Shared Gift Ministry or Professional Elitism?
I received two completely opposite emails this week. The first was very encouraging. It was from a friend who is a pastor of a church in another state. He described to me how, over a period of time, he has identified those within his congregation whom God has gifted to preach, and he has enfolded them into the preaching ministry of his church. He wrote, “I’ve put together a preaching team who meet regularly to plan our preaching program and also to assess and give feedback on each other’s preaching.”
I was thrilled to hear of a “professional” pastor who not only recognises that God gives preaching gifts to lay people, but is secure enough to allow them to play a significant role in the church’s preaching ministry!
The second email was not so encouraging. In fact, it was the complete opposite. It was from a friend who is a retired pastor, who was, and still is, a very gifted preacher. He still feels called to preach, but the young pastor of the church where he now attends (who is not a particularly competent preacher) only asks him to preach once or twice a year. I had previously written to this friend regarding the biblical model of pastors encouraging and utilising the gifts that God places within the church, and he replied,
“Unfortunately, I don’t see that model working at [name of church]. There is a strong professional elitism here where the pastor’s preaching is beyond congregational accountability, where feedback is not welcome, and lay people such as myself are largely locked out of any significant input into the preaching ministry, irrespective of one’s giftedness. It is a constant source of frustration for me, as I feel called to continue to preach and to have an input into that ministry. If God brings gifted Bible teachers to a church, why don’t full-time pastors want to work with them??? Pastors say they believe in the gift ministry of the body, but in practice they deny this by monopolising certain key gift areas. My frustration is exacerbated by the fact that [pastor’s name] is not a particularly gifted preacher, so I often sit there extremely frustrated as he skims across the surface of a passage while doing violence to the accepted principles of hermeneutics.”
Sadly, this scenario is not uncommon in the modern church. I recently (and unexpectedly) met up with a past ministry colleague who is now retired. He was, and still is, one of the most gifted preachers I know. As we chatted, I asked him whether he was preaching regularly in his local church (pastored by a relatively young man). He indicated that he was only asked to preach in that church a couple of times each year (when the pastor was on holidays), because the pastor liked to do all the preaching himself. I came away from that meeting deeply saddened that such a gifted preacher, still at the “top of his game”, was effectively locked out of significant ministry in his own church.
These two sad stories reflect a commonly held belief among many clergy today; that the “professional” must do all or most of the preaching, even if there are others within the congregation who are equally or more gifted in that area. This kind of professional elitism is a perplexing contradiction, because if you asked these pastors “Do you believe in the gift ministry of the body?” they would almost certainly agree. They have probably even preached many sermons on the “gift passages” of the Bible (1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12 and Ephesians 4). Yet, in practice, they exclude the laity from key gift areas that they perceive as being the domain of the professionals.
This, of course, is contrary to the role of the pastor, as outlined in Ephesians 4. This passage clearly specifies that the role of the pastor is not to do all the ministry himself, but to “equip God’s people for works of service” (Eph 4:12). In other words, the pastor’s primary role is to identify and encourage the giftings of church members. Hence, Paul instructs the leaders of the church in Rome, “if it is teaching, let him teach” (Rom 12:7). Encouraging and developing the gift ministry of the laity should not be limited to welcoming, ushering, prayer chains and pastoral visitation. A pastor who is faithfully fulfilling his calling to foster the gift ministry of the whole body of Christ should also be developing a growing team of preachers within his congregation.
Next week I will examine the strong biblical evidence for shared gift ministry in the area of preaching, and explore how this worked in practice in Antioch and other first century churches.