Saint Paul Made Tents

I ran across a good discussion of the dearth of young pastors recently. Mr. Conn, himself a young pastor, draws on a 2017 Barna survey…but I’ll let him tell it:

According to The State of Pastors, a major study conducted by Barna in conjunction with Pepperdine University, the number of pastors under the age of 40 shrank from 33 percent in 1992 to just 15 percent in 2017. Meanwhile, the number of current pastors over the age of 65 has tripled.

Mr. Conn offers a solid analysis of why this is happening, and what churches might do about it. If you’re active in a church, I would urge you to read his article. As a second-generation pastor who’s been watching what happens inside churches for my whole life, I find his description of the situation all too accurate, and his prescriptions helpful.

That said, I think the Barna report is missing something important. It’s not telling the whole story, because it’s focused entirely on full-time, professional clergy.

I don’t have numbers to back this up nationwide, but my strong impression is that a growing number of the people doing the ministerial heavy lifting are bivocational. That’s certainly true in my area.

I see two significant reasons for this. The first reason is that a “traditional” church can be an extraordinary toxic workplace (as Mr. Conn’s post discusses), and a growing number of young ministers would rather let the dead bury their own dead. That sounds harsh, but…well, let me put it this way:

  • Church ministry at its best: tangibly serving and benefiting your community as you hear and worship God together with a close-knit family of people that will drop everything to help you, will back you up, will protect you when you’re vulnerable, support you when you’re weak, heal you when you’re hurt, and you’ll do the same for them.
  • Church ministry at its worst: a desperately lonely, treacherous game of king-of-the-mountain where, if you can hang on, your reward is knowing the very worst things human beings can do to each other, knowing the faces and names of the people who did them and suffered them. You carry this knowledge so that the Body won’t have to deal with its sins and bear one another’s burdens—they’re paying you to cover and ignore the sins and handle the burdens for them. (Bonus feature: they pay you less than a school bus driver, but require a level of education equivalent to a lawyer’s.)

Sometimes you get the best and the worst on the same day. Many of us find that the bivocational life gets us less of the worst, and more of the best. It’s not a bad trade.

The second reason more and more of us are bivocational is that full-time money is usually tied to “proven” legacy models of ministry (many of which are now failing, incidentally). Those of us who are called into something innovative often find ourselves with enough like-minded people to do the work, but no money to speak of. We have a choice: either self-fund, or tell God we can’t do what He’s calling us to, because His Body won’t pay us full-time wages. Pshaw; that’s no choice at all; I’m not too good to support myself. Saint Paul made tents.

EDIT: A third reason came up in conversation recently: It’s much easier to challenge the church body to step up to its responsibilities when you’re bivocational. “My job is to equip you; your job is to do the work of the ministry” is a tough sell in practically any church in the country, no matter how obviously biblical it is. They tend to say “That’s what we’re paying you for” and refuse to budge. They’re a lot less inclined to that foolishness when you can come back with, “No you’re not, and I have an 8-hour shift at my other job ahead of me, so if you want Aunt Myrtle to get a hospital visit before her surgery, you do it. Call me later and tell me how it went.”

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