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This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox.
Ask Mission Central: Question Twenty
“What does effective leadership look like for bivocational ministry, and how do we raise up and disciple bivocational leaders well?”
Instead of a response from me, our answer this week comes in the form of an interview with Dan Bovey, pastor of New Life Bilingual Church (Iglesia Bilingüe Nueva Vida) and, with his wife Jody, owner of Affordable Lawn and Home Care—both in West Chicago, Illinois. Dan has worked bivocationally for over two decades, putting in the hours needed to shepherd a multicultural Christian community and to run a reliable small business. His insights come from a heart of humility, tested by time and attested to by the many people he has pastored and served.
How did you get started in business?
When I was eleven years old, my dad started a landscaping company with the purpose of putting my brother and I through college. My first role was calling through the Yellow Pages; I had a little spiel where I would tell people I was a salesman and that they could hang up if they didn’t want to hear me. I think I had enough of that eleven-year-old, cute-little-boy voice that people would tend to listen to me. I got our first client, actually!
In about 2000, my wife and I took over the business because my dad was retiring from that end of things.
How did you get started as a pastor?
When I was thinking about going to college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But the thing that struck me as the most significant part of my life, up to that point, was what I’d experienced on mission trips. So, I wanted to get more exposure to that. After two years of community college, I did a fourteen-month program in Mexico called Spearhead. It was basically a series of internships in different churches. And that was a time in my life that was disproportionately significant for the amount of time I was there. I was there for fourteen months, but it felt like fourteen years in some ways.
During my time in Mexico, God had made it clear that I wanted to be doing some kind of full-time ministry. The way I probably would have expressed it then was that I wanted to spend as much time as I could doing the most significant things I could. So, at that point, I went to Moody Bible Institute to get more foundation in the Bible and ministry training. My senior year at Moody, my church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, called me to be pastor of youth and evangelism. I was a pastor there for about four or five years, and then my church in Glen Ellyn started working with this bilingual church in West Chicago. For two years, I was halftime pastor at the church in Glen Ellyn and half time pastor of this bilingual church in West Chicago. Then I went full-time at New Life, and I’ve been here for twenty-one years.
How do you think about the spiritual meaning of running a landscaping and home services business?
I want people to think of me as a Christian, more than as a pastor. Being a pastor definitely has its blessings and curses. And one of the curses is that people tend to put you in a different sphere, in their minds. Depending on the person’s point of view, they either elevate you or they dislike you. But as a Christian, I am a businessman, and that gives me the opportunity to interact with people in a way where they just see me as a person before they see me as a pastor.
As far as the spiritual meaning of work goes, I think it’s a false dichotomy to break down life between “secular work” and “sacred ministry.” Work in itself is something which God has created, and which is good. Being a landscaper in particular—it’s a profession that is looked down on by many. In circles that I might tend to run in here in the suburbs, there are people who won’t mind doing landscaping as a summer job, but they wouldn’t want to be known as, “Oh, this person is a landscaper.” I don’t mind at all people thinking that I am a landscaper, and knowing me as that. Because it’s something that gives me a connection with many people, particularly here in West Chicago, where we have many landscaping households.
I like the term “covocational” better than “bivocational,” because it implies that it’s all really one thing. When I am working as a landscaper, or as a small business owner, it gives me unique opportunities to live out the Gospel, and specifically to share the Gospel in real-life situations. It’s more than just a means to an end. But it does definitely open doors. Throughout my lifetime, my major thought has been that I want to do what is the most significant as much as I can. And I’ve come to realize that this work does fit in with that.
Have there been times when it has felt like the church is a distraction from the business, or the business is a distraction from the church?
It is a constant that I don’t feel like I can do either thing as well as I would like. Even though I just said there’s intrinsic value in the business side of things, my personal calling is such that, when push comes to shove, I’ll prioritize the church ministry, even if it negatively impacts my business. But obviously, there are certain things that I just have to do as a business owner.
That being said, there was a point around 2011, when, for a couple years, the church couldn’t pay me like they had previously. So, I had to decide to either pick up another job elsewhere, or really build up the business. That was a real transition for my wife Jody and I. (My wife, by the way, is officially the owner of the business, and I’m officially the company president. Keep straight who the real boss is!)
At that point, when I became more truly covocational, I had to say, “Okay, I can’t do everything.” And, you know, I never could do everything. I never felt like I had enough time to do everything that I would want to do as a pastor. But having another job did make me say, “Okay, I need to make some deliberate choices. I can do this, and I can’t do that.” It helped me to prioritize what is really important over the “fluff,” the things that we do that in some sense are good things, but are really not all that important.
What’s your approach to time management?
[Laughs] I’m laughing because I’m really poor at it. Yeah, talk to my wife on that one. I’ll be honest here, that has always been my weak point. That’s the disclaimer!
I have tried many different things. I don’t think that there’s any one formula that would work for everyone. For a while, I tried having more separation: “Okay, this day is going to be church; that day is going to be business.” Or, “Morning: business. Afternoon: church.” I’ve tried a lot of different things, and I have always found that I end up coming back to just a mixture. I’m constantly going back and forth between work for the landscaping company and work for the church. I initially thought that was just part of my lack of time management skills. But I don’t think I could do it otherwise.
If someone were to tell me that they were considering covocational ministry, and they told me that they were going to be both a pastor and an entrepreneur who would run a small business, I would want to make sure that they understood that those are two positions where you’re basically on call all the time. If I was a manager at a warehouse, I would have specific hours. But I’ve laughed about how I picked like the worst possible vocation to go with pastoring! Because I’m the point person on both things. Which is probably, in some senses, not ideal. It’s definitely not for everyone. I am still learning how to do it.
What would you say to someone who has the sense that “I need to do both”?
I’d say that is a good desire, and that is a good thing. I wouldn’t say that this is what everyone should do. But I almost want to say that everyone should be covocational for at least a year of their life if they’re going to be a pastor. Just so that they understand what they’re asking other people to do. They’re asking other people to volunteer at the church after they get off of work. Experiencing that is different than understanding it abstractly.
How is the church going to be successful in multiplying? If we’re going to effectively reach any groups that are not your typical, suburban white churchgoers, we’re going to have to change the paradigm, so that we’re not depending on a model which is facility-intensive, and full-time, paid-staff-member-intensive. For most groups around the world, honestly, it would take so long and so much energy for them to get to the point that they could pay for a building, and pay for a full-time staff member, that multiplying churches would be almost an impossibility. We need to embrace a model of covocational pastors more in the U.S. and among wealthier churches throughout the western world.
How can church communities encourage covocational ministry as an option for young people to consider?
The way that we teach and model what it means to be a follower of Christ needs to change. There needs to be a place for discipleship which has to do with how to approach work and how to represent Christ in the workplace. There should be value placed on doing whatever job God has called us to, whether that is as a stockbroker, a garbage collector, or a landscaper. That should be seen as one of our primary places of representing Christ.
The caveat is that people should still be encouraged to devote their lives to what we would call “the ministry”: to roles as pastors and shepherds, and overseers. But I don’t think that has to mean full-time commitment. There is a value in having a role where you’re being paid by the church body so that you can devote more of your time to doing ministry. Being a church leader should be less of a position, less part of our identity, and more of a role which is part of who we are as followers of Christ.
We should be offering classes on covocational ministry in our colleges and seminaries. I’m not saying they don’t exist, but in all my studies, I’ve never seen one. We need to be less focused on seminary degrees and more focused on making disciples and growing leaders from within our churches who can become church leaders whether or not they have a seminary degree, whether or not they are full-time, employed staff of the church.
Our blog subscribers include young and emerging Christian leaders; is there anything you would like to say to them?
Every generation has its blind spots, its strengths, and its weaknesses. Something I’ve seen in the church over the last twenty-five years is that the idea of making a commitment to a local church has less and less draw. People can be very excited about a cause. It’s much easier to draw a crowd by saying, “We’re going to talk about such-and-such important social justice issue” than by saying, “We’re going to talk about what it means to be members of this church.”
Consider the fact that if you’re a part of a local church, that is the expression of the body of Christ in your community. That is the one entity that Jesus set up. It’s not quite as exciting, in some senses, as getting behind the latest cause. It’s not as exciting as some other organizations might seem. We’re all very aware of the weaknesses and the ways in which the church in our culture, and in many times and cultures, has failed. But it’s the one institution that Jesus set up, and it is the vehicle through which his kingdom is advanced.
When I was nineteen, I would have told you, “I know that I want to do some kind of full-time ministry, I just don’t want to be a pastor.” [Laughs.] God has changed my thinking on that, obviously! The church is the one thing that has lasted through two thousand years. It is the vehicle through which disciples are made, and when disciples are made they become the church. You might be willing to uproot yourself and move across the country for a job. You might be willing to uproot yourself and move across the country for a cause. Would you be willing to uproot yourself and move across the country for the sake of your church?
Interview edited for clarity and length.
Photo by Shelley Pauls on Unsplash