TUPELO – On his resume, the Rev. Mike Warren can list several tasks he regularly performs, including presiding at weddings, baptisms and funerals. He can also list oil changes, tire rotations and battery checks.
Warren, 55, is the proud pastor of New Home Baptist Church, a small Southern Baptist congregation in Itawamba County. Make no mistake about it, Warren loves being a pastor.
“I started preaching when I was still in high school, and I knew this was what the Lord wanted me to do,” said Warren, the father of two grown children.
Love it though he did, Warren couldn’t always support his family by preaching in small, country churches, so over the years he moonlighted as a shipping clerk and a welder, among other professions. Today he’s a part-time auto service technician.
He loves that work, too.
“If God gives a man talent and ability he ought to use it, and I like working with my hands,” said Warren, who, when he’s not in the pulpit works 20 hours a week at one of four Texaco Xpress Lube service centers in Tupelo.
Like hundreds of his colleagues in Mississippi, Warren is a bi-vocational minister. Each week for him is a vigorous mixture of academic and pastoral pursuits, along with good, old fashioned, blue-collar grunt work. To hear him tell it, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m as busy as a one-legged tap dancer,” said Warren. “My wife tells me I get into less trouble when I keep myself busy.”
Filling a need
When one thinks of the quintessential, Southern church, one thinks of a small, white chapel beside a country cemetery.
That might seem a bit romantic, but across most of the state it isn’t far from the truth.
Most Mississippi churches are pretty small, many with fewer than 50 members in the pews each Sunday. It’s in these small communities that bi-vocational pastors are filling the pulpits.
According to the Rev. Jim Futral, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board, more than half of Mississippi’s 2,000 Southern Baptist churches are staffed by bi-vocational pastors – “bivos,” as they’re known in Baptist parlance.
Of the 17 Southern Baptist pastors in Itawamba County, 12 of them, including Warren, are bivos. So are 20 of the 57 pastors in Lee County.
Warren’s little church in the Clay community is a perfect example of the niche bivos fill. New Home is just a little smaller, its members are just a littler older and its worship is just a little more traditional than most new churches being planted today.
All of the compensation for Southern Baptist pastors comes directly from their individual churches. New Home probably couldn’t afford to support a full-time pastor, especially in this economy, but Warren’s part-time job makes it easier.
Warren holds a Ph.D. in New Testament studies, and in addition to his job at Texaco he teaches online classes for Itawamba Community College and Blue Mountain College, as well as a seminary extension class through the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
“I’m educated way beyond my intelligence,” said Warren, adding he feels blessed to be able to lessen his church’s responsibility in supporting him.
United Methodists in Mississippi face many of the same challenges as Baptists, and bi-vocational ministers are proving to be a big help.
Of the more than 1,140 churches in the Mississippi Conference, one-third regularly have fewer than 25 people in the pews on Sunday.
Such is the case at St. Mary United Methodist Church in Potts Camp, where, since late June, the Rev. Charles Lackey has been the part-time, local pastor.
Lackey, a 46-year-old father of four, was ordained at this year’s Annual Conference, and St. Mary is his first charge. Every week – sometimes twice a week – he drives 50 miles, up Highway 78, to his little church.
Lackey devotes about 10 hours each week to his ministry, including making sure the tutoring program runs as it should, and making himself available for counseling and office visits.
He devotes those 10 hours to his ministry in addition to the full work week he puts in, which almost always exceeds 40 hours, at the U.S. Post Office in his home town of Pontotoc.
As it is with Warren, being a minister is for Lackey a labor of love and a calling.
He has a few years ahead of him before he’s ordained a full elder, but right now Lackey provides a real pastoral presence to a small community that needs him, a community, much like New Home, that doesn’t have the membership or resources to support a full-time pastor.
The idea of a pastor working a “regular” job isn’t anything new, but perhaps it’s a little more poignant in the midst of a recession, when the possibility of closing or consolidating smaller churches is very real for many denominations.
“We stand as part of a long, honorable tradition,” said Warren, referring to the tradition which holds that the Apostle Paul wove cloth for sails and tents to finance his evangelizing efforts.
Utilizing bi-vocational pastors has been part of the Methodist vision of ministry from the beginning, according to Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of the Mississippi Conference.
John Wesley, she said, was convinced of the effectiveness of working people serving in ministry, and their efforts were key to Methodism’s exponential growth in America.
“This isn’t just part-time ministry for these men,” said Futral of the Mississippi Baptist Association. “Ministry for them is very consuming, and they put their hearts and souls into it.”
Lackey of St. Mary worked in the Social Security Administration before starting at the Post Office 15 years ago. Government jobs have good benefits and holiday schedules, and neither Lackey nor his wife wanted him to quit in order to follow his call to ministry. As it turns out, he didn’t have to.
Lackey enjoys his work at the Post Office, and he plans to retire there. The pride of working and supporting himself is nice, and as for ministry, he said, that’s in a class by itself.
“I’d do it even if they didn’t pay me,” said Lackey. “I’d have to. It’s just part of who I am.”
Contact Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal