Catalyzing both a new business and a new church is not for the faint of heart. The potential impact is high but so is the chance for burnout.
“Throughout church history, the full-time, fully funded pastor is the exception and bivocational ministry is the norm,” says David Gustafson, church historian and evangelism professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
And perhaps the time is coming when it will be the norm in the U.S. as well.
Bivocational ministry — holding down a “regular” job while also pastoring a congregation — is on the rise. The Atlantic reported several years ago that “bivo” was increasing across all Protestant denominations. Today somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of all clergy are bivocational (research studies differ in their counting). And it’s long been the reality for many pastors of color. Five years ago, small-church guru Karl Vater called bivocational “the new normal” in Christianity Today.
Bivocational is also increasingly common among church planters, according to Brad Brisco of the North American Mission Board’s SEND network for planting in the U.S. He calls it “a significant trend” and one he’s enthusiastic about. He points to planters who consider the economic benefits of bivocational ministry as important but secondary. The real payoff comes in the form of missional opportunities and possibilities. These planters don’t see themselves as following the apostle Paul’s so-called “tent-making” model, taking on any job simply to pay the bills. They believe immersion in the marketplace strengthens them for ministry in post-Christian America.
More Than Money
The traditional church planting model starts with a significant annual budget for the planter(s) and their team. Resources may come from a single “mother” congregation, a denomination, a network of churches, or a church planting organization. This funding is often on a three-year basis. The problem, says Brisco, is that this model “puts pressure on a church planter to grow the church quickly so it can become self-sustaining before funding runs out. The unfortunate reality is that a planter is often forced to attract financial givers rather than engage the brokenness in their community.”
Veteran church planter Peyton Jones, author of Church Plantology, says it’s a mistake to assume that planting necessarily requires a huge outlay of funds. He laments that a perceived lack of funding is “the number one bottleneck of church planting now.”
Jones argues that this false perception arises out of confusion between two quite different ideas: church starting and church planting. As he told Outreach magazine in 2021: “Church planting means starting with the seeds of the gospel itself and letting them grow organically. … Church starting, by contrast, is beginning with the church in mind, which neither Paul nor Jesus ever did. Both of them just started with the gospel and people.”
“Mission can be free,” Jones emphasizes. “Just meeting with people, interacting, making disciples.”
Brisco agrees. “Many traditional pastors are working in a church bubble, spending most of their time talking with church people about church things.” Bivocational “gives the planter greater opportunities to connect relationally with people in the community,” he emphasizes. “Their jobs give them access to a mission field that is not readily available to a pastor who is employed full time by a local church.”
Some entrepreneurial planters are taking bivocational even further. Instead of going to work for someone else’s business, they are starting their own. These planters see themselves as going beyond tent-making to creating new ventures to bring blessing to the community.
Linda Berquist of SEND offers several examples of church planters who began by starting nonprofit organizations in order to address some need in their target community. She says this approach is being adopted especially by planters seeking to reach immigrant communities. In San Jose, California, for example, Korean American pastor Peter Jung started the Seven Trees Community Center for Latino and Vietnamese immigrants. The Center sponsors community events, offers food and clothing, and runs a children’s tutoring program. Out of it has grown Guiding Light Project Church, with most parishioners coming to the church by way of the community center.
Jay Moon, professor at Asbury Seminary and co-author of Entrepreneurial Church Planting, is delighted by the creativity he’s been seeing among seminarians and church planters over the past decade. He reports that they are starting congregations in coffee shops, cafes, and movie theaters in attempts to reach people unlikely to darken a traditional church’s door. As an example, he points to the success of the Camp House, a coffee café in Chattanooga that quickly attracted creatives and grew into one of the city’s most popular cultural venues. It also became home to an Anglican church plant that eventually outgrew the space.
Veteran church planter Sean Benesh, who started a consulting business to provide training and coaching to planters interested in launching new enterprises, says he’s seen planters start bakeries, apparel companies, photography businesses, tattoo studios, and music venues, among other businesses. He encourages his clients to wrestle with three questions: How do you envision your startup being a change agent? What need(s) do you want to meet in your community? Why do you want to use your startup for the betterment of others or to address a social need?
Such queries help planters remember that the business isn’t merely a means to the end of earning income, but an opportunity to engage relationally with people outside the church and offer something that serves their communities.
Catalyzing both a new business and a new church is not for the faint of heart, though. The potential impact is high but so is the chance for burnout, as these two stories — one from Texas and another from Oregon — reveal.
From Mining to Gardening
In East Austin, Texas, Christian Cryder launched Lazarus Brewing Company and All Souls Church more or less simultaneously in 2014.
As this pastor says, “You don’t have to be crazy, but it helps.”
All Souls Church is Cryder’s second “from scratch” plant. He and his wife Marilyn had earlier founded All Souls Missoula, a congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in Missoula, Montana.
In Austin, Cryder was looking for a solution that would not only pay the bills but allow him to be “embedded permanently in the culture” in a way that afforded him daily interactions with those who don’t share his convictions. He worries that most Christians “don’t have a clue” about what’s really going on in the world around them because they are so isolated. “That’s why it’s so important to be neck-deep,” he emphasizes.
“Our churches need to have some reason for being in a community besides just for our own sakes. If they don’t, then people will assume — often rightly — that the only reason we are interested in them is for their ‘conversion potential.’ Will they come join your church and start giving money to fund the machine?” Cryder says. “We need to have some other thing that we are about in the community, that people can appreciate regardless of whether they share our convictions or not.”
Cryder had started crafting his own beer in Montana and landed on the idea of opening a pub when he got to Texas. He could see its potential for creating a “third place,” a watering hole that could build community in highly diverse East Austin.
“Some people who are interested in a bivocational approach simply see it as a means to an end,” he says. “They are effectively ‘mining’ the city to extract the resources they need to get what they really value: a spiritual community.” He adds: “When I talk about bivo, I mean a sense of dual callings. I see myself as a gardener, having a calling to add value, to do something that is good for the broader community, in ways that ordinary folks in that community can appreciate, even if they don’t share any of my convictions about Jesus.”
Lazarus Brewery has been an economic success, and Cryder says he’s using that as a means of “repurposing wealth” in East Austin. The community has a considerable Hispanic population as well as African American influences and is also undergoing gentrification. “The brewery picks a handful of causes to invest in quietly, like Casa Marianella, a nonprofit serving immigrants,” Cryder says. “We need to be at least as generous in the community as any secular organization is, and in fact we need to be more than that.”
During the “snowpocalypse storm” in spring 2021 that shut down Austin for four days, thousands of residents lost power and many suffered busted water pipes. The pub, Cryder reports enthusiastically, was “one of the first businesses back on-line.”
Residents were able to come in and have their first hot meal in days. Quickly, Lazarus became a hub helping Good Samaritans who wanted to serve their neighbors. “People were calling in and saying they wanted to buy 100 tacos for us to give out to anyone who was hungry,” Cryder describes. “Churches were calling Lazarus to order tacos in bulk to deliver to families in apartment complexes that they knew had not been able to get out.”
“People wanted to help,” he recalls with satisfaction.
One morning, a guy from a church wanted to buy $7,000 worth of tacos for distribution to hungry families, but Cryder and his little team at Lazarus didn’t have the capacity. Disappointed, he brainstormed with others at Lazarus and All Souls about what they could do. Ultimately, they decided to establish a plumbing repair fund to which people could donate through an online GoFundMe account. It raised $30,000 dollars in just a couple weeks. All Souls hired a congregant who spent two weeks contacting neighborhood residents to identify families who needed home repairs, then coordinated financial assistance for them from the fund.
Two Distinct, Synergistic Organizations
The pub is an economic boost to All Souls because it helps fund Cryder’s salary (though the church budgets $1,000/month toward that). But Cryder emphasizes that the two entities are distinct, and that Lazarus’ purpose goes far beyond being an economic engine for the church.
“I tell people all the time, This is not a church trying to start a business or a business trying to start a church,” he says. At the same time, as illustrated above, the two entities partner in efforts to bless East Austin. As the pub prospers, Cryder explains, it will continue to give generously toward common good initiatives about which All Souls is enthusiastic.
Before the pandemic, All Souls grew to two house churches in East Austin gathering some 40 people. The groups met at the same time, and a different “cluster” would rotate through the Cryder’s living room each week. Cryder would teach while the other house church “dialed in.”
Attendance waned during the pandemic. “We lost nearly 30 percent of our folks,” Cryder reports. “We’re now back to being about 30 folks who all fit in one house for the moment.” Following the worship service, the congregation enjoys lunch and discussion. The conversations are “electric,” Cryder enthuses, with people “processing, wrestling, responding.” Nowadays, several congregants also gather for a discipleship meeting on Wednesday nights.
Scaling is “still a huge question,” Cryder says. He believes All Souls’ pre-pandemic model is promising. By coaching and shepherding cluster leaders, he envisions a single, growing congregation distributed as a small network of house churches. He’s excited that this approach helps cluster leaders to “be disciples while at the same time learning how to make disciples.” Cryder is not worried about burn out if the church grows within this pattern. All Souls is “probably the most vibrant, refreshing, dynamic church community I’ve ever been a part of,” he says.
Some of the people at All Souls have found their way via Lazarus pub. But Cryder recoils from the notion that the brewery is “a secret funnel” to get people into a church. “I think that’s a terrible way of looking at things. That would mean the business is just a means to an end, a gimmick to get people in the doors of the church.”
“What the brewery is, in my mind, is a way to be about my faith in a public, yet not intrusive, way.” Cryder continues: “I get to be friends with all sorts of people. And folks that are curious will ask questions, and some of them might actually find their way into our little church. Almost all the folks who ‘stick’ in our church enter this way — by getting to know us as we go about our business in the world. Or they get introduced to us by friends of theirs who know us.”
Blue House Fitness and The Commonplace
Just a couple years after Christian and Marilyn Cryder were getting All Souls Church and Lazarus Brewery off the ground, Anton and Courtney Fero and a group of friends settled in a lower-income neighborhood on the north side of Portland, Oregon.
The 16-member church-planting team had been sent out from Catalyst Church in San Diego, where Fero was mentored by church planter Manny Sanchez. The team was open to settling anywhere on the west coast. Over time, they felt God calling them to Portland.
Most of the team members moved into the same house with the Feros. “We were trying to be authentically first century, a modern expression of that,” Anton Fero recalls. “The reality was, that became really difficult in the 21st-century, capitalist society, which is a lot different than that [time]. Part of the naivety is that we had over 20 people live with us in those first few years, and it was insane — beautiful, but insane in our culture and time. It put a lot of stress on our family.”
The team shared a desire to be neighborhood-focused, highly involved in and visible to the community. They started offering Crossfit workout sessions for neighbors in the Feros’ garage. Word spread, more joined in, and city officials got wind. They showed up and told Fero he’d need to find a building. God provided a space just a mile away from the Feros’ home. “It was a small, 1,600-square-foot facility that was actually pretty dilapidated,” Fero says, but it did the job. The couple used money they had from the sale of their home in California to fix up and equip the space, and Blue House Fitness was born.
Fero says a gym was the right entrepreneurial endeavor for him given his love of fitness. “Starting a business is no joke,” he says. “It’s really hard. So you’ve got to start one you actually like because you’re going to be working at it a lot.”
Like the Cryders in Austin, Fero’s team was passionate about building something good in and for the community. Eventually the group would articulate this idea as “provocative creativity.” Fero explains: “Since we are made in the image of God, we are also called to create. But we don’t create to preserve our institutions or protect our beliefs or make us feel good about what church we go to. Rather, we create because what we create can help us imagine and pursue a more loving, more just, more good world.” Team members saw that a fitness center could be a “neutral ground” where they could get to know their neighbors and, hopefully, build relationships with them in which they could talk about their life with Jesus.
It was a smart decision. The Feros became visible quickly and the gym’s membership grew rapidly. “When you’re starting a new business in a neighborhood,” Fero says, “everybody’s gonna hear about it. We were found by word of mouth. We were found at the big high school down the street.”
In early 2018, Fero and the team started holding worship services in the gym’s common room every other Sunday morning. Several of the core team were talented musicians. “We had a really dynamic worship culture,” Fero says. “We even produced a few worship albums.” They called the church the Commonplace. Fero explains the name came from Acts 2:44, “The church was together and had everything in common.”
The friendships forged side by side during Crossfit classes spilled over into the congregation. “We met more people through the gym than anything else,” Fero recalls. “Almost everyone coming to church was involved in the gym, too.”
The gym-plus-church model felt right to the team. “Every first-century house church had an economic engine,” says Fero. He wonders why so few planters start or partner with businesses “to help their ministries thrive.” The fledging business helped the church plant financially. Most importantly, it offered rent-free gathering space. The gym also helped defray part of Fero’s salary. “I still fundraised on top of what I got from the gym,” he explains. It wasn’t like ‘Oh, I had the gym and it worked’” for covering all the start-up costs. A couple other congregations and Catalyst Church pitched in, and “there was a small amount of money that I was taking from Commonplace,” Fero says. “Also, people lived in the house and paid rent. Altogether, it wasn’t anything crazy, maybe like $4,000 or $5,000 a month.”
The model did allow for the Commonplace — composed primarily of Gen Z young adults — to be generous in giving to community needs. Fero says this was important because that generation “expects that you will have a show-me faith. They want to see the generosity.”
The shared location of the gym and the church also helped to reinforce one of the congregation’s core values around discipleship. Just as fitness is a way of life, the church leaders taught that “discipleship is not an eight-week program explaining the Bible and the purpose of your life,” says Fero. “It’s a lifelong, beautiful, messy commitment to imitating the life of Jesus in the lives of others.”
The congregation grew steadily. Alongside the twice-monthly worship services, the Feros hosted some Friday night suppers. The church didn’t have a formal staff. “We were so lightweight, and so nimble,” Fero says. Just before the pandemic they were planning to move to weekly services.
The coronavirus pandemic hit both the fitness center and the church hard.
“Portland was the most strict,” Fero recalls. “We couldn’t do anything.” Many core team members left the city. “We were a really young team,” Fero says. “My right-hand leader was 23 when he moved here. Everybody was in their early 20s. And when the pandemic hit, they just moved home because they didn’t know what to do and they didn’t have jobs. It was all just so weird.”
Blue House Fitness proved more resilient than the Commonplace. “I would try to get some things together [for church members], and everybody’s arguing about all the things that everybody was arguing about then — masks, vaccines, white supremacy, Black Lives Matter,” Fero recalls. “It’s like the church was a pool of disagreement. And honestly what happened was I said, ‘I just can’t argue anymore.’”
Leading both the gym and the congregation posed a huge burden for Fero. He sought help from mentors. They encouraged him to think about the activities that seemed to be having the greatest missional influence. His answer was Blue House Fitness.
“For some reason when it came to the church, it was like, ‘How can we find where we stand on all these issues?’ Like, that’s what it became about for so many people. And we couldn’t just be a community,” Fero laments. “Church was just about gathering; that’s what it did. And then that got taken away. We didn’t meet in person for 18 months. And then, the congregation, I don’t think it really had an identity.”
He adds: “Meanwhile, we were seeing a lot of cool things happening at the gym. It was lots of people still wanting to be around together, lots of people engaging, new people showing up seeking community. It seemed like [the gym] was a safe space for a lot of people. We were holding outside workout classes when it was freezing, and people were still coming. Connection was really important.”
Ultimately, Fero decided to close the Commonplace. “I remember one mentor said to me during the pandemic, ‘Where do you see the most fruit in your life?’ And I was like, ‘The gym.’ And he said, ‘Well, why don’t you just do that.’” A second mentor asked him where he thought Jesus would be. “And I said, ‘I think Jesus might be at the gym,’” Fero says. That mentor told Fero that he should tell the people that were upset with him for shutting down the church that he “had to keep following the Way, and that’s outside the walls.”
Today, Blue House Fitness is thriving. The business recently moved into a million-dollar, 6,000-square-foot facility. “Now we’re probably the largest boutique high-end fitness facility in Portland,” Fero reports proudly. Blue House advertises itself as a “holistic” gym. It boasts an on-site kitchen and offers cooking classes and one-on-one nutrition counseling. To help patrons with exercise recovery, the facility includes a sauna and cold-water plunge tub. A chiropractor offers on-site appointments weekly.
As for a new church plant, Fero is unsure whether he’ll try his hand again. “People in the gym that know my background as a faith leader, pastor, are like, ‘Hey, whenever you guys start something up again, I want to be a part of it,’” he says. “But I don’t even know what that looks like.” Later, though, he reflects that any plan B for the church plant would probably lean toward a house-church model.
He won’t hold anything on Sundays, though. He worries that doing so will attract people with conventional expectations about church, expectations he has no desire to meet. “It draws a certain type of person,” Fero says about a Sunday morning gathering, “and it just sucks all the energy. Next thing you know, nobody wants to do anything during the week.” He adds, “They just want to show up to this thing. And then it just becomes all about the leader. You get this hyper ‘savior’ vibe. It’s just a cultural thing.”
Fero’s much more enthusiastic about what he’s seeing at Blue House Fitness. “There’s a ton of life change right now at the gym,” he says. Fero tells of one gym member, a recovering alcoholic, who said: “This community has saved me, saved my life. I was on the path that was very dark.”
“I’m trying to be the most loving, compassionate person that I can be from the example I get and from what I believe,” Fero says. Since the gym is where he’s seeing life transformation, he says, “I’m just trying to be present in that.”
While Cryder has found a way to serve both the church and his business, Fero ultimately determined that a 50-50 investment in both was unsustainable. Cryder reflects, “I think one of the things we’ve got to be careful of is that we don’t create a model that only a handful of people are actually gifted enough to do. Starting a business from scratch and starting a church from scratch are both very difficult tasks. So, it would be a mistake to say everyone needs to do both of these things. In reality, God doesn’t gift most people to do that.”