Newcomers to Paul’s life in the New Testament could be forgiven for believing his last name was ‘the Tentmaker’ – after ‘the Apostle’, of course. Paul is still the go-to example for balancing ministry with employment, whether for practical reasons, to relieve financial pressure on the church, or purely preference.
Scripture provides plenty of other examples of balancing ministry with marketplace employment of course; whilst he arguably took sabbaticals to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls, Nehemiah remained in his king’s employment throughout his ministry; the book of Nehemiah talks about the benefits and difficulties of his dual obligations several times.
Paul, Nehemiah, and many other examples, beg the question of whether bi-vocational ministry is necessary for some contexts, a specific calling, or a step towards full-time ministry. Fortunately, we have an answer in 1 Corinthians 9; Paul the Tentmaker himself more-or-less tells us… that all are fine.
David and Marion Varney have been working through the implications of bi-vocational ministry since they planted the church back in 2017, and before.
David and Marion are both doctors; Marion a General Practitioner (GP), David a doctor on the ward. After working as a Paediatric Surgeon for a time, he and Marion realised, in hindsight, that God was leading David into bi-vocational ministry.
“At first it was mainly pragmatic; I was part of a church modelled on the seeker-sensitive movement and as the church grew, so did my responsibilities. I took on more preaching and pastoral responsibilities and joined the early eldership team.”
David hadn’t planned to enter leadership; after two years working towards becoming a Paediatric Surgeon, he took a year out to study preaching and theology at Cornhill Belfast on their training course, the CTC. He discovered a gift for preaching and a greater love for scripture and began serving more leadership roles.
“At the time I had no real desire to go into ministry; church planting wasn’t something I had thought about. Time at this church was great, but through my studies and own reading of scripture, I realised I was on a different path.”
Realising God had provided him gifts to suit a different church context, the Varneys began seriously searching for a new church, and David found himself leading a local Baptist church.
“At the time, the church was in decline; they couldn’t afford a fulltime pastor so they were looking for someone with preaching and leadership experience that wouldn’t cost much – and in walked me.
“I didn’t go looking for it or put myself out there as ‘the bi-vocational guy’ – the Lord just brought about the opportunity. I led the church for three years while working as a paediatric surgeon. There was never any other option but to continue working, and we made it work.”
Three years later, David and Marion, now with daughter Eliza, planted Foundation Belfast.
“We set out on our own, so paid ministry wasn’t an option – and I knew leading bi-vocationally was something I had in my arsenal. It wasn’t something I planned, but whenever I asked myself how I could best serve God’s kingdom, the options always required me to be bi-vocational.”
From stepping up to eldership in one church, to pastoring a second, and finally planting a third, living bi-vocationally felt like a necessity – not a specific ask from God to work this way; if the churches could have offered him a full-time paid role, David would have taken it.
But looking back today David feels differently:
“There are so many benefits to bi-vocational ministry – I would recommend it as an option for anyone to look at seriously.” Although David felt he became bi-vocational by necessity, it is now a model of ministry that has grown into a calling the family plan to pursue for the foreseeable future.
“Purely financially, we have money to pay the gas bill. There’s greater flexibility when you have outside income to rely on when you plant a church – and you can be generous over and above with your resources than you could otherwise.”
It’s also allowed for a greater balance serving the Foundation Belfast congregation with being on mission himself.
“The opportunities I’ve had at work for the gospel have been staggering. God’s been so gracious providing opportunities, and I’m learning how much he has for me through continuing as a doctor and being obedient.”
Colleagues have attended Sunday gatherings, carol services, and outreach events. During lockdown David has hosted an Alpha course for hospital staff – with 14 colleagues taking part.
The obvious disadvantage of balancing ministry with work is time:
“Sometimes it’s hard to have space to do ministry, prepare sermons, to pray and have time with the Lord. I’ve had to learn how to balance it as best I can. You can also bring the pressure of work itself into the challenges of church ministry.”
There is a constant desire to do more. Although most in ministry wish they had more capacity, the feeling is acute when time is split between ministry and employment – perhaps more so when the majority of your peers work in ministry full time: “It’s a learning curve to accept your ministry and limits and not compare yourself with others.
“Learning contentment when I want to do more and trusting God is something I’ve mentally accepted, but is harder to grasp in my heart. Only in this last year have I really started to settle and learn to go at God’s pace – but the tension is always there.”
“Especially when planting, bi-vocational ministry is something that should be talked about more frequently and considered as a realistic option – especially for younger planters. Planting bi-vocationally can encourage us to take more chances, a have-a-go attitude.
“It also requires humility, to be able to accept what you can and cannot do, which can be a deeply humbling experience.”
There is also a financial and strategic consideration for churches sending new planters. “Would you like to send one person full-time, or 5 part-time, with greater variety of talents and gifts?”
Since David and his family have grown into this ministry, he has realised that bi-vocational ministry is an approach he would encouraged more to consider – not as a second plan depending on finance, but a constructive, fruitful approach to church planting and ministry.