Ecumenical conference explores dynamics of bi-vocational ministry
May 13, 2016
St. Simons Island, Georgia
Nestled in a retreat center on the largest of the Golden Isles along Georgia’s southern Atlantic coast, an ecumenical group of bi-vocational pastors and church leaders sought restoration and rejuvenation recently in an effort to more fully live into bi-vocational ministry.
They were gathered for the first “Bi-vocational Ministry in the 21st Century Conference,” sponsored by Professional Church Leadership, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the United Church of Christ (UCC). The two-day event, held at Epworth By the Sea, featured plenary sessions, workshop tracks for bi-vocational pastors and judicatory leaders, worship, fellowship, and relaxation time.
“This conference is being presented in an effort to help identify, understand, explore, and communicate the dynamics that bi-vocational ministry presents,” the planning team said. Also joining church leaders from the PC(USA) and UCC were representatives of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Southern Baptist Church, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and the Metropolitan Community Church.
The Reverend Robert Grove-Markwood, director of the BTS Center, the successor to Bangor Theological Seminary, shared insights on change and transition as the keynote speaker. Though the seminary closed in 2013, it has been reinvented as a BTS Center, a think tank that sponsors educational events, projects, and research inquiries in the fields of religion, spirituality, practical theology, and ministry.
The world, in deed, feels like it sometimes has been turned upside down, which is real and painful, Grove-Markwood told conference-goers. Yet there also is a persistent narrative of reorientation, re-invention, promise, transformation, resurrection, and new life, he said.
Grove-Markwood stressed that being church in these changing times means understanding that “one size does not fit all. … We need multiple places of preparation. We need multiple ways.”
Similar themes were echoed in other conversations throughout the conference. The Reverend SanDawna Gaulman Ashley of the PC(USA) led the workshop, “Preparing congregations to transition from the full-time pastor model to the bi-vocational pastor.”
She said in many denominations the expectation has been that would-be clergy were trained to become full-time pastors and public theologians available to serve the whole community. Yet a “shift” has taken place for many mainline denominations, and both ministers and governing bodies that establish calls must transition to new models, she said.
“The urgency should be in preparing congregations for change,” said Ashley, the PC(USA)’s manager for call process support and teaching elders ministries. Likewise, “lay leadership development is one of the primary duties for a part-time pastor.”
Transitional Executive Presbyter Steve Benz, in the PC(USA)’s Presbytery of St. Augustine, said he has sixty churches total that range from the smallest at five members to the largest at 1,400 members. Of those, “over half of my churches are not served by a full-time, installed pastor,” he said.
And even closer to home, Benz said, “my daughter will be ordained … to a part-time call and is going to be potentially bi-vocational.”
Presbyterian pastor Urla Eversley-Moses also is undergoing change and transition in ministry. Since being ordained in 2001 she said, “most of my ministry has been full time.” But in 2011 she married and moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where she has had difficulty finding a call that fits with her senior pastor experience.
“I have been in a time of discernment,” she said. The dilemma is whether to seek full-time experience in a surrounding presbytery, or to go back to her first profession as a public accountant and be a bi-vocational pastor, she said.
Regardless, Eversley-Moses said her commitment to the gospel ministry remains strong. “That is the crux of our call in ministry, whether we are full-time or part-time,” she said. Reaching people for Christ “is my heart.”
Ashley, who was on the planning team for the event, said future conferences to further prepare the church for bi-vocational ministry are being planned, and that the PC(USA) also would continue to provide education on the topic.
“The bi-vocational ministry model is for today and the future. A healthy approach to this form of leadership will include embracing the gifts that pastors who labor in the church and the world can bring to congregations,” she said.