Rethinking Bivocational—What is Covocational Church Planting?
Brad Brisco is Director of Bivocational Church Planting for the North American Mission Board and author of Covocational Church Planting e-book.
As a result of declining attendance and the closing of many existing churches, every major denomination is focusing more resources toward starting new congregations. In recent years, we have also seen the creation of multiple church planting networks that emphasize church planting across denominational lines.
In the midst of this proliferation of church planting, one of the most significant trends has been the starting of new churches by bivocational leaders. Historically the phrase “bivocational pastor” has been used to refer to a leader who served a church that was unable to compensate a pastor with a full-time salary. Therefore, the pastor would work a second, or third job to supplement the small salary the church could provide. In many cases, it was out of necessity rather than preference. Often the language of “tentmaker” (the Apostle Paul’s trade described in Acts 18) has been used to define this type of church planter.
Today, there is a new movement among bivocational leaders. More church planters are choosing to plant bivocationally. They are making this decision out of the conviction that bivocational church planting actually provides a more desirable way to plant a new church, rather than on the basis of limited funds or questions about funding.
They are making this decision out of the conviction that bivocational church planting actually provides a more desirable way to plant a new church, rather than on the basis of limited funds or questions about funding.
In other words, it is becoming a first option, not a last resort.
While there is certainly a place for both bivocational church planting and fully funded approaches, there are some significant benefits to planting as a bivocational leader. Let’s consider three major advantages.
Perhaps the most significant benefit of planting as a bivocational leader is that it gives the planter greater opportunities to connect relationally with people in the community. Their jobs give them access into a mission field that is not readily available to a pastor who is employed full-time by a local church. Many traditional pastors find themselves working inside a church bubble, spending the majority of their time talking with church people about things of the church.
Even when a fully funded pastor makes the effort to engage people in their community, they often find it challenging to fully relate. It is not until a person actually incarnates into the local context that they begin to understand the values and interests of the people. It is difficult to really love and serve the people God has sent us to from a distance. Some people have referred to this as "marketplace mission" because the majority of relationships that are developed are the result of the planter’s vocational connections. Their marketplace job isn’t a hindrance to what God is doing; it’s actually an advantage to engaging God’s mission.
Bivocational planting also helps to diminish the “sacred-secular” divide in respect to vocation. The congregation has the opportunity to see the church planter model the fact that all vocations are sacred. Regardless of what God has called a person to do, it is a sacred calling. As a result, the benefits of being in the marketplace are multiplied exponentially as every member recognizes how their vocation fits into God’s mission of redemption. This line of thinking provides a helpful way to reframe how we think about bivocational ministry. Often the language of bivocational invokes the thought of two distinct vocations. We compartmentalize, seeing little, if any, overlap between what a leader does to earn a living and his full-time ministry.
To overcome this disconnection, we might use the language of “covocation.” The prefix “co” is the reduced form of the Latin “com” which means “together” or “in common.” English words like cofounder, copilot or companion are examples of words that denote partnership and equality. Covocation embodies the reality that if a person is called to be an engineer, a teacher, a web-designer or plumber; and at the same time, they are called to start a church, the different callings are not isolated from one another, instead they are actually interlinked and equal. The language of covocation pushes against the temptation to compartmentalize different aspects of our lives. When we begin to understand that each of our callings are legitimate and necessary aspects of God’s mission, they can be leveraged together for His redemptive purposes.
When we begin to understand that each of our callings are legitimate and necessary aspects of God's mission, they can be leveraged together for His redemptive purposes.
Another missional benefit of bivocational (or covocational) ministry is that working an occupation in the community builds credibility with those inside and outside the church. In a post-Christian context, where people are skeptical of the church, it is important for non-Christians to see that church leaders have jobs like everyone else. In a time when Christianity doesn’t have the best reputation, it can provide significant “street-cred” with those outside the church. It is important to understand this new breed of “covo” planting is missiologically driven. Planting the church begins by engaging in missionary behaviors in the local context, rather than focusing on the creation of a Sunday morning worship service. By thinking and living like a missionary in a local context, new communities of faith are birthed out of missional engagement.
A second major benefit of bivo/covo church planting relates to the financial stability it provides in at least three different areas.
The church planter
When the primary financial support comes from a marketplace source rather than the church plant, there is usually less financial strain on a family. This is especially true when the planter is employed full-time in a vocation that provides benefits like insurance, vacation and retirement.
The new church
A church led by covocational leaders usually finds its financial base is much stronger. Without the need to provide full-time salaries and benefits, the church can put more of its financial resources into mission and ministry.
The church planting entity
Many denominations have made the commitment to plant hundreds, if not thousands of churches over the next several years. However, there simply aren’t enough finances to plant the needed churches with the current funding model. Bivo/Covo planting provides the opportunity for funding entities to embrace more sustainable church planting practices. This is especially necessary for planters who are engaging socioeconomic diverse contexts that are made up of the very poor or immigrant populations.
Many traditional church plants start with a large annual budget supported by multiple funding streams, including partnering churches and denominational entities. Because most funding models are structured over a three to five-year period, it puts pressure on a church planter to grow the church quickly so it can become self-sustaining before funding runs out. The unfortunate reality is that a planter is often forced to attract financial givers rather than engaging the brokenness in their community. Bivo/Covo church planting, on the other hand, provides a more viable a financial model that allows the planter to focus primarily on mission.
Covocational church planting creates opportunities for leaders in the congregation to use their God-given talents to create a culture of participation rather than one of spectatorship. More church members, out of necessity, become involved in the mission of the church. Covocational leadership helps to diminish the laity-clergy divide. If pastoral leadership is reserved only for the “professionals,” then many gifted leaders will miss opportunities to pursue what God’s calling for them. It is important to understand covocational church planting is not simply about having two or more jobs; it is really about aligning one life. It’s about blending our calling to support our families and ourselves, with our calling to live a life engaged in God’s mission. We are called to be a missionary people sent into the world to participate in God’s redemptive purposes. One vital and urgent means to accomplish that task is to plant new communities as bivocational, or covocational, kingdom leaders.
If you are an aspiring church planter looking for a network partner, find out if GCC is your right network partner.