Moses was crushing it. The people loved him. He had lines out the doors for those who were hoping to hear a word from God or a word of wisdom from Moses.[i] Then his father-in-law, Jethro, showed up and told him he was leading poorly, not well.
Moses had every reason to not listen to Jethro’s advice. There were no real indicators Moses’s leadership style wasn’t working. And yet Moses heard Jethro’s advice, and humbly heeded it.
In Ephesians, Paul makes it clear that this is no mere stylistic choice for a godly leader. Healthy leadership is characterized by “equip[ing] the saints for the work of the ministry.”[ii] Did you catch that? Healthy leadership isn’t characterized by doing “the work of the ministry” but rather by equipping the congregation to do the work of the ministry.
That doesn’t exempt pastors from doing ministry. In fact, part of the way that we equip is by modeling ministry. But it does mean that our primary responsibility is equipping others to do ministry. It means that part of every pastor’s role should be mentoring and discipling, equipping and deploying. That means that in my role in charge of care at New Life, my primary role is to equip others for care in our congregation, not be the one-stop care shop for our church.
When we are equipping, our congregations are healthier, more unified places. Paul says in Ephesians that the outcome of leaders equipping the saints is twofold: unity of heart and spiritual growth and maturity. Who doesn’t want their congregation to grow in unity and maturity?
And yet, almost every impulse of the pastor and of the congregant fights against this biblical model. The truth is that many of us pastors (and I am too often in this group) aren’t doing what the Bible explicitly calls us to do. There are expectations and issues in the hearts of both pastors and congregants that make this a difficult goal to reach. Let’s explore those obstacles.
What are the expectations and heart issues in congregants that collide with the equipping call of pastors?
1) Professionalization: church is viewed as a commodity with high expectations of professionalism. We are conditioned to be customers, and, as customers, what we want should be provided by paid professionals. If a congregant on our visitation team visits someone in the hospital, it’s not uncommon for the one hospitalized call the church for a visit from the pastor (the real visit hasn't happened yet, in the patient's mind). We rarely have the inverse happen: get a call from someone in the hospital for another visit after a pastor has visited.
2) Privacy: accompanying our expectations of professionalism is an expectation of contemporary models of therapy. We expect and desire to deal with our junk in a private environment with a professional. Whether we struggle with grief, relationships, or addiction, we prefer to deal with it in the privacy of a pastor’s office than with a fellow congregant or (gasp) a small group.
3) Ease: we have enough responsibilities on our plate. We don’t have time for a part-time job at the church… and an unpaid one at that! It’s easier to leave that to the professionals: they seem to like it more and are better at it anyway. And that might require me to cut back on one of my hobbies.
4) Training: you want me to be a Small Group leader? A Sunday School teacher? The Missions coordinator? I wouldn’t know where to begin. I don’t have the skills, gifting, or confidence to do what you expect me to do.
What are the expectations and heart issues of pastors that collide with their equipping call?
1) Modeling: we’ve watched other pastors we respect model doing ministry. Some of the pastors I respect most as men are those who do ministry, not equip for ministry. They’re often some of the most approachable, kind, and gentle-spirited pastors. That’s even what we call it! “What do you do?” “I’m in ministry. What do you do?” We watch it modeled through lives, and we read about this model in some books as well. One of my favorite books on pastoring is from the Puritan Richard Baxter. There is so much to learn and glean from Baxter and the Puritans, but, as I’ve grown in my understanding of the biblical call of the pastor to equip, I’ve recognized that Puritan pastors, in general, as much as I respect them, were stronger in doing ministry than in equipping the saints for the ministry.
2) Pride: we like getting praised for doing ministry. We do it well, we like to do it, and, in what can be a sea of negativity, it’s an area where we actually receive compliments. Equipping often puts us in a more behind-the scenes role with a much smaller spotlight on us.
3) Control: we are afraid to have ministry done by someone else. I’ve let others teach before, and it did not go well (not to mention the fact that they taught doctrine we don’t hold as a church). I tried to hand off some of my visitation responsibilities, but they didn’t show up. It’s easier to do than to equip, and we can better mitigate the potential pitfalls.
4) Fear: we fear the consequences. We hate saying no to showing up at the hospital. We hate saying no to couples in need of counseling. We fear the consequences. We fear the disappointment. We fear someone else doing the ministry poorly.
It requires a Herculean effort to swim upstream (can Hercules swim? I say yes!) against the current of our expectations and the bent of our hearts. But it is our call as pastors. As a congregant, would you help your pastors fulfill their equipping call? Be an equipping champion and an expectations-shifter.
A few months ago we walked through the death of a dear member of New Life. The husband had a series of strokes, and his health rapidly declined. He went from in-home care to the hospital and eventually to hospice. The people of New Life came beautifully alongside this couple, caring for both the husband and wife in more ways than I can count. But the final days of his life were hard for me.
Angel and I were driving up to a marriage conference when I got the call that they were moving him into hospice. My heart sunk. I wouldn’t be able to visit him. I had a hard time releasing this ministry fully to God’s people. I wanted to be there, both out of love for the couple but also out of fear of what others would think about my absence. A member of the visitation team went and ministered beautifully to the couple. Another couple from the church responded to God’s prompting to come at a particular time, and they were able to be there in the final moments of his life, holding hands together while singing and praying.
This is the ministry God has given us! I’m so glad I wasn’t there: not because I wouldn’t have cherished those moments, but because God had something better.
Photo credit: Billy Pasco/Unsplash
[i] “[T]he people come to me to inquire of God; when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide…” Moses in Exodus 18:15b-16a.
[ii] Ephesians 4:12