This image is often invoked as a solution to the challenge of diminishing resources in a church that still needs leaders, still ordains ministers. It is particularly encouraged in pioneer leaders, a designation sometimes applied to me.
As I pondered this approach to ministry, a random thought that occurred to me out of the blue one morning recently, I remembered how I felt any time someone suggested that I might like to consider 'tent-making', or bi-vocational, ministry.
Angry. Dismissed. Unseen and misunderstood.
Tent-making or bi-vocational ministry is not simply one 'one-size-fits-all' replacement model for an older 'one-size-fits-all' model of ministry practice. It will not suit every pioneer leader, for each pioneer leader, however many characteristics we may have in common, is unique in personality, circumstance and experience.
It certainly does not suit me to work a non-ministry job to earn money for a ministry job the church can then take for granted, for free. It does not suit a person living with chronic illness(es); an artist already having lived on part-time income, hand-to-mouth, her whole adult life (i.e. 20 years); a single person with only herself to bring in money (though it may suit another single person perfectly well in their singleness to work several jobs). I cannot split myself across competing occupations – my personality is contemplative, however active my creative output may seem to be; my circumstance is one of precarious health and energy levels that need careful management if I am to be healthy; my experience has worn me out, and I will not thrive with the uncertainty of tent-making.
Besides, why do we idolise Paul and his tent-making approach to ministry? Was it his approach in every city he went to? In Romans, he mentions the support of Phoebe and Gaius, and the letter to the Philippians contains expressions of thanks for their financial support on several occasions; perhaps in some places, he was supported by the community rather than his own work?
And what of Jesus, the one we folk of Christian spirituality actually follow? He was no tent-maker; not even a cabinet maker, having left that life behind for his itinerant wandering through Galilee and surrounds. Jesus gathered a community around him, accepted the hospitality of strangers, relied on the women to whom rare references point as the providers for their teacher and his closest friends. Jesus did not earn his living, but shared the task of ministry with a whole team, each with their role to play: Jesus up front telling the story of God's dream, the disciples beside him, modelling devotion and learning, and the women behind him with income and service, along with the strangers they met on the way providing hospitality for their health and wellbeing.
It is that model of ministry that my own has come to resemble, with benefactors and supporters sharing their resources with me as I stand out front telling the story of God's dream, of humanity; I don't have any disciples, but a few people read what I write and learn with me along the way; and you, my supporters, supporters of the story of God's dream I endeavour to tell, keep me healthy, warm and fed, nurture my wellbeing.
I am happy if the approach of 'tent-making', bi-vocational ministry is helpful for others.
I am less so when you try to force it on me when it doesn't help me at all.
I will use the model of itinerant storyteller, gathering community, making myself vulnerable as I rely on you to work with me, grateful for your gifts in this endeavour of telling the story of God's dream for our time.
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