What You Need to Know About Bivocational Church Planting Going into It

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This past week has brought a convergence of conversations about the realities of church planting that are evident in cities (and rural communities) across the country. Not that these realities are even new or noteworthy, but what was interesting was how they landed together and the timing.

Last week I had coffee with a friend who’s a church planter. We’ve both been in Portland now long enough to have seen the tide carry new church planters to the shores of Portland and also long enough to watch mortified as the rip tide swept most of these same church planters back out. One by one we talked about all of the planters we know who’ve already came and moved on over the past 6-8 years. That’s not that long of a time frame. The reasonings for their departure are mixed. Any time I’ve ever had a coffee or lunch with a church planter who was contemplating leaving I‘ve always been supportive and encouraging. I want what’s the best for them and their family. Usually at that point a change or reprieve is needed.

Then I had two conversations this week with planters in two separate cities both facing the same struggles within their denomination. There’s not much of a family or brotherhood among the planters since the culture and structure is set up to breed competition. There’s a revolving door of vision tours where potential partner churches and their pastors are paraded all over the city, they’re oversold the city’s “darkness,” and then they meet the church planters. Each planter is most often desperately hoping and praying to be able to “land” another partner. New partners equal more money in spite of having to put up with annoying mission teams from their churches from small Southern cities. Both planters I talked with admitted the frustration over the “system” but since they’re part of it don’t know what else to do. But since they’re both well-funded they also recognize they benefit from it as well.

Another layer or thread to these interconnected themes or conversations is the looming reality that planters have, are, or will face soon. Here’s how it works … unless you’re a “1-percenter” church planer with strong funding you’re either bivocational, transitioning into bivocational work, or are contemplating when to seriously consider making that jump as you forecast your diminishing church partner support. What that means is for most church planters it’s not if but when. Again, every city has a few fortunate planters with enough funding to sustain them comfortably past 5-6 years. Even for them, at some point that too will eventually run out. Circling back to my conversation with my local church planter friend as we lamented all of the friends we saw either leave Portland or church planting altogether the only difference between them and the well-funded planters is simply the timeline. They, due to a lack of funding, had to make that transition sooner.

While I advocate, teach on, and champion bivocational church planting it’s not that that is the secret silver bullet that will slay the soul-sucking vampire of funding. For some? For sure! For others, it means stepping into an industry or field they’ve been ill-equipped, nor educated, or trained for. As a result many of those with an MDiv are picking up jobs that you may not even need a Bachelor’s degree to do. However, bivocational church planting, while it is challenging, is still worth it. It’s worth it every time assuming you’re passionate about and energized about planting. What’s even more helpful is if you feel that way about your “other” job, whether you step into a side job or career or whether you’ve gone through one of our cohorts and are launching a new business or non-profit from scratch.

Here’s what you need to know going into it … it’s a lot of work. You may fail. You may succeed. You simply won’t know until you try or start.

Just this morning as I was reading through Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers in preparation for a new course I’ll begin teaching soon I had to pause (as usual) and reread what he was writing as I was riveted. Gladwell brilliantly wove the story of the plight of different immigrant groups landing in New York City at around the turn of the 19th century. For many, who had a previously skillset, particularly in the garment industry, found they could make a good run at it in their new home. Why? As Gladwell writes, “autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward—are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying. It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It’s whether our work fulfills us” (pp. 149-150).

Many were willing to work insanely long and difficult hours, but why? Because it was meaningful. It also wasn’t mundane. They were entrepreneurial in the truest sense. Lots of risk. No guarantees. Chance for failure. Chance (with hard work and the right connections) for wild success. Those who enter bivocational are doing so because there’s a calling—a compulsion—to do this. No guarantees. It’s downright terrifying. You may not always be able to pay the bills. You may not be able to afford those Instagram-worthy vacations your friends on staff at big churches take. But you don’t care. You’re invigorated about the possibilities for you. You see opportunities where others may see obstacles.

Again, what do you need to know going in? Simply put … you may not “make it.” Actually, despite what the “trends” or “research” shows … most don’t. I hear all of the time about survivability and the success rate for planters. As if that somehow will bolster someone contemplating stepping into planting churches. I simply think those numbers are skewed. I have now been involved in church planting in 3 cities and for 17 years. I can tell you that looking back now at these 3 cities and the landscape of church planting it’s actually a rarity for a church plant to make it. Yes, a rarity.

That’s why we need to take this bivocational conversation seriously. As I always contend … if you as the church planter are sustainable (however you can make that happen) then your church will always be sustainable. This is certainly not doom and gloom. Actually quite far from it. This is good news! Church planting is hard! Bivocational church planting is more difficult in terms of juggling. But like Jewish immigrants from rural Poland landing in New York City in 1889 you have the skillset needed to thrive. As they say … high risk high reward. I’m pulling for you. It is a privilege to do what we do.

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Written by Sean Benesh

Director of Intrepid