Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Preparing for a new pastor, concluded

As important as understanding a pastor's calling and work is, that is not the whole story. If we do not also recognize the importance of our own calling and work, we have not really prepared for our new pastor. I'll finish this series with some reflections on what it means to be called as a church member, and what the work of lay-people is.

First, let's look for help in understanding our calling as congregants. To begin with, it is the call of the Gospel; specifically, the call to be ingrafted into Christ's body, to become a member of God's family, to be a citizen of the Kingdom. When Scripture teaches about the results of our conversion, it is never strictly individualistic: there are many aspects that are personal, individual, and even private in a way, but there are as many that have to do with our community and world, our affiliation with the church (both local and universal), and our belonging in a corporate organism. Thus, the first aspect of our calling means that we care about the life of the church-- not just about our own benefit and satisfaction from being a part of it.

Beyond that, how are we called to be a part of the church? No church that I know of lacks some kind of membership process; whatever this may look like, it implies that there is a level of commitment for members that is absent, or at least less prominent, for non-members. And most every church I have witnessed receiving new members asks them to take some sort of vow, or (usually) a set of vows. In my denomination, three vows stand out relating to our calling as members:
  • To support the church in its worship and work to the best of your ability. Do you, and do others in your church, recognize your participation in the work of the church? Or do you leave the work for the staff, or the Elders or Deacons? If you have made any sort of a vow like this, you need to remember your participation as a part of the calling given to you as a member.
  • To submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the church. Decisions are going to be made and, believe it or not, they won't consult you. How will you react? Your new pastor may teach or preach something that is challenging and convicting to you-- or he may even articulate it personally to you. What will be your response? Defensiveness, frustration, or discord in reaction to the ordinary functioning of the government and discipline of the church belies how well you truly understand this vow, and this calling.
  • To promise to study its purity and peace. In the circles I move in, it is far too easy to focus on the purity part and forget the peace. But my calling as a congregant-- and yours as well-- is to study both the purity of the church, and her peace. And sometimes making peace requires the kind of humility and self-denial that is hard to muster. But it is what we are called to do.
There is one more aspect of the congregation's call that is relevant to preparing for a new pastor. In 1 Timothy 5, Paul discusses the privilege and honor that those in leadership-- especially pastors-- have in the church. Specifically, he says that the pastors are worthy of “double honor” (vv. 17-18). That is, over and above the honor of authority, dignity, and esteem of character that is given to all of those called to be in leadership, the pastor is also worthy of another honor: the honor of having his material needs met by the church. In other words, Paul says that we, the congregation, are called to pay our pastors well-- enough to provide for their needs. Too few pastors, however, are paid in this way. Most find that their wives must work-- often full-time-- to pay all of the bills, even though they have children at home that need her care. Or they will simply do without for the sake of the choice to keep her at home. For example, I know of a pastor (at a large and prominent church) whose children receive Medicaid insurance, and they qualify for free food through the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program. Basically, this pastor's family is on welfare. Is that the kind of honor Paul speaks of? Churches need to attend to this calling with graciousness, love, and careful attention.

Considering our work as church members is much easier; if we are heeding our calling, our work is fairly straightforward. There are just a few additional ideas I would like to put before you:
  • Be prepared for change. God is at work in your transition. Therefore, the fact that He has moved one pastor on to another ministry, and is preparing another for his work here, means that God intends for there to be some change in the ministry here. Don't feel like you have to sell out your core convictions as a church-- your search committee should have been careful enough to protect against that. But do be ready for the changes that will inevitably come, and study the peace when they do.
  • Trust in God’s calling. When God leads a man, through both internal call (his personal conviction that he is called somewhere) and external call (the conviction of those that extend to him that call), He does so with a purpose and plan that we cannot always understand or see. Nevertheless, we must trust in His work to execute His plan, and trust that His plan is the best plan for His people (Jer. 29:11-13).
  • Exercise hospitality. Use creative ways to welcome them to your community and church. Show them at least the same kind of love and acceptance you would show to visitors and newer attenders. I heard about one church that handed out 3x5“ index cards to every family, then asked each family to write down two or three businesses or individuals they would recommend to the new pastor and his family. They presented these to the pastor, and then he knew what auto mechanic, realtor, dentist, or plumber to call based on the experiences of his flock. Another church created a three-ring binder ”atlas“ for their pastor, with directions and maps from the church office to all of the places he might want to go-- the nursing home where many retirees in the church live, the main hospital in town, the other sister churches, etc. These are just a couple of creative ideas; you can think of other good ones, too.
Just about everyone wants their new pastor to succeed and thrive in his ministry. I hope that these ideas have been practical reflections on some ways that you can make that much more likely to happen.

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