See Your Congregation as the Top Soil for the Spirit’s Work

The job of church leaders, according to the Apostle Peter, is to faithfully administer the various forms of God’s gifts to serve others (1 Peter 4:10).  The practicalities of administering such gifts are very challenging.  The hardest part is finding enough jobs for everybody in their shared congregational life.  Ironically, traditional church leaders complain they can’t get enough people to fill all the jobs in their church’s committee structure.  That is because so many churches today have the wrong theology of church and an outdated understanding of church leadership.

Jesus, in his very first parable of the Sower and the Seed, described the poor soils that were hard, rocky and weedy, and then the good soil which produced a bumper crop.  Paul thought of the Corinthians as a field where he planted, Apollos watered and God gave the growth.

Consider the application of these metaphors to church leadership today.  Eugene Peterson is best known for his paraphrase of the Bible called The Message.  A pastor’s pastor, he describes a congregation as the topsoil for pastoral work.  “It is the material substance in which all the Spirit’s work takes place—these people, assembled in worship, dispersed in blessing.”

“They are so ordinary, so unobtrusively there, it is easy to take them for granted, to quit seeing the interactive energies, and to become so preoccupied in building my theological roads, mission constructs, and parking lot curricula that I start treating this precious congregational topsoil as something dead and inert to be arranged to suit my vision.  Why do pastors so often treat congregations with the impatience and violence of developers building a shopping mall instead of the patient devotion of a farmer cultivating a field?”

The Apostle Paul described what such ministry of cultivating a field would look like, as he explained in passages that were never fully appreciated by churches and their leaders over seventeen centuries of institutional Christianity.

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor 12), he wanted the believers in his churches to not be ignorant of spiritual gifts.  One manifestation of the Spirit is in the variety of talents, special callings and energies that are to be put to work for the common good of the congregation.  The second, greater manifestation is the way the Spirit produces faith, hope, love and other such qualities in the lives of believers.

A traditional congregation usually divides itself between clergy-like people who do the ministry and everybody else, the laity who support those few with their prayers and offerings.  In contrast, in Paul’s understanding, every member is a minister.  The job of leaders, including pastors, is to guide and support them in what they are all doing for the common good.

To understand Paul’s thinking, follow him as he shifts in 1 Corinthians 3:10 from seeing a congregation in organic terms to envisioning it as a building.  He regarded himself as the master builder or the architect for putting all the human pieces together as a temple in which the Spirit brings energy for dynamic ministry.

Most traditional congregations are organized poorly.  They have committees trying to determine what others are supposed to do.  This is a sure formula for a static church life.  In American culture today, each congregation does need a small governance structure to oversee facilities and finances, like a corporate board of trustees.  Greater efficiency and effectiveness come from having a separate ministry structure that takes responsibility to administer the people doing the basic ministries.

I have learned the following cardinal leadership principle in suburban churches: Don’t waste the personal time of those wanting to do a ministry.  Put them to work as quickly and directly as possible, and give them the necessary support to do well.  As congregations get larger, they need to recognize staff who are ministry developers.  Usually these are paid.  We tell staff they should work 40 hours a week plus as many hours as their best volunteers put in.  Staff are inclined to do the ministry themselves.  They add value to the extent they can help others do their various ministries.

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