‘Tentmaker’, ‘Non-Stipendiary’, and ‘Bi-vocational’
Paul had a day job. Or did he? He’s often used as an example of bi-vocational ministry:
“Paul went to see them, and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together-by trade they were tentmakers. Every sabbath he would argue in the synagogue and would try to convince Jews and Greeks.” (Acts 18:2-4).
Today, ‘tentmaker’ is shorthand for ordained ministers who get paid to do secular work, and do not get paid for their church work. This is often out of necessity – close to half of mainline congregations can’t afford full-time ministry. But to take this Scriptural quote out of context is to suggest that this is how it should be, which is not entirely fair to clergy, or to the concept of ‘bi-vocational’ ministry.
Or to Paul.
Just because he spent some time working with tentmakers – likely to evangelize them – does not mean that Paul chose secular work over paid ministry. Nor does it suggest that he had to get paid as a tentmaker to make ends meet. In other parts of Scripture, in fact, Paul makes quite clear that ministers should be compensated for their work – with very strong words:
“If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? … In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 9: 11, 14) [Paul refers here to Jesus saying ‘the laborers deserve to be paid’ in Luke 10].
‘I don’t do this for the money’
Of course, those of us who bear the sacraments, Scripture, and traditions of the Christian faith are often not motivated by great wealth to do so! Our calling is definitely from a higher place. But that is not the same thing as saying that we should not, or do not, need to be compensated for it.
Which brings up harder questions: what do we do when congregations and other institutions can’t afford a clergy salary? How do we serve small communities, and those composed of the under-resourced? If we have the means to support ourselves in other ways, why shouldn’t we give our ministry for free?
These are questions we all wrestle with on some level, and I don’t think the answer is deciding that we should not be paid for our work. Instead, the answers themselves are about re-thinking the framework of ordained ministry in some big ways…
1. Sustainable ministry sustains clergy
I meet lots of clergy who don’t take compensation for the work because they don’t ‘need’ it – they have a secular job, they have a spouse who supports their household, they are retired and they receive a pension.
On the surface, this is noble. Beyond this, though, it is troubling. Because when congregations have the choice to pay or not to pay for ministry, it is only logical they will choose the latter.
If this trend continues, eventually there won’t be jobs for clergy who do need compensation.
Becoming ordained – being educated, formed, and set aside by a community of faith, and sealed by the Holy Spirit – takes time and resources to accomplish. If we can’t expect to be compensated for our work, there will be fewer who will take the journey to ordination. There is a risk that ordained ministry could disappear, and with it the faith that we bear to the church and the world.
Clergy should insist on payment for our ministry as a form of support for the vocation, if for no other reason.
2. Sustainable ministry sustains congregations
But what about congregations that can’t afford it? It’s one thing to want to be paid, and it is another to face the reality of dwindling numbers, or to feel the call to serve populations without many resources.
To me, this is a question of reimagination.
Even the smallest communities can afford something. Is it possible to serve in ways that are equal to the ability of those with whom we work? For instance serving more than one community, or in more than one way? As a Free Range Priest, I am paid hourly for my congregational service, and I also teach, consult, coach, and assist with digital ministry. Everything I do is ministry – but it is not paid for from the same place.
In this way, the small congregation I work with is able to have ordained ministry they can afford. This assures that they can continue in their own ministry without the stress of feeling they will either lose their clergy or they will have to close.
3. Sustainable ministry sustains Good News in the world
‘Tentmaker’, ‘non-stipendiary’ and ‘bi-vocational’ are all terms used to describe clergy who are paid for secular work, but not paid – or paid very little – for sacred work.
Even in today’s church, this does not have to be the case. Not only can we be paid something for our ordained ministry – even if it is not a full or part-time salary – we can also be compensated in multiple ways.
Of course we can still do secular work if we are called there.
But the advantage to multiple sacred jobs is that we are bringing our ministry beyond church doors.
Digital ministry, faith formation and practice, spiritual counseling and support and the like are ways we share Christianity with an increasingly unchurched world. It is evangelism.
More and more clergy are bringing their ministry to those outside of congregations, through social media, videos, books, podcasts, etc. This is having an impact on the secular world, and is often the only way that young adults interact with religion at all. Finding new ways to make this kind of ministry sustainable is obviously helpful to clergy, and even more important, it opens up so many new ways of sharing God’s love.
Clergy have been compensated for our work since the vocation began, although it has looked different over time. Old Testament priests kept the meat offered for sacrifice on the altar. Jesus exhorted his followers to go out two-by-two without money or supplies, because the community was expected to provide for them. Centuries later, congregations often provided housing and other support for their ministers. Then came the expectation of professional salaries and benefits.
Today it is changing again – as the church and the world are changing. The start-up and freelance economies offer new ways of exploring and experiencing clergy service, and compensation.
Reading the words – and experience – of Paul shows us the issue of sustainable ministry is as old as the church. This is part of our challenge as we live into new ways of understanding clergy ministry.
Are you ready to reimagine your ministry? There’s never been a better time.
Join the Creative Ministry community: Bring Church to People, and sign up for a Visioning Session today.
Cathy – I find using Paul and other Biblical material as sources of justifying ministry confusing. Clergy need money to continue in ministry. Using the Bible this way is like too much exegesis in preaching. Using the Biblical material sounds strained to me. Perhaps it is regional. In the south it might work, but to this California/New Yorker it seems irrelevant. The rest of the article is strong.
Robert – thank you for this response! The reason I use the biblical reference for Paul is that SO many people talk about Paul as a ‘tentmaker’ to justify ‘bi-vocational’ ministry – having to work a secular job in order to support ministry. I don’t think that’s a faithful reading of Paul at all!
But I appreciate your perspective.
right! and there is a long history of compensating clergy – all the way back to the very first clergy!
That’s why I use Biblical sources – they show this.
What I really don’t get is not including unpaid bi-vocational clergy in health insurance and pension plans.
Bi-vocational priest, Texas
Yes! this is one reason I don’t think there *should* be unpaid clergy. Offering health care or housing can be negotiated as part of – even all of compensation.
Pension is different, though. because it’s a percentage of what you are paid, it does make sense that there would not be a pension for unpaid clergy. But of course, this is another reason there should not be unpaid clergy!