Bi-Vocational Ministry: By Design or By Debt?


Bi-vocational ministry, the growing practice in which pastors split their waking hours between shepherding a congregation and working a separate day job, is less about them emulating the Apostle Paul’s tent-making and more about the realities of their personal financial indebtedness. The burden of student loan debt on American seminary graduates threatens the very model of the full-time pastor.

So writes David R. Wheeler in a recent article for The Atlantic entitled, “Higher Calling, Lower Wages: The Vanishing of the Middle-Class Clergy.” According to Wheeler, “Of the seminary students who graduated in 2011 with a Master of Divinity, more than 25 percent accrued more than $40,000 in educational debt, and five percent accumulated more than $80,000 in debt. Those lucky enough to get a full-time job as a pastor will join a profession whose median wage is $43,800, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.”

Do the math. A seminary grad with such a heavy backpack of debt can’t easily retire such liabilities on a middle class salary, and most churches can’t afford to pay a pastor a salary of much more. Wheeler writes, “What’s new is the across-the-board increase in bi-vocational ministry in Protestant denominations both large and small, which has effectively shut down one pathway to a stable — if humble — middle-class career.”

He cites Cameron Lee, a professor of marriage and family studies at Fuller Theological Seminary who prescribes rhetorically, “What is a church willing to do to support its pastor?… And is willingness conditioned by a consumerist mindset or robust theology of what it means to be a church in the real world.'”

At Bethlehem College & Seminary we are meeting this challenge asking instead, “What is a seminary willing to do to increase the supply of well-equipped, Bible-saturated pastors that churches can afford to call to full-time ministry?”

We start by being willing to operate our school in the leanest manner we can, eschewing many of the frills and fancies that other institutions deploy in order to attract larger tuition payments from credit-worthy recruits.

All resident students at Bethlehem College & Seminary also receive “Serious Joy Scholarships,” funded by generous givers, which cover two-thirds of the students’ total tuition such that they can graduate without debt.

We have been historically inclined to speak of this advantage as the graduates’ advantage, as the ability for them to launch into ministry without the entanglements of student loan debt, of being able to go immediately when and where Jesus calls. And so they are.

Wheeler’s article in The Atlantic, however, has caused us to see that the advantage is also the church’s in the form of newly affordable full-time pastors, better and more churches, better- shepherded Christian lives, and a more expansive spreading of a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.

And thus it goes, the faithful give generously such that the student can receive a high-quality education at low cost, incur no debt, and be available to be called to a full-time ministry position by a church. The graduate is then able to afford to serve at the lower salary level that the church is able to provide. The church is this way also enabled to afford and be blessed by a full-time pastor.

Granted, there may be some secular workplaces out there that might lose some salt and light in this approach, but we’ll gladly allow some of these day jobs to flow to others in order to see a proliferation of healthy churches shepherded by pastors who are giving their congregations all the time and energy they have.

Rick Segal
Vice President of Advancement and a Distinguished Lecturer of Commerce and Vocation
Bethlehem College & Seminary

Prayer Requests …

  1. Pray for the comfort of the family of Alex Steddom. Alex would have been an incoming first-year seminary student had the Lord not suddenly called him home last week while on a short-term mission trip in Northern Ireland. Alex’s father, Chuck, is a member of our faculty, and he and his wife, Carol, have been in pastoral ministry together at Bethlehem Baptist Church for years. Many will know Chuck as the praiseful worship leader at so many Desiring God conferences. Pastor Jason Meyer said on Sunday, “Alex is now at an even better seminary. He no longer  needs to go line-by-line, as we do. He is now face-to-face.”
  2. Pray that God might open a window in your schedule such that you might join us for Experience Bethlehem 2015, our Preview Day and Annual Friends Gathering.
  3. Pray for next week’s staff and faculty retreat where we will learn, plan, and dream about the new school year to begin August 24.
  4. Pray for the students, especially the new students, as they orient themselves to Bethlehem College & Seminary and the school year.
  5. Pray whether God may be moving you to provide one or more, or even just a portion, of those 250 “Serious Joy Scholarships” of $10,000 that will be required to operate Bethlehem College & Seminary at scale.