Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day …(1Thes. 2:9)
The Apostle Paul was a tent maker (some scholars now use the term outfitter). He had a skill, an applied trade that at times he used to fund his ministry. He wasn’t an apostle for hire, or what we might call a full-time vocational minister. Apart from funding his ministry, it seems that he also saw his tent-making as an avenue to gain credibility among people he was working along side. In a way, I’ve learned to resonate with Paul on this particular point. Working next to the folks you’re ministering to conveys a sense of relevance to them. Personally, I’ve tried to stay away from a “church office ministry”. For me, it’s a lot easier to understand the challenges people face when you’re out there with them, living in the “real world.”
When I was still a college student, recently married, I found myself unemployed and ministry jobs were in short supply. So I picked up odd-jobs where ever I could. At the time I did this begrudgingly, after all it wasn’t my plan to work with my hands for a living. That year I ended up working with some friends on a house framing crew, swinging a hammer, cutting 2×4’s, laying shingle. God used that time to develop some skills within me. Specifically, I learned how to talk about Jesus on the job, in the midst of the daily push to get things done. I also learned some skills that I’ve used to minister to people in real and practical ways. There is something to be said about the pastor who tells you about the love of Christ, while fixing your broken light switch, or cutting down that dead tree in your front yard, or installing a new shower in your bathroom.
Bi-vocationalism seems to be catching on in contexts where it was previously absent. It can be a tricky balance when you’re trying to find a job that allows for the flexibility that pastoral care often requires. I think this is an area for greater study among faith communities. It will take some vocational creativity and a willingness to work in areas we might not have previously considered, but for some of us the rewards could be substantial.