Since I began overseeing clergy, I have encountered various philosophies of ministry which have significantly shaped the lives of both ministers and ministries. One philosophy of ministry (i.e. how ministers choose to live out their call to ministry) that I have found to be fairly common entails making a sharp distinction between “full-time” and “bi-vocational” ministry. While this language may be useful to convey how much time can be invested in any given ministry, sometimes it has been used to imply that full-time ministry and other types of work must be mutually-exclusive. Non-ministerial work is thought to dissolve in any kind of value under the weight of God’s call. Instead of considering gainful employment, he or she reasons, “Well, I know God has called me to full-time ministry,” or “God will provide for the vision.” While these statements may be true, this has led some to also conclude: Since God has called me to ministry (i.e. full-time ministry), this means that I do not need to have a regular job to provide for the basic needs of myself and my family. The importance or value of one (i.e. full-time ministry) is considered to automatically nullify the other (i.e. non-ministerial work). As a result of this way of thinking, some ministries have collapsed under the pressure of a personal budget carrying an organizational budget.

Embedded in this theology is the presumption that because God has called someone to ministry, that it means one (or all) of the following: 1) the value of working in ministry full-time is more pleasing to God (or more spiritual) than working bi-vocationally, 2) God will repeatedly provide for their basic needs in a special way that transcends the average Christian who is regularly employed, 3) their work is of such importance that they should have the right to live off of the generosity of others who are working full-time jobs and/or 4) If I only step out on faith, God will provide for my ministry. Though some ministers can be paid sufficiently for their work in ministry, for those who cannot earn a living in this way, the “either, or” mentality can be costly. Since I have observed the damaging effects of this philosophy of ministry, the purpose of this article is to analyze this mindset under the scrutiny of scripture and practical wisdom.

Myth #1 “The value of working in ministry full-time is more pleasing to God (or more spiritual) than working bi-vocationally.” 

Though the meaning can be ambiguous when someone states, “I am going into ‘full-time’ ministry” or “God has called me to ‘full-time’ ministry,” these phrases sometimes infer that completely replacing regular work with ministry work should be viewed as a radical move of obedience. If one is willing to take the daring risk of losing everything they have (including jobs), then this renouncing act is considered to be an expression of high faith and sacrifice for the cause of Christ. Instead of working a regular job, trusting God becomes the verb of action. By choosing to let go of the regular life, the spiritual life is now achieved because they have made the sacrifice to pursue “full-time ministry” in giving their whole lives to God in ministry. Hence, the phrase “full-time ministry” can in praxis mean that doing the work of ministry without earning a living justifies casting off any financial obligations. Here are some flaws in this theology:

1. The concept of “full-time ministry” does not determine quality of ministry. The qualitative difference of various ministries is not presented in scripture as being time-based (full-time vs. part-time), but is examined on other grounds. Though one can do more in ministry with more time, scripture does not make any distinction between “full-time ministry” and “bi-vocational ministry.” This means that the quality of one’s ministry cannot be so easily divided into these time categories and haphazardly organized in such a simplistic manner. Neither is there any precedent in scripture that validates the view that the quality of ministry is related to numbers or budgets, but rather obedience to Jesus Christ (Rev. 2:1-3:22). Therefore, though the conception of “full-time” ministry is attractive for those desiring to be free from economic limitations, one should not necessarily be placed above the other because it appears to be the radical choice. The quality of everyone’s ministry, whether full-time or part-time, will eventually be tested by fire (1 Cor. 3:12-15). The stewardship of how one either buried or multiplied what the Lord gave them in this age will also have implications for the next age (Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27). If the language of full-time ministry carries the connotation that it has greater grounds for being approved by God, such connotations are misleading.

2. The concept of “full-time ministry” cannot be equated with spirituality. Similarly, the phrase “I am going into ‘full-time’ ministry” may imply that obedience to one’s call to ministry is the essence of spirituality or holiness. By choosing to “sacrifice” the regular cycle of work, they see themselves as setting themselves apart for a big vision. However, the qualitative difference of someone’s spirituality is not presented in scripture as being contingent upon how much time (full-time versus part-time) someone can invest in any given ministry. Rather, a life that is pleasing to the Lord involves many areas of one’s life. Among them include: loving God above others (Deut. 6:5); interaction with others (Ex. 20:1-17, Amos 4:1); use of the mouth (Prov. 10:21, 17:15); use of the body (1 Cor. 6:20); responsible stewardship (Matt. 24:45-46); virtues of a Spirit -led life (Gal. 5:22); inner motivations (Prov. 17:3, Matt. 23:5). Obeying a call to ministry is only one dimension of a life of obedience. While some may even place their call to ministry above their spouse, God will refuse to respond to the prayers of a spouse if they are being mistreated (1 Peter 3:7). Regarding the refusal to work, Paul commanded “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” that those who were not working should not be allowed to eat but should earn a living (2 Thess. 3:10-13). Though perhaps more mundane than radical, verse 13 identifies working to earn a living as “doing what is right” for pleasing the Lord. Considering this larger spectrum, it is unhealthy if one’s primary axis of spirituality is based only on obedience to the call of ministry because it fails to encompass so many other areas of life.

3. If the concept of “full-time ministry” means negating the responsibility of taking care of basic needs it ceases to be spiritual. While some may argue that a calling to ministry requires sacrifice, we must ask: Under what circumstances can this be considered understandable as a lifestyle? Should it be a lifestyle? The commitment of discipleship can require the leaving of homes and families (Matt. 10:37-38; Luke 18:28-30), persecution (Matt. 10:16-25), imprisonment (Acts 12:6-8), and even martyrdom (Acts 7:54-60). However, even the Apostle Paul chose to work by making tents as a business man while teaching, preaching and planting churches across vast territories (Acts 18:3). In Corinth Paul worked in making tents together with Pricilla and Aquila, who also served as bi-vocational pastors of two churches (Acts 18:3; Rom. 16:3-5; 1 Cor. 16:19). Paul and his companions also worked night and day while they were in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:8). In his efforts to guide them in the way of the Lord, he chided some of them for being idle and encouraged them to earn a living as he was doing (2 Thess. 3:10). He even commanded those at the Thessalonian church who were working to refrain from associating with those who were living in idleness (2 Thess. 3:6, 14). While some could argue that those working in ministry are indeed working, his value of working was based on earning a living for one’s basic needs. Not only did he consider this necessary for outsiders who were watching their conduct, but so that they would not become dependent on others (1 Thess. 4:11-12). Though he had already given them a personal command and repeated this in his first letter, for the third time, he commanded them:

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 “Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers, do not be weary in doing what is right.”

By choosing to let go of the high ideal of “full-time ministry,” the humble purpose of Paul working in the visibility of the Thessalonians was two-fold: 1) that they would be an example for them to follow (1 Thess. 2:9a, 2:10; 2 Thess. 3:9), and 2) to ensure that he and his companions would not become a burden to them (1 Thess. 2:9b; 2 Thess. 3:8). What would have taken place had they not worked? Except in serious circumstances of poverty and oppression in which jobs are unavailable, the opposite scenario can be true as it is for those who do not follow his example today. Those who cannot meet their own basic needs and simultaneously seek to pursue full-time ministry may end up: 1) becoming a bad example for the flock of God and outsiders who are watching them, and 2) becoming a financial burden to others because they cannot meet their own needs. The task of wise management and stewardship is a spiritual concept taught by Jesus (Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27). For if one cannot wisely manage the stewardship of their own personal budget, how can they wisely manage the stewardship of a church budget (1 Tim. 3:5)? A bishop in particular is called  a “steward” (Greek: οἰκονόμον) which is related to the concept of managing a household (Greek: οἶκόν) (Titus 1:7). Regarding one’s ordering of values, Paul also wrote: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). Stewardship of resources is spiritual because it can also be an indicator of the ordering of priorities that either pleases or displeases God. Though it may appear mundane, the choice of bi-vocational ministry may please the heart of God much more than the busy lives of large visionaries who fail to be good stewards.

Leave a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked (Required)