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A two-way street

Pursuing bi-vocational ministry, tentmaker fulfills lifelong dream

May 14, 2009

TOPEKA, Kan.

With more than 30 years of clinical and administrative experience in the field of nursing, the Rev. Robert Hattle was trained to promote health and preserve life, gifts he now gratefully shares both with his congregation and with the larger community here. 

Hattle, a registered nurse and an ordained tentmaking minister — earning a living primarily from his secular employment — serves the Oakland Presbyterian Church approximately 25 hours weekly while working up to 24 hours as needed each week as a clinical R.N. at Midland Hospice House. 

“I’m finally settling down and doing something I always dreamed of doing,” he said, reflecting on his long journey toward discerning his call to bi-vocational ministry.

Describing himself as a “typical baby boomer” who was unchurched as a child, Hattle found himself instead passionately drawn to the work of social justice, especially nuclear disarmament, environmental and poverty issues.

Setting out as a young nursing school graduate to take up a life of social activism, the Ohio native moved to Las Vegas, NM, to become a hospital emergency room manager there, while immediately seeking out opportunities for involvement in the small, rural town.

“Wherever I went in Las Vegas, I kept falling in with Presbyterians,” Hattle said. “They were consistently there.”

When Hattle was eventually invited by fellow community activists in Las Vegas to visit the First United Presbyterian Church — an invitation which Hattle said, in “true Presbyterian style,” came after three years — he walked in and felt instantly at home. “I felt the Spirit moving in me,” Hattle said, although admitting that it took him ten years to join the congregation.

“I’m a born-again Christian with a slow gestation period,” he said.

Later nominated and ordained as an elder, Hattle was soon tapped by the Presbytery of Santa Fe to put together a parish nursing program. In so doing, he was advised by the Rev. Don Wales, a former pastor of First United Church and head of the presbytery’s program for Commissioned Lay Pastors (CLPs), to seek out that training for himself.

“It was then that I had an epiphany,” Hattle said. “In talking with Don, I realized that I was called to go to seminary full time to get my M.Div. It wasn’t exactly the voice of God, but a kind of shove.”

Because his own spiritual formation had occurred relatively late in his life in a small, rural church, Hattle chose to fulfill his professional development requirement at San Francisco Theological Seminary by serving two small churches. Both congregations to which he was called – one of which is now no longer a church — were located in rural Humboldt County on the far north coast of California.

Upon graduating with his M.Div. in 2006, Hattle — who had always viewed his life experience and skill sets both in nursing and in ministry as a seamless whole — intended to pursue tentmaking when seeking his first ordained call.

“Personally, with my strong rural background, I realized that I wanted to be in a rural area,” Hattle said, “especially knowing that it’s pretty traditional that most people in rural areas have two jobs just to get by. Any church I was going to serve had to know how to do tentmaking well.”

When Hattle was first approached by the Oakland Presbyterian Church — at which he has just celebrated his first anniversary — he learned that the congregation previously had a part-time pastor who was also a nurse. “They understood when I interviewed with them something very critical to understanding tentmaking,” he said. “Tentmaking is a two-way street. The church didn’t see itself as lucky to have a pastor who has a part-time job to support himself, but lucky to be paying a pastor part time so that he can do ministry in the community.”

The Rev. Marcia Clark Myers, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Vocation — a joint ministry of the General Assembly Council and the Office of the General Assembly — is seeing a resurgence of interest in tentmaking not only as a viable model for ministry but as a model of choice, thanks to the witness of bi-vocational ministers like Robert Hattle.

“In studying leadership trends in the PC(USA), it has become increasingly clear that the church needs different kinds of leaders, not necessarily full time,” said Myers. “Tentmaking ministry can really open new doors of possibility both for congregations and seekers of calls.”

Recently named to the board of directors of the Association of Presbyterian Tentmakers (APT), Hattle looks forward to actively promoting and witnessing to the benefits of the bi-vocational ministry model.

“As a tentmaker, I truly feel the integration of the skill sets that I have to do the things that I have a passion for,” he said. “I also see the need for advocating and recruiting people like myself from health-related and other professions to come into the ministry with exactly the kind of skill sets and professional background that would make them outstanding candidates for ordained ministry.” 

Hattle has already begun to envision the possibility of attending regional and national professional gatherings of social workers, nurses and others, to set up a booth where he would engage attendees in conversation about a possible call to ministry. “We need to do that proactively,” he said, “to ultimately help our professional colleagues in their own spiritual development.”

While he works on realizing those larger dreams, Hattle has already committed to teach a workshop for Presbyterian attendees at the Big Tent — a first-of-its kind event scheduled for June 11-13 in Atlanta — as part of the New Immigrant Ministries Convocation there.

Entitled, “Feeling the Call” to Tentmaking, Hattle and co-presenter, the Rev. Fred Bunning, will be sharing the benefits and blessings of the call to bi-vocational ministry while welcoming general questions and personal observations about the tentmaking model. 

“So often people speak of the apostle Paul as the model and namesake for tentmaking ministry,” Hattle said. “I prefer to trace it farther back to Moses and the tent of meeting, where Moses gave the various tribes different responsibilities to build the tent. In my mind, that is a more effective metaphor. It’s not about the individual but it takes a group of people to make a tent.”

A second workshop, to be co-taught by the Rev. Jeff Scott, APT moderator, and the Rev. Ross Blount, a past APT moderator, will explore why tentmaking models have a bright future, particularly in multicultural and racial-ethnic settings. 

Blount, a bi-vocational minister in Iowa whose “tent” is farming, expresses great hope in Hattle’s proactive stance toward tentmaking and his vision of the interface of ministry in a secular vocation with his ministry in the church. 

“I think there needs to be special encouragement, especially at the presbytery level, for people who are willing to take on this particular style of ministry that the church needs,” said Blount. “There’s great power in it.  Our church here in Allerton, Iowa, is an alive institution, growing with young families. 

“Tentmaking is one of the ways that this has come about.”

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