Letter to a Successful Minister

8 October 2019

This post is a composite of letters and conversations over the years. I’m posting it now because I haven’t had one of these interactions in a while, so nobody will think I’m taking aim at them in particular. I am targeting a general tendency in our culture, not a particular person.

Dear Luke,

It was good to hear from you. I’m glad Janice and the kids are doing so well, and the house is beautiful. Janice has really worked hard on the remodel, and it shows. On the ministry front—wow! It usually takes several years for a pastor to really settle into a new church, but it seems like God is already doing amazing things. I’m happy to see it all coming together for you.

I couldn’t help but notice the rebuke implicit in the way you dismissed my bivocational situation with “we all have to grow up sometime.” I suppose I could just let it pass as one of those things that love covers a multitude of, but since we’re corresponding, and since it stung, I’d like to speak to it.

I hope you will bear with me in a little Pauline foolishness. I will shortly recover my wits and have more sensible things to say, but I need to get this bit off my chest first: You look at the trajectory of my life and see a disaster, a failure to grow up. I say that we have both pursued God—not by any means perfectly, but nonetheless with reckless abandon. What do we have to show for it?

In God’s providence, you have a ministerial career. Now, I want to give you credit where it is due. You have been sensible and disciplined in your finances, and you’ve foregone luxuries and saved aggressively to get where you are. You are now reaping the rewards of your labor, as well you should. But you have also been called to labor in a particular situation: God called you to the suburbs, and you are reaping the material rewards of ministering in an upper-middle class suburban church. I don’t begrudge you that, but I certainly do resent that you think your generous full-time salary is the simple result of growing up.

You grew up in an upper-middle class church, you attended such churches through college and seminary, and you are now ministering in one. In God’s providence, those churches have been your whole world. There’s nothing wrong with that, but lift up your eyes, buddy: that’s a fraction of the worldwide church. Tomorrow, God could call you to a church in a tiny farming community that simply can’t support a full-time pastor, especially one with a wife and kids. You would then find yourself just as grown up, but nowhere near as wealthy–and definitely in need of another job to make ends meet. But right now, in God’s providence, you are where you are.

By that same providence, I am where I am. “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” I’m not quite that much like Jesus, but I’m not living the American Dream, either. I have followed where God led, to the best of my ability. I’ve certainly made some mistakes along the way, some of them errors in judgment and others due to the ways in which I’m damaged goods and I haven’t healed yet. But God makes all things new in time, and I trust His hand in the process.

Although I’ve served in a number of pastoral roles—and still do, in fact—I never achieved the dream that I had in mind when I was first called into ministry: senior pastor of a mid-sized church, with a paycheck to match, which would enable me to buy a house and raise (which in our case also means adopt) children. I wanted to serve God in the role He called me to, and I wanted a family and a house. (Which is to say, I envisioned the same thing you have.) In terms of how we were both raised, that’s not a lot to ask for—and yet I don’t have it. Nor is there any real reason to believe that the dream is lurking just over the horizon, if only I push a little harder, persist a little further. So measured by the bright vision of my expectations as a 16-year-old, I have failed.

But as you said, we all have to grow up sometime. The world is a much bigger place than I pictured it at 16, and God has a lot more variety up His sleeve than we were led to believe. And let’s be honest, what we were led to expect doesn’t match up particularly well with what Jesus and the apostles had, does it? They made a lot less money. I have come to see that there was nothing actually biblical about my dream. 

Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the pastor of a strong and wealthy church pulling in a 6-figure salary has anything to feel guilty about. But God called me to pastor a church of homeless folks; I’ve no reason to expect the same salary as that guy. God calls one man to be Solomon and another to be John the Baptist, and if they fulfill their respective callings, neither has anything to be ashamed of. Nor does someone like Paul, sometimes abased and sometimes abounding. There is nothing inevitable or especially holy about one of these as over against the others. They are each just one way that a life of service can look—one among many.

And so as I sling no recriminations your way, I ask you to return the favor. If you see character flaws in me, by all means speak up. I’m open to correction. But if your criticism is based entirely on my failure to attain the American dream, then I invite you to use some of your paid study time to re-read the Gospels and Acts–not to mention the Old Testament–with an eye to identifying the patterns of ministry that God finds acceptable. I think you’ll find a wider variety than you presently allow for.

Blessings,

Tim


A Year in Review: 2018

30 December 2018

2016 was a dumpster fire of a year, a torrent of damage. It’s no exaggeration to say it was by far the worst year of my adult life. 2017 was a year of recovery, not in the good way, but more in the sifting-the-ashes-of-your-burned-home-through-a-screen-box kinda way. 2018 was a year of new direction. But you wouldn’t have known that from the way the year started….

I usually set 8-12 goals for the year, spread across the categories of Body, Spirit, Calling, and Relationship; I’ve been doing this for years. (I generally only hit about 60% of my goals, but that’s way better than I ever did with New Year’s resolutions, so it’s all good.) By the time I’d dragged myself through 2016 and 2017, I was in no shape to choose goals. I tried, and I just couldn’t do it. Nothing made sense. I found myself incapable of believing any set of goals I put on paper. I didn’t know what to do.

And then, as so often happens at those moments, God spoke. He told me if I wanted to take the safe road, get a bodywork job working for Hand & Stone or whoever, and do another season of true bivocational work–one job to pay the bills, and a ministry gig on the side–that there was a job out there for me, and it was ok to do that. I’d done that before; it’s a tough life, but I understand how it works, and it’s known territory for me. But God also told me that wasn’t the only road open to me. If I wanted to go for the dream, He would support that too. The dream was…poorly defined, to put it mildly. But I knew exactly what He meant: I could live a life that seamlessly blended my ministry and my livelihood, a life where all my gifts came into play together. It was what I’d been dreaming of my whole adult life. I thought I had it, briefly, a bit over a decade ago, during the short time when I was a full-time professional geek…but no. That turned out to be too sterile, too one-dimensional. And it didn’t last anyway.

God told me (via a prophetic friend that I deeply trust, and confirmed various ways) that my dream life was now within reach…if I was willing to take the risk. I thought about the safe road, and the security it offered, and waiting another five years (or however long) before this opportunity came my way again. And then I muttered something like, “Oh, what the hell, it’s too late to start playing it safe now,” and went for it.

I kept my freedom and plowed into developing my business and my ministry, all at the same time. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and let me tell you, it showed. My marketing was beyond amateurish. My bookkeeping needed serious help. I had poor judgment in my partnerships. (I had some great partners, but also some that were…well, let’s just say not great, and leave it there.)

But you know what? God supported it. Clients came. The business side got (somewhat) organized. God winnowed out the partners that didn’t belong. The bills (somehow!) got paid. In a month when the bottom fell out of the bodywork business, I inexplicably got extra ministry funding; when the ministry funding dried up, suddenly more massage and Trauma Touch clients came my way. I had day after day when I went home, sat down, and thought, “YES! This is why I do what I do!”

And after a year of that, I finally have clarity on what God has given me to do. Back in early 2015 when I first started my business, God told me clearly that there were four skills that would define what I do. I tried to list them, and every list I made came out to three or five. I could never quite get a list of four that made sense…until now.

The four skills that define my calling are

  • Massage Therapist
  • Minister
  • Trauma Touch Therapist
  • Martial Arts Instructor.

Those are the four corners of my existence; I play in the space between them. And the center, the bullseye, the place where it all comes together? Spiritual healing that takes the body seriously. That is the center of what I do. Of course, depending on the needs of the moment, sometimes I’m just giving a massage or whatever service they came for. But often–very often, in fact–I find myself holding a space where God shows up, and my client receives spiritual healing. That’s what I do.

A year ago, I couldn’t say that without feeling silly. After a year of doing it, seeing God bless it and people blessed by it, I don’t feel silly at all. I feel like I have purpose again. I know what I’m shooting for; I know what I’m asking God to bless.

And I am asking. I don’t want to bury the talent in the backyard; I want to put it to work in the marketplace. Let’s grow this thing.


Saint Paul Made Tents

14 December 2018

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.”


The Shape of Ministry

14 September 2018

This is a speech I imagine giving at a seminary chapel. Nobody — for reasons that will become obvious — has invited me to actually give this address, so I’m gonna just publish it as a blog post.

As I look out across this auditorium, I see eager, bright people. I see the makings of a corps of intelligent, upwardly-mobile ministry professionals. And I’m afraid I have some very bad news for you. I have some good news for you too, but unfortunately the bad news has to come first. If you will stick with me through the bad news, then the good news will be — for some of you, at least — profoundly liberating.

So, the bad news. Secure corporate jobs are a thing of the past. It’s a gig economy now, and it really shows no signs of changing anytime soon. What does that have to do with you? Well, the same thing is true in the ministry world, albeit for slightly different reasons. The pool of ministry jobs that pay a decent full-time salary is shrinking. There are tons of bright, motivated, qualified people who — despite papering the country with their resumes — haven’t even gotten so much as a call back in the last year. There’s a bunch more who have done a ton of interviews, but someone always just seems like a slightly better fit.

Some of you — a very few of you — will land good ministry jobs out of school, and stay in that world for your entire careers. I wish you well, and you can probably tune me out now, because the rest of what I have to say won’t really apply to you.

The problem is, most of you who think I just gave you permission to tune me out — you’re wrong. You will spend at least some — and maybe most or all — of your career outside that glorious, enchanted, nigh-mythical land that is paying full-time ministry. So unless you have a crystal ball telling you otherwise, just assume that at some point, what I’m about to say will be relevant to you.

So much for the bad news. Let’s move on to the good news, which is that you don’t need the permission of some paycheck-issuing body to do ministry. I know a bunch of folks in the full-time, fully-paid ministry world, but let me tell you about the other folks I know for a minute.

Gabe started a handful of drop-in youth centers around Denver, and supports himself by working at a brewery. Heather runs a cafe, which she uses as the site for a very fruitful ministry. Dave started a day center for the homeless. He’s also the world’s leading expert on Victorian trade cards — you don’t know what that is, and I’m not going to try to explain it now, but he’s written a half-dozen books on the subject, edited a magazine for the field, and supports himself buying and selling these things on eBay. Bob is a full-time missionary now, but for years he supported his ministry projects by working 10 days a month for a marketing firm. Jenny is an itinerant prayer warrior who splits her time between here and Africa; she supports herself as a massage therapist.

Let me tell you about how this has worked out for me. I got hired out of seminary to teach. I was half-time as an adjunct faculty member, and half-time associate pastor at a local church. After a year, the seminary brought me on full-time. I quit the pastor gig, but then got another, very part-time gig with a little church plant (that turned out to be a counter-cult exit ministry disguised as a church plant, but that’s a story for another time.) I was full-time at the seminary for four years. That was the last time I had a stable, full-time paycheck from ministry — more than 10 years ago now.

You know what? I really liked being a professional geek. But life’s been a lot more interesting since I got dynamited out of that comfortable gig.  Since then, I’ve worked for another seminary part-time, and a couple more churches. I’ve started a nonprofit, done youth work, written Bible curriculum, driven a school bus. Presently, I’m a pastor-at-large ministering in the gaps between churches. I’ve baptized people in the Platte and served communion in shot glasses off the tailgate of my car. I’m also a massage therapist, because pastor-at-large is not the sort of job that comes with a fat paycheck.

Or any paycheck, most of the time.

You may not want this kind of life for yourself. You’re investing in a good education, and why shouldn’t you have a solid career, just like if you went into medicine, finance, education, or some other well-educated profession?

By way of an answer to that, let me tell you about another guy. He was a professional theologian; good education, pretty secure gig, and then he got mugged by spiritual reality. He spent the next 14 years trying to figure out what happened to him. After that, he traveled around sharing with anybody who would listen. Sometimes he planted churches. Sometimes he was fully supported; other times he supported himself while he did the work. He even wrote a few books, but they weren’t really theology books. They were mostly compilations of good pastoral advice to other people who had been mugged by the same spiritual realities, teaching them how to live with what had happened to them. For those of you who haven’t caught on, I’m describing Saint Paul. If he wasn’t too good to support himself, then what makes you so special?

God has a destiny for you, and if you step into it, He will supply what you need. You certainly will have needs, and here are some of them.

  • You need a useful trade. If you have no marketable skills, I advise you to get some, and soon.
  • You need a team. Anything really worth doing is big enough that it won’t be sustainable to tackle it by yourself. And we’re Christians — we’re the image of the Trinity; we’re not meant to do anything alone.
  • You need oversight. It is not healthy to have nobody who can tell you no. You need open-minded, experienced people who believe in what you’re doing — even if they don’t quite understand it — and are willing to help you do it. That last bit is important. Don’t trust people who are not invested in your success to give you directional guidance.
  • You need excellent self-care skills. That means you need a regular sabbath, you need retreat time, you need to clear margin for your relationships, and build a good support network.
  • You need to be able to say no without feeling guilty. The more you divide your time between different places, the more people will feel that it’s reasonable for you to give them just a little more — and you can’t give “just a couple more hours” to 4 different places in the same week.

If this sounds daunting, it is, but remember the examples we’re following. Paul faced some daunting prospects himself: go out into an overwhelmingly pagan world with virtually no support and plant churches. (And be quick, because you’re going to have to skip town before they kill you.) The good news, again, is that you do not need anybody’s permission to have a powerful and fulfilling ministry. If you are willing to go outside the shiny, professional box, it’s a big world out there, and the opportunities really are endless. I wish you well. 


Being Bi…

24 March 2013

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.