Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Pastorates manuscript #10

NOTE: I am well aware that the previous post was marked #8, and this one is #10.  In my intention for the finished manuscript there will indeed be a section between these two -- but I haven't got it written yet.  So I'll jump ahead to this section, which might be of most interest to clergy, but I'll post it anyway.

What do pastorates mean for the current leaders in the church?  Specifically, what does a pastorate structure require of the church’s pastor?

One of the most drastic changes the church has experienced in the last century has to do with the status of clergy.  A century ago, pastors were important people.  They enjoyed prestige in the community and deference from nearly everyone, even other professionals.  Even the United States tax codes recognize the status of clergy through special exemptions, deductions, and allowances.  In implementing these special classifications for clergy (of all faiths, though by far the majority of people able to take advantage of these have been Christians), the government has affirmed that the church provides services that are critical to the general welfare of the United States and therefore, without discrimination or bias, the U.S. government wants to support the work done by clergy.  Many of these special tax classifications are being eroded away today.  The benefits accorded to the clergy are changing.

Partly because of increasing education among the general population and partly because of a decreasing respect for the church as a whole, pastors no longer enjoy as much public authority and prestige as they did in the past.  While those of us who are ordained might grieve for these changes, we have to recognize that God is at work here.  These changing perceptions are no surprise to him.  

It is important for pastors to realize that Jesus had a great many things to say about power and how it is exercised in the gospel community.  Rather than exercising power over one another, Jesus said, leaders in this community are to be servants.  Rather than seeking our own advantage or control, leaders are to give away power.

This idea of giving away power is deeply personal for me.  Before I went to seminary, I served in various non-ordained roles within the church for many years.  I enjoyed not being a pastor, helping other lay people to recognize that they, too, could live lives wholly dedicated to following Jesus.  Radical Christian lives were not just for pastors.

As I served in the church, I became increasingly frustrated by a variety of “glass ceilings.”  Over and over again I encountered limits to what I could do in the church because I was not ordained.  At a retreat in February, 1994, I vented my frustrations to a friend who was also a pastor.  I complained about how my Lutheran church loves to talk about the priesthood of all believers, but then we create systems where pastors have power and the rest of the church sits by, passive.  I railed about how pastors function like a good old boys’ club, holding the authority to make decisions on behalf of the church, then making those decisions in ways that protect their own power base.  Paul listened to my tirade attentively.  When I was through, he quietly nodded.  “I think everything you say is true.  Pastors are often guilty of protecting their own power.  We create systems that preserve our own authority in selfish ways that hurt the church.  Do you know what will change the church, Jeff?” he asked.  

I was still quite frustrated and I became a little sarcastic.  “No, what’s going to change the church?”

“The only way these things will change is if good people who understand what you have been saying get ordained and then give away their power.”

It was like the Holy Spirit used his words to stick a pin in my ego.  I could almost hear my indignant rage leaking out like helium out of a balloon.  Within a week my wife and I had made plans to sell our house and I put in my application to seminary.  Since that time, my heart has been bent on being a pastor who gives away power.  I have returned again and again to Ephesians 4, where the apostle Paul describes how God gifted the church with pastors (and other leaders) in order to equip the saints for the work of ministry.  So if pastors try to do the ministry ourselves, we are working against God’s plan for the church, working against scripture.  The ministry -- the mission of the church -- is properly the work of God’s people, who are to be equipped and empowered by pastors and other leaders.

When I completed seminary and began serving two congregations in western North Dakota, I discovered (not for the first time) that it is not only pastors who resist the priesthood of all believers.  Often members of congregations enjoy being armchair quarterbacks in the church, able to second-guess decisions without taking responsibility.  Others take a perverse pride in having hired a pastor to do the work of the church on their behalf.  Many who bang the drum loudest for what they think is traditional Lutheranism also carry the most resistance to Luther’s idea that every Christian is ordained a priest in their baptism, authorized and responsible to carry out the ministry of the church.

As I have pursued the vision of pastorates for the last seven years, I have constantly been challenged to give away power in big and small ways.  One of the earliest lessons -- and one that is repeated most often -- is that if the gospel is going to create community, I have to give up the traditional pastor’s role of “answer man.”    Today when I sit as a participant in the pastorate my wife and I attend, I sit and listen, and if someone directs a question to me, I redirect it to the person leading our pastorate.  I find that this accomplishes several goals.  First, other participants are forced to grapple with their own questions and answers rather than simply looking to the pastor for the correct answers.  Over time this practice creates greater learning and develops in those who participate the ability to read and interpret the Bible for themselves.  Second, the leaders of our pastorate are reinforced, encouraged, and empowered in their leadership as they learn to lead through what are sometimes difficult issues.  Third, I tend to learn a great deal as I listen to the perspectives of my brothers and sisters in Christ!

In our church (meaning Central Lutheran), we have laid the groundwork for many years to empower pastorate leaders.  After a major staff transition in 2002-2004, we focused most of our pastoral attention on building toward this empowerment.  (At the time “pastorates” were not even remotely on our radar.)  The first steps of this empowerment included focusing our staff attention on teaching the Bible and on helping people understand what it means to have a dynamic relationship with Jesus.   (We were beginning with a congregation that was self-focused, biblically illiterate, and overwhelmingly complacent about everything from participation to mission.  The sad truth was that our new mission statement at the time, “Making Jesus Known”, caused quite a bit of controversy in some quarters.)  At the same time we intentionally created group experiences and raised up leaders to oversee those short-term groups.  We developed a strong Alpha ministry and trained a cohesive team of leaders who understood many different tasks -- set-up, clean-up, cooking, prayer, group leadership, administration, childcare, hospitality, and more -- as many different tasks that worked toward a common goal of evangelism and discipleship.  Alpha also created a natural association in the minds of both leaders and participants between relational groups and spiritual growth.  We used other small group experiences throughout the church to reinforce that connection.  To put it another way, belonging and believing were tied together.  This is a biblical idea that too often gets lost in our churches.

Another aspect of the culture changes we pursued during these years included saying “no” to many things that did not directly serve our mission.  In those days our mission statement was “Making Jesus Known.”  A worship team that enjoyed playing together but refused to pray together (it seemed to them like an exclusive practice) was held accountable and eventually dismissed from leadership.  We realized that families had fallen into a pattern of simply dropping their children off for Sunday School and then going out for brunch, and nothing we offered for adults seemed to draw them in.  So we did away with Sunday School, instead offering a children’s education time during worship for children who began and ended the worship service sitting in the sanctuary with their parents.  

These examples highlight a painful fact: You can’t give away power within structures that function to keep people ignorant, complacent, and avoiding responsibility.  Sometimes the structures themselves need to be changed in order to help people discover a willingness to take on authority and accountability.  

Along with our “Extreme Sunday Makeover” that deep-sixed traditional Sunday School, we began to teach parents intentionally that they are the primary faith educators of their children.  That simple message returns again and again as a challenge and encouragement to parents.  Many have stepped up and taken on their God-given authority as parents to disciple their children.  Others have walked away from Central and have gone looking for a church that still offers Sunday School.

Another challenge of giving away power is that it will not only challenge complacent pew-sitters; it challenges controlling pastors.  Many pastors lament the unwillingness of people in the pews to take responsibility.  However, these same pastors are unwilling to give up control.  You can’t ask people to take ownership if they have no say in the outcome.  Pastors have to go through an intentional process to give away power.  First the pastor -- the one who holds nearly all the power in the traditional Protestant model -- needs to discern a specific area in which to give away power.  Second, the pastor needs to back away from meeting everyone’s needs in that area.  In effect, the pastor has to create a vacuum where ministry is not being done, or highlight an area in which ministry is lacking without stepping in to meet people’s needs.  If there are no legitimate needs, why would people step up to take ownership?  Third, the pastor needs to recruit people who are willing to do ministry, equip them with both authority and with skills, and then walk alongside them as they begin to do ministry.  It is fascinating to read about Jesus’ methods in this regard.  In Luke 9, for example, Jesus first gives the disciples authority to complete the mission.  Only after he gives them authority does he instruct them and send them out.  Too often in our churches we are guilty of giving people jobs to do but no authority to make changes necessary to complete the job.  

As we learn to give away power within the church, we find several New Testament texts taking on new depth and meaning.  We read 2 Timothy 2:2 and discover that the New Testament vision of leadership development is multi-generational.  That is, as a pastor it’s not just about how I raise up leaders; rather, it’s about whether those leaders can raise up still more leaders who will be able to train and equip others.  So in effect, I can’t judge the effectiveness of my leadership development until my spiritual grandchildren are training faithful disciples.

When we read Ephesians 4, we discover that the reason Jesus gives leaders to the church is in order to equip the saints for the work of ministry.  In other words, as a pastor my job is not necessarily to do the work of ministry myself, though of course some of that will happen; rather, my job is to multiply the number and quality of people doing ministry by giving other Jesus-followers the tools they need.  What is more, only through this process of equipping the saints and releasing them to do ministry will we come to maturity, to the knowledge of Jesus.  

Think about it.  This is the same pattern Jesus followed with his disciples.  He walked with them, taught them, and lived with them, for a brief time.  Then he gave them authority and sent them out to do specific ministry.  He continued to walk with them through this process as they returned and reflected on their ministry, then went out again.  As they grew and matured and experienced successes and difficulties they became more and more able to do the work of ministry they had seen Jesus modeling.  The ministry of equipping is very near the heart of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  Pastors and church leaders would do well to imitate him!

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