Most people who have been brought up in the church assume that the pastor’s job is to do ministry. Even pastors and other leaders apply that mindset whenever they talk about being “called to ministry” or being trained for “the ministry.” Many have learned to qualify those statements with adjectives like “vocational” or “full-time” ministry, but even those don’t fully acknowledge every believer’s calling to do the work of ministry. This paradigm of professional ministry hinders the true work of the church.
A huge percentage of churches in America—probably somewhere between 80 and 90 percent—have plateaued or are experiencing a decline in attendance. I believe that’s because we’ve lost the picture given to us in Ephesians 4. An average, reasonably energetic pastor can serve the spiritual needs of about seventy-five to one hundred people. Perhaps a high-energy pastor can directly relate to a few more without having a nervous breakdown. And a really driven, obsessive-compulsive pastor can work up to ninety hours a week and deal with two hundred people.
I can say that because I’ve been there, and it’s not the way to go. Every time the phone rang, I would jump. I didn’t practice the teaching in Ephesians 4 my first few years as a pastor, even though I had read it many times. I felt like I had to be everything to everyone. I assumed it was my job to do the ministry—and, to be honest, that perspective is shaped by and supported by many Christians who expect the pastor to be gifted at just about everything and have time for virtually everyone. I didn’t realize that this approach was killing me and robbing God’s people of the opportunities He wanted to give them to help transform their lives. I lived at a neurotic pace that nearly sacrificed my health. I functioned as a barrier to grace rather than a provider of it.
Can you imagine a general contractor having a team of workers at his disposal but always assuming he’d do a better job on everything that needed to be done? The skills of his team would atrophy, his own work would suffer, and he would burn out before long. Nobody wins at that game. If that’s the approach, building projects go slower, people who want to contribute eventually leave, and workmanship wears the signs of stress that went into it.
The leadership roles in church are there “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:12). That’s how the team is supposed to work. The word “equip” in Greek means “to restore.” It’s a surgical term for putting a fractured bone back into alignment so it can heal properly. The same word is used for fishermen mending their nets. They “restore” the mesh for usefulness. For a church to be healthy and for transformation to occur, we have to have a restoring, equipping mindset.
The wrong model of ministry is so deeply ingrained in church culture that people new to a biblically functioning equipping church often get frustrated. They find that the pastor isn’t accessible to everyone at all times for any reason. In churches I’ve pastored, we’ve had to explain our structure to many who question the pastor’s absence. “It’s not that we don’t love you. It’s that we love you so much that we’re not going to take ministry away from you. We love you so much that even though you think a pastor can do it better, we’ll let a layperson who is more gifted and more available serve you as a shepherd.” Once that change is in place and grasped by a congregation, members wonder what they were thinking under the old church model. It’s a healthier, more effective, and more fulfilling way to do ministry and build up the body of Christ.
This transition can be difficult. Back when I was learning how to equip the saints for ministry rather than doing it all myself, a member called to point out that I hadn’t visited her in the hospital. She was in for relatively minor surgery, and she wanted to know why I hadn’t come. This was after months of casting a vision for equipping and training small-group leaders with their responsibilities, but old mindsets don’t fade away easily. She was having a hard time letting go of the expectation of pastors doing everything and visiting everybody.
I could honestly tell this woman that I didn’t know about her surgery, but I knew that would do little to ease her concern. So I asked her, “Are you in a small group?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “They’re wonderful!”
“Did anyone from your small group visit?”
“Everyone did. I had visitors every day. They even provided food for days while it was hard for me to get around.” She had made her “crisis” known to her group, and they enthusiastically met her need. They also felt it unnecessary to call the pastor about it.
I was both impressed and delighted and made a note to encourage that small group leader. Then I tried to explain what had happened. “Can I tell you something? The body of Christ just operated the way it’s supposed to. Those who know you best responded in love and kindness to meet your need. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish at our church.”
She wasn’t as impressed as I was. “But you didn’t come.”
“My job isn’t to pastor you. It’s to make sure you are pastored well. Your group ministered to you much better than I could have.”
We talked a little more about how the group had prayed for her and met her family’s needs. We laughed about how much more she enjoyed their cooking than she would have enjoyed mine. But she still couldn’t let go of the fact that I hadn’t come. The unbiblical model of ministry was deeply ingrained in her—and still is in many others.
If it were humanly possible, I would sit down and have coffee with every member in the congregation after each service. That fits my desires and my gift mix. But believers don’t receive the ministry they need to receive if a few people are doing it all. They also don’t provide the ministry they need to provide. Both receiving and providing ministry are vital to growth, and the traditional but unbiblical model of church leadership hinders that process. It puts everything in the contractor’s hands and misses out on the craftsmanship of all the specialists who could contribute. With that approach, the transformation doesn’t look quite right, and it may not even get finished.
Equipping everyone for ministry is a model that works. In contrast to the conversation I had with the woman who could not envision anything but the traditional model, I was introduced not long afterward to a family of new members who were increasingly involved in the life of the church. I saw the husband’s name in ministry reports and knew he was discovering a place of service. But then I heard that he had bypass surgery. I wrote him a note to say I was sorry I was out of town during his surgery but had been praying for him.
I saw him in church the next week—apparently bypass surgery doesn’t take nearly as long to recover from as it used to—and he came up to me and said, “Man, what are you doing?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Why are you spending your time writing notes to people like me? I know you love me. My small group was right there with me. My wife and kids are fine. You need to do what God has called you to do. We’re happy to care for each other.”
He had caught the vision. He understood how the team works together to create the right conditions for change in the lives of its members. I would still visit the hospital sometimes, just as everyone does within their relational network, but usually for the church leadership I was responsible to care for. The church was learning to function according to the model in Ephesians 4, and great things were happening. The transformation of its members—and many other people in the community—looked more like what we see in the New Testament.
Ingram, Chip. 2021. Yes! You Really Can Change: What to Do When You’re Spiritually Stuck. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
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