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Reflections on the Tasks Involved in Church Leadership

By Steve Finnamore.

Introduction

Over the years, first as ministerial student, then as a local pastor, I have read many books on pastoring and leading churches. I now work in a building with a library full of such books because my job is in ministerial formation. Needless to say, these books contain lots of good and helpful material. However, I have to confess that I have often found myself mildly irritated, and occasionally angered, by these volumes, for two main reasons. First, so many of them seemed to wholly unrealistic in their expectations of my capacity. Second, few of them seemed to offer any adequate organizing principle or idea around which the different tasks of ministry might coalesce.

Let me clarify the reasons for my disquiet. First, though the books concerned seemed to be full of very sound advice, they did not seem to take my circumstances at all seriously. For example, if I had ever chosen to take to heart the things I read in books about preaching, all I would ever have done is deliver one sermon a week. There would have been no time for anything else. Something similar would have been true for books about pastoral visiting, personal devotions, private reading, church administration, and so on. If I did the things any one of the books recommended, then that would be all I could do. It seems to me that I needed a book which recognized that, in most weeks, I would, among other things, preach two sermons, prepare two orders of service, lead a Bible study, chair a couple of meetings, make pastoral visits, attend denominational and ecumenical events, read, pray, exercise, mix with people from outside the church, and find time to spend with my family.

The second reason for my irritation sprang from what seemed to be the presumption of most of the books that everyone knows what the church is and what it is for, leading to a particular understanding of ministry. The truth, I fear, is that the nature of the church is a disputed issue among us. It follows that understandings of ministry will also be different. The result of all this is that there is actually no natural limit to the number of different things that a church might do or be. A minister might spend his or her time in a vast number of different ways. Some guiding idea is needed around which the different tasks can be understood.

Third and last, I am very conscious that the word task may already be understood to imply a particular understanding of ministry – one based on function. This is not necessarily my intention. For the sake of argument, let me say that my understanding of ministry is based on the idea of a calling from God, recognized by the Church or by a network of churches, to spiritual oversight. An awareness of calling is essential if effective ministry is to be exercised. Gifting alone is not sufficient. However great our gifts may be, there will always be people with greater gifts in certain areas. We can easily feel threatened or intimidated by those who are cleverer or better than we are. Those who understand that they are called to help enhance the discipleship of others will rejoice in opportunities to oversee the development of others. Furthermore, they will not feel the need to assert their authority in unhelpful or potentially abusive ways. My contention is that, in most circumstances, this calling implies certain activities and these I refer to as tasks.

An Organizing Principle for Church Life and Ministry

I think it’s probably true of most of us that our opinions on these things change over the years. My current position is that church life and ministry are best understood when seen through the lens of discipleship. Churches are best understood as communities of disciples (John 15.1-11, Romans 12.3-13.14 and 1 Corinthians 12.14-27 strongly suggest this). Those who belong to churches are to be disciples, to deepen discipleship, to make disciples. The role of pastors is to exercise spiritual oversight (I take this to be the key idea behind the episcope [and cognates] language of the Pastoral Letters) of these things. I think that this means that ministers are called to serve the churches by enabling these things to happen in ways which are true to the Scriptures, to the teachings of the Great Church in general and to the best of the traditions to which the particular local church belongs. What this amounts to is that pastors must themselves be followers of Jesus, help those who are part of the church to follow Jesus, and work with the church to encourage those who do not yet do so to begin to follow Jesus.

Lots of pastors refer to themselves as ‘leaders’ and I have no particular objection to this designation provided that the term comes with no implication that this is the same phenomenon, requiring the same skills and attributes found in the leaders other kinds of organizations. There may be a great deal to learn from corporate executives, officers in the armed forces and political leaders, but we need to bear in mind that their motivations, definitions of success and overall objectives are very different from those of the Church and the kingdom it serves. Insights from secular contexts must always be treated carefully and critically.

One standard definition of a leader is expressed in terms of having followers. This is fine up to a point. However, pastors should always bear in mind that their key task is not to get people to follow them, but to follow Jesus. We are disciples making disciples (Matthew 28.16-20).

Task 1: Be a Disciple

It seems to be stating the obvious, but it may need to be said that, before anything else, those called to church leadership must themselves be following Jesus. They are those who practise their discipleship in the context of ministry. I further believe that pastors, as people called to the spiritual oversight of the discipleship of others, are to be exemplary disciples. What I mean by this is that when people ask themselves what it means to follow Jesus, they should be able to look at their pastor and see a model of how this might be done.

Of course, the minister will not be the only model. Not everyone is called to practise discipleship in this particular way. Calling and circumstances will differ and so the pastor is not to be imitated slavishly. Nevertheless, church leaders should offer a model to others; people should be able to look at them and say, ‘So that’s how it’s done!’. In addition to this, ministers are representative figures and may be understood to embody the values of the communities they lead. Indeed, the ethos of a church will often reflect the values perceived in its leader. For all these reasons, and for many others, personal discipleship can never be shirked; there is no ministry without it.

There are plenty of resources that address the issues. However, it is worth mentioning certain points which are especially significant. First, and vitally, there is the matter of personal spirituality. Prayer, Bible reading and other spiritual disciplines are the heartbeat of discipleship and therefore the stuff of ministry. This work is hidden and therefore easily neglected. It should be ingrained into the pattern of our lives.

The next issue concerns care with our words. We are used to weighing carefully what we will say in formal contexts such as Bible studies and sermons. However, particular care is needed in the ‘soft’ engagements we have with people. Whether we like it or not, leadership has a representative dimension and therefore our words are heard differently from those of others. Our off the cuff, throwaway remarks may be taken more readily to heart than we know. An encounter which to us seems insignificant may be full of meaning for others. We would all do well to watch our words with greater care.

Finally, I will group together the issues that I constantly raise with students – those of money, sex and power. Of course, these things are potential dangers for all disciples. Nevertheless, the representative nature of our calling means that our failings in these areas will have an impact among those we lead. While we will often feel powerless, others will perceive us as powerful and this can lead to opportunities to abuse our position and the trust people place in us. The Christlike path belongs to all his followers, but it is the special privilege, whether we always like it or not, of those called to serve his other servants. We would do well to reflect regularly on the things Paul says about ministry in 2 Corinthians. Our lives should be the shape of the gospel we are called to announce.

Task 2: Help Others to Be Disciples

I now want to explore the ways in which the activities usually associated with ministry might be understood in terms of discipleship.

One area where discipleship is all too rarely taken seriously is that of pastoral care. All too often, pastors collude with church members who want to reduce this to the provision of company and sympathy. These are important, but they are not, in and of themselves, the stuff of ministry. Pastoral care is about encouraging and enabling discipleship.

One of the reasons it is so important for ministers to visit the bereaved, the divorced, the redundant and the sick is that they will often need help in working out how to be a disciple in their new circumstances. Somebody who has been following Jesus through their job will need help in understanding how they can follow him when they are unemployed or retired. This means that pastoral visiting is about helping people with their patterns of prayer and Bible reading, their witness to Jesus, their sense of calling to particular tasks and so on. Of course, visiting need not take place only at times of crisis. Indeed, contact at other times can be of great help in forming relationships of trust which will enhance helpfulness when crisis looms. Nevertheless, the goal is always to help people to follow Jesus more and more closely.

Since the nurturing of disciples is always our purpose, ministerial authority always needs to be used with great care. Disciples need to learn to take responsibility for their own decisions. We should avoid practices that tend to create any unnecessary dependency. This may be unavoidable in the early days of a previously unchurched disciple, but should not last beyond that stage. Pastors advise and warn, but do not usually issue orders except in extreme circumstances.

To this end, pastors need to be confident that they have been called to spiritual oversight and that this implies permission to ask sensitive questions. We ask, with due sensitivity, about people’s relationship with God, their careers and yes, their finances. These are all spiritual issues. And then we pray with them and we help them to pray.

Something similar applies to mentoring. When we do this, we are helping others as they prepare for a new vocation or pattern of living. These will all involve following Jesus in the avenues of work and ministry for which they are preparing or in which they are making a beginning. This is particularly significant if we are involved in preparing the next generation of church leaders.

Another task where these things come into focus is that of preaching. Of course, the goal is always to glorify God and to proclaim God’s word, but we need to have an eye on one of the outcomes we are looking for, which is, especially where there is a teaching component, that our hearers are helped, encouraged or challenged to follow Jesus more closely. The same is surely true of our Bible studies or the other learning contexts.

If the goal is to encourage others to be disciples, this must imply that they are given opportunities to exercise the gifts they have been given, some of which most naturally belong to the life of the church. Part of the task of oversight is to create space for this to happen. The leader continues to exercise oversight over what happens; he or she must ensure that gifts are exercised in ways that are biblical, conform to the apostolic tradition, are theologically orthodox and appropriate to the best of the tradition of which the local church is a part.

Worship leaders, choir masters and Sunday School teachers are all to be encouraged to make use of their gifts in ways that are accountable to those whom the church has called to oversight. There will be occasions when a musician or a home group leader will resist any intervention from their pastor. They may reason that, since God has gifted them, they should be left alone to get on with things as they see fit. I believe that this attitude needs to be graciously challenged because the calling to spiritual oversight cannot be abandoned. The doing of things in the church may not be the leader’s responsibility, but the oversight of them surely is. This is perhaps especially true of those two traditional foci of ministry, Word and Sacrament.

As an aside, let me say that this gives us one of the reasons why those called to be pastors should usually be theologically educated and have their calling tested and endorsed (1 Timothy 5.22a may be apposite here) by the wider network of churches. The task of ensuring that what a church offers is biblical and apostolic requires a degree of theological competence and a capacity for theological reflection. Furthermore, if a sense of calling is vital to this task being done in a gentle and non-abusive way, then a wider testing and endorsement of the calling is surely helpful.

Task 3: Making New Disciples

It is all too easy for pastors to be caught up in the activities involved in the first two tasks and to presume that this task is being dealt with by others. Needless to say, this will not do. First, the minister should be an exemplary disciple and the making of disciples is a necessary part of all true discipleship. Second, leadership has a representational dimension and so ministers are perceived to be those who embody the values of their church. If the making of disciples is not prominent among these, then it may not be seen as significant by others. Finally, as with the things discussed above, it may be that others are particularly gifted in this area and should be encouraged to get on with things. However, the responsibility for the spiritual oversight of any activities remains with the minister.

This suggests that those of us who have no or very few relationships with people beyond the church are failing in our discipleship and offering a poor model. We all need to have some parts of our lives where we are in contexts that require us to be a witness to Jesus Christ and to have the possibility of helping people to become disciples.

In addition, pastors need to spend time with those in the church with a particular call and gifting for evangelism, especially if they develop strategies which are carried out in the church’s name. This will include activities like Holiday Clubs, Alpha courses, some youth work, events with guest speakers, and so on. Pastors should be talking to those who lead these things about the ways in which people are being invited to become Christians. They should be seeking to ensure that it is always related to the idea of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

None of this implies that evangelism is the only form of mission in which the church engages. Naturally, the church will campaign for justice, offer prophetic insights into the great issues of our day, address issues of climate change and so on. These are to be understood as part of the way in which our discipleship is exercised. It is vital that churches do these things. However, if they are seen as an alternative to the making of disciples, then something has gone wrong. Encouraging people to become disciples of Jesus Christ must be understood as a necessary part of the life of any community calling itself a church.

Conclusion

My goal in this article has been to address two issues: first, to present church leadership as something that is manageable in terms of the demands it places upon a person’s time; and second, to offer a coherent, biblical idea around which the different tasks associated with ministry can be gathered. I have offered discipleship as that core idea. I have argued that pastors are those who are called to lead communities of disciples. The key tasks of the pastor are to be an exemplary disciple, to oversee the discipleship of others, and to be involved in the making of disciples. I do not suggest I have offered anything particularly novel, but I hope to have clarified the issues and the tasks in a helpful way.

Steve Finnamore

Principal of Bristol Baptist College

Ministry Today

You are reading Reflections on the Tasks Involved in Church Leadership by Steve Finnamore, part of Issue 65 of Ministry Today, published in November 2015.

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