* This article was run a few weeks ago but was “lost” in our blog conversion. Many have written in trying to locate it. Thanks for spreading the love.
Much has been said about the shrinking tenure of local church pastors in recent years. Pastors retire. They move on to “greener pastures”. Some “feel called away”, while others are “run off”. Some get discouraged and leave the ministry altogether. And unfortunately some make unwise decisions that result in moral failure resulting in their removal. Among Southern Baptists each of these premature departures usually sets into motion a series of events facilitated by the all too familiar “Pastor Search Committee”. Many bemoan this trend accusing pastors of leaving their flock without a shepherd. Others note that the polity of churches has morphed to a point where deacons are “running the church”. Regardless of who is at fault, everyone can agree that there is something amiss in our church leadership culture that must be addressed. I believe that this phenomenon is both curious and telling with regards to our identity as Great Commission focused Baptists.
Our identity as “Baptists” is founded upon the biblical concept of local church autonomy. And as “Great Commission Baptists” we should have as a core value the imperative of “making disciples” as our driving ethos. Our brothers and sisters in some other denominations may look to some external hierarchical leadership to provide a replacement for their departed pastor, but I believe we should be looking inside and among the local flock. In fact, I don’t believe that it should be too hard to find a replacement within our churches – provided our churches are actually functioning as Spirit empowered disciple-making entities. That is one of the main reasons for the church, right? If so, then the local church pastor should be always working to reproduce spiritual health through making disciples who “obey all that Christ commanded” (Mt 28:18-20). Pastor/shepherds must be concerned with more than preparing a sermon or planning the next event; Pastors are charged with the task of “equipping the saints for the work of the ministry” (Eph 4:12).
I have served both as a missionary and as a pastor. As a missionary I understood that if I didn’t make disciples among the host cultures I was working in, that church planting would not be possible. I was taught that when entering a cross-cultural mission field I should have an “exit strategy” that involved leaving in place indigenous local leadership. My job as a missionary was to multiply disciples in such a way as to plant multiplying churches. No disciple-making, no real church growth – or church health for that matter. This missiological principle is not only true overseas. It’s true right here in our own North American churches. Pastors must begin to see themselves as missionaries and understand that their role is to build a church through making disciples who are empowered by the Presence of the Holy Spirit of God rather than creating dependency upon themselves.
1 Timothy 3:1 says that when a man aspires to the office of elder/pastor, he desires a good thing. That text has been abused in Southern Baptist circles because we have turned it into a check-list for pastor search committees to use in looking for the next pastor outside of their own local church. I believe that when Paul wrote that epistle to Timothy he intended that the churches in Ephesus develop men who are qualified, not merely look for leaders elsewhere who already met those criteria. In fact, SBC pastors would do well to both understand and communicate that every man in his church should strive to be qualified for the office, whether he ever holds the title or not. Pastors, like missionaries, should be working themselves out of a job. Or better yet, they should be working others into one.
I was once hired as an Associate Pastor by a search committee. A few deacons interviewed me. I “preached in view of a call” and was hired. I had recently returned from serving overseas because of a family health issue. So when I accepted the position it was with an understanding that I would only be there for a few years until our family health issue allowed us to serve internationally again. I took the first year that I was in this rural SBC church to establish relationships and invite people to apprentice in various roles. I did this in the areas of Sunday School, Evangelism, Discipleship and Youth. By the end of the first year I had lay leaders whom I had invested in that had learned these ministries by serving alongside me. During my second year there I passed the baton to those lay leaders and then served them in a support and resourcing role. When my time at that church came to an end, each of those ministries was healthier than ever and were being led exclusively by local lay leaders. Unfortunately the next paid minister who came to the church felt threatened by this environment and dismissed all of those leaders telling him that he would take over. Six months later he left for “greener pastures” and the demoralized lay leaders never really recovered. I will be the first to say that I certainly didn’t do everything right during my time at that church. However, I loved the people enough to lead them toward dependence upon the Holy Spirit rather than me. The simple missiological thought that I had to replace myself drove the way I approached my ministry. What if every SBC pastor approached their ministry with the perseverance to stay the course for a lifetime, but with the humility of empowering the church to be healthy with or without him?
The fact that our first thought at the premature departure of a pastor is to form a search committee, I believe entails that there is a systemic failure of understanding of the Great Commission and of the role of the pastor/shepherd toward completion. Let me be clear, I’m in no way saying that the formation of a pastor search committee is morally wrong. Too often churches are left with a mess because the departing pastor built the ministry upon his presence. What I am saying is that the single most important role of a local church pastor should be to raise up a church filled with qualified replacements. Local churches should be structured to cultivate disciples and that begins with the pastor making disciple-makers. If the pastor must leave, there should be a clear pool of disciple-makers who have been equipped by him to assume leading the church. When there is no clear internal choice, it is likely owing to the fact that the departing pastor didn’t understand the 2 Timothy 2:2 mandate of his ministry.
This shift in understanding begins with the pastor. Pastor, when it’s time for you to go, where will your church look for a shepherd? If you’ve done a good job, they shouldn’t have to look too far. If the SBC is to be known as “Great Commission Baptists”, then that identity is going to emerge from local church pastors who begin to think and minister like missionaries.