Sunday, February 14, 2016

Is the Future of Church Ministry Bi-Vocational?

Jamie Buhler is the pastor of a new church in Winnipeg's Osborne Village area, but it isn’t like most churches you’ve seen.

For one thing, it doesn't have a building, pews or sermons.

For another, it doesn’t have a Sunday morning service at all.

Called Rhythms Project and Community, the new ministry has “very little about it that would resemble a typical church,” says Buhler, a 37 year-old married father of a young child.

That includes how he gets paid—or doesn’t.

Buhler is what is called a bi-vocational pastor, working as a branch manager for a financial services company to earn a salary.

His wife, Felicia, who partners with him in the new ministry, runs a daycare out of her home.

Together they are trying to build a community of people who want to engage in ministry in the area, as well as support efforts to help people in the developing world.

So far, between 10-15 people “are journeying with us at various levels of engagement,” says Buhler, noting that one day he’d like to see it grow to 20-30 people.

In place of regular church services, people who are part of Rhythms gather for meals or coffee in homes or coffee shops, talking about ways they can be of service to others.

Buhler and his wife serve as mentors, looking for ways to grow in their faith and commitment to Jesus.

“The idea is to build a mentoring community of people who want to engage in mission together,” he says.

Last fall, the group held a lunch to help people affected by the war in Syria. Now they are considering ways to serve people who are poor or homeless in Winnipeg.

“We don’t want to duplicate what is already being done,” Buhler says. “We want to do what God is calling us to do.”

And the thing he feels God is calling them to do is to be part of the rhythm of life in their community—hence the name.

“We want to discover what it would look like if the people of God were part of their community,” he says, noting that “a lot of church experience is separate from ordinary life.”

Instead, Rhythms encourages “gathering in coffee shops, restaurants, homes, the places where [people] spend most of their lives.”

He isn’t critical of the traditional church model; he spent about 15 years working for churches. He knows it is meaningful for many. And he doesn’t rule out having regular Sunday worship services someday, if the community wants it.

But running a traditional church requires a lot of energy—something they'd rather put into other kinds of service. 

Buhler is just one of a growing number of people working in ministry today who are bi-vocational—working either full time or part time at other jobs while leading congregations.

Up until the 1950s and 1960s, such an arrangement wasn’t unusual; it was common for many pastors to have jobs outside the church, especially in rural areas. Since that time, however, most congregations have hired seminary-trained, full-time professional clergy.

But the decline in attendance and giving over the past decade or so is making it harder for many churches to hire or keep full-time pastors.

According to Sam Reimer and Michael Wilkinson, authors of the 2015 book A Culture of Faith: Evangelical Congregations in Canada, in 2010 about 24 percent of all churches in Canada had no full-time clergy.

“If trends continue as they are now, we expect an increasing percentage of part-time and lay pastors,” they conclude.

While this may not bode well for those who feel called to full-time church ministry, it may be beneficial for the church.

As one bi-vocational pastor noted, clergy who go straight from high school to college to seminary to ministry can “struggle with being able to relate to anyone beyond that part of life.”

Being bi-vocational, said another, “can keep you grounded.”

Is the future of church ministry bi-vocational? It might be. For Buhler, it just makes sense for his new ministry.

“I don’t hold myself out as an expert,” he says. “I’m waiting to see where this goes. But I can’t imagine doing it any other way. It may not be for others, but it gives me life.”

Learn more about Rhythms at

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