May 18, 2011
All Ministry Is Local
Why ministry models are not universally applicable.
A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at a gathering for small church pastors and lay leaders in rural eastern Michigan (locals call it “the thumb”). Eleven or so churches were represented; about 45 folks showed up, all members of the “Thumb Ministry Group.” They had read my book together as a group, discussed it at a meeting, and then invited me to come lead them in a daylong reflection/Q&A/workshop experience that would help them apply the principles in the book to their specific ministry contexts.
It was a great day, from my perspective. The group was interactive, engaged, and prepared. They are learning among them to approach ministry cooperatively, which I find very encouraging. Despite the fact that all of them minister amid tough social challenges–i.e. the unemployment rate is well over 10 percent in that part of the state; so many young working families are abandoning ship–they were all there bright and early, enthusiastic to seek the Lord’s wisdom for their churches.
One thing that struck me after our time together is how seldom I hear from church leadership experts and curriculum materials, etc., the importance of recognizing that all ministry is local. We seem to assume that what works in one place will work everywhere, as if programs and processes are universally appealing and applicable. They just aren’t.
Most of the church leaders present at our conference were members of the same Presbytery, representing a fairly small geographical area. But only one church had a full-time pastor. The rest have part-time clergy or are led by lay people. Some are in small city churches, some in small town churches, some in tourist-town churches, and others in middle-of-nowhere churches. One pastor there (one of two Methodists present) has a two-point charge. That means he oversees two churches: one is rural and the other is downtown in the county seat. He remarked at different points in our time together that the application of some of the principles we discussed would be radically different at each church. Ministry, strategies, and solutions don’t (or shouldn’t) come prepackaged. It should be organic, local.
I’ve been mulling over two other observations since that weekend. First, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out in Life Together, it is dangerous to enter ministry with an inflexible sense of what church ought to be. Sure, you should be clear on what qualities and characteristics mark the biblical church. But how the church will embody those characteristics will in large part be determined by the culture of the church you’re in (and the town or county your church is in). If we fail to recognize this, our careers may well be lifelong efforts to conform our congregations to our image.
Second, it seems clear that a pastor’s #1 responsibility is to know his or her people. Puritan Richard Baxter argued that a church is too big when its pastor can no longer spend meaningful time in the homes of all its members on a regular basis. There’s something to that. Vision casting, strategic planning, and program development are all fine things. But they come second to knowing intimately the people we are planning to minister with and to.
That’s my two cents. I’m eager to hear your thoughts.