Church planting is complex, and so is the call to be a church planter. When I first got involved in church planting, I was a bright-eyed twenty-year-old in my second year of conscription in the Singaporean army eagerly awaiting university. I remember specifically the prompting of God at that time: “Stay local, plant a church, serve me.” To respond to His call, I decided to forgo the two spots I had reserved in Law and Economics at prestigious universities in the UK. Instead, I remained in Singapore to embark on a journey I had hardly the faintest clue about—church planting. I’m now twenty years in from that experience of God’s call, and I confess that sometimes I still haven’t the faintest clue what I’m doing.
It is said that church planters need to be foolish enough to obey God and foolish enough to be (initially) unaware of the challenges and sacrifices ahead. Maybe that doesn’t apply to the average church planter out there, but it certainly was true for me. Looking back, it was a very fruitful and spiritually engaging path, with many irreplaceable experiences that allowed me to deepen my walk with God and rely on Him completely. From the get-go, I needed to learn how to be sustained by the grace of God, rather than my gifts or individual ability.
More Than I Bargained For
Here are some of the strangest situations I found myself in, planting churches in urban Singapore (a city with the same geographic size as Toronto, but with close to six million people packed in):
- Planting a church with just me and another disciple, then watching this plant grow quickly to twelve people before we took it to the next stage.
- Having people suddenly join the church because they had an encounter of some sort with Jesus. (Someone saw an angel behind me. I didn’t see anything. But I told her, “Let’s talk about Jesus!”)
- Holding praise and worship in an open downtown area, with people joining in as they walked past our loud rag-tag group.
- Walking around campus (forcing myself, actually!), chatting with different people along the way about Jesus. Prayer walking was a norm. Looking for God-coincidences was a norm.
- Chatting with classmates and colleagues and finding that, at unpredictable times, the conversation would turn to Jesus. Out of ten such conversations, four people decided to attend sessions of the Alpha Course, and out of those people three of them attend churches today. Another three of the original ten later committed their lives to Jesus, crediting the initial conversations we had on campus as playing a key role in their conversion.
- Performing an exorcism (a casting out of evil spirits).
- Helping a woman who was being harassed and threatened by her boyfriend. We accompanied her to the nearest police station, staying with her until the wee hours of the morning.
At that time, I didn’t know anyone else who had experience in church planting. It just wasn’t something we talked much about in church circles! I knew how to bring the people in, but after that I had to shift and learn how to manage the church lest I get overwhelmed.
Throughout that time, I went from being a middle school/high school teacher to becoming a Head of Department and subsequently going into private teaching. In retrospect, I unwittingly stumbled upon the beautiful privilege of bi-vocational church planting. In all honesty, when I was living it, it seemed like a thankless task—I was waiting for the church to get its act together and have enough income to support me. But done well, bi-vocational church planting brings its own joys and challenges. In some ways, it overlaps with traditional church planting, but it is a spiritual service of its own. Perhaps you’re a bi-vocational church planter who feels unwanted, because you’ve got to both shepherd the sheep and support yourself through your livelihood. I hope you draw encouragement from stories like mine—God doesn’t always call the equipped, but he equips the called.
Benefits of Bi-vocational Ministry
A stable source of income for your family and that you’re connected to the missional environment you’re in.
This is important because this immediately takes care of one of the crucial needs of life for you to last the distance. It also frees your family to serve alongside you, especially if your spouse and children also have the heart for ministry. But more importantly, it allows you to have your workplace/industry as the seedbed for your church. Your colleagues are people whom you can minister to and touch, people who may never otherwise step into a church. For some, this can be their first contact with Christ who is in you. The workplace thus becomes an arena for incarnational ministry, where people experience Jesus even before they step into a church building. Ministering to colleagues gives you important experience needed for discipleship. The everyday events of the workplace can be useful anecdotes for preaching, given the right setting and timing. Your work allows you to be present in your world. It removes the ivory tower many clergy find themselves trapped in and allows you to bring a fresh perspective consistently about how the Scripture comes alive in everyday life.
Allows you to set an example of giving.
People joining a new church plant rarely start out as faithful tithers. Often, you as the pastor set the example for sacrificial giving. The fact that you’re bi-vocational (not drawing a salary) and a major giver to the new church plant allows you to speak about tithing freely. It reduces the degree of friction you might have with other donors who may want the church to go in a different direction.
Sometimes allows you to set boundaries about your personal time and to practice active discipleship.
“Necessity is the mother of invention”. Nowhere is this truer than in church planting ministry. If you’re like me, being bi-vocational while seeing your church grow quickly immediately leads to a crunch for time. This can sometimes mean church members are willing to be more active, taking up the slack that you’re not able to because of the demands of your other work. This can also create opportunities for apprenticeship, since more hands are needed for the work which God is calling you to do. Church plants require everyone to pitch in.
Challenges of Bi-vocational Ministry
It can be hard to find the balance between church demands, work, and family.
Church planters are not always the best in setting boundaries. For many church planters who love serving in ministry, balance does not come easily. It’s even tougher for those who are married with children, for they need to juggle family responsibilities with their outside job and ministry. It took me three tries before I started to find a sweet spot between the demands of my ministry and my work. If you are a bi-vocational church planter, the flexibility of your paid work setting matters. It is also helpful to have a separate ministry cell number, to enable you to have a better sense of work-ministry balance.
Requires certain gifts of leadership and knowing how to deploy the right people in the right leadership positions.
This was something which took me some time to learn. It feels exciting to be everywhere all at once and trying to do every ministry well, but that is a recipe for burnout. Instead, it’s advisable to form a team as soon as you can, and to pray for the right personnel who can help push the church in the right direction. In my inexperience I tended to take on far more than I should have, and soon I had a growing church which placed growing demands on my time, but which did not necessarily have the finances to support the amount of time I was spending on the church.
It is quite important to be able to balance people’s expectations with whatever stage the church is in. For instance, my experience in Singapore taught me that the demands for governance are usually quite high. Not all church members understand that it is important for processes to evolve. Financial accountability, checks and balances, and some other best practices need to evolve according to how large the church is at a given point in time. Some people may want more activity than you can manage, and sometimes church plants suffer from unfair comparisons with larger churches.
Another difficulty experienced in bi-vocational church plants is that even though discipleship and apprenticeship may be key priorities for you, they will not necessarily be shared by your whole congregation. Furthermore, not all church members will immediately have the strengths you want. In the initial stages of planting, it’s important to allow people to test out ministries in order to uncover the gifts that they have. At times it is better to allow someone new to serve, even though they may not be that proficient, especially if they are willing to serve joyfully. It might mean not having everything as perfect as we church planters would want!
Growth needs to be intentional.
Because I started bi-vocational ministry in my early twenties, my progress was slow. I simply did not have the networks of church leadership and expertise that others who started later in life had. Almost immediately I had the “baby church” on my shoulders and it took time before I could get the advice that I needed in order to grow as a leader. Attending seminars and conferences was also challenging because it either reduced the amount of time I could spend earning an income, or it reduced the amount of time I could spend focusing on the church plant. Most church planters will tell you that taking courses one at a time at a seminary is an option, but they still experience the tension of submitting assignments on time and having that next ministry call or work call which then they need to juggle with family needs. Having said that, Stephen Covey’s advice to “sharpen the saw” rings especially true for a church planter. Don’t ignore your own need to grow and learn.
Hard to find the time to network with other church planters.
Finding friends and colleagues who are doing what you do is really crucial, and so this needs to be highly intentional. In today’s context this seems to be a bit easier than when I started, as more excellent church planting networks, which enable planters to get to know and support one another, are starting to surface. Having the right colleagues who will support you, pray with you, and at times simply allow you to let off steam, is crucial.
With these different challenges, why would anyone persevere in the task of being a bi-vocational church planter? It’s the same reason people take up church planting to begin with—because they see a need which current established churches do not meet, and they are willing and able to listen to God’s direction to meet it. Church planters are people who know that Jesus has promised to build His Church (it’s His anyway—Matt 16:18) and that the gates of Hades will never prevail against it.
May God strengthen all who are called to church planting for the task ahead, and may you serve in this important and rewarding form of ministry with eyes wide open.
 Conscription at that time for Singaporean men was 2.5 years, prior to university.