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In Celebration of Bivocational Ministry

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The challenge of carrying three jobs

How many jobs do you have? For much of my adult life, I have had three. Two have been located outside of the home: traditional employment to earn income and substantial volunteer work serving my religious community. The third has been the work to help raise and care for my family. Any one of these could absorb all my waking hours, and yet I have had to balance them all in ever-changing proportions. Sound familiar? I bet it does. Many Friends today share this experience, across all the branches of Friends.

For the first time in my life, I am blessed and honored to be paid a full-time living wage for Quaker work. But I know, from 20 years of experience, what it is like for this to not be true.

God calls some people to serve in ministry while also working in secular jobs to supplement their income (either part- or full-time). There are various ways to name this experience: tent-making ministers, released Friends, part-time pastors; but the most common phrase used today is “bivocational ministry.”

 

This term describes the practice of those who both hold a secular job and serve in ministry (whether or not it is a paid religious service). Maintaining a healthy family life is often just assumed: even if one doesn’t have children at home, almost everyone has some kind of family relationships that require time and energy to sustain.

Bivocational ministry is quintessentially Quaker, but many meetings and churches are struggling with it. The survival of the Religious Society of Friends in this century depends on us getting this right.

There is a growing conversation among those involved in the training and hiring of ministers, inside and outside the Religious Society of Friends, about the need to rethink how we prepare and support diverse ministries. This is not a new concept. As Esteban Ajnota, a family therapist and pastor from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, puts it, “the practice of bivocational ministry was a foundation of Christian ministry in the first century. The elders or pastors who established the new churches were all active members of their communities—this was a requirement to even be considered for the position.”

Bivocational ministry was an essential part of the founding vision of Quakerism. Early Friends railed against the abuses of “hireling ministers.” Even those branches of Friends who have turned to hired pastoral staff emphasize the call to the ministry by God over a reliance on credentials or pedigree. In the book Self-Supported Ministers: Lest We Forget, published by North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Friends United Meeting) in 2008, author Billy Britt gives examples that span one hundred years of Friends who were bivocational ministers before it was a term.

One of the North Carolina Friends who was profiled in the book is Ann Mendenhall Benbow. Ann was born in 1801, raised seven children, and was recorded as a minister in 1847. She moved with her husband, a farmer, to revive and extend Quakerism in Yadkin County, North Carolina. “Ann was a very persuasive minister and physician who traveled extensively over the county taking care of the sick, counseling the bereaved, and preaching each Sunday in meetings for worship.” Another North Carolina Friend, Wesley Wooten, born in 1854, farmed for a living and taught school in the winter months. He converted to Friends in Forbush Meeting in 1880 and was recorded in East Bend in 1887. “Through his efforts, Pine Hill Meeting was begun and organized, a memorial to his service and sacrifice. With his horse and wagon, he hauled lumber and worked with Friends to make the meetinghouse possible.” Lest we think these are all ancient examples, Floyd Puckett, born in 1943, was a computer instructor for R.J. Reynolds for 37 years: “Floyd and [his wife], Myrtle, had a very successful ministry in their 13 years of pastoral responsibilities in Westfield Friends Meeting in Surry County.” They also engaged in mission and study trips to Turkey, Israel, Haiti, and Russia.

 

As Friends, we have acknowledged that a calling to a particular ministry may be time-bound; it is not necessarily a permanent condition. Throughout our history, Friends have shared the burdens and the joys of ministry. As part of our uniquely Quaker spiritual inheritance, it’s a model that we can share with the world.

Not everyone who speaks occasionally in meeting for worship or does occasional paid or volunteer work is being called to bivocational ministry. Many meetings have hired part-time secretaries, building managers, or childcare workers. In doing so, we acknowledge that this work requires consistent attention and accountability, and we compensate the people who perform it. Yet we often fail to acknowledge this same need in the case of pastoral care or religious education.

 

Hiring someone to serve the meeting in a religious sense doesn’t mean they have to preach on Sunday. Even full-time, seminary-trained pastors are not equally gifted in all of the forms of ministry expected in the modern Protestant model. What would it look like to financially release someone to plan and implement a comprehensive adult religious education program for your meeting? How would your meeting be different if someone had the time and the responsibility to think about the needs of the meeting community and could develop multi-year programs that built on each other in a coherent way?

What if someone had the time and the responsibility to coordinate pastoral care visits to the sick, elderly, newlyweds, shut-ins, new babies, and parents of teenagers? How much stronger would your meeting’s bonds of caring be if it was somebody’s job to be sure that these visits get made? Who helps to coordinate the Friends who are known to be gifted in this ministry and in nurturing new folks into doing it well, too?

Did you know that in Britain Yearly Meeting, the recording clerk of the yearly meeting is a paid staff person? It’s not a volunteer position; it’s an individual who has been financially released from other work to follow up on all the things that the yearly meeting decided to do.

 

Many Friends have a calling to do more for their meeting or for the wider Religious Society of Friends, but can’t afford to give up their paid work. More and more of us may have to accept the economic reality of multiple part-time jobs. Changes in employment patterns in the last 50 years have led to more women working full-time outside the home, and to more office jobs, fewer farmers, more independent contractors, and the stresses of required overtime. Many unprogrammed meetings can no longer find enough volunteers to populate their elaborate committee structures. As we enter a new phase of widespread underemployment, are there ways that Friends can support gifted Friends’ service in our communities? Can we share our paid work with a wider group of people?

I know too many Friends from both the programmed and unprogrammed traditions who have entered graduate programs to prepare for Quaker service  only to find that they have incurred substantial debts. There are not enough paid jobs in Quakerism to absorb them all. Some have become hospital chaplains; some go to work for other denominations; others return to secular work with their master of divinity diplomas on the shelf.

Kathy Hyzy, former editor of Western Friend magazine, wrote about these dilemmas in a discussion on my blog:

It’s absolutely true that we are not short on gifted Friends who feel called to service. Are we then merely short on a place to collect funds and the means to inspire Friends to give their financial support? I realize that’s no small task—fundraising among a people who have deep-seated discomforts with talking about money is inherently challenging. But I so want to believe that there are enough Friends out there who are able to give a little or a lot to support those who have leadings to follow. I find Evangelical Friends far more willing to engage with these sorts of questions, and you see it pay off in the many, many good works they support around the globe. Perhaps unprogrammed Friends need to be asking Evangelical Friends for some schooling in attitudes regarding money and leadings!

At the same time, Friends who are familiar with hiring pastors know that many Quaker pastors are expected to do full-time work and yet receive part-time salaries (plus there is frequently an expectation that the spouse will also contribute time). Friends are sometimes dismissive of part-time pastors: they are seen as less committed. Instead, we should celebrate this balance. The ongoing changes in employment patterns in the United States will continue to push us toward accepting more part-time work. How can we name the need for bivocational ministry in a way that helps us to deal with these changes?

Having three jobs carries its own dangers as we seek to balance them in right order. A young Friend in Central America recently told me that he has seen men give so much to the Quaker community that they failed to be fully present to their families or to take care of their own health. In my own life, I often feel as if I am short-changing one or all the parts of my life. I have complained bitterly when any one of these responsibilities seems to overtake my life. I have worked hard with my husband and a series of clearness and support committees to maintain a flexible and sustainable balance. I have been blessed with this assistance; not everyone is so fortunate.

 

Gifted people are leaving the Religious Society of Friends because they aren’t finding a way to deliver their gifts in our midst. We have to nurture, educate, and mentor them so that they learn how to serve God and Friends. We may have to emotionally support them to accept a less demanding or fulfilling monetary job so that they have time and energy for their ministry. Many meetings and churches don’t know what to do with strongly gifted Friends, nor do we know how to rein in people who have outrun their guide. Quaker meetings are dying in part because we haven’t found a way to accept the gifts that God is sending us through these Friends.

Rufus Jones suggested 70 years ago—and I still think it’s relevant—that we need to give very gifted Friends a wider scope for their work. We need to send them to share their message with other meetings and wider audiences. We need to receive the blessings of other traveling Friends’ outsized gifts in our own meetings. Sending strong and experienced Friends to minister in other places lets new ministers grow up casting their own Light.

 

Yearly meetings approach the training and support for bivocational ministers in various ways: weekend workshops, spiritual formation cohorts, pastors’ conferences, support for continuing education. One example comes from the Evangelical Friends Church - Mid-America Yearly Meeting which runs an educational program called Church Leadership Institute located at Barclay College in tiny Haviland, Kansas. The institute offers high-tech, long-distance sharing of best practices and great teachers to local small groups that meet first to listen to the teachers and then to help each other wrestle with their ministry. Some local meetings have developed innovative approaches to calling, supporting, and releasing ministers. The unprogrammed Friends at Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting and Beacon Hill Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, each developed specific guidelines for local Friends; Pacific Yearly Meeting Friends then compiled these guidelines into a comprehensive document called Faithfulness in Action: Supporting Leadings in Pacific Yearly Meeting (which can be viewed and downloaded at fdsj.nl/FIA-PYM).

Unfortunately, most of the best practices among Friends are unknown outside of their immediate geographic area. The divided branches of Quakers have a lot to offer one another in tackling the problems and celebrating the strengths of bivocational ministry. Their different perspectives complement each other. How can we amplify the work and learning that has already been done about calling, training, and supporting ministry, by individual Friends and Quaker institutions, to benefit Friends more widely? With all the new information technology at our fingertips, we should be able to share and find the really good stuff we already have.

 

How could Friends address this in a way that would be useful to the whole Religious Society of Friends? How can we help those Friends who are struggling to find a way to use their gifts and live into their leadings? Quaker meetings and churches could hold an honest and fruitful conversation with each other and with the individual Friends about how to best match their gifts and needs. I think the answer will involve celebrating bivocational ministry among Friends.

At its best, bivocational ministry—widely practiced, fully supported, and deeply cherished—offers a broad range of opportunities for people to share their gifts with their community. It can provide Friends with a sustainable standard of living and make space for new opportunities over the course of a lifetime. It can help us live up to the Light that we have been given.

Robin Mohr serves as executive secretary for the Friends World Committee for Consultation Section of the Americas. She is married, has two sons at home, and is a member of Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa. She also writes about Quaker topics and her spiritual journey for her blog at robinmsf.blogspot.com.

Posted in: Features, March 2014

One Response to In Celebration of Bivocational Ministry

  1. Paul Whitehouse March 5, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

    City & State
    Bristol UK
    Thought provoking, certainly, but my first question is “How can we rationalise the Committee Structure?” Do Friends understand the concept of delegation?
    Only then shall we have a clear understanding of how much time is needed.
    There may well be opportunities to pay people to carry out discrete tasks, but we need to be careful not to employ someone for an indeterminate period.

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