Seven Questions about Bi-Vocational Elders at Sovereign Grace Church
In the fall of 2012 we laid off two of our elders because of budgetary constraints. The result was that for the first time since the church began, we had paid elders and unpaid (bi-vocational) elders. Further, this January we began the process of ordaining additional bi-vocational elders. Because of this we felt it timely to answer some of the critical questions you might have about this direction and the process for ordination.
1. Why do we need more elders?
The answer to this question relates to our understanding of what a pastor is and does. We believe he is called by God to be a shepherd over the flock of God that has been given to him by the Lord: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28, NASB). Further, elders “are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17). This watchfulness and ownership are things we cannot delegate to any other person in the church. They are a unique responsibility possessed by the elders of a church. We can delegate myriad tasks to people in the church—deacons, volunteers, office staff—but this part of our job cannot be given away.
Based upon the last year of experience we feel that we need more shepherds than we currently have to continue this care for the sheep that God has brought into our church. If we had the financial resources, this could be accomplished by bringing additional elders on to the church staff. But we do not have those funds currently, and our projections indicate it will be many years before we can make such a hire.
2. Why do we use the term “bi-vocational” elder?
“Vocation” comes from the Latin word for “calling,” and it refers to the different callings we have from God. Our lives have a number of them—citizen, parent, spouse, child, student, church member, etc.—and so they are not merely “the thing we do to earn money.” We use the term “bi-vocational” elder to refer to our elders who are called to serve as an elder and to serve in a separate workplace (with their income coming from that second workplace). The term isn't perfect, but we feel it best captures how these men serve.
3. Do we still believe elders should be paid?
Our conviction has been and continues to be that elders should be paid if/when the church can afford to pay them. Paul says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages” (1 Tim. 5:17-18). We “muzzle” the ox when we ask him to do work without giving him the proper remuneration to do it. When you ask a man to do the work of an elder and do not pay him for it, he is less effective because he must make his living in some other way. His paid job (rightfully) takes energy, time, and mental focus that cannot be given to his service as an elder.
And yet, there are occasions in life where preference surrenders to necessity. In this case, while it is our preference that all elders be paid, it is not sinful for a situation to exist where all are not. In our case, the necessity of financial stewardship and a conviction about the level of pastoral care the church requires takes precedent over our biblical preference to compensate our elders. While for different reasons, the precedent of forfeiting wages for the good of the church is seen in the Apostle Paul’s life when he did the same with the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 9:12-18). We are in an unfortunate position where we currently cannot afford to pay for the elders that we believe the church needs. In such a situation we believe it is biblically allowable and helpful to incorporate bi-vocational elders. These men happily volunteer their gifts to serve and help build the church.
4. Do bi-vocational and paid elders have an equal voice in all elder decisions? (I.e., do we have two different statuses of elder?)
It is critical to see that while we will have different elders with different job descriptions (in kind and in scope), all SGC elders share an equal and essential voice in our plurality. Each has an equal vote on issues requiring a decision. Each has wisdom the church needs. Each has gifts God intends to use to help our church mature and strengthen and grow in Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:11-13). We are building a team of elders that naturally defers to a man in the areas commensurate with his gifts (and wisdom and experience, etc.), but this is not the result of any status he might have that others lack. When a man works full-time outside of the church, that obviously affects his ability to be involved in the affairs and details of the church, but we recognize all of our elders share an equal role in the decision-making and governing of Sovereign Grace Church.
5. What is the process of becoming ordained at SGC?
Ordination in Sovereign Grace is handled primarily by the local church in partnership with the Sovereign Grace Churches (our denomination). There are basically four steps toward ordination at SGC.
STEP ONE: The first step occurs locally at our church, and it involves both training and evaluation. During this phase, the elder candidate goes through a season of training that may or may not include the Sovereign Grace Pastors College. In most cases, the training of bi-vocational elders will likely not include the Pastors College, and his theological and biblical training will happen here at SGC. This is a season where a man will have increased responsibilities in the church designed to test his leadership and expose him to different kinds of service.
Step One is also about evaluation. The goal is to determine whether the man has (1) the necessary qualifications to serve as an elder, (2) a gift set that will complement the current elders, and (3) the capacity to add the 5-15 hours of service per week that being a bi-vocational elder requires.
One vital part of this first step is receiving input from the congregation. We believe that a congregation provides crucial input as we evaluate men for pastoral ministry. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 are two passages that both define the kind of men we are looking for and thus the kind of input we are looking for. Question seven below speaks to this issue in more detail.
STEP TWO: The second step toward ordination will involve Sovereign Grace, especially within our region. The Regional Ordination Committee will give these men their written and oral exams. Studying for and taking these exams takes many months.
STEP THREE: The third step will involve the elders of the region through the Regional Assembly of Elders (all the elders in the SG churches in our region). The elder candidates will be recommended to the Assembly by us, and the Ordination Committee will inform the region that the men have passed their exams. At that point the Assembly will vote on whether these men should be elders or not. We cannot ordain anyone that is rejected by the Assembly. This is a helpful accountability for us with our new polity, one that we heartily affirm. The Assembly is mandated to allow anyone to be ordained that is supported by their local church, who is orthodox in their Christian beliefs, and who is not guilty of any scandalous or serious sin.
STEP FOUR: Once these hurdles have been cleared, the final step toward ordination is the actual service. This will be a time of celebration and a pastoral charge (likely by the Regional Leader, currently Mickey Connolly, or another elder in our region). But most of all this will be the time where we officially lay hands on these men and commission them for their new roles as elders. To “ordain” someone is to set him apart for a specific office in the church through the laying on of hands.
Once ordained, the candidate becomes an elder of Sovereign Grace Church and is entrusted with all the responsibility the office entails. He is a shepherd over the sheep that God has entrusted to his care (Acts 20:28). He is an overseer who will give account for the souls of Sovereign Grace Church (Heb. 13:17). He is an elder called to teach and to govern in a way that pleases the Lord and serves the congregation (1 Tim. 5:17-18). It is a sober calling indeed.
6. Do we plan to hire our bi-vocational elders one day?
It is our intention to incorporate full-time elders as much as is feasible with our financial situation. Right now, it appears that we will need to involve bi-vocational elders for some time. Only God knows the future, but in our analysis and planning it appears that it will be many years before we will be able to hire all of our ordained elders. Until that time, we thank God for the ability to have godly, gifted men function as elders in a volunteer capacity. We believe that even at a part-time level (perhaps 5-15 hours per week), these men will add enormous strength to our church.
7. How should you give your input about our elder candidates?
As we said above, part of the ordination process involves receiving input from the congregation. As a member of SGC, you have a part to play. Please set apart time to prayerfully read through 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. Ask yourself if the elder candidates meet that standard. Take time to write out the details of where you feel these men are to be commended and/or where you have questions about their ability to meet these standards. Pray over these things and please be prepared to humbly submit them to the elders for consideration.
Relevant feedback would speak to the character, gifting, teaching, and leadership of the elder candidate. Your feedback could be general or specific depending on your experience with the man. It could be commendation and appreciation, or it could express concerns and hesitations. Send us those observations in writing (please not anonymously and not by email) so that we can have a written record of them. If you prefer to meet with one of the elders to communicate your feedback, that is of course fine. Written feedback is received up until 30 days prior to the date for ordination. It can also be helpful during the season of evaluation to make it a point to get to know the elder candidates.
Grateful to God
We hope some explanation on the theology and procedure surrounding bi-vocational elders is helpful, but we need to tell you how excited and grateful to God the elders are for our new elder candidates. We do not take it for granted to have men of godly character who also possess a true concern for God’s church and God’s people. We truly praise God for men like them who may help lead our church into the future that God has for us.
In faith as we move ahead together
Adding elder candidates is just one more reason to be in faith that God is at work in our church and that he intends for us to grow in all the ways the Bible specifies. Our desire is to love God, love one another, and love our neighbors as well as we possibly can—all that the name of Jesus Christ might be exalted by every mouth and every heart. Join with us in prayer and sacrifice as we walk together to fulfill this vision.
The Elders of Sovereign Grace Church