As the church in the United States has undergone significant changes in its finances, so too have the ways that pastors pay their bills. The Rev. Tiffany Chaney – of Gathered by Grace in Montgomery, Alabama – speaks candidly of what it means to juggle the needs of ordained ministry with work for the Montgomery hospital cooperative, Baptist Health. She doesn’t mince words – it isn’t easy. But in this piece she both speaks honestly of the blessings and the challenges she faces, as well as presents sound advice for anyone thinking to follow a similar path in word and sacrament ministry. Read, comment, and share!
Francisco Herrera, PhD student and Interim Editor
“You sure do make it look easy!”
About six months after beginning a call as mission developer of Gathered by Grace in Montgomery, AL, where I also serve simultaneously as business development director for a local health system, Baptist Health, I received this comment from someone about their perception of my experience in my new bi-vocational call. Their perception had been formed from following me on social media. I immediately realized I had done the thing – the thing people do on social media – tell all the good parts of the story without acknowledging the challenges.
There are social media posts showing me teaching Bible study in a restaurant with engaged young adults and posts sharing my excitement to teach nurse residents about cultural sensitivity. But, I do not recall posting the day I tried to adjust my weekly schedule to be off work at the health system on Good Friday but had to go in any way to walk through a contract that needed to be submitted by the close of business, which I tried to complete before the noon community Good Friday service but couldn’t get it done in time,so I changed into my clergy shirt in my office, left to go preach at the Good Friday service, and came back to finish the contract.
It has been two years since hearing this comment about making bi-vocational ministry look easy; and, it still sticks with me because as financial pressures increase for congregations, the matter of pastors being bi-vocational enters conversations more frequently. As one who shares periodically in the public space about my experiences being bi-vocational, I feel a certain sense of responsibility to do a better job of sharing my balanced reality. It would be irresponsible of me to only “make it look easy” because it is not.
It’s hard every day.
But, for me, it is also rewarding every day (well, maybe not every day, but certainly most days.)
I am blessed to serve in a unique situation. After being open to calls in a variety of places across the country, the Spirit led me back to Montgomery, AL for my second call, where I lived before seminary. I came back to Montgomery to explore opportunities for ministry, particularly engaging young adults, as I sensed a need to create space where the voices of young adults are centered as they discern their faith and are welcomed without judgment. Also, I felt called to exploring the possibilities for developing more diverse ELCA ministry in the state – I am currently one of two ELCA pastors of color serving congregations in Alabama. These needs and realities led to the development of Gathered by Grace.
When I left Montgomery seven years prior to go to seminary, I continued to work remotely with Baptist Health in a consulting capacity. This relationship was still in tack when the opportunity emerged for me to return to Montgomery to explore developing a new mission. As a result, I was able to return to serve in the same role I left to go to seminary, this time in a part-time capacity, as System Director of Business Development for the three-hospital health system.
Immediately, I was aware of the complementary nature of both my calls, both centered on exploring and starting new opportunities to serve the people of Montgomery. My health care career involves market research, long and short term business planning and strategic planning, working with first line staff to enhance patient experience; and, writing and presenting the case for new health services in our state regulatory process. These skills are helpful to Gathered by Grace because I have a strong awareness of the community we serve, the ability to cast vision and work with Gathered by Grace’s Connection Team to live it out, and grant-writing ability that has resulted in successful grants to fund mission.
Both roles put me in spaces in the community that help to benefit the other.
Also complementary is the opportunity for my non-pastoral job to be in a health system with a mission rooted in faith. The leadership of the organization I serve respects and values the dual nature of my work, which has been essential as I strive to achieve balance.
As the conversation around finding creative ways to fund ministry continues and bi-vocational ministry rises to the forefront as an option, there are values to serving bi-vocationally that I have found to be essential.
Determine focus. When I began serving in this call, I knew I would not be able to participate in as many different ways in the wider church as I had when I was a full-time pastor. I also knew it would be difficult to say no to potentially exciting ways to serve the church, so I found it best to decide ahead of time how I planned to focus my time outside of my mission development to make decision-making easier when faced with new opportunities. I chose two areas of focus I feel called to – strengthening vitality of congregations and helping to make the ELCA a place welcoming to people who find themselves on the margins of church. I have worked to stay within those foci as I determine how to use my time and allocate limited vacation days. It’s not easy but it is necessary in this call.
Be a good steward of time for both calls. I am called by God to serve in both my mission development work and my health care work and I take seriously the need to be a good steward of time for both calls. Because there are times when it is necessary to be fluid in scheduling, I choose to maintain an accounting of how I spend my time each day. No one sees this calculation but me; yet, I maintain it, because I want to ensure I am, over time, maintaining the balance I have committed to both calls.
Give myself grace. l often feel like I should be somewhere I am not. There have been times when I had to leave work at the hospital to attend clergy meetings scheduled in the middle of the day or missed the meetings because leaving wasn’t an option. Last year I missed the Mission Developer Retreat in my synod because it was scheduled for the same time as the state hearing for a health care project I had been working on for six months. While I have always had a good sense of awareness that I can’t be in two places at one time and can’t be everything to everybody, this has been even more pronounced in this call. I have learned to give myself grace.
Resist pastor fragility. This may be an unpopular opinion; but, I think during the busy seasons of Holy Week and Christmas, pastors sometimes lean in to the fragility of our busyness. This feels particularly apparent to me in this call where I am not only regularly immersed in work with pastors but also regularly immersed in work with people in a non-church setting. I serve people who work multiple jobs and side gigs, who are involved in a host of community initiatives, who are in grad school and work full time, who are raising families. They are busy and still dedicate time to serve in ministry. There are times of the year that are more hectic for me as a pastor; but, the same is true for the month-end of an accountant, the end of the semester for a teacher, trial time for a lawyer, holiday time for a retail associate, and every day for a single parent working multiple jobs to make ends meet. And, people with all these experiences still regularly show up and offer their gifts for ministry in churches in a variety of ways. Sometimes I show up tired for Gathered by Grace’s Tuesday night Dinner and Dialogue after working all day but so do the people I serve. And, God shows up, renewing and restoring us all.
Practice radical self care. With rare exceptions, I take a full day off each week. I go on vacations. I show up at AquaZumba class as often as possible. I spend planned and unplanned time with friends and family. I read regularly. I am active in the community. I watch TV movies with unrealistic love stories (spoiler alert: the 1980s child star in the movie will always find love in the end.) Yet, my language of “practice” is intentional. Self-care requires constant intentionality for me. There are plenty of ways I still need to work on better self care; but, I continue to practice it unapologetically.
As the need continues to emerge for creative ways to afford ministry in an environment of increased financial pressure, I am grateful for this bi-vocational ministry experience. It has helped me better engage conversations about what it takes for bi-vocational calls to be nourishing and life-giving for both pastor and congregation.
I find it important to emphasize that bi-vocational ministry experiences are not monolithic. There are unique aspects of my experience that are not the same for my colleagues who also serve in bi-vocational calls. For instance, because I develop new ministry, I have had the opportunity to shape the culture of the ministry I serve. Gathered by Grace has always had a pastor with two jobs, so there has always been the awareness and expectation among participants that there are three days each week when my availability is limited during the day. This is a different experience from an established congregational setting used to having a full-time pastor in the past and now shifting to a new cultural reality as they transition to a part-time, bi-vocational pastor. These kinds of realities are needed in order for a healthy bi-vocational relationship to be established. It won’t work to have full-time expectations from a part-time pastor.
Flowing between the two ways I am called to serve can be stressful at times because time is a limited resource. But, having this experience of being bi-vocational is a gift from God that has been an essential part of my ongoing formation as pastor and leader.
It is not easy; but, it is rewarding!
Tiffany is Pastor Developer for Gathered by Grace, an ELCA mission, and System Director of Business Development for Baptist Health, a three-hospital health system, in Montgomery, Alabama. A life-long Lutheran, Tiffany strives to engage in ministry that reaches to the margins and welcomes all. She has been invited to preach, teach, and write about topics including racial justice, evangelism, and strategic planning. Tiffany is encouraged by Romans 8:38-39, truly believing nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.