No Small Calling: Should a Small-Town Pastor be Full-Time?

When people learn the size of my town and church, they are usually surprised that I am full-time. Thanks to our parsonage and the generosity of our people, we are able to live on my salary alone, despite our low numbers. I view this situation as a blessing.

In recent years, as many churches and especially church plants are unable to support a full-time pastor, practitioners have touted the advantages for ministry that working a secular job can bring. People have found that being able to interact with non-believers in a neutral setting creates opportunity for outreach that are more difficult as a full-time pastor. This situation works so well for some that people have questioned whether the model of the full-time minister is even the best way.

I do not doubt that bivocational ministry has its advantages, especially for ministers with certain types of personality, who have the right type of job in the right setting. In a small town setting, however, I still believe it is best for a church to try to have a full-time pastor. The realities of small-town life often negate the advantages of bivocational ministry and magnify the disadvantages.

Jobs are few and unstable

The ideal job for a bivocational minister is one that will give him time with both coworkers and the general public, both within his field of ministry. A pastor needing to find secular work in order to accept a call to a church in a small town may have to accept a job that takes him outside of the community. If I were to have to find secular work, there is little chance I would find it in Stephens, and even if I did, it would be one less job available to citizens who need the work. Even if a pastor works from home, he is taking time away from pastoral work without the added relational benefit of a marketplace job.

Instability in the job market is also a problem. If a church is counting on their pastor to make his living from outside employment, they could soon find that his job is no longer there. Even teaching school isn’t safe in many communities, as smaller school districts are being closed and consolidated in rural areas.

Availability is key to success in small towns

A big part of pastoring in a small town is being around to be involved in community organizations and events, being available to visit, to preach and attend funerals, and to be present for people in need. Because a job will most likely take the pastor outside of his community, time for these things is drastically reduced. In that reduced time, pastors have to make a choice with how to spend the rest of their time, and these opportunities are either missed or come at the expense of family time or time in the Word, growing and preparing to preach.

Bivocational ministry is a poor fit for many personalities

A lot of successful pastors have high-octane personalities that are very achievement-oriented. They are naturally extroverted and are energized as they spend time with people. For these pastors, working a secular job where they interact with many people will not drain them of the ability to also minister in the other hours of their days and weeks. But many pastors are introverts, who love people but also need time alone to be able to give their best compassionate care. It’s not good for them to try to double up their people time.

Also, with the slow pace of change and the patience required in a small-town setting, high-energy, task-oriented people who would thrive in bivocational ministry in an urban church plant would be very frustrated in a slow-paced, rural church. The pastor who is more comfortable with a slower pace is ideal for these churches, but this type of ‘motor’ will likely burn out trying to juggle two jobs and a family.

Full-time is the biblical ideal

The Apostle Paul is often held up as the example of bivocational ministry in the Bible, but Paul made it clear that his “tent-making” was the exception, not the rule, pointing to how other apostles lived. 1 Corinthians 9:14 says, “In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.” Throughout this chapter, Paul gives biblical examples, arguing for the minister to make his living through the ministry.

In his letter to Timothy, Paul again writes, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’ “

There are situations when it is impossible for a church to fully support a pastor and his family. But I fear that some churches resign themselves to a bivocational situation by failing to have and maintain a parsonage or by not reaching deep to give enough to support a full-time pastor. Likewise, some pastors who could live off of what their churches provide continue outside work to maintain a certain standard of living, rather than sacrifice some perks in order to dedicate themselves full time to gospel work.

Bivocational ministry has a crucial role to play in the kingdom of God. Many men, women, and their families are sacrificing for the sake of the gospel to minister to people who do not have the means to support them financially. But that role is to be the exception, not the ideal.

I encourage pastors considering churches in small towns to make the sacrifice to live simply and to dedicate their full-time efforts to the gospel. And I encourage churches in small towns to give well, to purchase or maintain a parsonage, and to do all that is possible to provide a living to their pastor.

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