(1)After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. (2)There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, (3) and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them (Acts 18:1-3, NIV).
I am a bi-vocational associate pastor, university mathematics professor, and founder of a ministry initiative to serve unseen leaders. I serve at a Pacific Coast Japanese Conference church in Costa Mesa, California, and I teach at a California State University campus. I love God’s call on my life.
And I prefer the term co-vocational – a term that I came across in readings a couple of years ago. On the good days, my vocations work together in a synergy that leaves me speechless with thanksgiving to God.
Called into Ordained Ministry
I did not grow up in a Christian family. I studied mathematics and physics in college, where I encountered Jesus through the witness of friends in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I became captivated by Jesus’ upside-down Kingdom. After college, I returned to school for graduate studies in mathematics, then began my career as a university professor of mathematics.
A one-year visiting professor position brought me to a new city, where I first discovered the Free Methodist Church. I began praying weekly for revival with two friends, one of whom was a local ministerial candidate at our church. Our church hired an associate pastor, and she inspired me to consider God’s call on my life. During an excruciatingly difficult season at our church, including an accident that left this associate pastor paralyzed, I began to explore and express this call. It has never been a call lightly taken, and there has been a lot of pain mixed with joy in it. In 2014, graduating with a Master of Divinity from Azusa Pacific University and feeling like I had crawled to the finish line of a marathon, I was ordained as an elder in the Free Methodist Church.
Over the years, I have prayed and held Bible studies at school, I have brought students to church, I have had the privilege of mentoring students and colleagues at school, and skills learned in academia have translated over into my work at church. Students have told me that I teach mathematics as if I am preaching. The academic schedule has provided time for me to travel on mission trips to Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Thailand, and Myanmar.
On a sabbatical semester, I taught future teachers and economists at a public university in Uganda. During that semester, I worshiped at a Ugandan Anglican church and participated in a small group with young Ugandan scholars at the home of the distinguished Ugandan chaplain.
One summer, I went on a prison education trip to Uganda as part of a team of students and faculty primarily from my university. For two weeks, we served at Luzira Prison, teaching inmates and learning about the correctional and rehabilitation system in Uganda.
This past January during our university’s winter break, I visited Thailand and Myanmar, where I visited dedicated ministry leaders in remote areas, participated in a Free Methodist Southeast Asia Leaders Meeting, and mutually encouraged and was encouraged by young female ministry leaders.
I sometimes hear it reported that many pastors have very few interactions with people of other faith traditions; not true for the co-vocational pastor. I live my life among a beautifully diverse group of colleagues and students, many of whom know that I am a Christian and a pastor.
Building a Co-vocational Culture
God is creative, and it takes inspired imagination to see the unique callings of co-vocational pastors. Listen to your co-vocational colleagues as they share. Hear their vision and commitment. Help them to articulate what they see and to make it concrete and actionable. Offer coaching.
The life and ministry of a co-vocational pastor will look different. There are time constraints and scheduling challenges. People will struggle to understand what it means for a pastor to serve without pay. Choose language and structure that acknowledges, invites, includes, and welcomes co-vocational pastors.
Recognize that the non-church income of the co-vocational pastor can provide a beautiful and powerful ability to follow God’s leading with fewer financial constraints. Maximize this ability to serve.
I encourage co-vocational pastors to develop their non-church vocations with commitment and excellence. You have distinctive gifting in your area of work. Dedicate time and resources to your professional growth. There is intrinsic value in these vocations, along with special opportunities to serve and love the people among whom you work.
And I encourage co-vocational ministers to pursue pastoral training. Go to seminary. It is not easy to take classes while also working in a non-church vocation, but you can do it. Go part time, and let it take longer than if you were a traditional student. If you are called to pastoral ministry, pursue ordination.
Free Methodist Conference leaders, together we have the opportunity to build a conference and denominational culture that will challenge, support, and bless our co-vocational pastors. Some will be staff pastors, lead pastors, church planters, missionaries; others will serve uniquely in roles created just for them. The Kingdom of God will advance.
I struggled for years to understand my co-vocational calling. People often would put air-quotes around “pastor” when speaking of me or to me. I internalized messages that took away my voice and pushed down the fire in my bones. In a deep valley time, a friend and mentor gently helped me to reflect and to choose to live my call. In the days that followed, conference leadership blessed me with words of vision and hope and calling, and I experienced a resurrection in my life.
Today, at Rise OC where I serve, Lead Pastor Tobi and Executive Pastor Phil empower me and bless me to fully bring my voice and my heart. Along with our church board and our congregation, they embrace my co-vocational calling. They respect me as a full member of the pastoral staff. They help me dream about what God will do in the years ahead. Sometimes they let me share about mathematics. Always they welcome all of who I am.
What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:18, NIV).
About the Author
Jenny Switkes serves as an associate pastor at Rise OC, a Pacific Coast Japanese Conference church located in Costa Mesa, CA, and teaches at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. At Rise OC, she focuses on local outreach, global missions, and mobilization of people into leadership and service. She takes joy in serving unseen leaders, and has traveled to Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Thailand. In her spare time, Jenny enjoys working on a ministry initiative called Enhearten and going hiking, including some epic hikes with her brothers.