Re-evangelizing America with changes in our ministry roles

jesus picTo re-reach a changing American culture, the American Church needs a different understanding of ministry roles. I think that goes for the Baptists, the Presbyterians, and the non-denominationals as much as for the UMC.

No matter which (non-)denomination we come from, the assumption seems to be that called Christian ministers should all serve in some form of chaplain’s role. Or worse — as visionary CEO types or as entertainers.

If someone takes the role of evangelistic church planter, we expect that person to start the church and then become its chaplain (or CEO or entertainer).

What if we acknowledged, as the New Testament and early Methodism did, a distinction between the traveling preacher and the local pastor?

What is a Traveling Preacher?

The traveling preacher (you might also use the term evangelist or apostle) is always an outsider of sorts. An outsider who is intentional about knowing the community like an insider — caring about the people, understanding their language and customs. But still an outsider, because it’s known that he won’t be with the community forever. His role there is temporary, or more exactly, transient.

Paul traveled far and wide in the New Testament to fulfill his apostolic role. Early Methodist circuit riders were often assigned large territories and traveled hundreds of miles on horseback. Given the segmented nature of society today, a “traveling” preacher could never leave a particular city and yet move constantly between different people groups.

The preacher does not provide day-to-day pastoral care. (S)he preaches the gospel, leads people to Christ, and assimilates them into community (not necessarily in that order). In our shifting culture, this sort of work will require great courage (see this great charge to seminary grads by Tim Tennent). Those who have gone before us faced incredible challenges that most contemporary American preachers haven’t had to face.

She trains and appoints certain members of that community — we could call them elders — to provide the day-to-day pastoral care from there forward. And she probably continues to check in on them to correct, rebuke, and encourage.

What is a Local Pastor?

The local pastor, on the other hand, is an insider. Immersed in the community. No plans of leaving for anything bigger or better. It has a familial sense to it. When was the last time you saw someone leave their family for another because they got a more lucrative offer?

Family is about people, not systems. So it won’t do for someone to say, “The ____ denomination is my big family, and I go wherever I’m needed in it.” Sounds nice, but I don’t buy it.

I believe this is what we need. We have too few traveling, church planting preachers and too few local pastors.

You’re a “layperson” and wonder how any of this applies to you? We need you, too! And you don’t necessarily need to go to seminary or be ordained. In my Methodist tradition, the majority of John Wesley’s traveling preachers were unordained. And the UMC continues to train lay speakers and license local pastors.

If a particular organization puts up a bunch of red tape before you are allowed to proclaim the gospel, assimilate people into community, and teach them to worship together, I’d question which is more important, the organization or the task at hand.

We Need Traveling Preachers

So you say that you fit the traveler’s role? The reason that you move around from church to church is to provide an outsider’s perspective, to give encouragement, to train and support the local people who are really the lifeblood of the ministry. You might talk about how you never engage in a ministry that the “laity” aren’t doing side-by-side.

Great! We need you! Desperately.

You’ve acknowledged that you’re temporary, transient. You won’t be around for the long haul, so you’re helping others take on the bulk of the ministry. You’re ensuring that your people are providing each other with pastoral care and aren’t dependent on you.

Now one more thing: we need you to plant churches.

At least one every five years.

And I’m probably already shooting way low. I should have said every three years.

And we need you to do it while you continue those other roles of support, training, and encouragement for your existing congregation(s).

Too much? You’ve just said that the local people are doing the bulk of the ministry, that they’re not to be dependent on you. That can’t be your excuse.

Whatever the excuse is, we need you to get over it and plant new churches. Throughout history, church planting has without question been the most effective method of evangelism.

Just to sustain, a denomination needs to start new congregations each year equal to at least three percent of its current number of congregations. For the Kentucky UMC that would mean roughly 24 new congregations per year. And that’s to sustain!

I would take it this far… If you’re unwilling or unable to consistently (be it in five months or five years) plant new churches, I think you need to reconsider your role as a traveling preacher.

But maybe you say, “These aren’t excuses. Church planting isn’t my calling or gifting. I’m a pastor at heart.”

Great! We need you! Desperately.

Local Pastors

Be a local pastor. Immerse yourself in a community.

Make it clear that you have no intention of leaving. No larger paycheck, pulpit, or parsonage will convince you to leave this family for another. You are one of them.

Your leadership as an insider makes a difference. It makes an enormous difference to know that you aren’t just the pastor for hire until you get a different gig.

And you should probably work to have as many other local pastors on board as possible. This is no one-(wo)man show. This is especially important if we continue thinking this way. Who are your next day-to-day pastoral leaders? They are in your midst. Don’t wait for someone to be sent/hired from somewhere else.

My own Methodist heritage has great examples of how important a located pastor is. Don Haynes says, “The keys to our staying power were the located elders, local preachers and Sunday school superintendents.” 1 He calls these local elders “the pillars and backbone of local churches.”

Some of you are in systems that will easily allow you to declare you’re with a local church for life. Others will have a harder time. But it’s not impossible.

I gave my word to go where the Bishop sends,” says the Methodist elder, “I can’t tell my people I’m with them for good.”

You do have options. Is your character in good standing? Do you intend to discontinue service in the itinerant ministry? Then request honorable location — a remnant from our history of locating elders. See paragraph 359 of the Discipline.

We haven’t been using this to allow people to become “local elders,” but show me why it can’t be used that way.

Yes, you’ll create all kinds of problems for the system. People may refuse you. At the least, you certainly may not be able to keep the same sort of pay and benefits. (Were you expecting anything less?) But if your heart and gifting are truly about being a local pastor, why don’t you be one?

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  1. In a UM Reporter article that’s sadly no longer available.

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