Thursday, January 29, 2015

Pastor, Get A Job

Adam Russell posts a short piece on “The Bi-Vocational Life” at promoting the tentmaking lifestyle. His thesis, that work and ministry are not mortal enemies, is actively contested in the comments section, where a number of pastors who have lived the bi-vocational lifestyle make the point that, well, it isn’t a lot of fun and you don’t ever get a day off.

If I respond with “Poor babies”, am I going to draw heat?

Okay, I’ll dial the rhetoric back a notch or two.

Though Russell is correct in his thesis, his weakest point is his fourth:
“Abraham, Moses and David were all shepherds, Noah built a boat, Boaz was a farmer, Peter was a fisherman, Paul was a tentmaker, and Jesus was a carpenter — they all had a common life before they had an extraordinary life. In fact, one is a foundation for the other.”
You can all see what’s wrong with this paragraph even before I start in, can’t you?

Why All These Guys Don’t Count

What’s wrong is that his examples don’t really apply to the combination of secular work and simultaneous shepherding of the church that is this article’s subject. With a singular exception, none of these folks could be said to be “bi-vocational”.

Moses and David were shepherds before they led God’s people, not during. When they began to lead, it was a full-time job. Abraham was a rich wanderer who owned lots of sheep, but calling him a “shepherd” would be a stretch. He never “led” anything other than his own household (okay, on one occasion he led 318 of his servants against a group of Mesopotamian armies), nor did he do anything approximating pastoral ministry. Noah built a boat and preached coming judgment. At no point before or after the flood did his life remotely approximate that of a pastor, missionary or full-time worker. Boaz was a Jew who farmed his entire life, as far as we know. He married Ruth but there is no indication he ministered or ever left farming. All are Old Testament characters whose examples do not directly address our present situation.

The Lord Jesus was indeed a carpenter. But we do not read of him engaging in carpentry during the approximately three years in which he taught and did miracles in Judea before his crucifixion.

Peter was a fisherman before he was a follower of Christ, and briefly after the Lord’s death. We have no information as to what he may or may not have done while serving as an apostle.

Working Before You Serve

Now I don’t want to be overly critical of Mr. Russell because, as I say, he’s correct in his main point. So if he is trying to use these men of scripture as examples of working hard at full-time secular work for some part of their lives, then later giving themselves to care full-time for the people of God, he is right on the mark. Moses, Noah, David, Peter and the Lord himself would loosely fit into this category.

As he says, “There is an intestinal fortitude that comes from showing up every day, holding course and not giving up. It is the very same resolve one will need to accomplish ‘greater things’ ”. There is something to this, and this discipline is lacking in the case of those who graduate from seminary and go right into a salaried position in a church. Secular work is certainly a foundation for spiritual work.

But this article is really about bi-vocationalism, and it’s to these scriptural examples which we need to turn.

So That Leaves Us With …

Paul. And Barnabas. That’s it. But they are really good, solid examples, and all we need. Paul is the only apostle about whom we have enough detail to know how he lived. Also, while Mr. Russell doesn’t mention his name, it appears from the passage quoted below that Barnabas followed his example. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians seems to imply that the other apostles made greater use of their right to “refrain from working for a living” than he and Barnabas did. They are the only examples other than Peter that lived in the Church Age, and therefore the only ones that are really relevant to Mr. Russell’s point.

The truth Paul fully comprehended and defended throughout 1 Corinthians 9 (which seems utterly lost on most evangelical North Americans) is this: That having a God-given right to make one’s living from the gospel does NOT mean one should always exploit that right. You really need to read the entire chapter to get the drift of his argument, but in short, deliberately waiving his rights, to Paul, was his chosen means of removing obstacles from the spreading of the gospel.

In this, I believe, he provides the best possible example for those who would serve the Lord in this age, though he did not seem to expect the other apostles, who had wives and possibly families, to go quite as far as he did.

What Does This Imply?

The most common complaint made by those who commented on Mr. Russell’s piece is this: If we both work and serve, we are going to burn out. The phrases “major health crisis”, “damaging to the health of the pastor, their marriage and the church” and “very difficult and wears you out” are freely employed.

The second most common complaint is this: If we both work and serve, we are going to shortchange/damage our families.

Guilt As Motivator

Both of these are legitimate concerns, but in all cases the responders mentioned guilt as the primary motive for allowing themselves to become overworked and exhausted. And here, I think, we get to the problem, as difficult as it may be.

Guilt is a terrible motivator. It’s almost entirely worthless. The primary motive for true service is love, not an overwhelming sense of obligation, and certainly not the ever-lingering spectre of failure. If the Lord is calling you to serve him, he is calling you to serve him — not your church’s expectations, not your family’s expectations and not even your own. Yes, it’s important to work hard and set a good example, but getting yourself hospitalized with a nervous breakdown is not an “example”, it’s a cautionary tale.

A pastor who takes care of the needs of his family and works to meet his financial obligations, and who only does what he can where the church is concerned will never accomplish everything that actually needs doing, but this is perhaps the point. It should never be a one-man job. It’s a part-time job for a number of gifted men.

Some Suggestions

What can we say about all this? Some point-form thoughts:

1.    A fully salaried, one-man ministry in the local church is nowhere contemplated in the New Testament. If pastors are burning out, a big part of the problem is that they are trying to accomplish something for which the Head of the church has provided neither direction nor resources.

2.    Believers are encouraged to be generous with those who rule well. While this is voluntary and therefore provides no worldly assurance of long-term security, a generous group of Christians who care for those who serve them can make things much easier for their shepherds, enabling them to take unpaid leave, retire early, work fewer hours or take a less-demanding, lower-paying secular job as they see the Lord meeting their family’s needs through the believers.

3.    If a pastor’s needs are not being met through voluntary gifts from God’s people, I would suggest it’s an indication that the Lord would have him look long and hard at the bi-vocational option. Creating a salaried position and funding it mechanically and routinely removes the Lord’s latitude to lead through the availability of funds.

4.    Elders are older. I know that’s not much observed these days. We tend to read “elder” as meaning “spiritually mature” rather than “late middle-age”. But if we recognize older elders, not only do they have years to demonstrate consistency and a good testimony in church and home, but they are also closer to retirement with grown children heading out into the workforce, and in a better position to devote time and energy to the care of the believers and the work of teaching and preaching.

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