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Pastor? Community Organizer!

As long as I have been a Christian, I have been skeptical of the pastoral system. Though I am not critical of pastors themselves, I do have a fair amount of discomfort with the idea that one person should be singled out as “the minister,” with the rest of the church relegated to support roles. You could say that I am especially committed to the concept of the priesthood of all believers, the responsibility that each one of us has for living as disciples of Jesus.

Though there are certainly dangers in the single-pastor model, I have also observed that when leadership is everyone’s job, it often becomes no one’s job. In my experience, a lack of explicitly recognized leadership can be a mask for hidden and informal structures that, when dysfunctional, cannot be questioned. It is extremely difficult to critique faulty leadership in a community that does not admit to having leaders! I have been part of communities where the refusal or inability to recognize and empower Spirit-led leadership has resulted in conflict, dysfunction and stagnation.

In spite of the risks that I see in the traditional pastoral model, I cannot deny the advantages of designating particular individuals as leaders within the community. At the same time, the single-pastor pattern of many churches just does not seem to work very well in our present situation, if it ever did. The work of the church is simply too great a burden for any one person to carry.

I am increasingly convinced that we need a way forward that is trapped neither in the informal power structures that can suffocate and stagnate our communities, nor in a pastoral system in which all responsibility and decision-making is vested in one person. What might an alternative model look like?

What if we expanded the idea of what it means to be a pastor? In your typical Christian community, it is often expected that perhaps one person out of 100 will be a pastor. What would happen if we expected that number to be more like one in 10?

This is the basic idea of the cell church model that Capitol Hill Friends is experimenting with. Each small group has a leader who functions as a pastor for the 6-12 people in that group, working alongside an apprentice leader and another person designated as the group’s host. The small group leader’s main jobs are to care for the members of the group, encourage each person to develop their spiritual gifts, and to provide mentoring and training to an apprentice leader, who is preparing to become a leader of her own small group.

Operating under this sort of cell church model, a church of 100 people should have 10 pastors, 10 pastors in training, and 10 people who take responsibility for coordinating logistics. Of course, you may ask, what about the other 70 people? Are they just spectators?

No way! Consider the power of having 30% of our community consistently focusing their attention on identifying, encouraging and releasing the spiritual gifts of each individual under their care. With this encouragement, we can expect to see the development of a variety of gifts – evangelism, prayer, practical helps, administration, teaching, music and prophetic (justice-oriented) ministry, among others. In this model, the role of the leaders, apprentice leaders and hosts is primarily to equip the whole community to operate in their gifts, each one carrying out a particular function as God directs.

In effect, the small group leaders take on the role of community organizers. Their job is to help the whole congregation to discover how to work all by itself under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Rather than expecting a single pastor to take all the initiative, the leaders of each small group encourage every individual to find her place in the body. In this way, small group leaders help to create an environment where truly congregation-led leadership can happen.

What has been your own experience? Has your community operated more in a single-leader model, an informal leadership style, or perhaps in some other model? Have you noticed what gives some communities healthier leadership dynamics than others? What patterns do you see? How would you like to see our communities handle leadership going forward?

  • My view is that communities tend to need leadership (I’m in a Bible study group which has operated fairly effectively for a dozen years with no designated leader, but that is an exception). Generally, I do not think concentrating the designated leadership solely with one individual is healthy. I am also skeptical of any set plan.

    I think each community needs to consider its needs for leadership, and the gifts of those in the community, and then designate roles correspondingly. I do think designation is usually wise so that things are clear and the leader is supported in their leadership. Where a community determines it has needs for leadership and there is not a feasible way to meet some of those needs from volunteers in the community, then I support releasing someone for those particular needs who might come from either inside (someone identified with the gifts but not the time unless released) or outside. I would be somewhat hesitant to call such a person a pastor because of all the baggage associated with that term in our society.

    Most faith communities rely a lot on volunteers, but consider their leaders to be the paid staff. I don’t think that is too healthy. The church where I am presently a member has a Ministry Team of 6 people, 2 of whom are on staff and the remainder not. The other 4 are having their roles recognized in a way which is not the norm for churches in our society, and which I think is much more healthy.

    • Thanks for this response, Bill. I, too, have mixed feelings about the title “pastor,” given its various uses in North American society. I think if we do use it, it should be with the utmost caution. Other terms might be better, though (“lead organizer”?).

      I agree with you that the question of who the leaders are and who gets paid need to be separated. While many (though certainly not all!) paid staff are leaders, I think that in any healthy community there will be far more volunteer leaders than those who are financially released for service. Nevertheless, as you say, it can often be beneficial to provide financial support to fully release the gifts of some leaders.

  • Nice. I agree, of course.

  • This was a thoughtful post, Micah. It raises a number of questions. Since one of the photos depicts me, I felt that I might express my perspective.

    Friends have traditionally not used the word pastor, instead using the term minister. Some scriptural ground is evident. Jeremiah used the term raw-aw as a nickname for the spiritual leaders of his day, and he usually used it in a negative sense. Pastors have transgressed against God (2:8); become brutish and not sought the Lord (10:21); destroyed His vineyard, trodden His portion under foot, and made the land desolate (12:10); and have scattered His people (23:1).

    The Greek word that is translated pastor in Ephesians 4:11 (the only appearance of the word in the NT) is poy-mane. The word is more often translated shepherd, as in the “good shepherd.” If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, one could argue that it is a little presumptuous for a human to claim the term.

    The existing system that has been used by Friends for hundreds of years consists of the partitioning of religious leadership among members with gifts. In particular, ministers and elders operate in a “checks and balance” equilibrium. Ministers can be seen as the “public face” of a meeting, which contains the seed of various dangers.

    The important question from what Melissa calls “Sethland” is the issue of nurturing gifts: keeping them relevant, helping them develop, avoiding pitfalls, and conveying the principles to those Christ Jesus is raising up. The value of the gifts that the Lord gives people should not be overlooked.

    • Hi Seth, thanks for commenting!

      For me, the word “pastor” isn’t particularly crucial one way or another. Bill is right when he says that this word is potentially problematic given all of the associations it has from hundreds of years of use and mis-use.

      At this point, Capitol Hill Friends just has the roles of leader, apprentice leader and host (along with clerk and treasurer, of course!). We may need additional roles, with additional names, in the future. I think we’ll probably go for names that are functional and transparent, rather than necessarily opting for ones that are traditional.

      I agree with you that the bottom line of all our leadership needs to be the development and releasing of spiritual gifts. Our recognized leaders need to be focused always on how the entire community works together as an organic whole!