Paul: Planting Churches Bivocationally by Phil Claycomb (1 of 2)

I’ve not given bivocational church planting the respect it deserves. I’ve thought of it as an unsavory and occasionally unavoidable method-of-last-resort. I’ve seen it as a strategy to be employed only when absolutely necessary, or once all other methods have failed. I don’t think I’m alone in my aversion to bivocational… most of us think of it as something to avoid, like the plague.

But still, I’m surprised by my reaction. Of all people, I should be biased in favor of bivocational (self-funding) strategies. My dad sold life insurance to start the church of my childhood. And I’ve done it… I’ve worked side jobs to support my church plants. And I’m doing it even today… launching my church-planting network has required I engage in stretches of bivocational endeavors.

So what’s behind this aversion to bivocational and self-funding strategies? I’m not certain I can answer that… but as I confront my bias I am finding that a close look at Paul and his friends, Priscilla and Aquila, helps me rethink this strange aversion.

Paul did it! He engaged in bivocational ministry

Luke tells us that Paul made tents while in Corinth (Acts 18:3). Paul asserted that both he and Barnabus “worked for a living” to support their ministry (1 Cor 9:6). And both letters to the Thessalonians stressed how Paul worked both night and day to supply his own needs (1 Thess 2:9; 2 Thess 3:7-8). But the question has never really been whether Paul self-funded his ministry endeavors. The question is whether Paul used a bivocational strategy and approach voluntarily, deliberately, or even strategically?

Acts 18:5 has been misunderstood

A common misreading of Acts 18:5 is to assume that the text says Paul stopped making tents once Silas and Timothy arrived in Corinth. The implication many infer from this passage is that Paul allowed himself to stop doing “real” ministry –getting sidelined into making tents – only because he had no other choice. Then, once his companions showed up Paul reengaged “real” ministry and left the tent making behind. But that is not what the passage actually says! Luke might have instead meant to say that Silas and Timothy arrived only to find Paul already “occupied with the word” even as he was engaged in tent making.  Now I admit that this passage alone is not enough to build an entire argument regarding bivocational ministry. However, a fresh look at Paul’s spirited defense of his own self-funding behaviors, present in his letters, makes it clear that Paul felt tent making and being “occupied with the word” were mutually compatible behaviors.

Bivocational ministry was not Paul’s “Means of last resort!”

In some twisted way the Corinthian congregation questioned Paul’s apostolic credentials precisely because he engaged in bivocational employment. “Hey, you’re working and paying for your own keep – you can’t be an apostle!” That seems to be what these church members thought. Therefore, in their minds Paul was a charlatan! Now had Paul been in the habit of receiving support from his churches, or letting the current church pay his way, he might have shut this argument down by simply pointing to that support. But instead, we find Paul arguing the opposite. His entire defense of his apostolic credentials is bound up with his refusal to accept the support other apostles received. His arguments make it clear that he viewed his self-funding bivocational employment as his strategic and preferred means of ongoing support. It was not something to try after everything else has failed.

So, what are the advantages of being bivocational? 

Paul believed bivocational ministry enhanced his credibility

The criticisms leveled at him in Corinth, and the way his apostolic credentials were questioned, might have prompted Paul to accept the support typically afforded apostles.  But Paul instead states – three times for emphasis – that he never made use of that support. Why? Because Paul wanted to avoid creating any obstacle that might keep people from hearing the gospel and questioning his motives. He did not want people to think he preached for profit. He wanted to avoid, at all costs, the implication that he was a people pleaser.  As one “free from all men” he owed nobody favors. Indeed, his preaching of the gospel cost him dearly. Paul’s letters are full of reminders for disciples to live in ways that are above and beyond reproach. His bivocational strategy was a means Paul utilized to establish himself as a man of credibility.

Paul believed bivocational ministry fostered identification with others

1 Corinthians 9 reveals Paul’s intentionality about identifying with the people surrounding him. To the weak he became weak – even to the point of working like one of them. In 1 Corinthians 4:11-12 Paul notes that “to this present hour we labor, working with our own hands.” His intention was to be able to identify with, at the level of, the people he was reaching. And perhaps because at least 70% of the Roman population were slaves Paul employed a bivocational strategy to build community, a sense of shared identity, with those who found day-to-day life a challenge. When the church received a letter from Paul, and heard Paul refer to himself as a bondservant they knew this was not just flowery language meant to foster a sense of false humility. They knew Paul – and they had seen him work day and night like a slave… like one of them. Paul’s bivocational strategy fostered a strong sense of identification with his hearers.

Paul believed bivocational ministry modeled servant leadership

As Paul was saying goodbye to the Ephesian elders he noted that they themselves could testify to how his hands had ministered to his own necessities, as well as to the needs of his companions (Acts 20:33-35). Paul’s example was well known… evident… unassailable. But Paul then reveals to the elders why he had worked so hard in bivocational employment. He states that his example has “shown you that by toiling you must also help the weak.” Paul didn’t find jobs on-the-side only when he had no other choice. He worked bivocationally it as a means of modeling servant leadership.

Paul believed bivocational ministry reflected a Christ-centered worldview

In Paul’s mind everything he did was an act of worship and ministry. We draw lines between church and the rest of life… between ministry and career. Paul drew no such lines. In the preceding words just before he gave specific counsel to Christian wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, and masters Paul said, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17). We do not find Paul dividing life up into secular and spiritual compartments. He clearly had a keen sense of his own apostolic calling (as well as a sense that others were called to be prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.) But our language that draws a dichotomy between “full-time Christian service” and “lesser part-time ministries” was not in his vocabulary. He simply didn’t perceive life along a secular and spiritual divide. All of life – his own making of tents – was an act of worship and an occasion for ministry.

Note: I have been greatly helped by Ruth Siemens article, “Tentmakers Needed for World Evangelization,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 3rd Edition, pages 733-741.

Note from Ralph: Dr. Philip Claycomb oversees Nexus, a church planting network that has launched nearly 50 churches in the United States in 15 years.  You can reach him through the website.

Your thoughts? 

Recent comments are getting livelier. Please keep it up. Hoping this site stages a mix of ideas…



13 thoughts on “Paul: Planting Churches Bivocationally by Phil Claycomb (1 of 2)”

  1. Another advantage of BIVO planting is that some careers allow people to be embedded in great contexts for church planting that are closed to professional ministers–like the secular university or public school system.

  2. We have used bi-vocational leaders for our campuses since 2011. GREAT ministers in ministry! Community is stronger than anticipated. And we have gained additional leaders for all aspects of “church”; good leaders becoming greater leaders.

  3. I appreciate the apologetic of bi-vocational ministry. And I really agree with a purposeful strategy for remaining bi-vocational, even when one does not need to do so. But we should remember that this is a conversation that is unique to our time in history. If you go back to the turn of the twentieth century, you would have to make the same type of argument for vocational ministry. Most pastors were working other jobs to support their ministry, and many were receiving no remuneration for their ministry.

    My grandfather was a church planter. Each summer he would take his family to a new community and plant a new church. He would mortgage his house to have enough money to buy property and build a small building for that new congregation. By year end, he would find a permanent pastor to lead that congregation. He would then work in his painting and wallpapering business to pay off his mortgage and think through his plan for the next summer.

    Around 1930, my grandfather’s denomination made a declaration that mandated that every pastor would move to vocational ministry within twelve months…they could no longer keep their ordination if they continued to work a secular job. In those days, ordination was everything to a pastor. Independent churches did not exist. My grandfather was so hurt by this, that he walked away from ministry for about ten years. The church-planting movement in that denomination ended during this timeframe, and it has not yet recovered. Fortunately for my grandfather, this denominational decree was overturned years later, and he resumed his pioneering efforts. But denominationally, the damage was done. In addition, my grandfather always regretted that he allowed the hurt of this decision to stop his church planting. He used to say that he missed the opportunity to plant ten more churches.

    Now we have huge discussions on the value of bi-vocational ministry. Historically this needs no defense. In fact, it may show that the idea of bi-vocational ministry is a secondary issue to advancing the kingdom of God. Paul says, “Whatever it takes…short of sin” (My translation)

    I am excited for what is to come. I love this article:

    As we embrace the fact that somewhere between 50%-60% of people in our culture are not going to come to our church…EVER!…we need to figure out how to bring the church to them. And that requires a different model.

    1. Thanks Greg. Your grandfather must have been a great man–layed it on the line for the gospel.
      The idea of vocational ministry is destructive as you point out. When push comes to shove, many bivocational pastors still identify “full-time salary” as their priority goal. The reason given is usually stress over time. Learning to make and empower disciples is the answer to better delegation
      Seems that the greatest pushback against bivocational, especially lay-trained bivocational, comes from seminary graduates who sacrificed a great deal to obtain an education. They understandably expect a return on investment–problem is they get upset by the ideas we are promoting. And they want everyone else to pay the same price they did.
      The real issue is thinking about the Great Commission and the Kingdom of God rather than ourselves, which takes us back to your grandfather…
      Thanks for commenting!

    2. Thanks for your feedback… yes, not being automatically or by default bivocational is a western phenomenon…. my surprise has been the realization of how out of touch I have been with the historical alproaches to ministry. As I shared, my father and so many others were bivocational, but we were blind to reality.

  4. As one who planted churches and also had several assignments in turn -around situations there were many advantages. 1. There were significant opportunities to win those with whom I did business. 2. It emphasized that all work for a Christian is sacred. 3. It allowed me to lead in calling others in volunteering. 4. The pastor was simply the team leader. 5. My contributions encouraged others to give more. And many more reasons!

  5. Alex Prokopchik

    I think one of the way to excellerate church planting movement is to equip Bivocational pastors, each of them unique contributions into the kingdom with practical approach, by being in the market place and church at the same time, being in touch with real world needs, problems, challenges and etc..

    1. Alex,
      Could you add something of your journey from planting a Russian-speaking church to your success with an English-speaking church? Also, others would benefit from knowing how you moved into business alongside the church. Your story can be a guide for others who would find success in both worlds. Please respond.

  6. Amen to that! That is my context as a church planter. I am also a substitute teacher and local fix it guy. It allows contact with people that as a professional pastor would never have been possible. It has also broken down barriers within the public school system.

    1. It’s a way of bringing the gospel into the community rather than being forced into an attractional paradigm for church. Much more like we see in Acts 2:11-47. Thanks for the comment.

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