Three Bi-vocational Pastors

Bishop Mike Rinehart

What is it like to be a bi-vocational pastor? What is it like to work a job during the week and serve a congregation on the weekends? How does one handle midweek church responsibilities? Funerals? Hospital calls? In this article we’ll talk to bi-vocational pastors to hear what it is like to be in their world.

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a number of bi-vocational pastors over the years. Some call themselves “tentmakers” after the apostle Paul; others call themselves worker-priests. Here in the Gulf Coast, with urbanization, rural and small town congregations have been shrinking. Eighty-eight percent of Texans live in metropolitan areas, 75% of Louisianans. Many small congregations cannot afford a full-time pastor with benefits. Is our only model of ministry a congregation of 100+ served by a full-time pastor with dental? What models do we have for congregations of 25 or 50?

Bi-vocational pastors are more common in other denominations than they are in the ELCA. Seventy-five percent of Baptist churches have fewer than 100 people on Sunday mornings; many of these pastors are bi-vocational. The Nazarene Church says about 40% of their ministers are bi-vocational. The Pentecostal churches also report a number of their pastors working outside of the ministry due to declining attendance.

Many congregations need the tithes of a congregation with 100 on an average Sunday to sustain the salary of a full-time pastor, along with other expenses. Congregations with 50 in worship often have a part-time pastor that serves another congregation or works another job. A small congregation can be an excellent place to raise children. Why should they close? Bi-vocational pastors provide an opportunity for the small congregation to make ends meet and do ministry in the community.

During the fastest period of growth of the church in history, the early church, congregations met in homes. Fifty would have been a large congregation. Small congregations are awesome, but 25 people might struggle to sustain the salary of a full-time pastor. (Although, it has been pointed out to me that ten tithing families can support the salary of a full-time pastor at the average income level of the community.)

I thought it might be interesting to share the stories of a few bi-vocational pastors. I chose three people in three very different settings. One is in a very small town, one is coastal, and the other is suburban (or rather ex-urban). Two are Lutheran; one is Baptist.

Bi-vocational pastors are no panacea for the church, but they do represent a long-standing tradition in the church dating back to Paul himself, who made tents for a living. Paul chose not to take a stipend or salary from the congregations he served, but he made it clear that it was perfectly appropriate to do so. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul makes an extended, impassioned argument for elders/pastors/apostles receiving their living from the flock, and then he makes it clear that he chooses to not receive such income, even though it is his right:

Who at any time pays the expenses for doing military service? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk?

Do I say this on human authority? Does not the law also say the same? For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was indeed written for our sake, for whoever plows should plow in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop. If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we still more?

Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is sacrificed on the altar? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.

But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in my case. Indeed, I would rather die than that—no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting! If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

Paul doesn’t make his living off his congregations, but he argues vigorously for the right of others to do so. “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?” (9:11) “… the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (9:14) “…but I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in my case.” (9:15) “…in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.” (9:18) Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher. (Galatians 6:6)

It appears that Paul might have received some support from the congregation at Philippi. He receives it graciously, but then lets them know he has enough, thank you.

Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need. Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.

With that, let’s launch into some interviews with modern-day bi-vocational pastors.

Pastor (ELCA) at Light of Christ Lutheran in La Porte, Texas

Gary Morgan Gohlke.pngMike Rinehart: Where did you grow up?
Gary Morgan-Gohlke: I spent the first 5 years of my life in Canada, and the second ten in Portugal. My parents taught on military bases. We spent winters in Canada, and summers visiting family in Texas. Ten years in the Azores Islands, smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, on a U.S. military base. Then we spent ten years in Illinois, for high school and college. I went the University of Champaign-Urbana. Mike Coffey and I were classmates. I majored in family studies, and then did a Master in Social Work.

MR: What led you to seminary?
GMG: My pastors in high school talked to me about being a pastor one time on a trip home from a leadership camp. I was diverted from a life of engineering to a life of ministry that includes some engineering with my bi-vocational job.

MR: Where did you go to seminary?
GMG: Berkeley. [Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley (San Francisco, California)]

MR: Why Berkeley?
GMG: I had met some of the faculty and the president, in 1984, when I attended the Lutheran World Federation Assembly in Budapest, Hungary.

MR: Wow, you went to an LWF assembly? How were you chosen?
GMG: I was on the national board of Luther League District Presidents. I was selected from the old ALC. I think Daryl Koenig recommended me.

I also wanted to go to Berkeley because it doesn’t snow. You know, that’s our only seminary where it doesn’t snow. I was also interested in urban and multicultural ministry, rather than the Lutheran areas of the Midwest.

MR: Where was your first call?
GMG: Internship in Southern Brazil. It was an exchange program, 15 months in Brazil. So I speak Portuguese with a Brazilian accent, not a continental one. This helped me to finally learn Portuguese well.

My first call was at St. John Lutheran in Bishop, Texas, down in Corpus Christi. Seven years. Then two years on leave from call to sail the Caribbean with my wife and kids.

MR: How did you afford this?
GMG: Savings. We prepared for this.

MR: Then what did you do when you returned?
GMG: I was an associate pastor for three years at Palm Valley Lutheran in Round Rock, and then three years as the pastor of Memorial Drive Lutheran.

MR: What happened next, after MDLC?
GMG: After two difficult calls in a row, I felt life was too short to live that way. I’m a lover, not a fighter. That’s the way I want my relationship with my congregation to be. After two calls, I was feeling fairly disillusioned about how the church game is played, so I decided not to be dealt in on the next hand. I still felt a strong call to ministry, but was not prepared to serve a congregation full time again. I was tired of conflict and unhealthy dynamics.

With support from the synod, Carol and I did a mid-career retooling track at the Ministry Development Center of the Southwest. I was in my mid-40s. This helped me think about the next 40 years. There was great freedom in having this conversation out loud. I wasn’t ready to leave the ministry entirely, though my wife was ready for that. I felt some guilt about leaving the ministry. People told me, “Please don’t leave the ministry. You have gifts for that.” I don’t think I could live with myself if I had walked away.

God had a plan and found a place for me Light of Christ Lutheran in La Porte, Texas, at a time when I wasn’t looking.

MR: In terms of making a living, what did you do?
GMG: Within three months of leaving MDLC I started my own business, GMG Marine Services.

MR: Why that? In terms of all the things you could possibly do?
GMG: Interestingly enough, when I was at Palm Valley in an associates’ position that had a revolving door, I was getting at the end of my rope and was depressed. I took out a piece of paper and wrote down, “Things I Could Do For a Living.” Pros vs. Cons. Stay vs. Look for another call in August vs. Look for another call in another synod. Go to work for Thrivent. Dust off my MSW and go to work for LSS. Move to a new area and start a new business. I was sure I could make money fixing boats. I realized, you know what? That’s always been in the back of my mind.

MR: What led you to believe you could make a living fixing boats?
GMG: I’ve always been a good mechanic and carpenter. I had fixed up a boat. How does one go sailing for two years? One doesn’t go and buy a $200,000 yacht. When my brother David went on his six-year sailing trip, I came and helped him. Another contractor said he thought the work was so good he would hire me. This made me think.

I thought about going to work for another company. Some friends told me, don’t go work for another company; start your own business. We’ll coach you.

My business model is super simple. Instead of working for somebody else making $25/hour, I work for myself and make $80/hour.

MR: Was it a tough transition?
GMG: It was, because I didn’t have any customers. It was a great faith experience. I had to walk by faith. My theme Bible story for my business is the manna in the wilderness study. As soon as I finish working on a boat for a customer, I’m unemployed, until my phone rings again. It does take faith. God makes the manna fall in the morning. There’s nothing I can do but be ready to go out when it arrives.

Once the ball got rolling, the business came rolling in.

MR: How did you get started with Light of Christ in La Porte?
GMG: I started off as Sunday supply pastor. I had been supplying at other places. There were about 12 people in worship. After one month, I asked them: “I’ve been getting requests to serve other congregations during the summer. Should I accept these requests, or should I plan on being here?” They said, “Keep your calendar clear and keep coming here for as long as you can.” So, for the next three years, I basically did pulpit supply. But I got more and more involved. I functioned as the only pastor.

It was after three years that we regularized that as a quarter-time call.

MR: So, you’re fixing boats during the week and serving the church on the weekends?
GMG: Thursday night is Bible study, worship, and dinner. Thursday and Sunday are kind of my main days.

MR: Balance the incidental stuff, like funerals and hospital calls?
GMG: That’s the beauty of having my own business. I set my own schedule. Most of the time I’m not on a pressing timeline. I fix people’s toys. I ask people, “Is next week good enough?” If next week I have a memorial service, I just don’t schedule any boat work on that day. People don’t know what I’m doing.

MR: So, you don’t tell people what you do?
GMG: Some people know I’m a pastor, most don’t. I do try to maintain some level of boundary there. Different people have different reactions to the church. I don’t want to do business just because I’m a Christian. I don’t advertise: “Hire me. I’m a pastor. I’m honest.” I keep my business as my business. I’ve worked for some people for years that don’t know I’m a pastor. Sometimes I reveal it. Some people are surprised. Often times they ask you theological questions. They want you to fix their marriage. They want to complain about their pastor.

I do a lot of ministry in my daily work with my boat customers in the same way that a layperson, just being a good Christian businessperson, is going to be responsive to people and bless people.

MR: What might other pastors want to know about being bi-vocational?
GMG: Pastors ask me, does the church really allow you the time you need to work? Thing is, my schedule is flexible. And with some pastors who go to part time and take on another job, a lot of times the workload doesn’t decrease with the salary. My congregation places very few expectations upon me. They almost never say, “You know what you should really be doing pastor?” Usually it’s, “We saw something that needed to be done, so we took care of it.”

MR: What’s your average worship attendance?
GMG: 50-ish? The numbers are stable, but the faces aren’t. There’s a lot of transition. It’s not a revolving door situation, but a function of poverty. A lot of people are passing through or holding on. Christmas Eve we saw more people in the building than ever. One hundred and twenty for dinner and worship afterwards; twenty children and adults participated in a play. Fewer than 15 of those faces were new to me.

MR: Tell me more about your congregation and context.
GMG: Light of Christ is a congregation that 17 years ago transitioned from a shrinking, white, middle-class congregation to a diverse congregation serving primarily people who are poor and some in alcohol and drug rehab. About half of our members are in recovery. We have numerous AA meetings within the week. Those function independently of the congregation, although they include lots of people from within the congregation.

MR: How did this come to be?
GMG: The former pastor, Karen Wilhelm got that going. She planted the seeds. I have the easy work of watering. That was already part of the spirituality of the congregation when I arrived. There is so much healthy spirituality that comes out of the recovery movement. It’s so refreshing to have leaders that are so spiritually mature, and that comes out of the AA program. That’s what makes my life easier too. They don’t brag a lot. That’s not who they are as human beings.

Our two primary outreach communities are the food pantry that feeds 300 individuals a month and the six-bed ¾-way house for women coming out inpatient rehab centers. It’s across the street from the church. It’s separately incorporated, but we own it and run it. It doesn’t generate income, but it pays for itself. A woman will come and stay for 2-3 months, connect with us and stay for a while. AA people will work at the food pantry as a part of their community service if they have a DUI, and they wind up getting connected to the worshipping congregation. The food pantry and ¾-way house are more integrated into the life of the congregation than you usually see.

MR: Does your church need to have a bi-vocational pastor?
GMG: Every penny given in our offering plates is the widow’s mite. This congregation couldn’t afford a full-time pastor. I take home $1,000/month. The general congregational budget is right at $40,000/year.

MR: So, a congregation like this couldn’t exist if we had only a full-time pastor model for ministry?
GMG: Now related to that is, years ago, I couldn’t do what I’m doing now, for financial reasons. I needed a full time call, and even when I got it we lived frugally. My wife has a full-time job with benefits, so we can do this. We tend to live pretty modestly.

MR: Does the church need bi-vocational pastors?
GMG: One of the things I find most interesting is I spend most of my week looking and feeling like a layperson. I have to get up in the morning and make a living like they do. I struggle with what they struggle with: what it’s like to live your faith in the world every day. Once you become a pastor, you’re surrounded by church people all the time. My work gives me a connection to what most people’s lives look like. I get to be a regular guy most of the time.

The other thing is, because I make the majority of my income doing something other than ministry, one of realities is the congregation doesn’t stress over finances. They don’t stress. I don’t stress. It’s not my problem to solve. If the congregation is broke, I don’t stress about it at night when I’m trying to fall asleep. I feel for our colleagues who are in shrinking congregations… and they’re barely making enough to get by. They carry the anxiety at a personal level. This makes it easier to love this church, because it’s not that kind of relationship where I’m depending on them for my daily income. Ministry is a lot more fun if you don’t have to worry about your paycheck.

MR: What’s the hardest part?
GMG: There’s so much that’s so good and so healthy that I’m super, super grateful. One thing that is not hard for example is this: Because I make decent money in my business, I made a decision not to monetize my entire life. For example, when we’re done talking I don’t think, that talk cost me $80. I could have been working on a boat. I don’t have any resentment about that. That being said, I do have to balance the commitments I make. Tomorrow I have our clergy study group. The theological conference is coming up. I’ll be gone two or three days for that. Every time I’m doing that, I’m not doing my primary job.

MR: If you could be full time at Light of Christ, would you?
GMG: No. Interestingly, I’ve thought about that from time to time. If a local congregation wanted to interview me, would I shutter my business and go into full-time ministry? No. I appreciate the spiritual health, the freedom, and so on. I’m so happy with what I have; I wouldn’t trade it. And I certainly wouldn’t move across the country to pastor a group of strangers. I’m past that at this point.

MR: Do you ever think about Paul as a tentmaker when you’re reading the epistles?
GMG: Yeah, but not in a conscious way like that. We share our building with two other congregations – small African-American congregation with fewer than ten people. Pastor Scott is a City Inspector. He’s bi-vocational too. A Spanish-speaking Pentecostal congregation also worships here. Sister Flo is also bi-vocational. I don’t have to go back to Paul to find examples. There are plenty of non-mainstream, non-white middle class congregations with bi-vocational pastors.

MR: Thanks for your time.
GMG: You’ve journeyed with me for the last 10 years. I’m just super grateful for this experience. I like to share the story. I like my life and I like my work.

Pastor at Lake Church in Conroe, Texas

joel-and-melinda-wilsonMike Rinehart: Where did you go to seminary Joel?
Joel Wilson: Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

MR: What took you to Southwestern?
JW: Southwestern was the most well known seminary in the Baptist church at the time. It was the largest theological seminary in the world. I mean, not huge, I’m talking about 6,000-8,000 students in the 80’s. I went to Southwestern because I had always admired the professors at that seminary.

MR: Wow. That’s ten times the size of our largest seminary. Where did you grow up?
JW: Tennessee, Knoxville area.

MR: How did you sense your call?
JW: I grew up in a Christian home. I was the kind of kid that people always said to, “You’re going to make a good little preacher some day.” In time I embraced that. It got old after a while. I don’t know, but God gave me some gifts for the ministry.

MR: Could you not hear it for a while because you heard it so often you tuned it out?
JW: I guess so. I think I was groomed for the ministry. I didn’t grow up in a minister’s home; we were just extremely active in church. It seemed like the natural thing to do. I went to East Tennessee. I was an education major. I knew I was called to ministry. I took a year off and taught school. Then I pursued seminary.

MR: So how did you end up in Texas?
JW: I graduated from Southwestern in 1990. A friend of me introduced me to Melinda and we got married. She grew up in Spring Branch, though they moved around a lot. I married a Texan, so…

MR: How does placement work in Baptist polity? When you graduated from seminary, what happened then?
JW: Well, the SBC emphasizes the autonomy of each individual church. So it’s really up to you to hustle. You get your résumé ready. They help you do that. There weren’t the online services that we have today. I was sending résumés to Baptist Associations – the Director of Mission, who leads the association. Then we have a state convention and a national convention. It’s like an upside down pyramid. The associations exist for the churches. The churches don’t exist for the associations.

The association would send my résumé to churches searching. A lot of it happens by word of mouth. I graduated in May of 1990. I didn’t receive a call until October. I waited a few months, and then all of a sudden I had three churches call me. I got married in the middle of seminary, but didn’t have kids yet. Of the three churches interested in me, we felt a leaning to one church in particular.

MR: How many churches did you serve before ending up where you are now?
Before seminary I was on staff at a small country Baptist church in east Tennessee. And then one during seminary, one after seminary, then I came to Texas and served as an associate pastor at a church in Alvin. The church I serve now in Conroe is not the church I came here to pastor. So that would be five.

MR: So these churches where you started out, were these full-time gigs with benefits and so forth?
First church was part-time. I was also teaching and coaching.

MR: So you were bi-vocational then.
JW: Yes, I guess so.

MR: So, why bi-vocational?
Well, I felt led to plant a church almost 15 years ago, and when we planted the church I walked away from a full-time income. I walked away from benefits and a full-time salary. I had to make ends meet. There was a member of the church who was an insurance adjuster, so I asked about it. I took the test, and in 2005, just a little bit before Hurricane Katrina, I became an insurance adjuster. I cut my teeth on Katrina.

What was interesting is, this was the busiest season I would ever have. I took off to Meridian, Mississippi and did claims for two weeks. Then there was Hurricane Rita. With Rita, I slept in my own bed and drove out there when I needed to. During that time, I only missed two Sundays. Lately, we haven’t had that luxury. In 2012, I ended up in New Jersey for six weeks to do Sandy claims.

MR: What does the church do when you are gone?
JW: I had a youth minister. He preached for me.

MR: Can he do baptisms?
JW: Yes.

MR: Can anyone do baptisms?
JW: Yes. Our philosophy is that it is the church that baptizes, not the individual. So if someone’s daughter wants to get baptized, we give the dad the option to baptize her. Most don’t do it, but we give them the option.

MR: So you went from full time at Honea Baptist to a full-time insurance adjuster?
JW: It took a little bit, but eventually I had daily work.

MR: I have a friend who says there’s not part0time work in the church, just part-time pay. So is it like working two full-time jobs?
JW: He’s right, that’s true. The demands of the church do not adjust to my schedule.

MR: So if you’re off adjusting somewhere and somebody dies…
JW: I get home.

MR: So what’s the name of your church?
JW: It’s actually The Church at Lake Conroe, but we just call it Lake Church.

MR: You’ve done a good job of getting that out there. I’ve seen it.
JW: We’ve tried.

MR: I know there are no average weeks for a pastor, but what would a week, any week, pick a week, look like, in terms of sermon writing and so forth?
JW: Well, it varies. I have a template I go by, but it rarely works that way. Church days are Tuesday and Thursday. Insurance adjusting falls Monday, Wednesday and Friday and sometimes Saturday. A lot of times I’ll sit at the church and write estimates, because being available to the people is important. I try to be there in case someone comes by.

MR: So you office out of the church building?
JW: Or home or the front seat of my truck.

MR: Can I write that?
JW: Yeah, my congregation knows. I’ll cover anything from west of College Station, as far north at Lufkin and as far south as Fort Bend County, and as far east as halfway between Houston and Beaumont. I put about 4,500 miles a month on my truck. (54,000 miles/year.) So, the church is okay if I’m in a crunch and need to respond immediately to a house fire or something. I’ll put everything down and meet with the family, comfort them, and assure them I represent their insurance company.

I make it a practice to not tell people I’m a minister when I’m doing insurance. I have found a lot of people will take advantage of me if they know I’m a minister. I don’t want them to be anything but real with me. Sometimes people polish up with you when they know.

A funny story: When I first started adjusting a friend from the church asked me how I would feel when a customer cusses me out. I answered, “Well, it’s no worse than being cussed out by a church member.”

MR: Been there. Done that.
JW: There’s been a lot of flexibility with my schedule with the church. I’ve made myself available. You may get called out at 10:00 at night.

Monday is insurance day. Tuesday I have a men’s group. Wednesday is insurance day, but then Wednesday night I have church night. Thursday is a full office day at the church. That’s the day that sermon outline gets fleshed out, and I do some study. Saturday, our church has a food ministry. We provide groceries for about 450 people, twice a month. We have an affiliation with a food bank. We serve from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. They file in in their cars and we load them up. Sometimes I’m there.

My Sunday mornings start between 5:00 and 5:30 a.m. I put finishing touches on my sermon, then get ready for church and do church. So that’s pretty much it.

MR: I don’t see how you get a church off the ground with another job. My dad started a church. I saw how much work it was. I don’t know how you did it.
JW: I wasn’t bi-vocational when we first launched the church. We didn’t seek out financing from our convention. We based it on our cash flow. When you step out in faith, you see things and experience things you never could have designed. I’ll never forget the first few weeks of the church, my grandfather passed away in Florida and when I got back I was met with a bill for over $9,000 for the facility we were building. We didn’t know how we were going to come up with the money. The next Sunday we took up our first offering ever, and it was $10K. People in our launch group had been saving their tithes.

MR: Basketfuls left over.
JW: Exactly right. I didn’t set out to be bi-vocational. I went to seminary. I have my M.Div. I never intended to be bi-vocational. I always felt, though, when I was full-time that it would be good to have an outlet in the real world. In the ministry it’s not easy to be out in the real world. You put in countless hours in the church. You could be in your office studying 15 to 20 hours a week. And the people you interact with, it’s all church-related. One thing about being bi-vocational, I can tell people what it’s like to be in your world. I know what it’s like to have a supervisor breathing down your neck. I understand the daily pressures of living and working in the outside world.

Being in ministry for most of my life, I’ve known a lot of ministers that are just bellyachers. They talk about how hard they work and how tired they are. Listen, they have nothing on those people sitting in that pew… who worked just as hard or harder that week. I can say to people, “I’ve been your world this week. I know what you’ve been going through. I know your struggles.” So when I have a church member say to me, “Sorry, I couldn’t be in church today,” I understand. If I had that option… I understand why it’s hard for people to carve out a night of the week to get to a small group. I understand why it’s hard for a single mom to get her child to a youth activity. I understand they’ve left home when it’s dark, and they get home when it’s dark. I’ve lived that. It’s given me a lot grace in dealing with people. I’ve learned a lot about people. I’ve learned a lot about how things work outside the church. It’s helped me work better with people in the church.

But would I have chosen to do this? I don’t think so. Why didn’t I find a larger church that was able to pay me full time? It’s because I had a strong sense of calling to this church, and I felt that God had not released me from that. So I stayed and did what it took to make it work. Thankfully, my church is doing better financially over the last two years than it has ever done. God has blessed us with some good givers and I think for the first time in a long time, the church is prepared to make me full time again. I think within a year I’ll be full time again.

MR: Will you quit your insurance adjuster job?
JW: I will. Now, that’s a challenge. There’s no way my church can pay me what I’m making in the insurance business, but that’s okay. If the church can pay me enough to live on, I’m not worried about taking the cut in salary. I can adjust enough to make that happen. My call to ministry draws me back to that day when I can be full time in ministry again.

Young churches have a hard time making it. It’s easier for people to leave a new church because they don’t have generational roots in that church. I have found though that being bi-vocational has given me an opportunity to help my church out a bit. I like the fact that I can look back over the years and know that I have given a lot to this church. My wife and I have been top givers in the church. I don’t publicize that, but in the ministry it’s too easy to adopt the mentality that the church serves you. I don’t know how we pastors moved from serving, to being served.

Being a church-planter is like having another child. And you see that child from the day it’s born until the day God calls you from it. But Melinda and I have always said that Lake Church is our second child, because the church was planted before God gave us Lydia.

What’s interesting is, when I started insurance adjusting, no one from the church stood up and required that I reduce my salary, because it was relatively low for a full-time minister anyway. So we rocked along with me getting my full time church salary and my insurance income too. When I started doing daily insurance work, I volunteered to give back 50% of my salary back to the church.

MR: How big was the church at that time?
JW: About 75 [average Sunday worship attendance.] But I surrendered that salary without anyone else suggesting that, on my terms. That was 2011. Now the church is working towards bringing me back on full time.

MR: How big is the church now?
JW: We’re at about 100.

MR: So they can afford full time?
JW: It’s not just the size, but I think we’re drawing higher income folks.

MR: Some of our congregations share a pastor.
JW: You do what you must to keep the church together. If that means sharing a pastor, then so be it.

MR: Anything else I need to know?
JW: It might help for your bi-vocational pastors to know their struggles are common. All of us struggle with many of the same things. One of the biggest struggles is availability. We’ve been able to bring on other staff members that are part time or bi-vocational as well. We have a part-time youth minister and a part-time secretary. You could take that money and give it all to me, but you wouldn’t have, uh…

MR: A team?
JW: Exactly. ‘

One thing I have found is, sometimes your team will turn against you if you aren’t available for them like they think you should be. I had a youth minister who was part-time with another job he worked only 12 hours a week. He didn’t understand why I was less available than he was. I had a secretary who did everything in the church. She became resentful toward me because she was doing more than I was. She may have been. I was just trying to make it work. It might be good for your bi-vocational ministers to know the struggles I went through. My biggest struggle was my team not understanding why I wasn’t as available as I they thought I should be.

Another thought about bi-vocational ministry: I made a point of saying that I don’t tell people in my secular world of employment that I’m in the ministry. Where I was going with that comment was I have found that ministry happens in a minister’s life with or without a pulpit. As an insurance adjuster, I deal with a lot of hurting people. Some have just lost their home or other valuable property. I have enjoyed opportunities to share the gospel, pray with clients, and offer a listening ear not under the guise of the title of “minister.” The bi-vocational model lends itself to exemplifying ministry in the market place to your congregation. I believe a call to ministry isn’t what you do, but who you are, and it simply happens because people can sense a comfort level in opening up with someone God has put His finger on to do ministry.

Lay pastor at Agape in Cleveland, Texas


Mike Rinehart: Where did you grow up?
Dennis Shaw: Mallard Creek Area just north of Charlotte, North Carolina. It is mostly called University City because of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte (UNCC). It was all farmland and the big church for the area was Mallard Creek Presbyterian. I was Methodist but went to youth events at Mallard Creek, and even hosted youth events at our home. I am still friends with some from the community.

MR: Tell me about the work you’re doing at Agape, Cleveland.
DS: It’s probably one of the greatest adventures I’ve ever had. It’s been very rewarding.

MR: What’s it like?
DS: Well, I’ll tell you, there is no such thing as a part-time pastor. It’s like working two full-time jobs. But that’s okay because it’s so rewarding spiritually for what it does for you: being part of other people’s lives. Being a presence with them has made a difference in my life.

MR: What do you do for a living?
DS: I’ve been in the elevator business for 46 years and am about to retire. I’ve worked in field operations, management, and corporate training. At one point, I owned my own business. Nowadays I serve a mechanic, working on the elevators that people use every day. Elevator technological improvements over the last 46 years have changed the business dramatically.

MR: So you work in the elevator business on weekdays, then lead a church and study theology on the weekends.
DS: I’m done this month with two classes. I have one more class to go. If all goes well, I will graduate on May 23.

MR: Where does your church meet?
DS: We meet at the La Quinta in Cleveland. We pay $56/week for the meeting space: $50 for the room, $5 storage of our stuff, $1 tax. People can come and get breakfast. I don’t receive a salary, so this inexpensive housing arrangement has freed us up to do so much more.

MR: Like what?
DS: Like sending people on mission trips to Peru. Funds have helped to pay for my classes in the TEEM program [Theological Education for Emerging Ministries]. The church has paid 15-20% of tuition. I’m working through LSPS [The Lutheran Seminary Program of the Southwest] at Wartburg Seminary. I don’t receive a salary or mileage. I just turn in receipts for expenses for functions. If I were paid, well, it would be another way of switching money back and forth.

MR: When did you start the church?
DS: I started in 2011, at your request. We had our first meeting in August of 2011 at the Cleveland Civic Center. You convinced me to pursue a theological education and enter into candidacy. I’m jumped in with both feet. Dr. Jay Alanis said I was a good student.

MR: What other support did you have?
DS: I got some training with Pastor Robert Moore from Christ the King in Houston. He trained me in 2012 for Holy Communion. I work in Houston, so this was a good arrangement. Then 2012, I was authorized by the bishop as a Synodically Authorized Minister to preside at table and do other pastoral functions.

Pastor Lorin Darst at Grace in Conroe mentored me for my first funeral. Mr. Frank died in 2013, I believe. I’ve done one funeral. And one wedding. Don Carlson helped me with the same-sex wedding. He was at Grace Montrose at the time. Pastor Pedro Suarez did our first baptism, Shelby. I did the next baptisms in 2012. Pastor Lorin probably helped me prepare. Katherine Otts was next. We baptized six: 3 adults, 3 children.

MR: What’s your schedule like?
DS: I go to work in my elevator job at 7:00 or 7:30 a.m. in the morning. I leave the house at 5:00 a.m. and get home after 5:00 p.m. All of that will end on February 28. I’m going to retire. Most of my church work has fallen on the weekend. I do my schoolwork before 5:00 a.m. Sometimes I start at 3:00 in the morning.

Once I’m done with classes, I don’t know about ordination.

MR: A congregation will have to call you. Is Agape ready to organize? What’s the future look like?
DS: I don’t know. We have a vision of becoming a farm church. We’ve had an opportunity to buy some land, but we just can’t afford it yet. We envision a cross-shaped community house with sidewalls and garage doors – a farmers’ market. We’d like to grow produce and give food to the food banks. We’re just waiting to see what God has in store. One day at a time. It’s an adventure.

Parting is such sweet sorrow

When the call is over and God is tugging you to whatever is next

Rev. Blair Lundborg

It happens to all leaders at some point in time. You feel restless in your call. You start looking at the list of congregations in transition and wonder what it would be like to serve in any one of those congregations. You may have come to the realization that your call is over and it is time to discern where it is that God is calling you next.

pastors.pngThere are a thousand reasons we come to this conclusion. The bishop and/or a member of the staff would welcome a conversation with you about your discernment. For the purposes of this article, let’s focus on the nuts and bolts of “how.” Once you have discerned it’s time to consider another call what do I do?

Start by updating your Rostered Minister Profile (RMP). In fact, you might want to complete your RMP as a part of your discernment process. It is often helpful to do the intentional reflection required of the RMP to bring clarity to what it is that God is stirring up in you. You may discover that you are right where you need to be and those restless feelings were just that- restless feelings. But if it has been a while since you have completed your RMP it might be helpful for you to update it. Go to your ELCA community account to start the process. The RMP is completed online and at your own pace. I would be happy to help you work through the process.

Talk to your spiritual director, mentor, or a trusted colleague. In addition to talking to members of your family, my experience has been that it is always better to invite someone into the discernment process. It lends a depth and perspective that we cannot bring to the journey by ourselves. It is also hard for family to be objective. Start with a conversations with a trust friend. Or get a spiritual director.

When you are ready to open yourself up to new opportunities call the synod office and, let me or the bishop know you are ready to activate your RMP. Once activated, your RMP is visible to all 65 synod offices and those who work with the call process in those synods. You may receive calls from synods that were not among your “geographic preferences.” That is a good thing. It may be God calling you to consider something you had not even imagined. Part of the discernment process includes sorting out the difference between a geographic “restriction” and a geographic “preference.”

When the new call comes, it is just as important to end well in your current call, as it is to start strong in your next. Be intentional about your leave taking. The bishop and I will help you walk through the process, including an exit interview. As you know, leaving one call to seek another is bigger than cleaning out your desk and packing your books. It means tending to the relationships you are leaving behind, even those that have been strained. Ending well not only helps you begin strong in your next call, it helps the next rostered minister get a healthy start in the congregation you are leaving.

Prepare a letter of resignation. Have it ready to mail (or email) immediately after presenting it to the council. By the way, a letter of resignation does not need to be “accepted” or voted on by the church council. Once delivered in written form, it is complete and final. Let us pause here for a few words about writing a letter or resignation. Here are a few guiding principles:

  • Less is more. Lengthy letters of resignation tend to send confusing messages. Save the more complicated closure conversations for face-to-face meetings. Mending broken relationships is also best handled face to face rather than in a letter of resignation.
  • Be honest but kind. You may acknowledge the need to seek another call AND let the people know you will miss them too. They get it. Most everyone has experienced the joy and sorrow of leaving one thing and starting something new.
  • Do not make promises you cannot keep. You will no longer be their pastor or deacon. Your pastoral relationship will necessarily end. That does not mean all your friendships will cease, but they will look and feel different. If you acknowledge that publicly it will help you and your friends say goodbye.
  • Be specific. Let them know where you are going and when you are leaving. Give them specific dates. It helps them (and you) prepare mentally and emotionally. The ELCA Approved Constitution for Congregations calls for a 30-day notice of resignation. That is a good amount. Logistics may require you to stretch it out a bit, but anything beyond 60 days becomes too drawn out. Long good-byes can be counterproductive. It often creates a lame duck season for the outgoing leader.

Graciously accept the congregation’s offer to throw you a farewell party. It may just be cookies and coffee after your last worship service with them, but a formal gathering to say goodbye is important. It marks the end and gives people an opportunity to bring closure to the relationship.

Give yourself some time off between calls. Moving is stressful. Starting a new ministry is stressful. Give yourself enough time to catch your breath before you begin your next ministry. Your new congregation will often be anxious to get going. There may be pressure for you to start as soon as possible. Remember, they have been in transition for 9 months or longer. They are anxious to get started but waiting another week or two for their new leader to settle in is not going to make a long-term difference. Take the time.

“It’s not what we do”

Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

At the end of the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John, many disciples who had been following Jesus left him. Looking at the 12, Jesus asked, “Will you also go away?” Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:66-68). It was a kind of crisis at the beginning of the Jesus movement.

Jesus had been teaching about the gracious gift of life that comes from the Father through Christ. People were amazed by the multiplication of the loaves and fish and all of the talk about the bread of life. They wanted to know what they had to do to be doing the works of God. Jesus’ answer, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent (John 6:29),” didn’t sit well the crowd. I suspect that the most fervent among them wanted marching orders and the more careful wanted a checklist to make sure they were on track.

Questions in Scripture are fascinating: they are often more revealing than the answers. “What do we do?” “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19 :16). The people in John and the young man in Matthew wanted to know not only what they could do to save themselves, but to be assured that it was indeed in their power to save themselves.

We don’t ask different questions today. When it comes to the great metaphysical questions we ask, “How do I know? How am I sure?” It’s a hard thing to believe that it’s God’s good and gracious will that all be saved from death, and since we can’t save ourselves, God has done it through Jesus’ death and resurrection. It’s not what we do or even about that which we are certain, but what God has done, and God’s faithful and sure promise. In a recent survey of ELCA Lutherans, Kenneth Inskeep, director for research and evaluation, asked the question: “What must you do to be saved?” Fifty percent answered: “Do good works.” Fifty percent of Lutherans.

At least half of us admit that, deep down, we believe it’s still up to us. Let’s not beat ourselves up—this isn’t a Lutheran phenomenon, this is not an American phenomenon, this is not a 21st-century phenomenon—it’s a human phenomenon. We either disbelieve for joy or don’t want to give up control.

This is precisely why we need well-trained confessional, scriptural, theological, liturgical, compassionate pastors and deacons: to keep us pointed to Jesus, to the law, to the cross, to the resurrection and away from the world’s siren song of self-help, self-determination and self-righteousness.

And this is precisely why we need confessional, scriptural, theological, liturgical, compassionate laypeople: so we “… fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn it” (Martin Luther’s Small Catechism).

Two major initiatives requested by the ELCA Church Council and informed by your input have come to the same conclusion. The Theological Education Advisory Council and the Called Forward Together in Christ process both lifted up the importance of well-formed lay, consecrated and ordained leadership. We must keep the saving gospel of judgment and promise as our foundation and future.

This is the work of the entire church. It’s not up to the seminaries to identify and recruit pastors and deacons, nor is it the exclusive province of the ordained and consecrated to be grounded in the word. Start looking at fourth- and fifth-graders in your congregation. Support church camps, Lutheran campus ministries, and Lutheran colleges, universities and seminaries. Encourage Young Adults in Global Mission.

We’ve received a $3 million gift to the ELCA Fund for Leaders, which will provide full tuition scholarships for up to 60 additional students over the next three years. This is just one part of a multifaceted leadership initiative that we are launching now. When people ask how the ELCA can be relevant, I answer: only if we are sure that our hope is in the living Christ and only if we share that with the joy of the gospel.


A monthly message from the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This column originally appeared in Living Lutheran’s February issue. Reprinted with permission.

A New Outlook on Stewardship

Rev. Chris Markert

As we settle into 2017, it is a good time to re-think what stewardship means:

  • Instead of thinking of stewardship as paying the bills, think of it as loving God and your neighbor.
  • Instead of asking “How much of what is mine should I give away?” ask, “How much of what is God’s should I keep for myself?
  • Instead of being stuck in a spirituality of scarcity (“There’s not enough”), be open to a spirituality of abundance (“God provides generously”).

seedling.pngA different approach to congregational stewardship is to not think of it as primarily paying the church’s bills. Instead, think of stewardship as how the people of God can together do God’s work for the sake of the world. In the end, stewardship is related to the process of growing as passionate followers of Jesus. It is no longer about the congregation’s need for money, but about the new freedom we have in Christ to be generous with everything God has given us. Stewardship is a way of life.

Looking to help your congregational leaders grow in their understanding of stewardship in 2017? Check out these resources or contact your synod mission catalyst:

(Adapted from the ELCA resource “Stewards of God’s Love”)

Children Without Placement Initiative

“We believe that every child should have a home, and it is our duty to work towards no child spending the night at an office.”

There is a strong desire to reduce the number of kids sleeping in DFPS offices and hotels. Faith-based organizations are asked to consider developing new relationships to provide temporary spaces for kids.

Children without Placement Initiative.pngAre you interested and able to provide temporary housing for children between placements?

A temporary home-type space is a place that CPS can turn to while they continue working on find a stable, long-term placement for youth in care. The youth who come into care after removals need to have a safe, comfortable environment. Although offices are safe, they are not comfortable and can further increase a child’s suffering after removal. As capacity increases across the state, it is important to continue to find and provide home-like environment for children through a lapse in placement.

Major points to consider:

  • A minimum of two people needs to stay with child(ren) during the night. (1 worker must be a CPS casework and the same sex of the child)
    • If community partners would like to provide more volunteers, those volunteers require a background check on file.
  • Both staff must remain awake during their shift.

More information is available in the memorandum of understanding (MOU) developed by legal and the Office of Volunteer and Community Engagement to outline responsibilities with community partners.


Worship through the Windows: Meet Ralf & Carolyn Thiemer

Liz Johnson, Gift Planner

Ralf and Carolyn Thiemer.pngOne of the distinctive art forms you would immediately notice visiting Emmanuel in Greenvine, Texas are the intricate stained glass windows. Both sides of the church are graced with images of God’s love through Christ and God’s resurrection power throughout the ages.

The story of the windows’ creation is one of commitment to the church, dedication to a project, and a calling of God. Carolyn had once dabbled in a small stained glass project, but never considered herself a “glass artist.” Her husband, Ralf, had never attempted any stained glass work at all. However, sometimes a calling can be as simple as an opportunity.

An opportunity presented itself to Carolyn and Ralf in the form of a window at the church that needed repair. They made a companion piece for the Narthex of the church with the repaired and matched window. Though hesitant, the couple decided to try to create more and began with a window in the interior of the church sanctuary. After the first was installed, the scope of the project became clear. Each new window created momentum for the next. This was positively exciting for the congregation.

The church members began to dream in greater perspectives. One family, then the next, offered to pay for an entire window, if the couple would produce others for the sanctuary of the church. Working one window at a time, the effort to complete all 20 windows soon became an obsession. Sometimes Carolyn and Ralf would work almost non-stop within a day to see some progress, getting up the next morning to begin again. The windows took over their lives through a labor of love for the church and congregation. Other factors such as retirement events, meals, and rest became less and less important as the Lord empowered them with a strong motivation for the completion of this mammoth undertaking. When friends came over, it was clear the window project for Emmanuel was the priority in their lives during that eighteen-month period of time in 2009.

The 20 windows are 30 by 50 inches in size with designs that vary from symbols of faith to key scenes from the life of Jesus. The designs came from inspiration and through different sources, as they were needed for the next window. Although the concepts depicted are varied, they all fit together to convey the depth and breadth of God’s love for all.

Now that the project is completed, Carolyn and Ralf find it difficult to believe they started and completed the project alone. Of course, they know they were never alone. All along the way, the Lord was their source, the congregation was their encouragement, and the church was their commitment. Those who enjoy the windows and revel in the gifts they represent will always be grateful that the Thierners were called to worship God through the creation of stained-glass windows.

A More Meaningful Lent

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
– Isaiah 6-7

This season of Lent is a time of prayer, fasting, and reflection in preparation for the feast of Easter. The words of the prophet Isaiah remind us that our fasting should connect deeply to meaningful changes in the way we live our daily lives and the way we see our world.

As we journey through these 40 days of Lent, the synod’s Lutherans Restoring Creation Team invites you to a more meaningful Lent, one in which you consider God’s good creation and your place in it. We suggest the use of the weekly (Ash Wednesday – Holy Week) online resource, Lent 4.2. This resource offers reflection, prayer, and actions to take, for both inward and outward change in our lives. As a fast, we offer two suggestions: a Lenten carbon fast or going meatless one or more days/week (see some vegetarian recipes here). May you have a very meaningful Lent.

Faith Leaders of Tomorrow: Meet Colt Wilson

Liz Johnson, Gift Planner

Colt.pngColt is a mild-mannered, quiet gentleman and a friend to all. It would be easy to pick him out of a high school crowd. Rather than socializing with youth his own age, one would most likely find him with his family, especially his Grandmother Martha and Grandfather Mark. Numerous people from the church state that Colt is dear to them, and they pray he achieves his goals in life because he has made time for others along the way. Some of these people cannot wait to sit alongside him during fellowship time.

Outside of school, he is a Dallas Cowboy fan. He loves to fish, hunt, and, on occasion, travel. In his high school at Caldwell, Texas, he is the squad leader for the percussion cymbal line. He enjoys playing and dancing with his cymbals. Colt enjoys his Pre-Advance Placement Physics class along with English. School is good, but his passion is serving the church.

He began to realize this passion about six years ago when he spoke at his Papa Dennis’ funeral. Speaking from the heart, Colt shared about how much his grandfather’s love meant to him. His Papa had always been an inspiration to his life; in fact, his Papa and Grandma Sherrie raised him along with his mother, Jamie. Colt learned to rely on others—but especially, he relied on the Lord. At age 9 he was baptized with his family by his side and had his first communion at 11. Then he was confirmed at 13. He attended Camp Lutherhill twice and really enjoys group campouts. He re-dedicated his life at 17 to the Lord he loves so much, and hopes that he can continue to spread the word while he is in the military. Colt graduates from high school in the spring of 2017. After school he plans to enter college with a long-term goal for a degree in theology.

Currently he serves as an assistant minister at the Elizabeth Lutheran in Caldwell, Texas, under his mentor Pastor Brunk. “If it wasn’t for the Lord and my family, I don’t know where I would be,” Colt states. Colt is assured and confident when he says, “With the Lord My God at my side, I would not fear to talk to anyone in need, even if we shall disagree with religious views.”

Creation Care Tips from the Synod Lutherans Restoring Creation Team

Lisa Brenskelle

Lutherans Restoring CreationThe mission of Lutherans Restoring Creation is to promote incorporation of care for creation into the full life and mission of the church, working in five areas: worship, education, discipleship, building & grounds, and public ministry/advocacy. For some timely tips in these areas, see below:

For more information and assistance on creation care, please contact Lisa Brenskelle of Lutherans Restoring Creation.

Immigrants & Refugees in the Bible

Bishop Mike Rinehart

The concept of the non-citizen living among us is huge in the Bible; its importance cannot possibly be underestimated. Furthermore, there are very clear guidelines on the treatment of these immigrants.

welcoming-immigrantsWhy is Jesus so concerned about strangers? Is it because he is immersed in the Scriptures? Is it because he himself was once a stranger in a foreign land? Is it because he feels like a visitor in this world?

The NRSV and NIV English Bibles do not use the words “immigrant,” “migrant,” or “sojourner.” The NRSV uses “alien” the most, but also “foreigner” and “stranger.” Combined, the NRSV uses these terms 232 times. The NIV prefers “foreigner,” using it 146 times, but also “stranger” and “alien.”

The Hebrew word for stranger is ger. The Greek word is xenos.

Abraham & Sarah are Immigrants

The first appearance of the word ger is in Genesis 12. A 25-year-old Abram, along with his wife Sarah and brother Lot, leave their family, home (Haran), and country (Ur), and move to Canaan. By verse ten, a famine causes them to travel to Egypt. The NRSV renders Genesis 12:10 as, “Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land.”

The words “alien” and “stranger” are mentioned many times in Genesis alone (12:10, 15:13, 18:8, 19:9, 20:1, 21:23, 21:34, 23:4, 26:3, 28:4, 32:4, 35:27, 37:1, 42:7, 47:4).

In Genesis 20:1, we are told that Abraham and Sarah reside at Gerar. The name of the city having the root word for immigrant in it makes it likely that this was a community of immigrants.

Genesis 21:34 says,

Abraham resided as an alien many days in the land of the Philistines.

If we translate ger as “immigrant,” the text reads as follows:

Abraham resided as an immigrant many days in the land of the Philistines.

This would be the most accurate translation given our common use of terms today.

Abram is a ger. He is an immigrant. His entire identity is wrapped up in this.

The Israelites, Immigrants, & the Law

In Genesis 15:13 Abraham is told,

Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years…”

Abraham is told that his offspring will be enslaved aliens in Egypt For 400 years. The Israelites are immigrants. They are considered immigrants in Egypt, they will be immigrants in the wilderness, and they will be considered immigrants in Canaan, the promised land. In time, they come to possess the land. If you are born in a country, you are not an immigrant.

Because Abraham and the Israelites are immigrants, it should come as no surprise to us that immigrants hold a special place in the law.

Exodus 22:21 says:

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:34 makes it clear that immigrants are special. Because the Israelites were once immigrants in the land of Egypt, they are to keep a special place in their heart for immigrants:

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

In Leviticus 19:10, citizens are told not to go back through their fields to glean what they missed. They are to leave food for the poor and for immigrants:

You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

In fact, they are to intentionally leave an unharvested perimeter around their fields, expressly for the immigrants. Lev. 23:22:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.

Immigrants are to be allowed to live on your land, because it is God’s land. There’s an interesting passage in Leviticus 25:35 that shows, inadvertently, the special status of immigrants in Hebrew law:

If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens.

It is a testament to the special treatment of immigrants that the Israelites have to be told to treat their relatives as well as the treat immigrants, by allowing them to come and live with them on their land.

The alien is often part of a frequently mentioned triad: the alien, the orphan, and the widow. God has a special concern for these three groups of people. Deuteronomy. 24:17, 10-21 offers these provisions:

You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge.

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.

When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.

When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.

Deuteronomy 26:12-13 says,

When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, then you shall say before the Lord your God: “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments…

In Psalm 94 (3-6) the wicked are those who do not care for the orphan, widow and alien:

O Lord, how long shall the wicked,
how long shall the wicked exult?
They pour out their arrogant words;
all the evildoers boast.
They crush your people, O Lord,
and afflict your heritage.
They kill the widow and the stranger,
they murder the orphan,

God cares about women, children, and aliens, the most vulnerable people in society.

The aliens are given special concern, but there are no special laws for aliens. Exodus 12:49 says,

There shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you.

Immigrants are expected to obey the laws of the land and are subject to the same penalties as citizens. There are to be no distinctions legally between citizens and immigrants. Immigrants are not deported for breaking the law; they simply must be subjected to the same penalties, including the death penalty when it is called for.

The Prophet’s Call for Protection for Immigrants

Given the prominent place the treatment of immigrants has in the law, one can predict the witness of the Hebrew prophets. Consider Jeremiah 7:5–7:

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.

Jeremiah says to the King of Judah (22:1-5):

Thus says the Lord: Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word, and say: Hear the word of the Lord, O King of Judah sitting on the throne of David—you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their servants, and their people. But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the Lord, that this house shall become desolation.

Land is to be shared. Ezekiel 47:22-23:

You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who reside among you and have begotten children among you. They shall be to you as citizens of Israel; with you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe aliens reside, there you shall assign them their inheritance, says the Lord God.

Zechariah 7:8-10:

The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying: Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.

Immigrants take priority even to the last book of the Hebrew Bible. Malachi 3:5 says:

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

This may seem like a growing list of quotes, but this is only a small sample of the many passages.

Immigrants & Refugees in the New Testament

In the opening chapters of the New Testament, Mary, Joseph, and their child Jesus become refugees. In Matthew 2, Herod’s violent persecution causes them to flee into Egypt. It is not until after the death of Herod that they return. Like many refugees today, Jesus and his family had to leave their country because it was not safe.

In Luke’s infancy narrative, Mary and Joseph are not immigrants, but they are strangers. Mary is so pregnant she is about to burst. They desperately need a place to stay, but there is no room in the inn. This represents a subtle message about the hospitality Jesus himself encountered.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story about the end of time. The Son of God divides the nations into sheep and goats. The sheep on the right inherit the kingdom, while the goats on the left are cast into the eternal fire. What determines who is who? Jesus says,

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my God, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Preachers tend to treat this text often focus on feeding the hungry and visiting the sick, but miss one of the most critical themes of the Old Testament: welcoming strangers (xenoi).

Jesus’s concern about strangers pervades his teaching. He tells the story of a Samaritan foreigner who renders aid to a stranger who has been beaten by thieves and left for dead along the road. The teachers not only love for the stranger but also even love for the enemy, the hostile stranger. Matthew 6:46–47:

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

Hospitality to strangers is a sacred duty. It is serious business for Jesus.

Theoxany: Antiquity is filled with stories of divine visitors who come in disguised as strangers (xenoi) to see how they will be treated by mortals. For example, Zeus and Hermes tested a village’s practice of hospitality. Those who received them were rewarded. Those who did not were punished. Genesis 19 and Judges 19 are of this genre. Theoxany came to mean treating all strangers as divine, just in case they were. It was a mythological way of expressing the importance of hospitality.

Hebrews 13:2 says,

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

Don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers. You might be entertaining Angels or even perhaps Jesus himself. We are encouraged to view strangers as divine visitors. How you treat strangers says something about your character and your internal moral compass.


The treatment of strangers in general, and immigrants in particular, is hardly a minor theme in the Bible. It is woven throughout, from the beginning of the Bible to the end, as a sacred duty.

It would be absurd to assume that the letter of the Old Testament law should be applied as is today, but the spirit of the law is crystal clear. God loves immigrants. God cares for the most vulnerable. This care is central to the Judeo-Christian ethic.

We can support this moral imperative personally and socially. Socially you can advocate for laws that treat immigrants justly. The vast majority of immigrants come into the country legally, seeking a new life, fleeing violence, or poverty. Many are kept out because of visa backlogs and draconian laws. Others are forced to leave when their visas expire. Support laws that welcome immigrants and refugees with no criminal record. Hire immigrants. Be kind.

Dispel the myths that people pass around about immigrants. Immigrants have a lower incidence of crime. They are hard working. They start new businesses that create jobs. They pay taxes. Correct the fiction. Join a synod team that works to share information and work for change.

learn-more-about-refugeesOn a personal level, there are many things you can do. Adopt a refugee. The world is in a refugee crisis right now. There are more displaced people than there have been in the world since World War II. People tend to be afraid of anything they don’t know or understand. Be a Good Samaritan. Reach out to the stranger in the ditch. Contact Refugee Services of Texas or Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and ask how you can help.

free-wheels-houstonDonate a bike. Christ the King church member Bill Mintz started a non-profit that fixes up bikes and gives them to refugees – Free Wheels Houston. Got a bike you’re not using?

Engage in the spiritual practice of hospitality by welcoming strangers into your home. Befriend an immigrant. Invite them for dinner. Tell your stories and share your faith. Listen to their stories and try to understand their faith. You will be blessed in ways that you cannot imagine. You may entertain angels unaware.