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Some Ministers Do It Trans-Locally

By Sheila Martin.

Editor’s note: This article is specifically about trans-local ministry in a Baptist context. However, much of the author’s reflections have relevance to others in similar roles in other denominations. Your Editor is himself a Parish Development Adviser to the Diocese and shares many of same joys, frustrations and concerns as the author of this article

Two years ago I moved from ministry in a local church to Regional Ministry. To set the scene for colleagues in non-Baptist contexts, in the Baptist non-hierarchical, congregation based tradition, a Regional Minister is there to serve the churches. While those who perform similar functions in some denominations will bring authority to their roles, this is not necessarily the case in our Baptist setting. I am reflecting on the changes between local ministry and trans-local ministry during these two years. In view of the wider picture available to a Regional Minister, I also wanted to reflect on some of the ways I observe power being used and abused. These are my personal reflections. They may or may not echo the experience of other colleagues in Regional Ministry.

Trans-local is still ministry

I have been, and remain, a minister of the Gospel. In common with chaplains, evangelists and others who are called to exercise their ministry in a context other than the local church, I have been told that it is “such a shame that you have left the proper ministry”. Why is it that some assume that ministry is confined to ministry in the local church congregation? The Bible introduces us to Peter, Paul, Barnabas, John Mark, Titus, Timothy and others who all engaged in a trans-local ministry of planting churches, strengthening and encouraging churches and preaching the Gospel throughout different regions. While Timothy and Titus eventually settled into church based situations, they began in trans-local teamwork. Trans-local ministry is not a modern invention: it is based and grounded on biblical patterns.

If our thinking is only focussed on the pastor of a local church congregation, then this has repercussions for the way we pray for and support chaplains, evangelists and others who are called by God to exercise Gospel ministry in other contexts. The church where I am a member is told each Sunday in the notice sheet where I am preaching. They are asked to pray for me. Our minister understands why we are seldom in church: not simply because I am preaching elsewhere, but also because, having preached several miles away in the morning, we are unlikely to be home in time to eat and then go out for evening service. It has been my experience that the minister in the local church can influence the way in which that church sees the work of the trans-local ministers among their membership: holding up our work in prayer, passing on news about what we are doing, asking from time to time, understanding that we are not going to be able to commit to regular events at our home church. All these things have been a great support and encouragement to me and I hear from chaplains that they have been encouraged by similar pastoral care too. Some people in trans-local ministry find it of great value when their pastor is willing and equipped to act as a Peer Mentor, or even Supervisor, if Supervision is not provided as part of their post.

There is a role for the local church in supporting trans-local ministers in their congregation and those in these itinerant roles who are valid ministers of the Gospel.

Frustration of not being able to follow through

One of the major differences I have found on moving from local to trans-local ministry is that I am not able to follow things through from Sunday into home groups, Bible studies and pastoral visits. It is not possible, purely because of the itinerant nature of the work. I mourn the loss of this. My most joyful Sunday was one where I arrived at a church to hear that a group of people who had joined the Alpha course that same week had also arrived at church for the service. They had never been before. We praised God, made jokes about people coming to church before they’d been invited, and I scrapped my carefully prepared sermon and preached a gospel message. After the service, the minister scurried to and fro while I shook hands at the door. Later, I was told that two of these people had made a commitment to follow Jesus. What a fantastic Sunday morning! The down side was realising that I would not be around to see those people grounded in their faith, to disciple them, to see them baptised. Having been part of their story, I was now going away. It would be others who would walk with them on the rest of their journey.

This experience will be repeated in different places and circumstances by all those who are called to a trans-local ministry. Chaplains in hospitals will spend very intensive times with those who are sick or dying and their relatives. Then the contact comes to an end. Tutors and educational chaplains will work alongside students for a number of years, usually during term time, and then they generally move on. Work place chaplains may have limited contact with employees for a time or season. Chaplains in the Armed Forces will share danger with those they minister among and face death together, increasingly in our troubled times. Evangelists might be burning adrenalin after an event where many people came to faith, or might equally be trying to make sense of work which did not seem to produce fruit. Regional Ministers will have ongoing contact with churches through Association events and occasional visits and preaching. Generally, however, those called to trans-local ministry have to be prepared to move on while others carry on the task of which they have been one small part.

Non-consecutive preaching

Bearing this lack of continuity and pattern in mind, I find it quite helpful when a church to which I am invited to preach asks me to take a particular theme or text (This is not an invitation for some Church Secretary to dream up the most obscure theme from Ecclesiastes or Leviticus please!). It is healthy for my own spirituality to try to prepare a new sermon for each service. When I use a text or theme again, I usually start from scratch, even although the end result might turn out very similar to when I’ve used that text or theme before. Where a church prefers me to find my own text, I have tended to try and use a pattern of my own, so that there is some continuity for me in my preaching, even if the congregations are not aware of that. So, for instance, I have worked through a Bible passage as one might in a local church setting, but the sermons have been preached in a different church each week, instead of having the benefit of following through from one week to the next. The Holy Spirit has proved amazing in finding just the right text for the right situation over many years with itinerant preachers of all types. The same Holy Spirit works powerfully through the spoken Word when this is from a pre-arranged text and when it is not.

One advantage of itinerant preaching (for there are advantages) is that I can come in and say something that the minister in post might have been working through with the congregation for weeks and months. Suddenly, because it is a new voice saying this thing, the penny drops and all the work that the minister has put into this comes to fruition! It may not feel fair to the minister in post, but it reflects something of human nature that this happens. When a minister has been working on a theme or subject with a congregation, I am always happy for them to ask me discreetly to approach the topic when I come to them. I do not see this as being manipulative. My role is to serve the Gospel ministry of the churches, and supporting the minister in their work is one way in which this is done. If I did not feel comfortable with the theme or approach that a minister in post was taking, then I would tell them so! This is teamwork, and we are members of the same team, working toward the same goal, making Jesus known, in the service of the same Lord.

Building relationships

Every pastor will know that spending time with people is an important ingredient in building authentic relationships within a church community. Whatever our denominational context, we will know that it is difficult to build authentic relationships with those called to trans-local ministries among us. Chaplains and evangelists in our congregations can be visited in their workplace and encouraged by such visits. However, this is easier said than done where the Regional Minister is concerned. Since much of the work is confidential in nature, it is not such a simple task to spend an hour working with the Regional Minister. When a congregation are going through a stressful time together, the members know about it even when they don’t know details. They see their minister balancing and juggling. The balancing and juggling of trans-local ministers is unseen because the constituency is so spread out. There are, however, ways to build up relationships.

Some of our minister’s fellowship meetings do let me know in advance when they are meeting. This is very helpful, and when I do not have prior engagements, I can go along to these and simply spend time with ministers. When I have dates in advance, I can get these into the diary and they become the ‘prior engagement’ so I can be there. If several groups meet on, say, the first Tuesday of the month, then I can only be in one place, but if I know the dates beforehand, I can get a pattern into my diary. Having the Regional Minister at these gatherings is not like having an OFSTED Inspector in the staff room (someone teasingly said this, then claimed that it was a joke!). It is simply one opportunity to be together and build relationships.

The annual Minister’s Conference, retreat or training is yet another opportunity to build relationships with other ministers and with a Regional Minister. While relationships are not the main aim of such gatherings, they are a bi-product. Sharing together in worship, learning together, hearing new things, sharing table fellowship, all contribute to deeper relationships with one another. This is also true where ministers gather for Association events. In fact, it is no different to local church life. Those members of the congregation who join in with social events, come to Bible study, attend regularly and generally get involved are easier to build relationships with than those who keep to themselves or are just too busy to invest in church life.

As with any minister, the reality is that a lot of time has to be spent responding to emergencies. While I am not au fait with the way in which visitation is carried out in other denominations, and would not dream of speaking for ecumenical colleagues, I can say for myself that when a minister invites a visit that is a real joy. Our particular Baptist ecclesiology, or the way our ecclesiology is interpreted I should say, means that a Baptist Regional Minister can normally only go where they are invited. Perhaps those ministers who complain that they never have a visit simply need to issue an invitation! When I have taken the initiative and asked if I might visit, some ministers wonder what they’ve done wrong! Sometimes our awful self-sufficiency and independence is such that it doesn’t occur to us to share some of the joys and good news with the wider church family through those who work among us trans-locally. Imagine how much stronger our family ties could be if we began to do this, and a chat with a Regional Minister is one way to share our stories with the wider family.

The use of power

Ministers, local or trans-local, have a tremendous vantage point from which to see the power of God at work in the world and the church. Power is not a bad thing in itself. It is only when power is abused that it becomes a negative force.

Stories are powerful and sharing stories together of how God is at work, of people coming to faith, of a venture that brought people together, of a small event that made us feel good as ‘church’, all have the power to encourage us in our Gospel ministry.

When one church tells their stories I tend to share, with their permission, these stories as I go around the Association so that one part of the family is aware of the joys and trials of other parts of the family. We can do this verbally and through our Association magazine. This sharing of stories together in the past has resulted in churches linking up to run events and advising one another of mistakes to avoid when doing similar outreach. In some cases, it resulted in funding being sent from one church to another when a story caught the spirit and imagination of another church or of someone in the congregation where the story was being shared. This sort of mutual support empowers everyone involved. One of the challenges for the Association is to find better and more frequent ways to enable the sharing of stories of joys and challenges.

Knowledge is power, and another way in which pastors can empower people in their congregations is to make sure that they have access to the information about training that is provided by the wider family. Suggesting that someone suitable attends a training course, and then cascades the learning to the whole church family, is a good pattern to establish. Identifying training needs in the church and asking the Association if they can provide training for a specific purpose is another healthy pattern. The local church does not have to provide everything itself. Gathering with others from different backgrounds to explore things of mutual interest brings its own richness as we learn from one another.

The abuse of power

A significant amount of time for Regional Ministers and denominational colleagues is spent helping ministers and churches to work through situations where there has been an abuse of power.

If there was one thing that I would want to say to local church pastors, it is to bring someone into a conflict situation sooner rather than later. It is so much more helpful to be called in early enough to do some mediation work. Normally we are called in when it is too late, and all that can be done is listening and damage limitation. Calling in denomination staff is essential when the minister is being abused or placed under pressure. It is not a sign of weakness to involve someone in the role of mediator. Rather it is a sign of maturity. In Philippians 4, Paul urges the church to intervene and release all its resources to mediate between two church leaders involved in some disagreement. When the circumcision argument threatened to disturb the mission of the early church, it was passed on to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. The longer we leave disagreements, the more difficult it becomes for someone objective to come in and help us to resolve the situation. When conflict results in partings, churches can blame the Association/denomination for a situation that arose because their own fearsome pride or independence resulted in help being brought in too late.

For many Christians it is a shock to discover that churches abuse the power they hold over their ministers. Many of us will know someone who has suffered at the hands of a fellow team member, an elder, deacon or church member. In some places the culture of the church is abusive, and minister after minister is destroyed there, or comes for a short time and then leaves for a safer place. I have been doing research into Baptist ministers who have been bullied in the church. This appears to be a real and significant sickness in the church and as in all illness, early intervention produces the most lasting results.

There are of course situations where it is a minister who is the bully. A healthy dose of self-awareness on the part of all ministers would not go to waste.  For most of us, some form of non-managerial supervision or peer mentoring would help us to become more self -aware and more conscious of the way in which our actions and words impact upon other people. Some of those who abuse power appear to be totally unaware that they are manipulating and bullying others. Of course there are those who do so deliberately, but this lack of self-awareness could be addressed by building systems of accountability into our normal practice of ministry.

Summary

This form of trans-local ministry is God’s call on my life at this time. I’m stimulated and challenged by it daily. I am energised by being in God’s place in God’s time.

Ministering to those in the congregation who might be engaged in such ministries does not take much more than a little imagination. Part of the challenge is to recognise that these ministries are valid, normal ministries among us.

Sharing openly and frequently with those whose work is beyond the walls of the local church will always be appreciated and welcomed. This will include all of us being open and honest about our trials as well as our triumphs, and inviting objective outsiders to walk with us through difficult times, preferably sooner rather than later. We are engaged together in the same Gospel ministry and when we work together, it must surely enhance our Gospel witness.

Sheila Martin

Regional Minister for the Eastern Baptist Association

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You are reading Some Ministers Do It Trans-Locally by Sheila Martin, part of Issue 42 of Ministry Today, published in March 2008.

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