Implications for the family of bivocational pastors

It goes without saying that a pastor’s family is important and having a good family life contributes to successful, sustainable pastorates. Yet as Mennonites our history caring for the pastor’s family is somewhat spotty at best. Pastors (mostly men) have sacrificed their family life for the ministry of the congregation and now regret it. Today’s pastors are more aware of the high cost of not being there for one’s family at the same time as one is serving the church. Not only do children grow up without a parent, but the pastor’s children can grow to resent the institution that took their parent’s time, and by extension, resent God. The faith of the pastor’s spouse and children is as important as the faith of congregational members, and one should not be sacrificed for the other.

This is even more critical to attend to in a bivocational arrangement. When the bivocational pastor has two jobs but is 100% committed to the church, the additional job(s) are attended to on family time. As a spouse, watching a pastor do full­time ministry on three­fourth salary is stressful. One spouse is looking forward to the day when “we can attend our kids and grandkids events, say ‘yes’ to something on a Friday evening, and ‘no’ to having to go to the mission with a Sunday school class.”

Many of us laud sacrificial giving and admire pastors who seem to “do it all.” But what lies behind this kind of pastor is often a suffering, resentful family. As a denomination, we must call pastors with a messianic bent to accountability. After all, we believe there is only one Savior and it isn’t the pastor!

Most likely the total blame lies neither at the pastor’s feet nor at the congregation’s. The pastor must work at self­awareness, examining elements of personal drive or perfectionism, and work diligently at making and keeping boundaries around time. But the congregation must also take responsibility for “allowing” their pastor to work more than the percentage of time negotiated.

Few congregations will refuse the time a pastor dedicates to them and the ministries of the church. And once the pattern of over­work is established, it’s doubly difficult for a congregation to understand why a pastor is “backing off.” The congregation that hires a pastor for a partial percentage of fulltime needs to actively plan for how the remainder of the work will get done—or better yet, what simply won’t be done. Most congregations probably assume the pastor is taking care of time management. The most fulfilled and healthy bivocational pastor will have a leadership team in place that will ask the pastor hard questions about use of time, not only when the initial arrangement is set up, but in regular intervals over time as well. Mennonite Church USA denominational leadership recommends the use of a pastor congregation relations group (packet available) for this kind of accountability.

There are benefits to bivocational ministry that spouses notice. The second job (farming, school bus driving) often put the pastor in the children’s world in a way that the pastorate doesn’t. Sometimes (as in farming) the second job is one in which the spouses can work together in an enjoyable way. Properly attended to, bivocational ministry can be good for families, too.

May all the small congregations be blessed with leaders who will have the strength to lead, but may the congregations also have the wisdom to follow and walk along side their leader.

Diane Zaerr Brenneman, in interviews with bivocational spouses.