Being Bi…

Hi. For a number of years now, I have been living an alternative lifestyle, and it’s time to get it out in the open. My name is Tim, and I’m bi…

…vocational.

If that seems an unnecessarily provocative way to start out a post, I don’t think it is. I’ve been in American church culture all my life, and this lifestyle choice is poorly understood. The church exhibits a staggering ignorance of what it is to be bivocational, and there’s a real stigma attached to it. I never really noticed the extent of it until I came to terms with my own bivocationality. And before you ask, yes, I’ve tried “not being bivocational.” I have. I tried really hard, but in the end…nothing else worked. I don’t know what the future holds, and hey, God can do anything. Maybe one day, I won’t be bivocational. But right now, this is what I am. I don’t want to be cranky about it, but I’m not in love with the way the church tends to view me.

Mike Breen gives the best description I’ve seen so far of the bivocational stigma in his latest book, Leading Kingdom Movements:

..I think there is a pretty unhealthy stigma that attaches itself to being bi-vocational, strangely enough, even for church planters. This seems to be the train of thought:

A ‘real’ pastor does ministry full time for full-time pay
If you’re good enough to pastor, you’ll be paid full-time.
If a pastor isn’t paid full-time, it’s because he or she isn’t good at his or her job.
Most people find their identity in their job (an unfortunate reality).
If I’m not paid full-time, it means I’m not a good pastor.
Therefore, the core of my identity is shaken because I’m bi-vocational.

That’s the stigma.

I want to add a little to that.

In almost any professional field in our society, the aspiring professional goes to school. Depending on the field, he will seek an associate’s degree, at the very least, usually a bachelor’s and often a master’s. Sometimes he will need a doctorate. During the schooling, the student is not yet qualified to work in his chosen field, so unless he’s lucky enough to be born with a trust fund, he works at whatever comes his way — waiting tables, tending bar, landscaping, temping, moving, retail, limo driving, the usual assortment of common student jobs.

Nearly every student is ‘bivocational’ in this sense of straddling the line between preparation for his chosen field and some form of totally unrelated employment that he’s doing purely to pay the bills. But it is universally understood that this is temporary, and the signal that all the menial labor and the grinding poverty of the student lifestyle has finally paid off is…what?

He finally gets his first “real job,” which is to say, a full-time job in his chosen field.

What if it doesn’t work? He keeps pushing, keeps applying different places, but after a few years, his resume makes it obvious to prospective employers that he just didn’t make the cut. Then what?

He does something else, something unrelated to his education, just to pay the bills. At some point, if he doesn’t just take the hit and move on, it starts to look a bit sad. A guy getting his master’s in marine biology and then ending up working for Nationwide Insurance is a failure of sorts, but hey, he’s feeding his family and not everybody can swim with the dolphins, can they? But there’s something pathetic about that guy taking a job as a security guard at Sea World just to be near the orcas.

That is what bivocational ministry looks like.

Failing, followed by failing to move on.

It’s actually a little worse than that. If the guy always wanted to be a cop, got his degree in criminal justice, became a cop, and has a ministry with homeless kids on the side, he’s a hero, a saint. Everybody admires him.

If the guy always wanted to be in full-time ministry, went to Bible college, couldn’t make it pay and ended up a cop to pay the bills, but has a ministry with homeless kids on the side — he failed, and he’s making the best of it. We pity him at best, and sometimes we make him a cautionary tale. “You know, lots of these guys graduate and go into full-time ministry to start with, but it gets hard and they bail out for secular employment,” we tell our aspiring ministers. “Stand strong. God will provide.” And they nod their heads as if that’s wisdom.

These two guys could be partners in the same ministry together, doing the exact same work shoulder to shoulder, advancing God’s Kingdom among homeless children. Yet in the eyes of the church, one of them is going above and beyond the call of duty, while the other one is a failure, a wash-out.

What is this?

It is a culture of professionalism. We have been indulging in a centuries-long experiment in professionalizing the clergy, and this is one of the things we get out of it.

On one hand, a well-paid, well-educated, slick and presentable corps of motivated, upwardly-mobile professionals, and on the other, a bunch of God’s people who are being implicitly discouraged from continuing to pursue their calling.

Being one of the latter is a lot of what 2012 was about for me. For those of you who don’t know, my other vocation is school bus driver, which is just about perfect for mortifying my ambitions. Unless I deliberately make a discipline of humanizing myself to the children I drive, they don’t even see me as a person. To them, I am just a part of the bus, attached to the seat at the factory. My peers in society understand correctly that nobody wants to be a bus driver when they grow up, and infer on that basis that I couldn’t cut it at much else. Otherwise, why would I be a bus driver? In terms of social status, it’s barely a cut above being a greeter at Wal-Mart.

Once upon a time, I did do other things successfully. For nine years I taught and designed curriculum for two different seminaries. I was an assistant pastor for a year, then a pastor for 6 years. I’m pretty smart, well-read, I’ve travelled and taught on 4 continents, spoken at numerous conferences, published articles, and so on — I was an up-and-coming young professional theologian.

And I really, really wanted people to know it. That was part of the problem. Even when I first started driving a bus, I thought it was only a temporary setback. I was really only doing it because I needed the money, and the nature of the work and the timing of it allow me to continue pursuing my calling — so I told myself. I’d drum up some more classes to teach, raise a little support, and get right back in the saddle…

But no. God was steering me, and early in 2012, God made it clear that He wanted me to let go of the professional theologian schtick and fully embrace my other vocation. Buy the hat with a school bus on it, wear the school district Transportation Department jacket, the whole deal. I’m lucky He didn’t ask me to buy a bumper sticker that said “My other car is a school bus.”

Why? I don’t really know. I’m still not sure what all God is up to, but I can tell you some of the things that have come out of it.

1. It forced me to get more conscious and skilled at the disciplines of building a relationship. On the bus, I see the same kids every day, but most of the time, I interact with them for only seconds at a time. Building relationships under those circumstances means not wasting opportunities, and I’ve gotten much better at capitalizing on the chances God gives me to build relationships through a series of tiny interactions. The same skills apply off the bus, and make my life much richer.

2. Until I was well out of the ‘professional ministry’ culture, I had no idea how much its expectations controlled my thinking about what ministry was. Fully embracing the bus driver vocation let me ‘cleanse my palate’ enough to contemplate a much wider field of ministry than I had in the past. I could not possibly have contemplated the sort of ministry I have now while immersed in the culture of professional ministry.

3. I keenly appreciate the control of my schedule that came with being in full-time ministry. There’s so much I want to do that I can’t now, because I simply am not free at, say, 7:00 on Wednesday morning. In the event I ever have that freedom again, believe me, I’ll make the most of it.

4. As I mentioned above, driving a school bus has been a beautiful tool for mortifying my ambitions. I was building a career, a little Kingdom of Tim, and that’s just not what life is about. Seeing my little sandcastle carried out with the tide was destructive in the best possible way, and cleared the way for beginning to lean into building God’s Kingdom instead of mine.

There’s probably more, but those are the ones that leap to mind right at the moment.

Oh yeah, and I’m pretty sure the breaking isn’t done yet. I don’t know what the next stage looks like, but in a weird way I’m looking forward to it. “Go to a land I will show you” leads to really good stuff, but only when you get out of Haran.

Advertisements

2 Responses to Being Bi…

  1. Jim Reitman says:

    Sounds a lot like “exile.”

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Yup. We all got to have our “desert time,” and Lent is as good a time as any to reflect on it.

%d bloggers like this: