ministers. They also agree their secular jobs have increased their leadership capacities as pastors.
During the recent past, most Americans ranked pastors highly as trustworthy leaders in the community. According to the Gallup Organization, however, Americans’ trust in the “honesty and ethics of clergy” declined from 52% to 37% between 2012 and ’18. In 2019, the most recent poll data available, the share was 40%, a slight increase. Nevertheless, Americans trusted nine professions more than they did clergy.
In other words, clergy credibility is no longer a given. Today’s church leaders must earn the trust of their communities. Working in the secular marketplace can be one way to regain credibility.
Gonzalez says secular employment enhanced his relational skills and opened doors for building connections outside of a ministry context. He says it also made it easier for him to identify with people who have careers outside the church.
“They have everyday problems that are very different than if you isolate yourself in just ministry,” Gonzalez says.
As a doctor, Aniemeke believes his dental practice gives him credibility in two senses.
First, he says, “You aren’t going to get through to our generation now with just opening the Bible. They have to be able to know that you have a little bit of knowledge or scientific knowledge, or that you can relate to their marketplace experiences for you to be able to reach them.”
Second, secular employment signals to the community that a pastor is not in ministry just for the money.
“There’s a level of confidence and credibility that comes from the fact that you’re not depending on their resources to do ministry,” Aniemeke says.
For Papazov, credibility comes from sharing the experiences of parishioners who are working 9 to 5.
“I am there with them, [going through] the struggles that they are in the midst of,” Papazov says.
At a time when communities are losing trust in clergy, bivocational ministry may help bridge the gap between ministers and laypeople. Those second jobs can also increase the leadership capacities of pastors.
Gonzalez says the work experiences he had, the in-service training he received, and the leadership principles he gleaned in the education world helped in his pastoral ministry role. He worries that people who rush into full-time ministry underestimate the value of gaining marketplace experience.
“Being bivocational is a gift,” Gonzalez says.
A gift is not a guarantee, of course. Secular employment does not automatically generate credibility or leadership capacity, but it does present an opportunity.
Depending on the size and financial condition of their churches, bivocational pastors may face the choice of whether to go univocational — that is, to “receive their living from the gospel,” as the apostle Paul put it (1 Corinthians 9:14).
Going univocational is neither an easy nor an automatic choice, however.
Papazov considers her commitment to bivocational ministry a lifelong decision. For her, the rewards outweigh the challenges. As an example, she recalls how, during a consultation with one of her business clients, she felt led to begin a spiritual conversation. By the end of the meeting, Papazov was able to lead that client in the prayer of salvation.
“If we can reach people and bring them to the salvation experience with Jesus, then being in an environment where we can invite them to come to church and be a part of a church family has worked very well for us,” Papazov says.
This approach has helped pave the way for the 61 decisions for Christ people have made through the ministry of Real Life Church since it launched. Many of these converts have become members of the church.
Aniemeke says the choice to go univocational would be difficult.
“I enjoy the practice of dentistry and taking care of patients,” he says. “It’s fun for me because that’s always been my childhood passion to do this.”
Nevertheless, Aniemeke recognizes that as the church grows, the time may come when he must give up his dental practice.
So, he prays, “Lord, whenever You need me to drop dentistry, I won’t think about it twice. I will lay it all down for You because You own everything.”
For Aniemeke, that time has not yet come.
Of the three pastors, only Gonzalez has made the move to univocational ministry. He took 18 months to transition out of his work as a full-time public charter school district superintendent to become a full-time pastor in 2017.
Why so long? Gonzalez says as important as he felt it was for him to become a full-time pastor, he believed it was equally important to serve the district in a way that would leave a positive Christian testimony.
Gonzalez cites three factors that played into his decision to make this transition: the circumstances of the church, counsel from trusted individuals, and the call of God on him personally. Every minister should give careful consideration to those three issues, he says.
“God would have every pastor consider either to go bivocational — because of need or choice — or consider and pray about becoming univocational and dedicating their life to the church in a full-time capacity,” Gonzalez says.
In other words, ministering bivocationally or univocationally is a choice each leader must make. God can be honored and His kingdom extended either way.
Our present moment is filled with immense economic challenges for pastors and churches. Both long- and short-term economic trends point toward declining income for many churches.
In the long term, Mark DeYmaz argues, the growing financial burdens of the middle class, generational shifts in giving, and rapid changes in U.S. demographics are exerting a negative effect on tithes and offerings. This requires what he calls “a revolution in church finances,” with congregations starting for-profit businesses to fund their nonprofit ministries.
In the short term, the COVID-19 pandemic has crashed the U.S. economy. Public health mandates have closed the doors of many businesses, leaving millions unemployed. People without work cannot give away monies they don’t have. Unsurprisingly, churches are experiencing a severe cash crunch.
These trends reinforce the economic necessity of bivocational ministry. But if necessity is the mother of invention, we should expect an explosion of creative ministry in the coming days as bivocational pastors lean into the missional opportunities their circumstances present.
So lean in ... and not just if you’re a pastor with a second job!
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 edition of Influence magazine.