I was standin’ outside Sutherland’s IGA store one mornin’ when I heard a flivver approachin’ down the street toward me.

“Which way to Millinocket?”

“Well, you can go west to the next intersection; get on to the turnpike; go north, through the tollgate at Augusta. When you come to that intersection . . . well, no . . . .

“You can keep right on this tar road—it changes to dirt now and again—just keep the river on your left. You’ll come to the crossroads and . . . let me see . . . .

“Then again, you can take that scenic coastal route that the tourists use. And after you get to Bucksport . . . well, let me see now . . . Millinocket . . . .

“Come to think of it, you can’t get there from here!”[1]

The Christian church has come a very long way indeed from the days of the apostle Paul. It spread around the Mediterranean littoral as a source of hope carried by the preaching of the first apostles and by the songs of merchants plying the ports where trade flourished in the ancient world. Opposed by the forces of the Roman Empire, persecuted by the whims of emperors, it later became the faith of the empire—and then was blamed by some for the empire’s collapse and downfall. Enduring throughout the medieval period, it spread throughout the worlds of Europe, Africa, and the Near East throughout the following centuries, surviving even the shattering break between the churches of the west and east. It became part of the power structure of the (not accidentally named) Holy Roman Empire, animated the emergence of the modern era through the ideas of the Reformation, and was spread across the planet by the efforts of missionaries—who were often effectively agents of, and often supported by, the emerging power of nation-states. It has taken on many forms, adapted to countless circumstances, risen to many challenges, and built institutions for good (and not-so-good) purposes.

The cultural circumstances in which the church finds itself today, however, are unique. They are unprecedented in the depth of the challenge they pose to the message the church offers. It’s not that the human quest for the spiritual has somehow come to an end; but it may be, as Harvey Cox has suggested, that after centuries of building religious institutions we are leaving an “age of belief” and entering instead upon an “age of faith.” This is an age in which the sense of the possibility of the sacred is pursued not through institutional structures of belief (that is, through religious traditions), but through seeking out and holding onto those communities and ideas that strengthen and deepen the experience of faith. Perhaps it is true, as Cox observes, that “faith, rather than beliefs, is once again becoming” the defining quality of Christianity.[2]

But if that is indeed the case, what are we to do with the structures of belief we have created—and the patterns of ministry inherent to them?

These questions are by no means new. As we saw in chapter 3, as early as the mid-twentieth century Dietrich Bonhoeffer was posing questions about a future characterized by “religionless Christianity.” And nearly fifty years ago, writing in the scholarly journal Theology while teaching at Lincoln Theological College in England—of which he would later be the warden—Alec Graham asked bluntly in the title of an article “Should the Ordained Ministry Now Disappear?”[3] Graham pointed out that while the church had historically found some form of ordained ministry to be needful, the cataclysms of world wars of the twentieth century had caused many to doubt. They doubted because of resistance to authority and hierarchy, because of resentment and rejection of the social status given to clergy, and because (Graham thought most trenchantly) the idea of the “priesthood of all believers” had finally caught up with the life of the church—through widespread literacy, the spread of education, and “the wider spread of the experience of responsibility.”[4]

In this third critique Graham saw the thin end of a wedge that, in the end, would call into question the theological status and validity of the very idea of ordained ministry in the church of the future. That did not mean—and does not mean—that the claims of the Christian faith were (and are) any less true. It does mean, however, that the endurance and advance of that truth into the future may not depend on ordained ministries the way they’ve historically been understood.

In such a moment it’s both helpful and reassuring to remember that we have not always been arranged and structured as we currently are. While in times of change and tumult our greatest desire for the church might be that it be a source of comfort and permanence, that is not a stance for disciples to take. What is unchangeable and permanent is the God we have come to know in the gospel message. And the God we have come to know, and who calls us in baptism to be disciples, is restless; “his going forth is sure as the dawn” (Hosea 6:3, RSV).

What shape, then, might ordained ministry take in these changed circumstances? How might it evolve to serve the needs of an age of faith, as distinct from the age of belief that seems now to be closing?

Bishop Graham (as he later became), in that fifty-year-old essay, pointed to three qualities, or perhaps characteristics, that together gave shape to a new sort of identity for those ordained—an identity, not of authority, but of representation. In this vision, the significance of the ordained ministry is not that it lays claim to a certain kind of specialized authority in the church, but rather that it seeks to represent within the community of the faithful what a life of discipleship looks like—and, in doing so, represents to all members of the community the possibility inherent in their own lives to be disciples as well.

Bishop Graham offered his own views on the three characteristics associated with this identity of representation, which I will try to do justice to here—while at the same time suggesting how they align with the vision of bivocational ministry this book has tried to describe.

The first is the quality of displaying the life of a disciple—the “total response demanded by Christ . . . to follow and obey.” We are taught early in our walk of faith the stories of the disciples leaving behind their worldly occupations to join the Jesus movement; but we are also reminded by Paul’s example that after the events of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, and until his promised return, the necessities of worldly life are not beneath the dignity of disciples. As Graham says,

the response of the ordained minister to . . . vocation is not made in order [to] provide an edifying example of renunciation. . . . It means that certain Christians publicly, unambiguously, with particular solemnity, at a mature age, renew that total dedication to their master which . . . should characterize the life of every Christian . . . .[5]

The bivocational minister exemplifies this function of displaying the life of discipleship both in the worshiping community and in the place in which disciples are called to dwell—not in a separate realm called the church, but in the world God has made and in which we are called as God’s co-creators to build the kingdom. Such an understanding of ordination is oriented principally on demonstrating the full possibility of discipleship in church and world, not on an expression of gifts limited to the realm of the church.

Second, the ordained-as-representative exhibits the quality of enabling—“the explicit and clear display should have the effect . . . of enabling [the church’s] members to see more clearly what is meant by Christian discipleship and to pursue it more purposefully.[6] This quality, as we saw in chapter 2, is central to the qualities of leadership that strong bivocational pastors demonstrate within their communities—the ability to discern the gifts of each member of community, connect these gifts to the needs of the community, and encourage the expression of those gifts to the fullest extent possible. Where our understanding of this quality differs from Bishop Graham’s is on the matter of how this sort of leadership is expressed. Graham’s notion is that the “enabling influence” of the ordained is in some way associated with being “ordained to full-time service.”[7] But I see no prevailing reason why this must be the case; and indeed, in the bivocational congregations I have witnessed firsthand, the enabling quality of leadership exhibited by ordained ministers is often linked to, rather than inhibited by, their work in two worlds. Said in different words, it is not only in the setting or work of the church that Christians function as ministers.

The third and last of Bishop Graham’s characteristics of a representative ministry is the quality of involving—in the sense of “involving the whole church” in each activity undertaken. On this point I offer a rather different understanding from Bishop Graham’s original meaning. He offers the idea of the ordained minister having a unique responsibility to involve the whole church in all of the activities, all of the work, all of the calendar entries in a given day. The sense here is of one person being, and bringing, the whole of the church into all that they do:

Ideally, the whole church should be caring and proclaiming, worshipping and reconciling, but this cannot be effectively done only by Christians in the course of their daily occupations. Particular people are, therefore, largely set free from other cares and duties in order that their time and energy may be devoted to these ends.[8]

Bishop Graham here indulges in a somewhat sweeping generalization that has the effect of justifying the existence of a separate and distinct realm—I am almost inclined to describe it as a club—for a “particular people” called ordained ministers. But the life of congregations tells a different story. There are countless examples of people who do excellent work visiting the sick, leading the study of scripture, “caring and proclaiming, worshipping and reconciling,” without the benefit of—nor any need for—ordination. And every one of us who is ordained—at least, every honest one of us—will acknowledge that there were fellow-ministers in our communities who did at least some of these things, things essential to Christian community, better than we do.

The quality of involvement is central to bivocational ministry as well, but in a way different from Bishop Graham’s notion. It is rather the idea that all members of the Christian community are called to involve the life of the church, the values of the church, and the claims of the church in all aspects of their lives—both inside and outside the church. The ordained leader of a bivocational congregation is called both to model this manner of discipleship and to inculcate it within the faith community by lifting up examples of all in the community who do it in their lives as well. Involvement in this sense is closely linked to the notion of integrity—the idea that our lives of faith are not meant to be lived in a compartmentalized way, with some aspects given to church and the rest given to other claims, but with our whole lives—mind, heart, soul, and strength—devoted to loving God, and expressing that love through all that we do, wherever we do it.

•    •    •

The question that remains for us is, how? What is the path? And how will we know if we are making progress toward this objective?

I conclude this short work on bivocational ministry by suggesting some specific measures we might implement to increase the number of people in ordained ministry prepared to take on a bivocational role; to strengthen the work of congregations seeking to explore this model as a path toward their future; and to expand both the capacity and the willingness of denominational polities to acknowledge and support this approach to the future ministry of the church.


1. Identifying bivocational pastors

What could we do?

What would success look like?

  • Actively recruit engaged lay leaders to consider ordination for ministries that would be consistent with remaining in their present professional roles.


  • A steady increase in the percentage of candidates for ordination who continue working in secular roles while preparing for ordination.
  • A gradual move away from the dominant norm of three-year-in-residence divinity school and toward a model more like the service of reservists in the armed forces; occasional periods of intensive training interspersed with routine engagements with field work or experiential education.
  • Work toward a goal of between 25 and 30 percent of all candidates for ordination preparing along these lines.
  • Help those currently ordained to expand their skill base to prepare for work in secular employment alongside their ordained ministry.


  • Create partnerships with institutions of higher education to provide access to training programs for currently ordained ministers.
  • Develop and incentivize professional development tracks for those presently in full-time ordained positions to hone their skills for work outside the church.

2. Strengthening bivocational congregations

What could we do?

What would success look like?

  • Provide focused training and coaching to develop leadership skills among lay leaders.
  • The percentage of lay members of a congregation actively engaged in the life of the community rises to between 40 and 50 percent of all members.
  • Bivocational congregations develop network relationships between themselves—within and across denominational traditions—to share ideas, best practices, and training opportunities.
  • Help congregations explore received understandings and expectations of ordained ministry, and how this inheritance has shaped the culture and ethos of their community.


  • Workshops provide congregations with tools for setting the ordained ministry in historical context and for bringing to the surface narrative histories and implicit expectations placed on ordained ministers.
  • Congregations develop a practice of assessing how responsibilities are shared between ordained and lay ministers, and of aligning authority with delegated responsibility.

3. Reorienting polities toward bivocational possibilities

What could we do?

What would success look like?

  • Normalize bivocational congregations as within the mainstream of congregational life, rather than regarding it as an outlier or “less-than” form expression of church.


  • Greater participation of both lay and ordained leaders of bivocational congregations in governing structures of the polity.
  • The emergence of pathways for preparation to ordained ministry that reflect the realities of the demands placed on those working in secular employment.
  • Candidates for the top leadership of polity-level structures, in both ordained and lay roles, emerge from bivocational congregations.
  • Broaden the understanding and communication of gifts sought in those who offer themselves for consideration as candidates for ordained ministry to include those who remain engaged in jobs outside the church.
  • An increase in the percentage of candidates for ordination that continue working in secular roles while preparing for ordination.
  • A clear set of professional qualifications for, and experience in, work outside the church is seen as a prerequisite for new candidates for ordination.
  • Identify lay and ordained leaders of congregations that have successfully developed a bivocational ethos and empower them to be coaches and trainers for others.
  • Emergence of lay and ordained coaching teams within and (ideally) across denominational lines.
  • The work of these teams is supported with resources from polity-level structures.

•    •    •

Displaying, enabling, involving—these are the qualities of Christian witness that can communicate with the changed cultural circumstances around us, and speak to the world we inhabit on its own terms. They are qualities that push against arguments for special status and claims for distinction. They live out in our ministry the radical equality of all humans before God that is the scandalous idea at the center of the gospel message—the gospel we are meant not only to proclaim, but to live by. And they help us to give shape and substance to an understanding of ordained ministry, and a vision of a flourishing church, prepared to walk with God into God’s future.

If we look for and lift up those members of our communities who quietly and confidently demonstrate these qualities, if we reimagine the purpose and function of ordained ministry in the light of these characteristics, and if we renew our understanding of God’s purposes in the larger church by seeing these qualities as the spiritual gifts God has given us to build with, we can—and will—get there from here.

[1] Marshall Dodge and Bob Bryan as “Bert and I.”  Bryan, incidentally, went on to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.

[2] Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith, 223.

[3] A. A. K. Graham, “Should the Ordained Ministry now Disappear?” Theology 71:576 (1968), 242–250.

[4] Ibid., 245.

[5] Ibid., 248; emphasis added.

[6] Ibid.; emphasis added.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 249.