Seattle police officer shares benefits, challenges of bi-vocational ministry

 Noah Winningham
Noah Winningham | Noah Winningham

Seattle Police Officer Noah Winningham served on the frontlines amid the violent riots that engulfed the city last year. During his breaks, he prepared the sermon he would preach on Sunday as the lead pastor of Sufficient Grace Church — a sermon on oppressed people meeting Jesus. 

“As both a pastor and a police officer, I was able to preach that sermon the following Sunday with a unique context and voice that no other pastor can give,” Winningham told The Christian Post. 

“I was able to speak about the sin of when oppressors oppress, and then also about the sin of the violent reactions and the rioting and looting. When people heard it, the weight of my words carried something drastically different because I had stood in the middle of what had happened.”

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Though he believes he’s exactly where God calls him to be, the father-of-four never set out to be a bi-vocational pastor, especially in Seattle. It was a series of unlikely events — and an undeniable calling from God — that led him to plant Sufficient Grace Church in South Hill in the fall of 2019.

Sufficient Grace Church is a part of the Acts 29 Network, which includes more than 800 other churches worldwide. The Matt Chandler-led organization offers church leaders “decades of experience-proven training, guidance, and tools for planting churches designed to grow and thrive.”

“My wife and I knew God didn’t want to take me out of the police department, because especially in this area, there aren’t many Christian police officers,” Winningham explained. “Among police officers, there’s a huge suicide rate, there's a huge alcohol abuse rate and massive depression. We knew God wanted me here.”

“Yet we saw the massive need in our area for another Gospel-proclaiming church. And I felt like God had given me the ability to lead that charge. It was a long process, two years, in fact, of us wrestling with how those two callings would work together. But we both walked away saying, ‘OK, not only does God want me to plant a church, God wants me to do both.” 

Serving as a bi-vocational pastor has undeniable challenges, Winningham said, particularly as both pastors and police officers statistically have high burnout rates. To maintain his mental, emotional and spiritual health, he surrounds himself with biblical support, from his wife and the elders at his church to weekly meetings with a Christian counselor. 

“It’s interesting getting yelled at for hours and then preaching from the book of John on the weekend,” he said, adding that he was recently diagnosed with PTSD as a result of his law enforcement work. 

“I’m still unpacking a lot of the stuff I saw during the riots.”

But his dual calling provides him with numerous opportunities to minister in his community in a deeply personal way, like when his friend and fellow police officer Alexandra “Lexi” Brenneman Harris was tragically killed in July.

“I’ve been through plenty of super scary fights, I've been through really terrible suicide scenes. The guys will come to me and ask, ‘Why did God let this happen?’ No other cop is able to speak to that. They know I’m not a bystander who is stepping in to talk about platitudes about who God is. I’ve been right there with them," he said. 

 Noah Winningham and his family.
Noah Winningham and his family. | Noah Winningham.

“I do believe that being a cop makes me a better pastor and being a pastor makes me a better cop,” he continued. “God has guarded my ability to mentally shift and step in between worlds. It’s felt very Gumby-like at times, getting bounced back and forth. But God has really protected me.”

Winningham is among a growing number of bi-vocational pastors in the United States. A 2019 study from Barna found that one-quarter (26%) of pastors are bi-vocational, currently holding some other kind of (paid or unpaid) role in addition to pastoring. 

Barna found that though some pastors serve in bi-vocational ministry out of financial necessity, most had non-financial motivations like personal fulfillment or having other outlets for their gifts.

Winningham noted that, particularly in the West, many Christians have a narrow perspective of what the Church should be. But God, he stressed, “can do whatever He wants with a ministry.” He challenged other young pastors struggling with dual callings to remember that it “doesn’t have to be an either-or. It can be a both.” 

“God can call you to two things,” he said. “I think that can be really beautiful and used in mighty ways. There are different versions of ministry. I think we get locked into an American version of what being a pastor is, but it doesn't have to look like that to God. There are a lot of different versions of ministry that maybe don't look like a traditional Church in America.”

“Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean God isn’t calling you to it,” he added. “God calls us to hard things because He wants us to rely on Him. He will give you the fuel to navigate your ministry situation.”

When it comes to church planting, Winningham stressed the importance of partnering with other churches and ministries for support and accountability. 

“Trying to plant without some sort of support system around you, I think, is a trajectory for that burnout and catastrophe,” he said. “I chose to partner with Acts 29 because not only am I theologically aligned with them, but I've got a network of guys that I can reach out to for help or questions, I've got a network, I have funding help. Don’t do it alone.”

As far as his own future goes, Winningham said he “doesn’t know where God is going to take me,” adding: “Ten years ago if you would have told me that I'd be a cop, I wouldn't have believed you. So if you told me I'd be a plumber in five years, I'd believe you." 

But looking back at his story and unlikely career trajectory, Winningham said he sees God’s faithfulness clearly, and trusts He will place him exactly where he needs to be. 

“My hope and my prayer are that I will continue being in ministry with Seattle Police Department, as well as leading this church as the lead pastor,” he said. 

“But I also understand that if this becomes too mentally taxing on me, then I'm willing to make a change. But as long as I'm keeping things balanced, and God is still somehow charging my engine where I have the energy to keep doing what I’m doing, then I want to keep going and minister where I am.”

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