A few years ago, I moved from one church to another expecting the two congregations to be very similar. Both were mid-sized, with many young families and a healthy population of children and youth. Both churches valued music, worshiped informally, and generally supported their denomination. Both were located in areas of potential growth.

But after making the move, I discovered one way in which the two congregations were significantly different. I had moved to a church that was consciously not staff-dependent from one that had probably never thought about it one way or the other. I found myself having to learn new styles of ministry and leadership and asking myself some questions that seemed very important.

What Is a Staff-Dependent Congregation Like?

I spent eleven years in a very positive pastoral relationship with a congregation of energetic, friendly people who were busy both inside and outside of the church. The congregation attracted a steady stream of new members over the years. It had vital Christian education, fellowship opportunities, and mission and outreach programs. Most of the years, the treasurer reported there was a little money in the bank.

But my memories of those years include a time in which I came very close to burnout. I reached a point where I felt a deep weariness and hopelessness about the future.

Since that time, a light has turned on for me about my experience. I realize I am working at least as hard now as I was then, even harder in some ways, but I am feeling nothing of the burnout I felt then. The difference has to do with responsibility.

I believe I carried the burden of an inappropriate sense of responsibility for that church. My vision of what the church should be to that congregation drove me in my ministry. The trouble was, the congregation did not seem to own my vision. It did not drive them. Nor did I ask them about their vision of what a church should be.

As moderator of the session, I believed it was my job to see that the elders arrived at consensus before any vote was taken. I had to understand how every issue should turn out and how to get to a peaceful consensus. I felt responsible for protecting the leadership of the church from conflict!

The congregation responded well to my preaching, teaching, and leadership (at least on the whole; over the years, those who did not respond dropped out or moved on). But, as the years passed, I noticed that I was initiating most of the programs. For example, I initiated a youth program that worked as long as I was in charge, but floundered when I tried to pass it on to the laity. The members of the church were typically busy, but being busy is not the same thing as being responsible. It was clearly the responsibility of the “professionals” (who know more about such things) to worry about whether or not our church school program was actually accomplishing what we wanted; the congregation was doing its part by showing up.

This became frustrating. At one point, I developed a policy statement for the session in which my own responsibilities and those of the elders were clearly spelled out. The discussion was positive. The statement was clear, well-written, and unanimously adopted. But nothing changed. I now realize that things did not change because it was my policy. It addressed my problem.

About the time of my worst burnout I heard the joke about the small-town minister who had the strange habit of stopping whatever he was doing and rushing to the train station every day to watch the 11:45 express go through town. People who observed this were puzzled. The train didn’t stop so he couldn’t be meeting anyone. Why did he do it? Finally someone mustered the courage to ask the minister, who answered that he liked to watch the train go through because it was the only thing in that town that moved without his pushing it.

I know the feeling.

What Is a Non-Staff-Dependent Congregation Like?

Early in my move to a new congregation, I began to have some disorienting experiences.

I would arrive at church in the evening for a meeting and discover another meeting taking place that I did not know about. Why didn’t I know about that meeting? Did it mean I was not sufficiently on top of things? Was there some reason those people did not want me at their meeting? Should I be concerned? Or pleased? I made some inquiries and was told that the minister is not expected to attend every meeting and that when I was needed I would surely be invited!

When the first family asked to join the church after I arrived, it turned out to be an occasion of continuing education. I shared our “good news” with an elder and suggested we call a session meeting to receive new members between church school and worship the next Sunday. The quorum for receiving new members is small and would only take about five minutes. The elder did not know me very well yet but had enough gumption to say that ordinarily in this congregation new members go through inquirer’s class before they join and that the session meeting is important enough not to rush. I am convinced that such a conversation never would have happened at my former church. Here was an elder explaining to me that the process into membership in the congregation is important and it matters how well it is done!

When someone visits this church for the first time, they are greeted by a member of the congregation, not the staff. When they become interested in joining the church, they are invited to an inquirer’s class that is led by members of the congregation. At the session meeting where they are received, every elder takes time to talk about what the church has meant to her or him and to offer specific invitations for ways the new member can get involved. They are introduced in worship by congregation members.

All of the committees of session meet at the same time once a month. The staff is available for resource and support, but we are not responsible for the work of the committees. And even the session’s agenda is produced at a meeting of the committee chairs with the pastor and clerk of session.

The congregation helped me examine and change my understanding of my role as the moderator of the session. Now I understand that my job is to make sure that issues are clear, questions are answered, the playing field is level, and all sides will be heard. The group has permission to argue, disagree, pray, laugh, and cry together in a setting where they know they will be loved after the vote is taken.

Does This Really Matter? (Theological Reflections)

We are not called to be growth institutions or even smooth-running organizations. We are called to be the body of Christ in the world. We are called to do ministry. We are called to form communities that are shaped by the word and spirit of God. And this calling holds the promise of transforming us into new creations.

No staff person can make any of this happen, no matter how much skill or energy is brought to the job. I am discovering that where the members of the congregation own responsibility for the life and ministry of the community of faith, people want to be equipped and empowered and enjoy telling others that the church is changing their lives.

There is of course always the danger that a congregation may have a radically different vision of how it should be the church in that place than the minister and staff. Bad matches occur. But the assumption that such vision resides exclusively in professional staff is a contradiction of our theology. We say that Christ is the head of the church and that the church is the body of Christ. It is the work of all the people to grow and struggle toward an understanding of the congregation’s vision and ministry.

Originally published in
, vol. 22, no. 6 (November/December 1996). Adapted from Leadership in Congregations, copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

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