Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms.
-1 Peter 4:10, (NIV)
My college roommate's father, David May, is a member of a small church in Minnesota. His church doesn't have a minister – or a preacher, or a pastor, or whatever appellation for clergy you can think of. They don't have anyone on staff to do “church work” like preaching, evangelizing, hospital visitation, and so on. It doesn't seem like this is a temporary condition from which they're hoping and praying to be soon delivered, either: They don't seem to be looking for anyone, or trying to find funding for the position. They seem to have chosen, at least for the foreseeable future, to get along without “a minister.”
I’m not exactly objective about this, but I was surprised. “How are they surviving?” I asked myself. “How are they getting by without someone to write bulletin articles or preach on Sundays or answer the office phone?” Believe me, I'm as astonished as you are, but...
Well, they seem to be doing just fine, thank you.
I guess that's because when I say they don't have a minister, I mean that they don't have someone who they pay to be The Minister. It turns out that they actually have a whole bunch of ministers, a whole church full of them, in fact. Mr. May wrote an article in The Christian Chronicle several years ago about this very thing. “People step up and do what is necessary when the responsibility is theirs,” he wrote. “When there is a located preacher the temptation in our busy world is to hope the preacher will get it done.” He goes on:
“[Without a minister], if someone is going to give a devotional talk on Sunday morning, it will be a member. If anyone is to sit with a woman while her husband has surgery, it will be a member. If a visitor is to be invited to lunch and offered an ear and a prayer, it will come from a member. If we are going to reach out to the community around us, the leadership will come from the members.”
To be fair, Mr. May doesn’t say that churches who have ministers should get rid of them. I do think, as non-objective as I am about the matter, that a paid minister who loves the Lord and the church and works hard can be a blessing. Paul seemed to think so, too. I do wonder, though, whether the whole idea of a professional clergy as we know it today might just be pretty far from the biblical understanding of who the church is and what it is we're supposed to be doing.
In the Bible, God's grace isn't all about forgiveness of sins. That's part of it, of course, but God gives us much more than just mercy for when we mess up. The Bible speaks of God's grace in terms of the abilities he gives to people, as well. As recipients of God's grace we have received not only pardon for our sins, but also abilities and opportunities to share God's love and blessings with the people around us. Some can preach, and Peter reminds the church he writes to that they should do so with words God gives them. Some can provide service and assistance, and he tells them that they should do it with the strength God blesses them with. And some have business acumen, or skill in trades, or culinary skill, or medical knowledge, or IT expertise. These are all expressions of God's grace given in the form of talent, interest, education, and so on. And the health of the church requires that every part does what it's there to do.
That's the very thing, of course, that the professionalization of ministry can prevent. The minister, or whatever you call him in your tradition, can too easily become the paid ministerial proxy for the rest of the congregation. He does the ministry; the rest of the church just shows up to pay for it. Sometimes church members like it that way. Sometimes, truth be told, so do the professional ministers.
If there’s a leadership crisis in the church, then don’t the current leaders in the church have to bear some of the responsibility? Don’t professional ministers like me have to answer for thinking that our agendas, our perspectives, and our emphases are the only ones that should drive the church? Don’t we have to answer for deifying our education and experience, promoting the God-denying philosophy that the church runs on our expertise and hard work? Don’t we have to answer for dismissing the ideas of lay leaders like elders and deacons and Sunday School teachers and VBS organizers as uninformed?
Church leaders, we have to recapture the awe and expectation that the marvelously multi-faceted grace of God is supposed to generate. God’s grace, and the gifts that come with it, isn’t doled out in seminary. It isn’t passed down from some denominational office, and it doesn’t suddenly descend from the heavens in the form of a dove after 10 years of experience.
Neither are the myriad forms of God’s grace given only to those who are like us: who have the same shade of skin, or speak English like it’s their first language, or have attained a particular income level, or agree with me on all my pet doctrines. God’s grace has always been poured out in unusual ways on unexpected people.
It isn’t our job as church leaders to create new leaders. It’s our job to recognize them: to see a new generation of leaders being chosen by God, and to encourage them and guide them and lead them until they can take their positions.
If there’s a leadership crisis in the church, then just maybe we aren’t doing our jobs.
So who is God raising up in your church? If you say “No one,” then you’re mistaken. You’re just not seeing it. Adjust your expectations, sharpen your vision. In whose life do you see the unmistakable marks of the varied grace of God? Who do you see faithfully using their gifts of grace to serve the church?
Those are the new generation of leaders God is raising up. Encourage them. Provide them resources. Help them. And then get out of the way and watch God turn them loose.