Research Offers Insight into Patterns of Leadership Development for Bi-Vocational Ministers

The ministers of Second Christian and their spouses (left to right): Antonio and Christen Sherrill and Sue and Dennis Gray.

Research at Lexington Theological Seminary has identified several common themes through interviews with bi-vocational ministers. One of these themes involves the way bi-vocational pastoral leadership develops within congregations.

For many bi-vocational ministers, their employment as a minister begins as a response to a specific congregation’s need. They often speak of their employment in the church as following their other employment; frequently they are contacted as potential bi-vocational ministers when they are already employed within the community. Also, many begin serving a congregation and providing pastoral leadership before or while pursuing theological education. While this pattern contrasts with a more common one in which theological education precedes pastoral leadership in a congregation, it is a familiar pattern within bi-vocational ministry.

This pattern is evident at Second Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Mayfield, Ky. Rev. Dennis Gray has served as the lead pastor of the congregation for most of the past 20 years. When Dennis began serving at Second Christian, he already was an experienced radiation worker and mechanic at United States Enrichment Corporation in Paducah, Ky., and some of the members of the congregation were his co-workers. He chuckles as he thinks of God calling him into ministry at a later age in life because “the Church needed a mechanic to fix some things.” Dennis looks back on his experience as a bi-vocational minister and he knows his employment outside the church meant he was been able to continue serving Second Christian for many years, even amidst economic downturns that impacted the Mayfield community. As all ministers do, Dennis learned along the way; he also engaged in continuing pastoral education offered through the Christian Church in Kentucky and became a commissioned minister.

The pattern Dennis followed is also reflected in the ministry of Antonio Sherrill, who serves as youth minister and assistant minister at Second Christian Church. For the past several years, Dennis and the congregation of Second Christian Church have been mentoring Antonio into pastoral leadership while Antonio has also been employed full-time as a fifth grade teacher in Mayfield. Antonio has been teaching for 10 years; it might also be said he was teaching and learning as he grew up at Second Christian, where he was baptized at the age of 12. Antonio is on track to become a commissioned minister; he is pursuing his theological education and leadership development through the Christian Church in Kentucky’s Academy for Church Leadership and through coursework at Lexington Theological Seminary. 

At Second Christian Church, Dennis Gray and Antonio Sherrill make up a collaborative team of ministers who are living out a pattern of bi-vocational ministry that emerged within congregational life and in response to congregational needs. They both would say this is part of God’s plan to lead them into ministry and service within the world God loves.

For more information about Lexington Theological Seminary’s Conversations on Finances and Stewardship grant and its research concerning bi-vocational ministry, contact Rev. Kristen Plinke Bentley, Project Director, at This research is funded by a grant from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment Inc.