In many forward-thinking church circles the term “bi-vocational” is catching on as a descriptor for the future of ordained ministry. Advocates will say thing like, “As churches decline — especially in rural areas — and as society morphs, we need more and more folks called to bi-vocational ministry.” Bi-vocational pastors work a secular job part or full time, and pastor churches on the side. In many ways, I get the term, get the need, get the description. But, when I think about it theologically, “bi-vocational” becomes a nonsense word. “Bi-vocational” should be scratched from our vocabulary. Here’s why.
The mainline church uses “vocation” to mean something like, “one’s calling to serve God in the world.” One might be called to ordained ministry (and before that be called to seminary). One might be called to work in the home without pay. One might be called to be a teacher, or doctor, or whatever. Ok, this is not new, and not too complicated.
Though we often speak of “vocation” in terms on par with “occupation,” the church tries to make a broader claim that vocation is not just what one does but how one does it. Vocation is less about what salary one makes than who one serves by doing so. Ok, so far so good, but when we speak of vocation we don’t say, “That doctor was called to heal that patient, then called separately to care for that person, then called completely unrelatedly to speak to the nurse in that way.” We don’t break up vocation to individual actions; vocational is a holistic term.
That’s the problem with “bi-vocational,” it implies that someone is called to two separate unrelated things. “Bi-vocational” splits a person up. It sets up a problematic western dualism. “Bi-vocation” says you are called to this AND this, but they are separate, and different, and maybe even at odds. Perhaps it even suggests one approaches the two vocations with a different sense of service, obligation, or understanding of God — “in this vocation I serve God, in this one I just serve burgers.” NOooo! The whole understanding of vocation that the church has been working on at least since the reformation is one that says we can serve God as we serve burgers and clean bathrooms and teach kids and stay at home, yadda, yadda. We can be called to an amazing variety of service.
So why do we limit God, split personalities up, and place one vocation over another in our continued use of the term, “bi-vocational?” I’m not certain, but I think it probably is related to a simplistic understanding of vocation in the first place. More on that later, but for now I insist: folks are not called to “bi-vocational ministry” but to serve God with their whole lives in creative, sustaining, life-giving ways that sometimes lead to being paid from multiple sources.