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Bivocational ministers’ role crucial in many Southern Baptist churches

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (BP)–In Christian circles, they are called “tentmakers.” According to the dictionary, they are “moonlighters.” To Southern Baptists, they are known as bivocational pastors.
They are ministers who, like a New Testament apostle named Paul who happened to make tents for a living, have found an additional occupation outside the clergy. They could be bankers, doctors, carpenters, managers, bus drivers -­ most any career field imaginable. And although they only spend part of their time at church, all will agree God’s calling to preach is their primary responsibility.
“[Bivocational pastors] are just as called [as full-time pastors],” said Jim Swedenburg, an associate in the church administration department of the Alabama Baptist State Convention. He added that of the state’s some 3,200 Baptist churches, more than half -­ 52 percent -­ are led by bivocational pastors, who he said are “every bit a minister” as their full-time counterparts.
One unique aspect of a bivocational ministry is the “partnership” between the pastor and his congregation, Swedenburg explained. The situation calls for more of a “sharing of the ministry,” he said, because of the added constraints on the minister’s time.
This means deacons or other members of the church family often relied upon to make hospital or nursing home visits, contact prospective members and do anything else to help make up for their pastor’s limited availability.
Wintford Haynes, who formerly pastored Enon Baptist Church in Vinemont, Ala., made sure his churches knew that ministry was a team effort.
The first thing Hayes did when coming to a new church as a bivocational minister was to initiate a family deacon ministry plan, where each deacon was responsible for about 10-12 church families. A deacon should be an extension of the pastor, one who ministers to the immediate needs of the church family.
“That’s what God intended [deacons] for,” said Haynes, a retired insurance agent of Liberty National.
Jerry Meeks, who works at Dunlop Tire in Huntsville, Ala., when away from the pulpit of Galilee Baptist Church in New Hope, pointed out it takes an understanding church family to successfully pastor bivocationally. “There are times I’m not available [to the church] when I’d like to be,” he said. “But we’ve talked about the situation, and it’s worked out quite well.”
Randy Sexton, who four years ago became the first-ever bivocational pastor of Chapel Hill Baptist Church in Rutledge, Ala., explained many churches can only afford a part-time ministry leader.
“A lot of churches wouldn’t be able to be served if not for this type of ministry,” said Sexton, who also works 40 hours a week with the state’s public health department.
Jerry Foote, a bivocational minister with the ministry/missions department of Gladeview Baptist Church in Anniston, does repair work for Sears, something he sees as “an extension” of his ministry.
“It enables me to provide for my family,” Foote said. “Both [the pastorate and Sears] work together as my ministry.”
All bivocational pastors agree, the greatest challenge is time management. Meeting all the needs of the people in the congregation means learning to balance a busy schedule. And, of course, there has to be time for family. “Unfortunately, families of bivocational ministers may suffer sometimes,” Meeks acknowledged.
So, along with an understanding church, it takes an understanding family to pastor bivocationally, Sexton noted.
“Families [of bivocational ministers] spend a lot of time alone,” he related. This means making the most of nights, weekends, holidays. “You have to utilize any time other than work hours,” he said.
Haynes, who recently celebrated his 40th marriage anniversary to his wife, Martha, enjoys a camping trip every week with his family.
“I tell my church that every Friday is ours -­ unless there’s an emergency,” he explained.
Besides the obvious sacrifices that must be made when pulled in many different directions, many bivocational pastors must also use vacation time or sick days accumulated from a secular job for hospital visits, to perform weddings or funerals or be in the pulpit on Sundays.
Jerry Lake, current president of the Bivocational Minister’s Association of Alabama, knows the challenges of being “a pastor that punches a clock.”
Although currently between churches, Lake has been known to be not only bivocational, but trivocational.
Besides formerly pastoring Welcome Baptist Church in Baileyton, Lake, who has pastored churches for 28 years, also drives a school bus and raises cattle on his farm in Vinemont.
He explained this often means a full day that begins at 6:35 a.m. to drive kids to school. Next, he might make a few hospital visits or do other church-related work until the afternoon, when again he makes his rounds taking children home from school. The day’s activities then extend way into the evening, when he tends to his cattle and does other chores on his farm.
One escape Lake does find from his hectic schedule is the annual meeting of bivocational ministers in the state, which will take place next year Feb. 19-20 at Shocco Springs assembly.
Ernest Tucker, who has been pastoring bivocationally at the small, rural Howardtown Baptist Church in Tibbie, Ala., for 19 years, called his an “ideal situation.”
He supplements his income by teaching carpentry at the Washington County Vocational Center and said although “some preachers think bivocational pastors are second-rate,” he feels his ministry is just as important as that of a full-time pastor. And it suits him perfectly.
“I’d be out of place in a big-city church,” Tucker said. “I couldn’t sit in an office all day.” He added his displeasure in the fact that some small churches are “neglected” or only used as a “stepping stone,” because of their financial inability to hire a full-time pastor.
Rick Worthy, who pastors a small congregation at Union Baptist in Rockford, agreed.
“People in small churches have to be fed, too,” said Worthy, who also owns a painting company along with his wife, Wilma. “Three of four sheep are just as important as 3,000.”
All would agree, pastoring in addition to being employed in another vocation is no job for the lazy or undisciplined. And were it not for the pastors in the state who feel called to minister in this capacity, said Swedenburg, many hungry congregations would go spiritually unfed.
“If all the bivocational pastors left the state tonight, we wouldn’t be able to have church services on Sunday,” he said. “This is a vital and important ministry — we couldn’t function without it.”

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  • Jason Skinner