Equipping your members to minister

Most methods of mobilizing laity for ministry fail on one of two counts: either they require too little of the member or too much from the pastor. This plan avoids both flaws.

Monte Sahlin is a pastor in the Pennsylvania Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He has served as director of Adventist urban ministries in Boston, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and southern California.

Pastors generally agree that if the church is to accomplish its mission the laity must become involved in ministry. Indeed, the Scriptures under score the fact that each member of the body of Christ has been given a special gift for Christian service and for building up the church (Eph. 4:7-12). Yet, when it comes to actual practice, it often seems easier and quicker for the pastor to at tempt to do the work of ministry himself than to equip and train his members to share it with him.

The few effective tools for equipping members to minister usually have two fatal flaws they require either too little from the lay minister or too much from the pastor. It is easy to make lay ministry too simple, to ask the motivated lay per son who truly wants to share in the mission of the church to do something so simplistic that it quickly becomes boring and kills enthusiasm. Every member of the congregation is asked to do the same mechanical, repetitive job that neither engages the imagination nor the commitment of those involved. Often no at tempt is made to match tasks with the gifts of individuals.

On the other hand, those lay ministry programs that require a degree of professionalism and serious engagement usually insist on a large amount of involvement and supervision from the pastor. Training through tutorial or on the job processes is often demanded, necessitating an unrealistic amount of time out of the pastor's schedule. In fact, the major reason such programs are not put to greater use in the church is because of the slow start necessitated by the commitment of so much pastoral time.

To be usable, then, a lay ministry pro gram should give both the pastor and the people a certain amount of freedom, while maintaining a necessary degree of organization. Church members should be free to work in areas where their gifts provide the needed interest and willingness, and they should be free to develop activities and goals at their own pace without having to wait on their pastor's schedule. Pastors should be freed of a growing burden of administrative minutiae, so that they can give spiritual and emotional support to the efforts of lay ministers. At the same time the ministries of laity and clergy must come together as a unified whole—a strategy that knits together the separate roles played by different members of one team. Experience has shown that the use of small groups within the congregation is the most successful means of meeting these criteria.

Small groups provide the breadth of opportunity necessary to deal with the many different gifts that people have, and they also allow for leadership to be delegated so that the pastor does not have to do all the training and administration. In my experience when a small-group program has been pursued for at least two years, the congregation has experienced unprecedented growth both in numbers and in the spiritual life of the members.

Despite the ideal nature of the smallgroup strategy, many churches that try to initiate it do experience certain problems. Groups can become exclusive instead of inclusive—so centered on Bible study or prayer or sharing that they make no attempt to attract outsiders. Visitors may feel as if they are intruding. Groups can become scenes for conflict rather than concerted action so heterogenous that goals cannot be agreed upon or even approached. The promise held out by the small-group idea has soured in the minds of many because of these problems.

Difficulties in a small program can be traced to three items. First, the groups are begun with little or no preparation or education. Second, everyone is expected to participate. Third, groups are assigned from a list instead of allowing individuals to voluntarily group themselves around goals. To be effective a small-group strategy must provide adequate orientation for people before they move into groups, and must keep the groups mission-centered and voluntary.

A design that has been developed and field tested in a half-dozen Adventist churches over the past five years and that provides for the initiation of small groups in a well-planned, effective manner is called "Workshop for Mission." It includes ten class sessions and a week end or one-day retreat. It can easily be implemented during prayer meeting time or on Sabbath afternoons. As a result of this process, between 10 and 25 percent of the church membership can be expected to become involved in active small groups.

Each of the ten weekly class sessions involves an hour and forty-five minutes—thirty minutes for discussion and Bible study, an hour for a lab session, and fifteen minutes for reviewing what has been learned. A moderate amount of assigned reading is involved between classes.

The pastor's role in these classes is that of a coordinator and not a lecturer. The lecture input comes entirely from the readings, and therefore it is important to insist that the class members do the readings. Much of the learning is experimental and comes from the open discussions and the lab sessions. It is more important to get a general feel for the nature of a good small-group pro gram than to learn specific skills.

An outline of the ten class meetings is given below. The reading assignments are taken from Mission: Possible, by Gottfried Oosterwal (Southern Publishing Association, 1972), Target Group Evangelism, by Ralph W. Neighbour, Jr., and Cal Thomas (Broadman Press, 127 Ninth Ave., N., Nashville, Tennessee 37234, 1975), and Christ's Object Lessons, by Ellen G. White (Pacific Press). Most of the lab learning sessions are described in the standard reference for adult, small-group education Jones and Pfeiffer's Handbook of Structured Experiences for Human Relations Training—and the related Annual Handbook(s) for Group Facilitators (University Associates, 7596 Eads Ave., La Jolla, California 92037).

The emphasis throughout the work shop is that these are working sessions, moving toward an action program of small groups. This design features a combination of education and actual preparation for the small-group program. In fact, the small-group strategy of the church is designed in the workshop sessions. Nevertheless, some of those who attend the classes will intend simply to hear and learn without any intention of getting involved in the program. It should be made clear repeatedly during the class that those who do not want to actually join small groups are welcome, and that this is actually a testing period for people to sample the small-group idea and see if they like it. But it should also be pointed out that those who do not plan to actually participate will be expected to drop out at a time to be announced at one of the last sessions. In the meantime, all those in attendance will be expected to participate in the discussions and lab sessions. "Sitting out" a lab exercise is unfair to those participating.

The retreat becomes even more fully a working session. During this time the small groups actually meet in their more permanent form for the first time to set goals and minimum requirements for themselves. They will be asked to write a statement of mission, including a definition of their target audience and the specific tools they are going to use in the first year of their ministry.

In the retreat environment the groups are asked to do their planning with a deep awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Time for meditation and prayer is essential so that the plans of the groups are a result of really listening for God's call in their lives and not just human constructions. Here the spiritual leadership capacities of the pastor will reach their highest level. Preaching the Word will be essential, but much greater time must be put into the leadership of silent meditation and prayer sessions that are not routine.

At the retreat it is also essential that the pastor "let go" of the groups. The groups will have to spend a good portion of this time without the presence of the pastor, meeting separately and taking on a life of their own. The rule should be announced that in keeping with his role as coordinator, the pastor will come into a group meeting only when invited, and only when a very specific request for help has been framed by the group. There will be a real temptation for the pastor to overcontrol this process. He can resist that temptation by spending time in prayer and meditation while the groups have their planning meetings.

An outline of the retreat program is given on page 12. If a facility is not available for a weekend, the same pro gram can be used for daytime meetings, with the members going home at night. Or the program can be compressed a bit and fitted into a Sabbath or Sunday one-day retreat. (Those who have never led a retreat before might do well to review the material in Retreat Handbook, by Virgil and Lynn Nelson, published by Judson Press in 1976.)

During the field testing of "Workshop for Mission," more than forty small groups were organized in both large and small churches, including white, black, and Spanish-speaking congregations. A number of these groups met for a short time and accomplished little or nothing. Several groups functioned for more than a year and sponsored active outreach programs. In two cases they helped to plant new churches in unreached communities. One group developed a prison ministry. Another developed a health ministry that equals the output of a professional, hospital-based health-education department. Another group developed a college-level training center that affiliated with a denominational institution.

Not every group is going to survive. Not every group is going to be truly creative. But the power of the Holy Spirit, working through the lay ministers of the church, will be released, and growth, excitement, and progress will be seen.

A Xeroxed packet of the materials used by the author in field testing this program is available in English, Spanish, and French, at cost. Inquiries can be addressed to the author in care of MINISTRY.



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Monte Sahlin is a pastor in the Pennsylvania Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He has served as director of Adventist urban ministries in Boston, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and southern California.

February 1981

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