Bivocational

Mark Edington wrote this book in an effort to reflect on, address, and engage with questions posed by changing models of how the Church functions in the twenty-first century. The model that has been in place for the past few centuries no longer seems sustainable for many and this book is part of the conversation about potential ways forward. From the blurb:

Bivocational: Returning to the Roots of Ministry offers one answer to the pressing question of the future of congregational life in the mainline Protestant Church. The contention of the book is that the model of professional ministry we have received from the past century of congregational life is imposing unsustainable costs on most congregations and parishes. In consequence, these faith communities face stark choices for which there are no self-evident answers. Shall we close? Shall we merge with another congregation—a decision shaped by a primary value on maintaining a full-time professional in the role of ordained minister? Can we find someone who will do the job part-time? What will it mean for them—and for us?

from https://amzn.to/2H7Iwya

It is worth noting that the author is an Episcopalian cleric and that while the book is targeted at a broader audience, much of the discussion centres around Anglican history, tradition, models, and polity. This review is of the Kindle ebook publication.

Bivocational begins with promise, addressing the idea that vocation is not only for ordained persons and that the entire Body of Christ shares in the ministry of the Church. This is a healthy, sound view of ministry. I had hoped that the book might move into a discussion of discernment and reckon with people who genuinely feel a call to more than one form of ministry, such as a scholar-priest, a deacon who also works as a psychologist, and so on. Unfortunately, the book leaves discernment and vocation there and moves on to use the term “bivocational” to refer to a particular model of clerical employment. An opportunity I was sad to see missed.

The book quickly shifts to what the author sees as the primary problems with the Standard Model of clerical employment. That model is a full-time cleric employed for both their clerical ministry and as the community’s chief administrator and programming director, along with the potential for many other responsibilities. This model, according to Edington, begets the presumption of power and authority by clergy and fosters unhealthy spirituality, dysfunction in the parish, and saddles communities with unfair, unnecessary financial burdens. He argues that a new model of employment – the Bivocational Model – offers a solution to this problem.

Edington takes on this issue and his proposed solution in five chapters. The first focuses on the cleric in this Bivocational Model. The second on the congregation with which the cleric ministers. The third discusses how adoption of such a model might reshape the polity of the church. Chapter Four attempts to lay out a theology that supports this model, while Chapter Five offers some suggestions as to how a community might move from the Standard Model to the proposed Bivocational Model. The book finishes with acknowledgements and a surprisingly robust list of recommended further reading on the subject.

Before digging into deeper issues, I wish to I have a few concerns with what seem like throw-away comments in this book, but seem indicative of the overall attitude of the book:

  • Repeated apologies for being “too theological” in a book about theology, ordination, and ecclesiology (loc. 233, 296)
  • Lack of understanding about certain historical church traditions, such as the naming of parishes and association with patron saints (loc. 914)
  • Poor statistics and lack of economic research in a section about financial stability (loc. 968)
  • Very dated suggestions about “creative worship” such as praise music and “Celtic” liturgy (loc. 960)

The pattern in each chapter this book seems to be a series of correlations that are offered without supporting evidence which satisfy certain opinions about the church: the so-called Standard Model of clerical employment is one based around undeserved authority, incompetent clergy living off of the haplessness of congregations, and a vested interest in maintaining a certain lifestyle for those clergy so employed. The proposed Bivocational Model, on the other hand, is one where authority is appropriately shared, where clergy are pictures of transparent spirituality, lives transformed by God’s grace, discipline in prayer, honesty in struggles, and authentic communication. (loc. 1320) Little evidence is offered for how this might happen, or indeed for the connection between employment models and clerical behaviour, beyond the anecdotal “I have noticed…” There are certainly footnotes throughout the book and these connect the reader to related material, but they are absent in the places where some hard research by the author – qualitative or quantitative – would have been much appreciated.

Authority is a preoccupation of this book. It appears repeatedly in the author’s arguments as the source of tension or the cause of trouble within parishes. Indeed, the fourth chapter opens focused on a discussion of authority. (loc. 1374) The author seems convinced that ordination is primarily about authority and its distribution, rather than anything else. To be ordained is to be set apart within the community for particular ministry. This way of being is not defined by hours worked nor a particular paycheque. And it does come with a certain authority, but in the same way that I would not tell my physician how to treat my illness, I hope that my physician would not tell me how to preside in liturgy. The authority ought to be born of discernment, training, education, and formation. If it is not, then there are much larger issues at play than how a cleric’s employment is structured.

It does not seem sensible to me that a particular model of employment would breed any greater or lesser spiritual discipline, for example, in the clergy participating in it. At least, not entirely in and of itself. Rather it seems to me that it would be the process of formation of clergy and the priorities and examples set for those clergy that would contribute most greatly to the spirituality, honesty, and so on. Bivocational has not convinced me at all of the author’s argument. Rather, it seems to present a false correlation between a particular model of clerical employment and the spiritual life of the church. While these are not unconnected, the book presents them with far too simplistic a connection and without anywhere near sufficient evidence to support its claims. The Bivocational Model is not a solution for the issues of presumption of authority and power identified by the author.

It is interesting to note that very shortly after this book’s publication, the author was elected as the bishop in charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. It will be interesting to see whether he uses his new position of power, authority, and influence – very much of the Standard Model of clerical appointment – to shift the structure of that convocation toward his preferred Bivocational Model.

In sum: Bivocational does not discuss the presence of dual vocations in a person’s life. It is concerned primarily with clerical authority and power and what the author sees as the problems surrounding them. Much is attributed to the Bivocational Model that seems to me to be simply good clerical ministry, applicable in any employment model. Bivocational does offer some discussion of alternative models of clerical employment and reflects on the division of labour, ministry, and authority in a parish that does not have a full-time cleric as its chief administrator. This may make it worth a read for parishes or communities considering a change in their employment model, but for most readers I would recommend passing it over.

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