It is now week 3 of the COVID-19 crisis in Canada and I decided to dust off my blog and start typing. For three Sundays now churches in our country, and around most of the world, have not been able to meet as we are accustomed to.
Some of our church leaders have adapted quickly. After the initial shock most were able to retool to an on-line format and Sundays are happening as before, just not together.
Others have even found innovative ways to use the situation to build ministries that fill the need of the moment: the start of new virtual on-line groups, new ways of utilizing seniors to connect with the congregation, delivery of flowers discarded by the now-closed flower shops, and of course delivery of toilet paper to those who didn’t stock up in the first few days of the crisis.
But I wonder whether this time is about more than just a slight adaptation of doing church as we have always done. I hope that this is, in fact, a great opportunity to more fundamentally shift the nature of the church toward the Ephesians 4 model – leaders being the equippers of those who do the ministry rather than leaders as the prime deliverers of ministry.
The words that the Lord has impressed on my heart in the past week are: I’m doing something new and new wine needs new wineskins.
So, here are some words with which I desire to encourage the pastors in my denominational family, the Mennonite Brethren, and any other pastors out there.
A Shaken Identity
If your identity as a leader in your church has been shaken in these past two weeks, you are not alone. The pastoral profession is about being with people and being in front of people, often very large groups of people. Many of us have rooted our identity in our ability to lead well, to speak well, to conduct meetings, to manage our facilities, to teach classes and to be pastors in other very personal ways.
We are also used to ministry as doing for others. We tend to be there to deliver on the needs of others.
I would encourage you to simply acknowledge that this shaking of identity is going on and to adopt a posture of trusting curiosity as you keep looking to the Lord for the reshaped identity he surely has for each of us.
Star of the Show
If you are a lead pastor or a teaching pastor, your face and your voice are very familiar to the congregation. You are the main attraction on a Sunday morning. Everything else that happens on a Sunday either leads into your sermon or flows out of it. People come, in a large part, to hear you speak and they listen attentively for a very long time as you do.
But, let’s face it, 80% of the people to whom you speak are passive observers on Sunday and passive Christians during the rest of the week. They lack a personal call to ministry and therefore their own ministry (service to the Lord) is minimal.
Yet, Ephesians 4:11ff tells us that your job and mine is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. The leaders are there to unleash the congregation, in the fullness of their gifting, for the work of ministry in the church and in the world. Perhaps this time of forced church closures offers us an opportunity to let go of our spot on the stage and let the saints do more of the work of ministry than they did just a few weeks ago.
The Unnecessary Pastor
I was struck by a comment in a recent meeting of church leaders – the comment was that the churches which have no pastors (or pastors are on a sabbatical) felt virtually no disorientation during the past few weeks. The congregations organically sprung into action knowing what needed to be done and getting it done. With simple coordination people were connecting, people were being encouraged, ministry to the community was happening, joy of the Lord was strong.
On the other end of the spectrum, churches, where the pastors are the holders of the keys to all ministry, may still be waiting for the leader(s) to give them a green light to go.
So here is another encouragement – find a way to release your congregation to organic ministry. Do not feel that your value lies in being the bottleneck, or in being the sole coordinator of ministry, and certainly not in being the key deliverer of ministry.
Conductor of the Orchestra
Perhaps the shift in identity for those of us who are used to being the star player is to the role of the conductor. A conductor of an orchestra makes no sound for the audience to admire. The conductor’s contribution is to ensure that each piece plays its part exactly as it should. A gentle nudge to the oboe section, a vigorous wave to the tympanies, a nod at the violins, and a constant eye on the music to be played – that is the role of the conductor.
Imagine how this would translate into your church. Your task would be simply to ensure harmony as the various players play their parts. A gentle nudge to the children’s workers, a vigorous wave to your outreach and care people, a nod at evangelists – might be how you can give your congregation center stage and let them shine. All the while keeping an intent eye on the Lord, discerning his direction for your church.
Such work is much more in the background. It is about coordinating, checking in, encouraging, empowering, removing obstacles, offering alternatives, making connections, pointing to resources. This role is far less glamorous, but I believe it is precisely this kind of a leader who serves-others-so-they-can-serve that our churches need today. It just might be the kinds of leaders our churches will need into the future.
For starters, consider taking a smaller part in your Sunday on-line services – perhaps giving a short word of exhortation and then featuring the children’s art projects, the prayers of the seniors, the testimonies of those on the front lines.
So I would encourage you to courageously consider how you can be of greatest value to your church in the next few months. How can you release your congregation from their dependance on you and point them to the dependance on the Holy Spirit? Dependance on the pastor limits the potential of the church to the capability and capacity of the pastor. Dependance on the Holy Spirit opens up unlimited potential.
If you feel that this kind of coordinating style of leadership is not in your giftedness wheelhouse, do you have the courage to form a task force of leaders in your church who are gifted along these lines? Your value to your church will not diminish if you cease to be the star of the show. Your value will increase as you work diligently to make your people take center stage.
In case you think that you just need to weather this storm until things go back to normal, I encourage you to listen to this podcast which suggests that this is more than a storm, and perhaps more than a season.
I do have a real-life example of a church just like I’m describing. It is the Mennonite Brethren church in Bielefeld, Germany. The church was planted perhaps two decades ago, with one half-time pastor who rarely preaches. His role is to discern, to encourage, and to coach others to preach, to teach, to lead, to run ministries, to do mission. He did well, the church grew and planted a daughter church, also with a half-time (bi-vocational) pastor with the same portfolio, a few years later there was another and then one more church plant. The mother church has over 400 people in it, the latest plant is at about 150, each with only one half-time lead pastor.
This model was very intentional – the sole responsibility of the pastor is to unleash the saints for the work of ministry.
So take courage, the Lord is near, and he is for you and for your church.
There were many ways to lead a church in the past, these days, I believe we need to fully embrace the Ephesians 4 way of being church. This way of being a church is our MB history and it is in our DNA.
Blessings on your ministry as you navigate the next few months.