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Bivocational Ministers Have More Options for Seminary Education

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I conducted a survey a number of years ago of bivocational ministers within the American Baptist Churches, USA.

One of the questions asked concerned their level of education. Those responding reported everything from a high school education to doctorates.

Many had degrees that were not theological but associated with their other careers.

Since 2001, I have conducted a number of conferences and workshops for bivocational ministers across the U.S. and Canada and have found the same results.

A frequent frustration expressed to me from these ministers is that they do not have the theological education they want but cannot see how to pursue it with their ministries, their other careers and their family responsibilities.

I understand the frustration. I began my career as a bivocational pastor with only a high school education. It did not take long to realize that some further education was needed.

At that time (early 1980s), few options existed. I eventually found a Bible school an hour from my home and began taking classes there.

That two-year program took four years to complete due to my other responsibilities, but it made a difference in my ministry.

I eventually went on to earn a bachelor’s, master’s and a doctor of ministry degree, all while serving in ministry and working a second job.

Today’s bivocational minister has options I did not have when I began my education.

A number of online programs are offered by quality seminaries and Bible schools that can provide a basic theological education along with the practical skills needed in bivocational ministry.

One such program with which I am familiar is offered by the School of Theology at Campbellsville University in Kentucky.

My master of arts in religion was done entirely online through an accredited seminary, and my doctoral work was done by attending weeklong intensives at the same seminary.

Such programs allow the bivocational minister to earn a theological degree within his or her schedule.

An additional benefit available to some bivocational ministers is that their secular employer may be willing to pay for some of their education.

The company I worked for when I was earning my bachelor’s degree paid for my tuition as long as the course might benefit the company, and they were very open on what might benefit the company.

They never refused a course I submitted for reimbursement. This can save the student a lot of money.

Another exciting opportunity for bivocational ministers is some seminaries are now offering dual-degree programs for persons who are intentionally pursuing bivocational ministry.

These seminaries may partner with universities in the area, which allows the student to seek a degree such as a master of divinity / master of social work or a master of divinity / master of business administration.

While these options are great, more needs to be done.

With the growing number of bivocational ministers serving in many denominations, these denominations and affiliated seminaries need to work together to develop theological education that will benefit the bivocational minister and the churches they serve.

Such programs need to have maximum flexibility and contain practical as well as theological content.

Ignoring the need of theological education for their bivocational ministers will not benefit these denominations.

One last insight on theological education and bivocational ministry should be noted.

Every year, I am contacted by one or two doctor of ministry students who want to interview me for their theses on some aspect of bivocational ministry.

This reflects a growing awareness of the importance of bivocational ministry for the future of the church, which I find exciting.

It is exciting that they feel led to examine this aspect of ministry, and it is exciting that their schools are approving this research.

This will only improve the theological education opportunities possible for bivocational ministers.

With the numerous opportunities now available for distance learning and the various educational opportunities available in many communities, there is no reason a bivocational minister cannot pursue a theological education.

The call to minister includes a call to prepare. While the bivocational minister may not always follow the normal path to such education, it is available to him or her.

Both the minister and the church being served will benefit from such education.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week focused on trends and issues in theological education. Previous articles in the series are:

Churches, Pastors Can Access Tailored Theological Education | David Bronkema

Why We Must Rethink Theological Education in Time of Flux | Lina Toth

6 Ways Seminaries Train Church Leaders on Their Home Turfs | William D. Shiell

Serving the 90%: The Challenge Facing Theological Education | Dennis Tucker

Breaking Down Racial Roadblocks in Theological Education | David Cassady

4 Positive Traits When Seminary Education Occurs Online | David Wheeler

How Seminaries are Addressing Students’ Ballooning Debt | Jo Ann Deasy

Dennis Bickers

Dennis Bickers is a church consultant and author. He served previously as the bivocational pastor of Hebron Baptist Church near Madison, Indiana, for 20 years followed by a 14-year ministry as a resource minister with the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky.