Okay, here it is — the answer to all our problems in The United Methodist Church. It is so simple, you probably won’t believe/accept it. It comes in two parts — the first part is fundamental conventional wisdom, the second part, not so much. It answers the question: “what is the key to successful, effective ministry in The United Methodist Church?” Part one of the answer is “pastoral leadership,” but the second part is not “who is a stellar preacher, theologian, celebrity, visionary, organizer, fund-raiser, entrepreneur, or administrator.” No, the second part of the statement is “that spends at least 50% of their time developing lay people.” Scanning my own research and the research results of three other studies, the strongest correlation between congregational vitality and pastoral leadership is in empowering and equipping lay people to live their discipleship out in the world in their daily lives. Who would have guessed?
Oh, sure, there are very high-profile exceptions, and in the 20-30 year short-term a shiny, perky celebrity pastor can carry the façade of health and vitality for a church, but for deep impact and lasting value, it is pastors who seek to work themselves out of a job who benefit the church the most. To work with laity — to help them discern gifts and talents, then to work with them through training, practice and engagement to transform those gifts and talents into lived strengths? That is the true key to congregational vitality.
But too many of our pastoral leaders have confused their ministry with the ministry of the church. The laos — the whole people of God — are clergy and laity working together to discern and do the will of God. “Pastor” means “shepherd,” and pastors who remember and embrace this are the very best pastors. The laity are the church in the world. Pastors stand in a unique, and critically important, position to equip, empower, and enable laity to be in ministry to all the world. Pastors don’t do ministry for the church or for the congregation. Good pastors enable the congregation to be in ministry — and not just a handful of representatives. When you look at real “vital” congregations, the number one indicator (more important than worship attendance or small groups) is the percentage of participants actively engaged in service to others. Some of our touted “vital congregations” struggle to get 1/3 of their membership to church on a Sunday morning. However, we have hundreds of congregations where not only do 80% percent attend on a regular basis, but 80%+ are engaged in some form of leadership or ministry engagement. This is the true definition of vitality — changed lives impacting the world in transforming ways. Interesting that our denomination doesn’t see this metric as important as numbers and dollars…
This shouldn’t be an unfamiliar model. If you want the textbook example I would highly recommend this great set of books on the subject — the gospels. Jesus provides an intensive example of lay empowerment. And his story is one worth studying for those of us hoping to produce fantastic results quickly with a minimum of effort. (It doesn’t work that way…) Jesus didn’t just teach it or preach it; he lived it. Disciple-shaping is time-consuming and heavily interactive. It isn’t information based, but relational/formation based. It isn’t a “program,” but an unfolding. It isn’t linear, but looping and erratic. It isn’t about destination, so much as journey; not about being so much as becoming.
The day of the superstar pastor leading a church to glory is thankfully and mercifully coming to an end. The myth of the mega-church as the Promised Land has been debunked. Our future is not in materialistic commercialism and market strategies. The hope for our future is in relational community geared toward shared service and gift-based fruit-producing living. The institutional preservationist’s mindset is beginning to crack and crumble — even a few of our more spiritual and insightful bishops are beginning to say so.
I often hear people lament about the poor preaching or lack of charismatic leadership in the church. Yet, I see some churches with mediocre preachers and milquetoast leaders motivating whole congregations of people to love, give, serve and grow in transformative ways. What’s the difference? These leaders understand they aren’t there to perform for the masses or build a business. They get it that they are servant leaders — present in the community of faith to enable all to reach their fullest potential. When pastors focus on developing gifted laity to be the church for the world, amazing things happen.