Early in the history of the Christian church, believers were divided into two groups – the clergy and the laity.
Clergy were those called to a full-time Christian vocation. Laity were the men and women who pursued secular vocations and supported the ministry of the clergy.
Of course, these categories were not always hard and fast. The Baptist movement in frontier America prospered through people who pursued a secular job (like farming) during the week and preached on Sundays.
Denominations have spent significant energy in differentiating between clergy and laity, and investing significant resources in the training of the former.
With declining resources and membership, however, judicatories are adopting flexible models of ministry that take advantage of the gifts of both biprofessional and lay leaders.
This certainly makes sense as many lay church members have not only spiritual gifts to serve but educational and professional skills as well.
At the same time, a third ministry alternative is emerging.
This is the person who is theologically trained but working in a secular vocation. This may be business, education, health or a nonprofit organization.
He or she has voluntarily chosen this path and understands that their vocation is their ministry. In many ways, this is the worker-priest model where the clergyperson is both minister and secular professional.
Why has this happened? Several reasons come to mind.
1. Some who follow this model do not perceive the church as the most effective place to make a difference in society and the lives of people.
This is a painful admission, but an individual often makes a greater impact outside the walls of the church by being a Christian in a secular field. He or she rubs shoulders daily with those who never attend a church and can bring a theological perspective both personally and organizationally in the workplace.
2. Some realize that they can do good in ways that the church cannot.
Social entrepreneurs use their business skills to both provide a service or product and serve others. Not only do they influence individual lives, but they also make a difference in society by providing jobs that bring people out of poverty and despair.
3. Too often, churches move too slowly in responding to individual and social needs.
Part of this is due to liability concerns; another part is fear of trying something different. Whatever the reason, church and religious organizations often move too slowly in responding to need.
4. Churches in decline are more interested in survival than innovative ministry.
Someone with vision and an entrepreneurial spirit wants to invest themselves in others without having to service a bureaucracy.
Some seminaries, such as Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, have recognized the validity of this third way and have designed theological degree programs to provide formation for those who choose this path.
Their number will continue to grow in the days ahead and challenge our ideas about the ministerial vocation.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is a supplementary professor in contextualization at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Barnabas File, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @ircel.