A Conversation with Frank Page about Bi-Vocational Ministry*

Dr. Allen: Dr. Page it is a joy to host you in the Spurgeon Room on the campus of Midwestern Seminary. I am grateful for your friendship and your gospel partnership and to have a conversation with you today that is germane to so many of our churches and many of those in ministry and aspiring to ministry.

Today, I want to talk about bi-vocational ministry. I know you well enough to know your heart, and you’re like me in that you have a great heart for those serving in bi-vocational ministry and all the challenges and complexities that go with that. Also, I think we both perceive that the wave of the future, in many ways, will be bi-vocational ministry. Today, we want to unpack some of these realities. Let me begin by asking you a question: When you think of bi-vocational ministry, what comes to mind as far as the different challenges associated with it?

Dr. Page: Thank you, Dr. Allen. It is an honor to be with you today. I will tell you that I have spent a lot of time working with bi-vocational pastors, and I speak every year to various groups of bi-vocational pastors. What comes to mind is that hard-working pastor who maybe a school teacher during the day, maybe a lawyer or doctor, or maybe a blue collar worker, but works in the evening and on the weekends in such a hard fashion.

Statistically, probably a majority of Southern Baptist churches are pastored by a bi-vocational pastor. In the state of Missouri, it is more than 50 percent. In most states, it is more than 50 percent. Out west and up north, high percentages of our pastors are bi-vocational. I will tell you, they are my heroes.

Dr. Allen: Thank you. The North American Mission Board refers to bi-vocational pastors as ironmen, and that’s true. You must have a profound sense of calling and be one that is willing and able to burn the candle at both ends, so to speak, and to give of oneself in a generous way. Of course, we can go all the way back to the New Testament and see Paul, who was a tentmaker, but also a preacher, balancing these things.

I think the profile of the typical bi-vocational minister is probably changing. Studies indicate this. By that I mean it is not just the person who, for whatever reason, has yet to find a full-time ministry. That is often the profile we tend to associate with bi-vocational ministers. These days there is more intentionality. I’m seeing where people are consciously choosing to be a bi-vocational minister and to fulfill that ministry from a business platform or from a particular vocational platform so they are not a financial burden on the church. Maybe their business platform gives them certain entrees or avenues into ministry context. Are you seeing that same shift take place?

Dr. Page: I am, and I’m seeing it emphasized and promoted—I think in a healthy way—not only by our North American Mission Board, but by some of our colleges. We have some of our Christian schools that are intentionally encouraging their graduates, whether in pharmacy, business, or wherever it might be, to consider a ministry such as that which you just outlined. I think it’s a healthy emphasis and an encouraging emphasis.

May I say just a couple other things about why one of the reasons your earlier statement was so apropos? It is not only a current reality, it is going to be more of a reality. That is for one main reason, one major fact that we often do not look at. The pool from which we get pastoral candidates is aging. Earlier we spoke about it in another subject. We have talked about the current plethora of students and ministers who want to be church planters. Well, there are a lower number of people who want to be pastor of traditional Baptist churches.

It is a fact, and the fact that less numbers want to go in traditional churches is combined with another huge factor that receives scant attention, and that is the pastoral pool is aging. In Missouri, for example, when I was president of the SBC, I did a little study. I don’t remember why I did it. Then, there were 2,000 churches; now, there are slightly less. They have done a little bit of pulling back, not much. I asked of the 2,000 churches, how many in this state were pastored by persons under 40 years of age? At that time, it was less than 240. How many are pastored by people less than 30 years of age? Six. Almost 1,750 of the 2,000 churches were pastored by people 40 and up, and the majority were pastored by people 50 or 60 and up. We are seeing this to be true across the convention, that the pastoral pool from which we get pastors are my age. I am currently 61, so we are seeing a “graying” of the pastors.

Well, what is going to happen 10 years from now, 20 years from now? The group from which one gets pastors is shrinking. Add to that, in many of our theological schools, there is a lack of emphasis on pastoring a traditional church. So, we may well see not only more bi-vocational pastors of necessity. We are going to see some places, Dr. Allen, where you go back to the old what we call “half-time” or “quarter-time” churches, where in Missouri or Kansas/Nebraska there are two churches per pastor, or three or four. Pastor preaches one Sunday in one church, a different Sunday in another. We may even see the circuit-riding type preacher, who would almost have to be bi-vocational in some instances, come back into mainstream.

Dr. Allen: It is an incredible phenomenon when you think about it, and it’s not merely limited to domestic pastors. We look to the international context, and it is similar for different reasons. We are seeking to address that here at Midwestern Seminary. At our undergraduate level, in the past couple of years, we have introduced a dual major track understanding we are going to be training a lot of men who will one day be in a bi-vocational context. They can get a Bible degree with a business degree, or a Bible degree with a liberal arts degree, and graduate with those degrees so they’re positioned for bi-vocational ministry if the Lord has that down the road.

In the international context, you think about two primary realities why bi-vocational ministry is becoming more prevalent. One is, of course, the offering plate dollar, or lack of the offering plate dollar. Being able to support oneself as one ministers on the mission field, but also in many contexts a lot of countries are hostile to those serving there as missionaries. So, they have to go there on a business platform to work. Though they may be working during the day as an engineer, as a physician, as a teacher, or some other skill they are rendering to that group, they are really there and using the margin of their time to spread the gospel.

Dr. Page: That is exactly right, and I want to tell you, our current administration in our International Mission Board is well aware of that growing need, and they are actually also purposely reaching out to those who are already in business and finance and other kinds of industries who often go into foreign fields, international countries, to do their work trying to engage them also. It is an ongoing and a purposeful moving into a new direction of using bi-vocational persons. You are right, in international as well as North American missions.

Dr. Allen: I have served at different times in my ministry functionally as a bi-vocational pastor. In the first church I ever pastored I was there nearly four years. The Lord really blessed the church and the ministry. They were just incredible years for me, my wife, and our very young family then. The church kindly paid me a full-time wage, so I wasn’t financially a bi-vocational minister, but I was a full-time seminary student, and the church blessed me to be a full-time seminary student. As a relation to the allocation of my time, I had to function bi-vocationally. Later in life, and in a different context, I served at another church similarly where I had divided time. I had to manage my time accordingly.

So, when you think about bi-vocational ministry, that is probably the greatest challenge. Hopefully, if you are bi-vocational, the financial challenges are met by that business or job you are holding. If you are giving a part of your time to a job that is not ministerial, then obviously you have this dramatic reduction in the time you can give. To help pastors and ministers who are serving bi-vocationally, what type of commentary or encouragement would you give them, as far as redeeming their time and optimizing their time for the sake of the gospel?

Dr. Page: Thank you, Dr. Allen. That is the most crucial aspect in the life of bi-vocational pastor. My first two pastorates were similar to yours, in which I was the pastor of those churches, but my time certainly had to be spent in educational enterprise because I was either doing the master’s or Ph.D. program during those times. I understand a little bit, like you do, of what bi-vocational pastors go through.

It is all about a daily prioritization. That is why they are my heroes. They struggle so much with trying to do what they do to make a living, at the same time trying to build the kingdom of God in a local setting. So, prioritization daily is extremely important. I try to tell them there are days that you are going to give so much time to your business, so much time to the church, be careful not to neglect their families in those days.

I have found that if we will just concentrate on Matthew 6:33 to “seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these other things will be added unto you.” That ought to be our daily prayer: “God help me to prioritize my life today to be a kingdom man, and how do you want me to prioritize that?” He will give us the perfect balance, even in a bi-vocational ministry setting.

I also have to say to bi-vocational pastors, this is going to sound somewhat odd, to recognize that you can’t be perfect in everything you do. While some scholars would say that you need to spend 20 hours a week on each sermon, well, reality for every pastor and particularly for bi-vocational pastors is that is not going to happen. So, don’t eat yourself up if you can’t do what the textbook says you are supposed to do in every regard. You are not going to be able to spend 20 hours a week doing your sermon, and do pastoral care, and take care of your family, and serve a position in a school or industry or wherever it might be. That is not going to happen. Do the best you can, and God will bless that. I think that is important.

Dr. Allen: That is important. I have as a personal discipline, and I encourage bi-vocational ministers similarly, and frankly pastors as well, think of your time as a pie and make strategic decisions on the front end of how much time you can give to sermons, how time you can give to other ministry work, and other aspects of pastoral ministry, and then you just have to make some decisions and divide it. If you don’t get on the front end of it, you are continually behind the eight ball. You’re continually reacting and not acting, and it is a formula for disaster.

Dr. Page: It is, and another thing that I try to talk to bi-vocational pastors about is that in some ways bi-vocational pastors also have to be like a larger church pastor. What I mean by that is, as a bi-vocational pastor, you can’t do everything. You better learn to delegate. The larger a church gets, a pastor has to start delegating because he can’t do the ministry for that number of people. A bi-vocational pastor has to do the same thing. If you really want to succeed, you learn to delegate, to spend your time in training your lay people, as Scripture says in Ephesians, to do the work of ministry. You can’t do it all. For example, utilize people in the church to help with hospital visitation. You can’t go to the hospital every day and do your work and help your family. Get them to be a part of ministering one-to-another. Not only does it use your time wisely, it is better for them.

Dr. Allen: That’s good, that’s very good. The other word of encouragement—strong encouragement—that I give, and I would love for you to speak to this as well, is on the front end making crystal clear expectations. Some churches think, “We want a bi-vocational minister,” and they interpret that as, “We want to pay part-time but get full-time.”

It’s not sufficient merely to hammer out expectations for the search committee. You have to hammer out those expectations as clearly as you can with the church as a whole, as what this will look like, feel like, functionally week-to-week and month-to-month. As the church has those expectations clearly defined, and as they sense the pastor or bi-vocational minister’s heart is there full-time—even if their hands and their feet and themselves are not there full-time—they seem to be able to process that much better.

Dr. Page: I totally agree. Again, they need to learn how to make their presence known even when they can’t be totally present all the time. There are ways to do that. You can use the phone. You may not be able to visit all the time, but you can make 10 phone calls in the time you can make one visit. So, you can call your people. Call them on their birthday. Call them when they have been to the hospital, even when you didn’t get to go by and see them. Check with them; let them know; write notes to them. A note of encouragement will go a long way to help people. Make your presence known even when you can’t be present all the time.

Help your people know up front, here is what I can do, and here is what I can’t do. Let them know that there is going to be a priority to your family, and they need to honor that. I remember years ago, it started when my girls were just toddlers, I let everyone in my church know, even when I was in a bi-vocational type setting, that Thursday nights were date nights in the Page house. I had my wife and three daughters. The first night was Dale, the second Thursday night was Melissa, and then Laura, and then little Allison. So, for almost 30 years because of the span of the children’s ages, even when they were in college, we did date night. That is just the way it was. Everyone knew not to try and get me on Thursday night, because I wouldn’t come. There was a reason why I wouldn’t come. Maybe over those years there were emergencies some Thursday nights. My girls and my wife, they always understood.

Let your priorities be known up front, say this is the way it is, and I hope you understand; if you don’t, then you can get over it. It is extremely important to bi-vocational pastors that they set those expectations, just like you said, ahead of time and say that “I want to do everything I can to be your pastor. I’m going to love you, but I have to make some priorities.”

Dr. Allen: That is good. I learned, and I consciously realized and determined, that the most important hour of my week as a bi-vocational minister was the 10 minutes before and after the three services. Be there 10 minutes early, at least; stay 10 minutes late, at least; and the amount of pastoral contact that you can have before and after services on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday can save you multiple hours during the week where you have to make a special trip or have some special follow-up. You can do that around those services, and it can go a long way.

Dr. Page: Every Wednesday night, we would have a supper. I would walk around to every table touching, loving, playing with kids, touching lives, ministering to the people. Same thing, up and down the aisles every Sunday morning and every Sunday night: speaking to people, encouraging people, and getting to know people. There are ways to make your presence known, even when your time is limited.

Dr. Allen: That’s good.  This has been a very helpful conversation. My heart and my prayers are for bi-vocational ministers. I anticipate their tribe increasing in the years ahead, and we are determined to be faithful here at Midwestern Seminary to serve them, to encourage them, to equip them, so they can be most effectively used for the glory of God. Thank you for the conversation, and thank you for being with us here at Midwestern.

Dr. Page: Thank you, Dr. Allen.

*Recorded 17 January 2014

topicsSpurgeon Room Conversations

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