Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Some Preliminary Advice for Bivocational Pastors

Introductory Note:  The following is an e-mail response I sent to a friend who was asking for advice about having a successful bi-vocational ministry - DSS. 
I should write a book on this subject since I did it for almost 10 years.  Below is some of my own advice on how to avoid and/or deal with the problems I've experienced with bivocational ministry.  I'll answer some of your questions after that.
1.  Do all that is humanly possible to avoid receiving unregenerate people into your church membership.  Unregenerated church members will become an absolute drain on your already tired and worn out body.  They will try and test you every which way they can and will discourage you to the point of wanting to quit the ministry.  As a matter of fact, I think that mostly unregenerate congregations coupled with unbiblical expectations of a pastor-teacher are largely responsible for Bible-believing pastors quitting the ministry within 3-5 years out of seminary.  False converts in your membership will have little to no concern about how much time you pour into the ministry, how much time you sacrifice away from your family to deal with their folly, and they will always be a thorn in your pastoral side for one reason or another.  So, start putting some measures in place right now to avoid their presence in your membership roll.  This means two things: (1) that you become a "doctor of souls" through thoroughly familiarizing yourself with the Biblical doctrine of regeneration/conversion, and (2) that you need to have a mandatory membership interview for those who inquire about membership.  You need to immediately ditch the modern Baptist practice of receiving people into your membership who come forward after a worship service requesting to be placed under the "watch-care of the church" so that they can become members in a month or so as long as they don't get their names put on the front page of the newspaper for running a prostitution ring.  Have these people look at your church's formative documents (i.e., Statement of Faith, By-Laws, membership covenant, etc.), then minister to them by scheduling an appointment for a membership interview.  
The following are the questions that we ask in a prospective member interview:
  1. Why do you consider yourself to be a Christian?
  1. What do you consider to be sure marks/evidences that you’ve truly been saved from the wrath to come?
  1. Why do you want to join Shepherd’s Fellowship Baptist Church?
  1. In your own words, explain the gospel in 60 seconds or less.
  1. Personal salvation testimony (5 minutes or less):
  1. Do you agree with the 1646 London Confession of Faith and the SF Detailed Statement of Faith?  If not, what are your doctrinal reservations?
  1. Have you been baptized by immersion after salvation?  Y: ______, N:________.
  1. In what ways do you desire to contribute to the ministries of SF?
  1. What do you like about the ministries of SF?
  1. What would you like to see changed or implemented in the ministries of SF?
Once you have made membership interviews a regular and expected practice, you should consider starting a prospective member's orientation class that lasts several weeks.  In this series of classes, prospective members are formally oriented to the church's philosophy of ministry, doctrinal position, and structure.  Prospective members should be required to attend all of the classes (barring sickness or other necessary hindrances), have them sign a Biblically-based church covenant located at the end of their prospective member's orientation notebook that your church has provided them, and their membership interviews can be completed at the end of the membership classes.  Some may object that what I've just outlined goes beyond what was required for church membership in the New Testament.  It is then that I ask them, "So you think we ought to require potential death to be a requirement for membership at Shepherd's Fellowship Baptist Church?"  They get a puzzled look, and I then explain to them that for many in the early church, being publicly baptized as a professing Christian signaled a death warrant in the Roman Empire; thus indicating that a person was truly converted since it is hard to conceive of people willing to be baptized for what they know may lead to their deaths.  Usually, they get the point.   Anyways, doing the above will go a long way towards minimizing unnecessary problems associated with what I call "false-convert stupidity syndrome."    
2.  Teach verse by verse through the Scriptures and avoid mostly topical preaching.  When you are disgruntled and upset with your congregation or certain people in it, preaching topically may unconsciously lend itself to preaching to a problem and sinfully raking your congregation through the coals.  The faithful of your congregation need not be chastised because of the sin of the few (cf. Matt. 18:15).  Teach through Bible books verse by verse so that when you apply the text to your congregation, the Bible ends up dealing with many of the individual problems present in the lives of individual congregants.  Thus, if they get convicted, they are convicted by the word and not your custom-crafted topical sermon designed to insinuatingly expose their sin before others before such would be necessary per Matthew 18:16-17.  In other words, trust the Holy Spirit to use the Scriptures to do the work for you!
3.  Get a group of converted men that have shown strong interest in studying the word and disciple them for service and leadership.  Outside of your wife and children, pour most of your discipleship time into these men (2 Tim. 2:2).  Once they are sufficiently trained from the Scriptures, these guys will become your future co-elders and deacons.  Do this even if your church doesn't believe, understand, or practice a plurality of elders.  Once these guys are "on-board" doctrinally and ecclesiastically, they will serve as your much needed support structure when you are going through hard times and they will stand with you on church discipline issues, counseling issues, and administrative issues.  You will need watch them and see which ones naturally are inclined to service, administration, and teaching.  Once you can trust them, have them take over those roles so that you can focus solely on prayer and the ministry of the word.  You can't be the pastor the Bible requires you to be if you are mowing the lawn, trimming the hedges, paying the light bill, and putting out every practical fire that starts.  This is what deacons are for.  Also, you can't do the work of a pastor by yourself for an extended period of time.  New Testament churches are designed to have a plurality of pastors/elders/overseers.  If you try to go it alone, you will not only be hurting yourself, but you'll be hurting your congregation.  When its "just you", many problems, issues, and solutions will slip through the cracks, and it will show both in your home life, pastoral ministry, and in the lives of your flock.  A plurality of godly elders can help solve problems, confront sinful people, and share teaching and counseling responsibilities.  They can help you carry the load of pastoral burden so that you don't get unnecessarily worn out, overburdened, discouraged, and they can free you up so that you can do other things that you are spiritually gifted to do (i.e., evangelism, church music, holding small church seminars, etc.).    
4.  Implement Biblical Conflict Resolution per Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-11.  This means that you need to teach your entire congregation what loving church discipline is and then put it into practice.  This will be one of the hardest parts of pastoral ministry, but the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term problems associated with implementing this Biblical mandate. 
5.  Read Broadly.  Because your primary task will be to study the Bible, slowly work through books about atheism, elementary philosophy, world history, church history, science, English Literature, elementary Biblical Greek, elementary logic, etc.  Work through one book at a time even if it takes you a year or more to read it.  If you don't have a Bible college or seminary education and/or you cannot afford to get one, you will have to educate yourself.  I speak from experience!  For instance, if you want to learn Biblical Greek, start with a basic, introductory material such as Mounce's Basics of Biblical Greek and workbook and plow through it a chapter a week or one chapter every two weeks.  You can also purchase the audio lectures for it online or take classes for it online for free.  There are many well-done, doctrinally sound classes that you can take online for free at BiblicalTraining.org.  I highly recommend the latter resource because it will help you work through a class in an organized, systematic way and promote systematic, logical, and coherent thinking in your own study and ministry. 
Questions you asked:
"What blogs stir your soul as a minister? (as if a blog can do that)" - First, I would make internet time a minimal since you need that precious time for caring for your home and ministry.  Thus, avoid internet debates, blog comment box debates, forum debates, and avoid spending too much time chasing links in online articles.  Also, if you start a church blog, use it as a portal to link to other high-quality online materials that your congregation can use to further their spiritual growth and write some short, relevant, but Biblically accurate articles and devotions addressing current events and issues. Regarding blogs, see the answer to the next question.
"What blogs or websites do you believe are a MUST SEE for a pastor on a regular basis?"  Regarding bivocational pastors, the Bivocational and Small Church Leadership Network contains some helpful practical information and statistics on it.  Dr. Terry Dorsett's blog Next Generation Evangelistic Network also has some great articles on it that are specifically devoted to the role of the bivocational pastor.  Another resource is to join groups on Facebook such as Bivocational Pastors Global Association or Smaller Church PastorsNext, I recommend that a pastor generally keep up with the creation-evolution controversy over at the Creation Ministries International website.  They produce free daily articles written from a Biblically faithful perspective for non-scientists in order to keep you abreast of this major cultural battle.  I also recommend that you weekly check out the Grace to You blog, Stand to Reason, Al Mohler's blog, and Triablogue, which is a worldview/apologetics blog that gets into more detail than most other apologetics blogs.  Obviously, you don't want to read all of the blog articles; but focus instead only on the ones that address issues that are pertinent to your ministry and those issues that are affecting broader evangelicalism in general.  
What podcasts, either popular format (GTY, STR, Al Mohler) or sermon downloads would you recommend?  I recommend you find a sermon podcast from a small church that's doing New Testament ministry correctly so that you don't end up trying to compare yourself to MacArthur, Piper, or anybody else's ministry.  I'm not saying that you shouldn't listen to the "big guys", and I mean no disrespect to the men I've mentioned, but I can't pick up the phone and call Piper or MacArthur to get their advice on a pressing pastoral issue.  Also, (and I mean no disrespect whatsoever), but John MacArthur cannot relate to the guy who is pastoring a small church and working a full-time job 40+ hours/week while also caring for a family with 3-4 small children.  Small, doctrinally well-grounded churches usually have elders that can easily relate to this type of situation, and they are fairly easy to get in touch with so that you can develop a relationship with one of them and regularly bounce ideas off of them to get that much needed "Paul-Timothy" type of guidance.  This type of relationship also helps you avoid getting disillusioned and frustrated to the point of quitting when you get stuck "in the weeds" of ministry-related problems or distracted by dealing with varieties of doctrinal weirdness.
What magazines, or “ezines” or even journals would you recommend?  I don't recommend many "e-zines" or journals to bivocational pastors since their time is greatly limited, but I always enjoyed reading Creation magazine and The Master's Seminary Journal as a bivocational pastor.  The Creation magazine is chock full of relevant creation/apologetics information written in such a way that the average non-scientist layperson can understand without watering down the issues.  Because its so accessible, it allows you to understand, interact, and deal with whatever new wave of humanistic philosophy may be affecting your congregation via the current media outlets (Books, TV, internet, Facebook, etc.).  The Master's Seminary Journal does the same thing, but deals primarily with issues relevant to pastoral, pulpit, teaching, counseling, and theological ministry.  In my opinion, those two resources are well worth your time and money.  
Then lastly, that one or two books that a pastor like this fellow must absolutely have on his shelf?  The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter and Lectures to My Students by C.H. Spurgeon.  Those books are gold.  The Reformed Pastor is a little book that, though written hundreds of years ago, still captures what I believe to be the heart and soul of pastoral ministry.  Lectures to My Students is a treasure-trove of practical advice for young, beginning, and/or fledgling pastors.  Both books will get "in your face" at times, but that's what you need.  I go back every once in a while to read where Baxter reminds his readers of the weighty responsibilities that they carry as shepherds, and the necessary time they need to spend in prayer and the ministry of the word rather than pursuing foolish worldly distractions.
IN CONCLUSION, the above information will hopefully help you get a general radar-fix on where you should be heading and what you should be doing as a bivocational pastor.  What I've said above may sound almost overwhelming, but its really not.  You just have to take it one step at a time, remembering that just as Rome wasn't built in a day, neither is a Biblically faithful bivocational ministry.  In closing, let me leave you this word of loving caution:  don't sacrifice your family on the altar of ministry or on the altar of engaging heretics.  Both are sinful (1 Tim. 3:1-7; 2 Tim. 2:23, Titus 3:10-11), and engaging in one or both can ruin an otherwise healthy ministry and family.  Put healthy boundaries in place that allow you to maintain a schedule that avoids overwork, promotes study and prayer, and allows you to spend quality and quantity time discipling and loving your family. 


  1. I'm not a bi-vocational pastor, but the counsel here is fantastic for just about anyone!!!

  2. Excellent article and advice. Having myself being a bivocational pastor for more than 20 years until I retired from other jobs.

  3. TUAD is right. Good advice even for vocational pastors.

    Point #2 has a time benefit for bivocational pastors. I would think that topical sermons would take a whole lot more time to prepare and that one would run out of topics and have to repeat them periodically. Preaching verse-by-verse would seem to take care of itself. You don't have to worry about what you are going to preach the next week. It's the next passage. Passage-oriented topics may repeat, but the context is always different so there's always something new.

  4. What kind of uber-Baptist, presumptive, Gathered Church nonsense is this?

    "Do all that is humanly possible to avoid receiving unregenerate people into your church membership."

    Oh, please, super-anointed Anabaptist Holy Man, please tell me how you have access to Our Lord's divine decrees!

    Look, I have no problem with serious Church discipline. The Reformed faith demands it. Yet you had better demonstrate some special charismatic gift before you can start talking like you know who belongs to Jesus in regeneration and who doesn't.

  5. Right, RVDS,

    Since we can't do it perfectly, it shouldn't be attempted at all. (/sarcasm)

    If only our Bibles gave us some reliable indicators of genuine faith to go by.

    Thanks, Dusman, I was called to an SBC congregation that had dwindled to about a dozen folks, and it is truly amazing how much time one or two "trouble-makers" can steal from you, without giving it a second thought.

    I would add to your point 1, not only must you do this, but you need to keep in mind that you have been called to feed the sheep, not to herd the goats or try to cajole them back into their sheep costumes for another week. When expository preaching makes them react badly, wave goodbye to them politely and thank God for their removal.


    "What kind of uber-Baptist, presumptive, Gathered Church nonsense is this?"

    Actually, I think Dustin is simply demanding a credible profession of faith as a condition of church membership. That's a pretty standard Presbyterian position.

    It's true, though, that Dustin is Baptist. So what?

  7. Not to mention that one of the things the church is to do is to protect those who would try to partake in the Lord's Supper unworthily, since they would be eating and drinking judgment on themselves.

    One step in doing that is to guard who you accept as a member. My own church (which is PCA) specifically points out it's only for those who are a member in good standing of a church that teaches the fundamentals of the Gospel. If someone is excommunicated (again, from a broadly evangelical church) and the my church knows about it, they will refuse to grant Communion to that individual until he or she repents.

    There are very important reasons that the local church should know, as best as they can, who has made a credible profession of faith. But this is not to say that you don't want non-believers to come to church at all; but rather, it's to accept the fact that the church is not your mission field.

    If sheep cannot be fed at their church, where can they be fed?

    The worst thing in the world that any church can be is seeker-sensitive. A seeker-sensitive church is just a seeker-centered church in drag, and leads to the starvation of the flock, who are then shipwrecked in their faith since they have no roots (I think that sufficiently mixed enough metaphors).

    The church is to make disciples, not converts. Disciples then go to evangelize and make converts. But, again, if the church does not feed the flock, who does? The church is what God intended to us for His people, not for the world, and to allow non-believers to dictate the way the church goes is, bluntly, insanity.

  8. RVDS,

    Dustin isn't a Presbyterian, a paedobaptist, or a Hartian Confessionalist.

    And I, as a paedobaptist, have no problem with the children of believers (appropriately qualified) as church members, regenerate or not. Of course, they're not received as communicate members, but we can call them members[1] not members[2]. Like American citizen[1] and American citizen[2].

    However, your claim merits some investigation:

    Suppose you had Darryl Hart and Richard Dawkins both come to you and desire membership. Would you let both in, regardless of profession?

    Now suppose Dawkins says, "Yeah, yeah, I believe that stuff about Jesus. He died for me and stuff. Only by believing on him can I get to heaven. [snicker]." Would he get in?

    Now suppose Dawkins said the above very seriously. But your elders reported back to you that they found him drunk and at a strip club. You question him and he says he doesn't think it's a sin and doesn't have a problem with it, and he'll be doing it again. If anyone tries to stop him, he'll take a baseball bat to their head. Other than that, he tells you with a straight face that he believes the gospel and holds to the Westminster Confession. Does he get in?

    Lastly, do you demand a confession for communicate membership? Apparently you don't think any should take the supper in an unworthy manner. Apparently you don't think the supper is for unbelievers. Apparently you think it is *only* for believers. You probably believe that believers are regenerate. Which apparently implies you believe communicate membership is only for the regenerate. However, you believe the best (only?) means to decipher whether one is the proper subject of communicate church membership is, say, a credible profession of faith before the elders and then congregation. Since that's the only way to tell, then you do believe, with Dustin, that we should do "all that is humanly possible" to tell who are proper subjects for communicate membership (a principle that implies you tacitly accept that they're regenerate). Thus you don't disagree with Dustin *per se*, you simply disagree, maybe, with the available means at our disposal for finding out such communicate desiderata.

  9. The caveats I mention to Dusman's advice it's that despite this checklist odds are that false converts and false teachers could STILL show up. It depends on how large the congregation is. When I was at Mars Hill despite a fairly thorough member interview process at least one full-blown Pelagian made it into the church membership. He signalled his true colors pretty quickly in an on-line discussion forum I was part of. It wasn't very long before the Pelagian was off the membership listing but that was still maybe half a year. The importance of 3 is that eventually they are the primary frontline defense regarding 1.

    I would suggest, having sat under a lot of allegedly expository preaching that topical preaching often disguises itself in the books of the Bible a pastor decides to preach through.

    Topical rants also still work their way into the application segments of otherwise expository preaching. Beware of your "application" of narrative literature! I have heard more than one pastor turn Nehemiah into an excuse to trumpet this or that church renovation project in increasingly lengthy application segments of sermons. Theoretically verse by verse expository preaching prevents a pastor from soap-boxing but it WILL happen.

    At the other extreme, topical preaching can hide a weakness a pastor has. I spent a decade in a church where a pastor focused a great deal on epistles, wisdom literature, and some gospels but never touched the psalms even once. People were impressed by what a great pastor the guy was (and he's a capable speaker and well-read) without noticing that in his entire preaching career he's never preached from a Psalm. If there is a whole genre of scripture you avoid that's going to be a big weakness even as an individual Christian, let alone as a pastor.

    I also think that topical preaching tends to get short shrift from Reformed preachers. Mark Driscoll committed to verse by verse expository preaching but when you settle on a book like Revelation where wildly contrasting and competing schools of thought pervade secondary literature and interpretation there comes a point where you have to concede that topical preaching can be the wiser move, especially in a church setting where making everyone agree on historicist vs dispensationalist or premil vs postmil eschatology is a pastoral waste of time. I think Driscoll was very smart to take a chiefly topical approach in going through Revelation. I also think Mark Dever was very smart to take a functionally topical approach in preaching through the book of Job. Verse by verse preaching is actually not practical or suitable for certain kinds of biblical literature and even those preachers who claim to do it will skip or merely summarize lists of generations in Numbers or census results in Chronicles.

    Other than those rambling caveats I'd say I agree with the gist of what Dusman posted. :)

  10. Wenatchee the Hatchet,

    Great caveats and well appreciated. I'm not discouraging thematic preaching through O.T. historical books or poetic lit.; I'm just focusing on trying to get the bivocational man (who is terribly strapped for time) to emphasize teaching/preaching through the Biblical text rather than doing what many typical, small-church bivocational evangelical pastors do, which is bouncing back and forth from week to week by using a Biblical text as a springboard to discuss what they want to discuss rather than waiting to get to the point in the Biblical text where the text itself makes the point for them. Nevertheless, there is certainly is a place for topical messages (i.e., pertinent current events like 9-11, etc.).

    Re: false converts in our membership, please remember that my article was directed to the bivocational pastor who will generally be the pastor of a *small* congregation, not a church like Mars Hill that has thousands in attendance each week. Nevertheless, it is true that there will always be tares among the wheat until the return of Christ; but all I'm advocating is avoiding admitting into membership people who are obviously lost per Paul's illustration with "Richard Dawkins" in his comment above. Many evangelical churches are actually full of people similar to that and it is because they don't have the spine or the wherewithal to put into practice Biblical church discipline. I know, for I "pastored" some like them in the past and they will make your life miserable, especially if the "church" you are pastoring has *never* done church discipline and thinks you're a big meanie for even considering it.

  11. What is the biblical case that churches should have "memberships"?

  12. Abe,

    First off, the church is designed for the flock. It was intended as a place for the edifying of believers, not for the evangelism of unbelievers. It is where believers gather together to worship God, to glorify Him, and to fellowship with both Him and each other. It's not a place to become buddies with the world.

    Secondly, the issue of Communion is extremely important. Those who partake unworthily eat and drink judgment on themselves. Paul even states that there are some who have died because of that. The result is that the church should do all it can to ensure that those who are engaged in these activities are not furthering judgment on themselves; in other words, that they should be true believers.

    Now, I suppose that you could do this without having a definition of "membership" in place, but *functionally* you are going to be making these determinations regardless. As soon as you say, "Non-believers cannot partake in Communion and cannot dictate the worship of God" then you are making a distinction between those in the church who *can* do those things and those who *cannot*. Call it whatever you want, it's functionally "membership."