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Strategically Bi-vocational: Reimagining Ministry Sustainability and Impact

By William D. Gibson

Bi-vocational ministry is nothing new. Since the formation of the church, some level of bi-vocational “tentmaking” has allowed pastors to serve the local church while also providing for their families. Proudly, many licensed local pastors have represented this model in The United Methodist Church system. However, due to many factors, it is often hard for a United Methodist clergyperson to think in bi-vocational terms. Inevitably, this consideration leads to conversations around strategy.

Rev. Kate Kilroy appointed to ministry in Marysville pictured with frequent collaborator Greg Kanehen, Executive Director of Marysville Crisis Support Services.

Forging new strategies and reimagining existing models of ministry is the Innovation Vitality Team’s (IV Team) focus, in collaboration with the Greater Northwest Cabinet and identified leaders across the area. Collaborative efforts are built on a change theory where the practices of inclusion, innovation, and multiplication[1] can allow for a shift in ministry, community engagement, and new relationships, teaching us how to pivot. For example, the pandemic changed how the whole world functions, especially for pastors, churches, and vital community partnerships. How can we sustain positive social change and community impact as the ground quakes underneath our feet? This brings us to our topic of bi-vocational ministry.

In many ways, tradition tends to hold our churches in the posture of ‘how we’ve always done things.’ Yet as culture emerges and our contexts become increasingly post-Christian, new ways of being church in community need exploration more than ever, both from a pastoral and a congregational perspective. Sustainability, measured impact, and quantifiable change demand it. And we will need to create space for our system to embrace renewed models of pastoral ministry.

The challenges of bi-vocational ministry in The United Methodist Church

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

“We’ve made the bi-vocational model a little more difficult than in some traditions,” explained Lovett Weems, the Wesley Seminary Distinguished Professor of Church Leadership and Senior Consultant at the G. Douglas Lewis Center for Church Leadership. “If you are an [United Methodist] elder in full connection, you are really expected to be full time and devote yourself to that ministry assignment. Everything is designed with the assumption of full-time clergy. However, most of our churches are likely being served part-time by a pastor who may be full-time, but the part-time pastor of three churches.”

The number of shrinking and closing churches continues to increase across our United Methodist connection, exposing a problematic intersection between two policies within our system. The guaranteed appointment represents one of our church’s unsustainable, long traditions.

“I’d love to see guaranteed appointment go away, and here is why I think it may,” said Weems. “We are on a collision course with two things; one is guaranteed appointment, and the other is minimum salary. Every time minimum salary is raised, that eliminates another group of churches from having certain types of pastors.”

It is simple economics. When a church shrinks in attendance and giving declines, its financial and human capacities diminish. It makes it impossible to maintain certain levels of ministry, the least of which is a full-time pastor. We must achieve and increase these capacities. And it requires creative thinking around alternative revenue streams that fund ministry (e.g., social enterprise, grant opportunities, community partnerships, nonprofit development, and of course, bi-vocational ministry and more). While change is inevitable, it will not come without varying degrees of pain and stress on our UMC systems.

These considerations represent the scarcity side of a bi-vocational appointment. They beg an important question around sustainable ministry practices. What if bi-vocational ministry wasn’t approached from a posture of necessity and/or scarcity but instead conceived from a position of strategy?

It’s an interesting question. One that actually led the IV Team to explore a pilot approach to new church development, particularly as financial sustainability remains a critical benchmark for vitality projects, both new and in existing churches. If two converging efforts share many of the same values, what would it look like to explore a vital partnership?

Exploring bi-vocational ministry as a strategy for community engagement

At the beginning of the 2021 appointment year, Rev. Kate Kilroy, the appointed planter/innovator who leads Better Together, a new faith community out of Marysville United Methodist Church (UMC), was presented with precisely this unique opportunity. Her work within the community and the school system availed something new that generated a strategic opportunity to align resources.

Rev. Kate Kilroy

“The discernment conversations I had with Kate [Kilroy] around this decision really focused on looking at this invitation from the school district as a possible extension of the ministry that she is already doing through the Better Together project and not totally separate from it,” said Rev. Mark Galang, Superintendent for the Puget Sound Missional District. “We saw it as an opportunity for her to grow our relationships and impact in the community.”

Because Kilroy was properly embedded in her neighborhood context and focused on deep listening and building new relationships, the initiatives she led for her community of faith intersected with the City of Marysville and the local school system. It was a natural convergence.

“This is the fruit or a by-product of long, deep and authentic relational work that Kate has done in the community,” continued Galang. “In a way, we are building on existing relationships that Kate has already established in the preceding years she was volunteering in the community, doing exactly the same work. We must realize that the conversation about going bi-vocational only came about when people in the community started to recognize Kate’s gifts — how this is tied to her faith and informed by her work as a pastor. It was not Kate’s intention when she started volunteering with the school district.”

Since early fall of 2021, Kilroy has been serving in a new, strategic bi-vocational role as both the coalition coordinate for the Marysville School District and the church planter/innovator for Better Together, out of Marysville UMC. This pilot partnership was made possible by approaching the bi-vocational model from a strategy position, where the natural intersections point of community engagement, family ministry, and prevention care converge. This kind of collaboration around strategic initiatives can make for a broader impact.

“The work I do is actually funded by the state, as they are recognizing a huge deficit in the ability of individual household units to feel empowered to support family dynamics in such a way that bring about healthier communities,” said Rev. Kate Kilroy. “The United Methodist Church is supposed to be zealously committed to what it means to have healthier communities, which moved us to explore something very creative.”

The unique partnership places Kilroy at the center of meeting a need while leveraging the resources of both the school system and the ministry focus of the local church. This intersection point of innovation centers community needs and relationships as the impetus of the deployable human resources and more. Most of all, it is context-driven.

“As a coordinator, I get to set loose all the community workers of the coalition who are creating pro-social environments that foster healthy connections for the families we support,” explained Kilroy. “I get to equip the people who are doing the same good work in such a way that mirrors the gospel and good news, making it visible in ways that bring about positive impact. The overlap between my work as a planter/innovator who is cultivating community engagement and my work as a coalition coordinator within the school system is seamless. It hit me profoundly that as a clergy person, I was given agency to bring my full self and to speak into these vital spaces. I get to engage in family ministry, but now I get to do it outside of the bounds of a limited container and push beyond the boundaries of our city limits out to the outskirts of our communities.”

Children participate in a craft project.

Breaking down barriers and forging vital partnerships and collaborative initiatives is critical to redefining the role and work of a pastor and the role and work of the local church within its neighborhood. Lacking this kind of movement, more and more churches turn their attention toward making ends meet financially to survive. Consequently, less and less time and effort are focused on the community’s needs and especially what the community can teach the local church. In the instance of Kilroy’s new role, the position is being funded by the state, expanding resources for community engagement through her community of faith which creates sustained impact.

In choosing a path, our goals matter

Lovett Weems reminds us that there are two questions most local churches are trying to answer each year as they review their budgets and how to sustain and plan for the upcoming season of ministry.

“Church survival is not a worthy goal. But mission sustainability is a worthy goal,” expressed Weems. “If your ministry presence in your community matters, then you have to think beyond answering ‘How do we get through another year?’ and move to ‘How do we develop this ministry in a way that is sustainable?’”

Weems goes on to speak directly to one of the bad habits local churches have developed.

“We have to challenge our practices year after year of drawing from some reserve fund, bequest, or endowment that local churches are spending down ten or fifteen percent every year,” continued Weems. “These are not sustainable strategies. They are great acts of selfishness.”

Our fears often cause us to act in unintended ways. However, new relationships are developed when we can embed (or re-embed) ourselves into our changing neighborhoods and listen to and learn from our neighbors. We then move from providing services to and for the community to working with our neighbors. This pivot alone can firm up partnerships and pull together resources, initiatives, passion, and mission for the greater good.

“There is a different relationship dynamic created when you have the church’s endorsement to do the kind of work I get to do,” said Kilroy. “I do feel uniquely blessed by the training I received early in my IV Team development that prioritized listening to the community because I would never have found this particular connection that is now flourishing.”

Listening leads to learning and relationships that move us forward in collaborative ways. Reimagining ministry sustainability and impact requires moving beyond thinking outside the box. It calls for us to pilot new models that can help leave behind our boxes altogether in exchange for collaborative pathways that join in the good and innovative work that is already happing around us. This is how we learn to be church again with our neighbors.

Rev. J. Mark Galang

“This kind of approach of letting a person of faith work with the community and not just for the community makes the church relevant again — and it didn’t happen overnight,” reminds District Superintendent Galang. “It came out of long and deep relational work that helped folks believe and understand that the church has no hidden agenda except for the good and health of the community. For this reason, I see that because of this trust, the city officials and the school system inviting Kate to bring her full self as a faith leader — and by extension of who she is as a clergy person, the church — in this important work for and with the community.”

You never know where God is leading until you take new steps into the great unknown. Sometimes old ways of thinking can be reimagined into strategic action. And, as would be expected, such leaps of faith will require space for the inevitable pain and stressors of change within our system. 

Positive social change pours from relationships, trust, and a new sense of belonging, where everyone has agency and equitable access to needed resources. Only new pathways will lead us there. Are we willing to reimagine what ministry sustainability and impact look like, including bi-vocational strategies and beyond?

Note: For more information on the changing face of ministry, check out this report by Doug Powe of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership:

Dr. William D. Gibson served as Director of Innovation for a New Church and IV Team Leader for the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area including the Alaska, Oregon-Idaho and Pacific Northwest Annual Conferences.

[1] With inclusion as the foundation, our recognized cultural identities and differences inform and shape how we understand, engage, and collaborate in new and healthy relationships. This is where a sense of belonging can thrive, where those who often do not have agency or voice are centered instead of pushed to the margins (especially in a church that is 94% white). If we allow the encountered ‘difference’ to spark innovation, we can stretch muscles we have never used before. That is the idea — “innovation happens at the intersection of difference” (attributed to Leroy Barber), helping us reimagine equitable, creative, efficient, and meaningful opportunities that move us forward. Then, multiplication sustains the movement and impact — discipleship, financial viability, capacity building, leadership development, alternative revenue streams, social enterprise, vital partnerships, new ministry models, and more. Again, unused muscles need work. The practices of inclusion, innovation, and multiplication — the change theory on which we operate — represents a healthy way to lean into change in an ever-changing world.

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