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Bivocational Pastors Share Joys, Challenges

July 7, 2021
Photo: John Lippert

Halfway through his participation in the Christian Reformed Church’s Bivocational Growth Fellowship, John Lippert’s dream of serving as a pastor and running his own outdoor kayaking business has become a reality.

He serves as the children’s pastor at Mundy Park, a satellite campus of the Tapestry church in Vancouver, B.C., and last year he was able to start up his kayaking business, Tidal Journeys. But the COVID-19 epidemic kept kayakers at home. Lippert is confident this season will be better.

At The Tapestry: Mundy Park, Lippert serves under a full-time senior pastor. The congregation itself, he said, is an enjoyable mix of Dutch people, who have been at the church for many years, and young Asian families, who are attracted to what the church has to offer.

“The church is supportive of me. I’ve found two vocations that fit my passions, and I bring my pastoral heart into both of them,” said Lippert, one of 17 pastors taking part in the bivocational fellowship.

Like many congregations in this time of change and challenge, Mundy Park was unable to pay a full-time salary to support Lippert and his wife and two children. At the same time, he was eager to become a bivocational pastor, given his love for kayaking and being outdoors.

What has been especially helpful for him, he said, is being part of a group of other pastors who are either working a second job or going through the process of determining what that other job can be. He has a pastor/coach to help him through difficulties that may come up in melding the occupations. But being part of an online group facing some of the same questions has also been very helpful, he said.

“I enjoy hearing from other pastors about their wins and struggles,” said Lippert, who studied medicine in college after serving four tours of duty in Iraq as a Ranger in the U.S. Army. “Without this fellowship I wouldn’t have been able to become bivocational so quickly or efficiently.”

A Financial Shalom program, the fellowship is designed to support bivocational pastors’ growth and well-being. Its inaugural cohort launched in early 2021. Funded with a grant from the Lilly Endowment’s National Initiative to Address Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders, Financial Shalom plans to gather another cohort of pastors later this year to go through the program starting in January 2022.

After the CRC received the grant, the denomination needed to determine the focus it wanted to take. At first, it wasn’t clear that setting aside resources to help bivocational pastors was one of the ways to go.

But that began to change in January 2017 after Financial Shalom formed an advisory team to determine how it wanted to use the grant money.

Among other initiatives, the advisory team gathered a group of bivocational pastors Apr. 24-25, 2018, to discuss the future of bivocational ministry in the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

Out of that meeting came the impetus to form the Study of Bivocationality Task Force, whose report to Synod 2021 was released late last year and is available for review by the CRCNA’s churches and classes. Because Synod 2021 didn’t meet this year, the report will be addressed by Synod 2022.

As part of their mandate, the task force  examined “what it means to be a bivocational pastor.” In addition, the task force addressed issues in CRC Church Order that can make it difficult for a pastor to take on a second job.

“We now have several pastors in the cohort — one of them a clergy couple — and they come from all different places in the U.S. and Canada,” said John Bolt, deputy executive director of the CRCNA.

As part of the program, pastors undergo a formal vocational assessment that details their strengths and weaknesses. The assessment also makes suggestions about the types of jobs a pastor may be cut out for. Pastors also undergo financial counseling and receive a stipend to help them, if needed, to get their finances in order or to train for a second job.

In the current cohort some pastors are training to be truck drivers, and others are aiming to work as counselors, small business owners, and educators, among other vocations.

“We want to help pastors be in a more sustainable place if they want to take on another job,” said Bolt. “We recognize that being bivocational has a lot of hidden start-up costs. We try to offer seed money to help them make the needed changes.”

Looking to the future, Bolt thinks that more and more pastors will need, for various reasons, to take on a second job. Pastors of ethnic-minority congregations have a long history of being bivocational pastors, he added.

“We will see more of this happening,” Bolt said. “We are trying to come up with a standard, sustainable process to help ministers to do this.”

Members of this cohort recently met online to discuss challenges and to share stories related to balancing work, life, and rest. Led by Amy Schenkel, midwest regional director for Resonate Global Mission, they spoke about trying to find time in their busy schedules for sabbath — to rest.

Schenkel spoke of how both she and her husband, Henry, needed to take outside work when they came to West Michigan and planted a church near downtown Grand Rapids.

While she was able to work for the denomination, Henry returned for a time to yardwork maintenance work, which he had done before.

She reflected on ways she learned to set aside time for prayer and rest in her ministry work. Ironically, Schenkel said, she and her husband had to work hard at making sure they set aside a day for their sabbath.

“A lot of things prevented us from resting, and that can cause problems,” she said. “How do we manage stress? Stress and anxiety can come with multiple workloads.”

Gianni Gracia, a pastor in Florida, said that being part of the fellowship has meant a great deal to him.

“This program has made an impact because it has helped me, in the middle of this time of pandemic, to feel connected and loved by others in my denomination. It also has been a process of affirmation to continue my pastoral ministry and continue the process to become a bivocational pastor.”

John Lippert was also part of the recent online meeting. In an interview afterward he said he believes that being bivovational helps his work in ministry, especially his preaching, because the people he meets in his business often offer perspectives he hasn’t been aware of.

“I’m surrounded by non-Christians in the kayaking world — with people who don’t go to church,” he said. “I think there is something good for pastors to get different perspectives by working outside of the church.”

Learn more about the Bivocational Growth Fellowship on the Financial Shalom website. Pastors interested to participate in the 2022 cohort can watch for the application period to open in fall 2021, or receive email updates from [email protected].