Bi-Vocational Ministry, and How I Understand God’s Calling

I usually write posts that include lists, but this one is different. I thought it might be good to post on Labor Day. 

Somebody asked me the other day how I determine God’s will for my life, and I think I may have surprised him when our conversation led to a discussion about bi-vocational ministry. So, I figured I would lay my thoughts out there on my website and invite you to critique my thinking.

Here’s where I land: God called me to Him first. Then, He called me to a task more than a role.

When I was 13 years old, God saved me. That same day (the first time I was in church in my life), I’m certain God called me to preach. I was sitting on the front pew of the church, and I sensed very clearly in my heart these words: “I want you to preach My Word.” Those words were so pounding to me that I have never questioned that calling in over 40 years.

What I have learned, though, is that my calling was to this task – without specificity about the role. For the first part of my ministry, I served as a senior pastor for fourteen years. I’ve served as a seminary professor for almost twenty years since then. At the same time, I’ve worked with a mission board either part-time or full-time for the last seven years. My side business as a church consultant is simply another way for me to do ministry. 

In every role, though, I’ve been a preacher of the gospel. God has expanded my understanding of His heart, and I’ve learned much about multiple platforms for preaching the gospel; however, my calling hasn’t wavered. My locations have changed, and my titles have differed – but my calling has never waned. “I want you to preach My Word” is still at the center of everything I do.  

Now, here’s where I think I may have surprised my friend. I genuinely believe I could tomorrow start teaching high school English in a public school system (my undergrad training) and still fulfill my calling as long as long I’m preaching the gospel. I assume that role would be a bi-vocational role as pastor or missionary, but it could even be a non-paid position. Life would be different (primarily because I’ve been full-time inside the church world for so long), but my calling wouldn’t change. I could preach the Word in a bi-vocational role and not risk my obedience a bit.

In fact, it might be that I would have more immediate access to non-believers in a public school role. Sure, I would need to be careful how I shared the gospel, but I could still be light in an increasingly dark world. It’s even possible I’d have more immediate opportunities to reach out to students of other world faiths than I do in my current role. I trust I could, in God’s power, lead a church to reach its community without my depending on that congregation for my salary. And, my teaching English again could further prepare me to teach English at a later time anywhere in the world, including places where the gospel has not gone.

My calling is to God and the work of preaching the gospel. I’m glad, frankly, for this calling to a task. I’ve been privileged to serve in multiple roles, and perhaps God will bless my serving in others someday—including in an intentional bi-vocational role.

I don’t know what those roles might be. What I do know is that He won’t allow me to stop preaching His Word. I’m okay with that.

14 Comments

  • David says:

    Thank you for this. Reminds me of Paul who labored with his own hands while working with the Corinthian church. The message gives hope to those who know they are called to teach or preach the Gospel but either can’t be or don’t feel led to be pastors. We can focus on the role without getting hung up on the title.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Thanks, David. The title should not be the goal, should it?

      • David says:

        No but in our flesh the title provides the validation we should be seeking from our Lord. The rewards of “Well done good and faithful servant” may seem too far off but in reality are only a breath away.

  • Sean Post says:

    Outstanding. That is exactly how I believe but expressed better than I can express it.

  • Brad says:

    I have seen ,in my short ministry, that Bi-vocational ministry is very effective. By the grace of God we have seen Gospel fruit in every season of our lives, whether full-time or bi-vocational. Two reasons I would suggest a person to persue Bi-vocational ministry.

    1. To take finacial pressure off of the local church.
    2. To set an example of work ethic and mission for the flock.

    I have seen several young men accumulate thousands of dollars in school debt to aquire a “fall back” plan while neglecting their theological training and practical ministry experience. Two resons to not be bi-vocational.

    1. To live an more elaborate lifestyle.

    2. To have a back up plan.

    Just some thoughts.
    Brad

  • Thanks Chuck! I needed to read this today with what God is doing in my life and family right now!

  • M.A. Hayward says:

    I think you’re spot on, Chuck. God’s calling is to himself, and he makes us into who (not what) he wants us to be. Calling is centered around character and so ministry is born of who we are, not what we think we need to do for God. I’ve often taught that as God makes you, you can perform the “duties” of your calling anywhere. It’s man that has a tendency to rely on titles and offices, usually as a way of limiting what we do to where we’re comfortable. The Bible says, “If his gift is…then let him…” (Romans 12:6-8). It does not specify when, where, or how because there is, not just freedom in that, but a mandate to do so liberally in season and out of season.

    Here is my struggle, however. I’ve pastored a small church for almost 12 years now. The church has grown and shrunk over the years but has never been able to support a full-time salary, so I work outside the formal ministry. The problem is that I don’t feel like anything gets my full attention and it is difficult to discern whether God is leading me into another arena to fulfill my calling (or to fulfill my calling another way), or if he is encouraging me to persevere and honor him in this situation…

    Thank you, sir for you heart and encouragement. Your ministry blesses many.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Thanks for the honesty, M.A. I certainly can’t tell you how the Lord might be leading you, but I’d encourage you to take this step: make sure you’re investing in a few men who can help carry the church load. That way, even though you can’t give your full attention, the church still receives full attention — it’s just the combination of a few rather than the efforts of one. Whatever you learn in taking this step at your current place of ministry will help you wherever God leads you. If you want to talk more, feel free to contact me directly. 

  • Mike Tullos says:

    Hello Chuck, You must be reading my mail. For the past 5 years I have moved from full-time pastor/adjunct professor, to missionary, to road ministry/real estate sales, and have finally realize that I have been a preacher of the gospel in every place. I now earn my living selling real estate, and almost daily have opportunities to share the gospel, opportunities that I would not have had it not been for the journey. Thanks for reminding me that ministry doesn’t always fit into a box. I believe folks look down on those of us who were in full-time ministry and left it for various reasons. I have seen that first hand. The truth is I don’t feel like I ever left the ministry, it just looks different. I left because that’s what God was saying at the time, and finally I have come to the place of great peace. Seeing God work in this new journey has been incredible and wonderful.

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