Last year I was asked to host a book study on what it means to be pastors who sees their call principally in terms of preparing and empowering people for ministry in their everyday lives. I was amazed to find out that—as popular as the topic is—there are many books aimed at helping the laity identify their ministry, but there are few books designed to help pastors in their work of equipping people for ministry in daily life. So I scheduled a series of conversations that were designed to explore questions such as:
What does it mean to be an equipping pastor? How is that different from what most pastors were trained to be and do? What implications does this hold for program, staff, structure, and day-to-day operation of a congregation? How does one shift from being a ‘pastoral’ or ‘program’ pastor to being an equipping pastor?
I hoped that 6 to 12 pastors might respond. Before the conversations were over, I had engaged over 100 pastors on this topic. I heard some amazing, encouraging, and puzzling things from them. Among the findings were:
Pastors want to do this, but they are not sure what to do
One of the most significant findings that came out of the conversations is that pastors are intensely interested in this topic; the large number of pastors who participated is evidence of that. When asked about why they had responded to the invitation to participate, many expressed deep interest: “I have a passion for this topic.” “It’s a key area of congregational health.” “There is a crying need to work on this.”
At the same time, most of the pastors reported that they are unsure about how to work toward this goal. Among the comments I heard were: “Equipping people for ministry is our job, but we don’t get much help with how to do it.” “I came because I know we need to be equippers, but we don’t know how.” “We’ve been trained how to do ministry in and for the church, but we’ve not gone beyond that. We know we should equip people for ministry in daily life, but we don’t know how.”
The vulnerability and honesty of the pastors was encouraging. Knowing that we are not doing our best at something is usually reason to avoid the topic. The large number of pastors who wanted to talk about this is evidence of their willingness to look at this topic and to find a way forward. Remembering that ministry in the world is, after all, God’s purpose for the church, gives us a worthy goal to work toward.
Pastors can name the systemic blocks that hold them back
The second significant finding is related to the first. Even as pastors named their puzzlement about how to equip people for ministry in daily life, they also were able to name the systems, structures and cultural understandings that block congregations from being centers for ministry in daily life. Some of the systemic blocks that pastors named included the following:
It takes ordination to be a minister
The stumbling block that was often mentioned first is the common understanding that pastors “do ministry” and congregational members come to church to partake of it. Pastors often buy into this systemic expectation to justify their existence, to keep people happy, and to assure the continual flow of paychecks. Some of the pastors’ comments were: “Ministry is the pastor’s job at my church.” “People come to church to consume a product, be it music, preaching, or community.”
Another systemic block that pastors mentioned is that ministry is largely seen as something that happens at church because of intense pressure to keep the institution alive. In an age of declining institutions, the pressure is enormous to either keep the congregation healthy or to bring the congregation back to what it used to be.
Congregations need to be vital and healthy. It is important to have Sunday school teachers, worship leaders, grounds crews, small group leaders and a host of other volunteers. But in the vast majority of congregations, these things become the end instead of the means. We forget the “so that.” We have leaders and volunteers in the church so that members can learn about, prepare and practice for ministry in daily life. Without the “so that,” congregational systems and programs become focused on keeping members in rather than sending them out.
The split between Sunday and Monday
We’ve heard it so often we hardly need to be reminded: most people have a hard time connecting what happens on Sunday with the rest of the week. In his book, Faith as a Way of Life, Chris Scharen says,
Religion is at best one piece of a busy life, perhaps impacting one’s ‘soul’ or ‘heart’ as a means to help cope with the hectic pace of the rest of life, where other values rule.
In addition, studies report that people are leaving the church or not even giving the church a chance because “what happens there has no connection to my life.”
Confusion about ministry in daily life
Another significant finding is that there is considerable confusion, both among pastors and among members, about how to define ministry in daily life. In most cases, ministry in daily life is restricted by confusion about what “ministry” is. As reported earlier, ministry inside the church is often limited to what pastors do. At best, ministry for members is talked about only in terms of doing something in, for, or through the church, such as teaching Sunday school or participating in a church project.
At the same time, there is confusion about what ministry looks like outside the church. In many cases, ministry in daily life is seen only as a matter of being nice or moral. Ministry in daily life was often described by the pastors as being faithful to friends, coworkers, not engaging in gossip, speaking of having attended worship, or going on a mission trip. While ministry in daily life includes volunteering, being nice, moral, kind, and fair, that is only part of what it means to unleash the power of the priesthood of all believers.
Looking for a way forward
It is encouraging that some pastors who attended the conversations were intent on naming and claiming the reality that God is at work in the world, that ministry is happening in an astonishing variety of ways. Pastors were also aware that most people just can’t name or articulate it. It is becoming clear that the fault lies with us: we haven’t taught our members how to name and claim the ministry they do in the world, mostly because we’ve been so focused on keeping ministry in the church going.
It is encouraging that a number of ideas came out of the conversations about what pastors are doing, can or should do in order to encourage a better understanding of ministry in daily life in their congregations. One pastor stated, “This all starts with our attitude—that we value what people do and we encourage their ministry.” Another participant said, “The central task of an equipping pastor is to attend to and name the ministry you see or hear from the members. It’s not a program to teach them how to do it, it’s helping them see that they are doing ministry.”
Unfortunately the way forward is neither clear nor easy. Systemic pressure will be intense to keep things like they are now. It may be that members largely like having pastors “do ministry” on their behalf. It may be that pastors feel a sense of worth in being the professional minister. Still, as was said earlier, the fact that so many pastors attended the conversation shows that we want to find a way forward. All indications are that this is still, very much, a work in progress.
Join the conversation
You can join this ongoing conversation. You can begin by reading the full report which is available for download here. You can continue the conversation by downloading the study guide available on the same site and engaging members of your congregation in the conversation. If you do that, we would greatly appreciate it if you would return the report form in the back of the study guide. We would like to hear what you learn from your conversations.
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