BIVO Series (1/4): Why We Need to Drop the Bi-vocationalism Label

This is a subject I continuously think about and have written about in snippets over the last number of years. A few pages here, a few pages there, an occasional chapter, and so on as I kick the tires of this conversation and wrestle with it for my own life. I'm currently teaching an undergrad course on this notion of calling, careers, and vocation... so even more so it's at the forefront of my thinking. Writing helps me process my own internal dialogue. I write to think.

When it comes to this notion of "bi-vocationalism" I'm convinced we have it all wrong. That's why for many it is unhealthy. You see, we have one primary calling, but then as we fulfill that vocation we have differing occupations.

Let me explain.

My calling preceded any kind of formal education or training I would later undertake. All I knew was that God rescued and redeemed me. Out of gratitude and worship I wanted to in turn relinquish my life over to him in service. Christ was calling me to himself and for himself. That was my calling. That was and is your calling. As time went on, and educational and occupational opportunities came my way, I always tied them back to that early sense of calling when I was eighteen years old. That has become the filter in which most (if not all) major life’s decisions go through.

Over time I have read a lot and have learned to hopefully refine my own language in addressing this topic. Early on I learned to differentiate between vocation and occupation. According to Dictionary.com, vocation can be defined as “a divine call to God’s service or to the Christian life.” This then is the vocation of all Christians. In contrast, occupation is “a person’s usual or principal work or business, especially as a means of earning a living.” The struggle comes when we confuse these very similar terms. While similar they are distinct. Not only that, but the outcome of how we use these terms has enormous ramifications. Here is how I have learned to distinguish the two so they are complementary (and concise in my own mind).

“As believers we have to differentiate how we make a living and our life. How we make a living can change ... My life is not how I make a living, my life is being a born again as a son of Jesus.” - Dhati Lewis

My vocation is what God has called me to do ... missions, ministry, service, etc (however we phrase things as time passes and buzzwords come and go). That has not changed nor will it ever. I have thrown my whole lot in life into this deep sense of calling. It has shaped and defined who I am and even what I do. However, what has changed and is fluid is my occupation... how I “earn a living.” That has changed and has been in flux since coming to faith in Christ. While in college as I was studying, training, and being equipped for a life (occupation) of ministry service I had a lot of jobs... working in the college kitchen, landscaping, sales clerk at a bookstore, etc. My occupation was a moving target, but my vocation never changed.

Not every Christian needs to, nor should, live out their vocation in full-time “Christian ministry.” For most, it is about living out this shared vocation in whatever occupations they are best wired, gifted, and suited for. We’re all called to give our life to Christian full-time service, but that doesn’t mean a full-time job or occupation. Also, one isn’t better or more superior than the other. This also doesn’t dismiss the deep work of God in our lives in terms of who we are, how we’re wired, what we’re passionate about, and gifted at. Some writers have even referred to those as “secondary callings.” Meaning, beyond all of our primary shared calling, the second has to do with how we live that out in the world. In light of that, more than anything we’re playing a game of semantics.

With that in mind when we use the term "bi-vocational" it connotes a fracturing of focus. A split. However, what if instead we use the term "bi-occupational" which is more to the point? One calling, one vocation, but different occupations or jobs that carry us along. Even now I'd classify myself as "tri-occupational" and have had up to 7 jobs before at once (hepta-occupational?). We need a word change. For many, bi-vocationalism is a dirty word because it means they can't do ministry full-time and are working some lousy job until they can. In that regards the term is unhealthy. However, if we reframe it instead under the umbrella of bi-occupationalism doing so begins altering our categories, and even frees us up to love and pursue jobs that (a) we love and are gifted at; which (b) allows us to lean into our primary calling to Christ.

Sean Beneshbivo, ministry