By Alex Sibley, Southwestern Communications
BATON ROUGE (BP) — As both a crew member at Trader Joe’s and a minister at Progression Church in Baton Rouge, Joe Handy essentially gets to pastor two locations — his “Trader Joe’s campus” and his “Progression Church campus.”
Serving “full time” in both, Handy is continuing a bi-vocational pastoring legacy that has been fundamental to the health and growth of Southern Baptist churches across the state and the nation.
IN THE MISSION FIELD
At Trader Joe’s, a grocery store chain, Handy rubs shoulders with nearly 85 coworkers from a wide range of social, cultural, political and spiritual backgrounds, most of whom have little to no interest in visiting a church.
“So I try to pastor them right where they are,” Handy said. “I’m the only pastor some of them have. I love that I have opportunity to bring church to them.
“As they get to know me,” he continued, “trust builds, and I get to play the role of friend and pastor in their lives. It’s fun seeing the worlds of Progression Church and Trader Joe’s collide like that.”
Handy is one of four bi-vocational ministers on Progression Church’s five-person pastoral team. Lead pastor Brian Crain is Progression’s only full-time staff member, though he did begin as a bi-vocational minister. Needless to say, bi-vocational ministry is an important part of Progression’s DNA, paving the way for avenues of ministry that otherwise would have been unavailable.
Progression Church was planted in January 2014, but discussions for the church’s formation began at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary years earlier. Crain, Handy and Joe Ashley — who now serve as Progression’s lead pastor, teaching pastor and pastor of children and family ministries, respectively — were students at the Fort Worth campus and often spoke about planting a church together. After much discussion and prayer, they felt the Lord leading them back to their home state of Louisiana and specifically to reach out to millennials in the region.
“When I was in a youth ministry class taught by Dr. Johnny Derouen, he mentioned some stats about the millennial generation,” Crain recounted. “He taught us that the millennial generation was the largest in American history and the most lost. That was one of the moments that clicked with me as to what God wanted me to do with my life; I wanted to plant a church that would reach my generation and the generations to come.”
Crain and Ashley graduated from Southwestern with Master of Divinity degrees in 2013. Along with Handy, who continues to pursue his Master of Theology studies, they and their respective families formed half of Progression Church’s six-family launch team in Baton Rouge.
Regarding the context in which they now serve, Ashley said, “It’s pretty fun when, on any given Sunday, you may see a Southern Baptist blue blood, a liberal from the Northeast, a recovering hardcore drug addict, a classic prodigal child, some dude with a dog, and a Catholic school prodigy growing in Christ and worshiping Him together.”
Each of them credits their time at Southwestern with preparing them to face the challenges of doing ministry in this context.
“At Southwestern, I began to understand the value of the Scriptures, how to correctly handle them, and how to help others understand them,” Handy said. “This has served me well in a culture that has a faulty sense of direction and little regard for truth.” Crain added, “Southwestern helped me feel confident to pastor and teach the Bible because I was taught the answers to the questions I had or where to find them.”
Ryan Andress, who is from Leesville, and Michael Young, who is from Wisner, round out the church’s bi-vocational staff. They served as a two-person worship team but Young, who graduated from LSU in May with his Masters, is now the worship minister of First Baptist Church, Wisner. Andress, registered nurse with an urgent care clinic in Baton Rouge, assumes the role as Worship leader.
Gary Mitchell, former bi-vocational consultant with the Louisiana Baptist Convention, said without bi-vocational pastors, there might not be a Southern Baptist Convention.
A bi-vocational pastor since he entered the ministry in 1984, Mitchell is pastor of First Baptist Chataignier, which averages between 130 and 140 people for Sunday morning worship services. His church is slightly larger than the average-sized Louisiana Baptist congregation, which is 124 or fewer for worship services on Sundays.
“The bi-vocational pastor wears more hats than a fully-funded pastor,” Mitchell said. “You can imagine some of them working 50 hours a week at a secular job and then trying to pastor – especially because the bi-vocational pastor tends to do everything.
But Mitchell was upbeat about the benefits of serving in these two capacities.
“One of the main assets of a bi-vocational pastor is he tends to put down roots and stays around longer,” he offered.
“Likewise, when he is working a secular job,” he continued, “it allows him to use it as a ministry in itself because he has a lifestyle witness he can live out every day with the co-workers he contacts. It becomes a mission field because of the influence the bi-vocational pastor has in his workplace.”
Louisiana Baptist leaders agree that pastors like those at Progression Church are more of the norm than the exception. Of 1,607 churches Louisiana Baptist churches, 1,269 (or, about 79 percent) are led by pastors who are bi-vocational or are full-time but serving a smaller church, according to Louisiana Baptist records. Meanwhile, Annual Church Profile records show that 80 percent of all Southern Baptist churches fit this profile.
“We have a strong and committed group of bivo pastors in the Greater Baton Rouge area with much diversity among their ‘other’ jobs,” said Tommy Middleton, director of missions for Baptist Association of Greater Baton Rouge that includes Progression Church in its membership.
“These faithful servants are employed at Dow, Exxon, Louisiana legislature and work as attorneys, baristas at coffee houses, insurance adjusters, computer technicians, construction managers, retail, grocery stores, property managers, hospital chaplains, etc. and yet, do ministry effectively and with the highest level of integrity,” said Middleton. “I am amazed at how much they are able to do and lead their churches to follow their example of ‘whatever we do…for the glory of the Lord.’”
Stacy Morgan, church administration strategist for Louisiana Baptists, said many pastors have been bi-vocational for at least a season in their ministries.
“I thank the Lord for bi-vocational pastors because many of our churches could not fully fund a pastor,” Morgan said. “Further, for some churches that could fully fund a pastor, bi-vocational pastors allow them to support multiple staff members, such as music, youth, etc. The bi-vocational ministry is thoroughly biblical and history is replete with examples of men who worked jobs outside of the church.”
WORKPLACE BONA FIDES
Ashley, who does maintenance and repair for a property management company, said bi-vocational ministry offers him unique insights to better relate to congregants.
“It is a different world to work with unbelievers for a company whose main purpose is to make money,” he said.
Handy agreed that working in both spheres has opened his eyes.
“I see both sides of the story,” he said. “I know what it is like to be a pastor; I also know what it is like to walk in the shoes of a layman.
“Seeing both sides of the picture influences the way I teach and interact with my people in the church,” Handy shared.
Ashley offered that another benefit of bi-vocational ministry is greater opportunity to meet and interact with lost people.
“The person who only works for the church can have a hard time being evangelistic outside of the pulpit, not because of apathy but because he does not know many lost people unless they come to church,” he said. “At the job I have now, I got to explicitly share the Gospel with a man in my very first week.”
Handy remarked that “it’s been cool to see the progress of some of my coworkers.”
“For some, it’s exploring the Scriptures for themselves or attending church for the first time in years,” he observed. “Some have trusted Jesus for the first time; others have been baptized or joined our church.”
Crain says that Handy “constantly” has people from Trader Joe’s coming to church with him and already has baptized two of his coworkers, including the first person ever baptized at Progression Church.
This person, whose name is Kyle, was already a believer when he met Handy but had not been baptized; instead, he had fallen away from church.
At Handy’s invitation, Kyle attended Progression’s launch service, became involved with the church immediately thereafter and then was baptized.
Later, Handy was privileged to baptize another of his coworkers, Craig.
He and Handy had discussed grace one day at work. Later, Handy bought Craig a Bible and soon brought him to Progression Church. This led to multiple conversations about what it means to follow Jesus. After a few months, Craig gave his life to Christ on the park bench in front of the store.
Craig followed through with a public profession of faith through baptism and has since become one of the most steadfast members at Progression Church.
“It’s always a surreal moment for me,” Handy said of baptizing fellow Trader Joe’s employees. “It’s just a snapshot of what God is doing in that store as a whole.”
Ashley said he did not become a church planter “to play it safe.”
“I figure if your boss has a talk with you about how you are overtly sharing the Gospel with your coworkers, you are doing something right,” he declared. “Thankfully for me he was a believer and told me to keep going. I did not tell him this, but I was going to continue anyway. I already had permission from my other boss.”
CHALLENGES & REWARDS
Among the difficulties Progression Church’s bi-vocational ministers face are the sense that there is not enough time in the week, and, the need to be a good employee on two separate fronts.
“It is rare that we have a meeting where everyone is there,” Ashley says about Progression’s staff. “You have to give people space to miss stuff to go provide for their families. This means we have to work harder at staying unified as a staff.” Solutions include texting “a lot … a whole lot,” and having lunch together regularly.
Despite the challenges, Crain sees the team having an impact for the Kingdom inside as well as outside the church, noting that lives have been changed, people have fallen more in love with Jesus and believers in the workforce have come to see how their workplaces can be mission fields.
“We have been faithful to make disciples of Jesus in Baton Rouge, and we have reached millennials as we felt led to do,” he said, adding, “So far, so good.”
Three years after its launch, the congregation, which meets in Louisiana State University’s Baptist Collegiate Ministry building, now has two worship services, 10 small groups and an average attendance of 125. They have baptized 20 believers in Christ during the past two years.
Alex Sibley is associate director of news and information at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article first appeared in the seminary’s Southwestern News magazine, and has been augmented with information from the Baptist Message staff.