Thursday, May 29, 2014

The bi-vocational blues

From Toledo, IA
Yep; we have that much | (c) Jeff Parker/Cagel Cartoons
Student loan debt has been a hot topic of conversation lately, at least in my social media circles. It's always a hot topic for my wife and I because, well, we have a ton of it. Like three-masters-degrees-at-a-private-university-all-subsidized-by-student-loans worth of it.

Six years ago, when we first told my family that we were moving to Virginia for grad school, they were not impressed. My brother kind of angrily told me that I was being irresponsible with my family's financial wellbeing. At the time I thought, "No I'm not!," but there are plenty of days this side of the transaction that I wonder...

Debt certainly has set constraints around my call to the ministry, particularly in my rural context. The number of Church of the Brethren congregations in my district that could afford to employ a pastor full-time are very few. So when we moved back to rural Iowa, it just so happened that my not feeling a particularly strong calling to pastoral ministry worked in my family's economic favor. Even if I'd wanted to be a full-time pastor, I likely couldn't do it around here; so I kept my technology job for Eastern Mennonite University, an arrangement that looks to continue for the foreseeable future.

After my ordination in March of this year, I went through the interview process and was offered, and accepted, district-level ministry responsibilities. There are a few positions we're cobbling together, but I've been calling it by one title. Starting sometime in late summer I will become the District Minister of Communications and Leadership Development for the Northern Plains District of the Church of the Brethren. Sounds fancy, right?

Well, it's going to work out to be a slightly-more-than 1/4-time position, and it will coincide with my ongoing 3/4-time work for EMU. In other words, I'm going to be a busy professional. This is all well and good, and I'm deeply grateful for being paid to do things that I'm gifted for and passionate about (i.e. the church and Christian higher education). What this means, though, is that I continue the pattern of living in rural Toledo, Iowa, but not working here. And the more-than-full-time workload is going to mean that my "Slow Church" church-planting proposal from last fall (which was approved by the district and was part of my ordination requirements) is going to have to be really slow; I'll simply not have time to do much if any local church-planting or community peacebuilding work, or perhaps even the kind of support ministry that I've done for the local Methodist parishes.

Neo-Anabaptist professor and author, David Fitch, recently urged pastors and Christian leaders to "Stop Compartmentalizing Your Life." The advice is primarily for full-time pastors who have to "play church" at work but then carve out "home" or "away" time into neat little sections. His theological point is that "church" is not something we should even try to compartmentalize, because it's a way of life for all who follow Jesus, more than it is a profession for people we call "pastor." His solution: bi-vocational pastoring that he claims is "healthy" for the church.

Well, I'm bi-vocational and both my roles will have a focus outside my local community, and there are days when that does not feel healthy, personally. Is it healthy for the church? I'm not sure.

How to be a healthy, integrated, whole person and help build healthy discipleship communities (i.e. "churches") in the way of Jesus the midst of neoliberal post-Christendom America and all its shattered realities and constraints? Again, I'm not sure...

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