Bivo pastors in a small church know how much a small change in attendance can help…or hurt…the health of the church.  Good statistics are definitely not the end goal of a pastor, but they do tell stories.  A few years ago my wife and I moved to Vermont to plant a new church.  We had a storefront where we worshipped.  The church did pretty well, and was consistently running in the black financially.  We had the largest teen youth group in town, despite the fact that many churches had been there much longer than we had.  But in the last two years we saw several crises hit the church.  We had to move to another facility which was not as suitable as our first.  A family that had been supporting us consistently moved out of state.  Another left because they decided a church plant was not for them and they ‘needed better music’.  What had been a thriving ministry became a struggling ministry.  The bottom fell out.  Eventually we closed the work and moved on after making sure everyone in the group had a place to go.  Our last Sunday we had four people besides my wife and I.

No doubt about it, when a small church loses even a small number of people the ministry can be devastated.  For a church of 200 people, losing 10 can be painful.  For a church of 20 or 30, 10 people leaving might completely wreck the boat.  So, what do you do when the bottom falls out?  How do you handle it?

Most bivo pastors would say that numbers are not what drives us to do what we do.  Yet when the numbers dwindle like this, or even lead to a closure, our egos take a hit.  It hurts.  We regard it not only as a ministry failure, but a personal failure.  There is going to be a time of grieving.  We grieve for what we have lost, and for what might have been.  We ponder and think about what we might have done to stem the tide.  We blame ourselves for the failure.  One of the first things you need to do is realise that this is normal.  we need to make time and space to let ourselves heal.  Find a group of encouraging people with whom you can share your struggles and hurts.  Do not be too quick to go back into a ministry position.  Sit back, take time to think and pray.

If your ministry still exists, but is failing, it is time to ask what went wrong and ask God to show you a way forward.  It may be that the ministry needs to have a  new leader.  Yes, you might need to step aside.  Or perhaps you need to refocus on the important things.  Rick Warren in his book “Purpose Driven Church” says that surfers go out to seek the perfect wave.  They don’t try to MAKE the wave, they find where it already is and then ride it.  As pastors we sometimes find we are spending more time trying to MAKE a wave of the Spirit than SEEKING where He is working.  How many times have you seen a church with no children trying to put a children’s ministry together?  What is your church doing right?  What is your church doing wrong or failing at?  What is there in your church that cannot be duplicated by any other in your area?  Start there and work outward.

Perhaps the next part of the process is to recognize the difference between our ministry and our calling.  The fact that a particular ministry did not go well does not mean that your calling has disappeared.  God called you into ministry, and He will walk with you through the dark parts as well as the light.  Hold on to the fact that God has a special mission and purpose for you.

Most importantly, get as near to God as you can.  Let Him show you His peace.  Let Him guide you.  Read the Bible and pray.  As you get closer to Him, things will become clearer.  Let His blessings wash over you.

“Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.”
Psalm 23:4 (NIV)

prayerThere are similarities and differences between bivocational pastors whether they minister in the city, the country, a small town or on a foreign missions field.  No matter the language, the culture or what your faith tradition happens to be, these still apply.  Over the course of my time writing for bivocational pastors there have been several themes that have emerged which show these needs clearly.

First, far above and beyond every other concern, bivocational pastors feel a need to better manage their time.  Time is a crucial commodity for the minister who works a secular job in addition to the day-to-day ministry of a church.  There is a saying that, “there is no such thing as a ‘part-time’ minister, only those who are not fully funded”.  There is a great deal of truth to this statement.  Most bivocational pastors will put in a 40 hour week at a secular job, and then spend another 20 or so in ministry during ‘slow’ periods.  Given extraordinarily busy times they may put in 40 or 50 hours in ministry alone…that makes a 90 hour week!  So the need to be as efficient as possible and manage time well becomes a passionate pursuit.

Second, bivocational pastors wrestle with what it really means to be a bivo.  Their relationship to other members of the ministry and the misunderstandings that can occur is important to them.  They wish to be taken seriously, and in some areas or traditions this is more possible than in others.  For instance, the Southern Baptist Church has been historically heavily invested in it’s bivopastors.  Likewise the Church of the Nazarene and the Wesleyan Church make use of bivos and recognize their unique placement and value.  Other bivos may not be as blessed, but all bivos struggle with these issues.

Third, all bivo pastors need encouragement and support.  This can be from several sources, but denominational support, family support and support from the local church are all needed.  October is ‘Pastor Appreciation Month” in the USA, but many pastors will go through the month with no hope or expectation of a show of appreciation.  All it takes is a single sour encounter with a member of their church to color the month badly for a bivo.  Some of the statistics around pastoral burnout are quite shocking.  80% of pastors feel they have too little time with their spouse, as well as believing that pastoral ministry affects their family negatively.  (click here to see burnout stats) That alone should give any church a cause to reflect on the emotional health of their pastor.

Fourth, following closely on these concerns are matters of Church Administration.  Despite all the time pastors spend in education there is little to no time spent learning the day to day running of the church.  When I was in the process of preparing for ministry I spoke to the Senior Pastor at the church I was attending and asked him for ways to learn about this.  We settled on several courses of action.  One was taking a certificate course in Church Administration offered by Nazarene Continuing Lay Training (CLT).  The other was rotation through several church positions and shadowing others.  The learning was invaluable.  As much as I needed to know how to exegete the Old Testament Prophets, I needed to know how to understand the accounting and bookkeeping of the local church.

The last one I am going to mention is the need for connections.  Bivocationals are very concerned with making connections with people.  Not simply connections in regards to church growth, but personal connections.  Everyone needs friends and confidants.  Everyone needs people around them who don’t think of them as ‘Pastor’, but as ‘Jim’, ‘Mary’ and ‘Bubba’.  Ok, maybe not Bubba, but they need to be known, trusted and liked by people outside the context of the church.  Loneliness is a career killer for pastors, and many pastors who manage to last beyond the average career length live a very lonely existence.  Stats say that 50% of pastors will leave the ministry after their first five years. (Click here for reference).  Some of these stats are a little bit up for grabs, but they are not far off.  Imagine a context where an engineer goes to school for a BS, then an MS.  They graduate from school and after 5, 6 or 7 years are so discouraged they leave the field, never to work in it again.

Bivocational ministers share many of the same concerns the world over.  But there are solutions.  Our hope here is to not only point out the problems, but to point the way to some of those solutions.  Ultimately it is the call to ministry that sustains us in the dry times.  Look to Jesus for strength, healing and restoration.


lonelinessYears ago I was a phone counselor for Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.  One of the things they trained us to recognize was the prevalence of loneliness during the times of the Crusades, which were typically around Thanksgiving or Easter.  The likelihood that you would take a call or two with someone suffering from loneliness during the holidays was pretty good.  I have found since that time that when yo talk to a pastor the likelihood of loneliness is even higher.  A great percentage of pastors are feel isolated and alone other than with their spouse, even pastors who have churches numbering in the thousands.

What causes this kind of loneliness?  According to Pastor Rick Warren on his podcast of May 14, 2007 (“How to Overcome Loneliness in Ministry”)  there are a number of possible causes.  One of these is simply pride.  This is the sort of pride which causes a pastor to say, “If I have God, then I don’t need people.”  This sounds very spiritual, but it is totally false and leads to dysfunction.  Another is a reverse of that fallacy where the pastor believes they must maintain a ‘face’ in front of their flock.  Essentially this is fear; fear that their people will lose faith in them if they show weakness.  Some schools and professors in seminary have even taught that this is good pastoral practice.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Indeed, the Bible teaches us that our true strength comes when we admit our weaknesses, let God bring us strength and let others minister to us while we minister to them.

One of the hardest lessons I had to learn when I was younger was that I had to let someone else minister to me once in a while.  By not letting them do so, I was actually taking a blessing away from them.  By allowing someone minister to me I was actually building them up, discipling them, growing them.   By refusing to ‘put on a face’ I was also letting my people know I was not some ‘super-Christian’, I was a sinner saved by grace just as they were.  By admitting I needed help, they were encouraged to ask for help when they found themselves in need.

Another reason for loneliness is, ironically, busyness.  Many pastors get so busy they don’t take time out to be with people just as friends, with no ministerial goal in sight.  Their calendars are full but their insides are hollow.  Everyone needs time away from the ‘busyness’ to regenerate and revitalize themselves.

How do you deal with loneliness?  First, realize that you do need people.  You are not, never have been and never will be able to stand all on your own.  God created us as social beings and we need others for love, encouragement and support.  We are not robots.

Second you can find your way out of loneliness by not retreating from people.  When you feel lonely you need to be around other people.  You find friends by being friendly.  Look around and see if there is someone you can meet with just for recreational purposes.  Take a walk, meet at McDonald’s for coffee, get involved in a sport or a hobby.

Third, admit that you are not perfect…not simply to yourself, but to others.  Show your weaknesses.  Allow others to minister to you. By letting others into your life you can actually be more effective in ministry than you ever dreamed you could be.  As others minister to you they will grow and become more consistent in their walk.  They will become deeper disciples.  Isn’t that the whole point of our ministry, to grow Christ-like disciples?

“Therefore go and make disciples…”  Matthew 28:19 (NIV)