If you ever get to thinking that your church would roll over and die without your constant ministerial intervention, consider the 400-member Southview Southern Baptist church of Lincoln, Nebraska.
When Southview's pastor left in 1980, a full year passed before the new pastor arrived on the scene. Now, you might expect that after a year with no pastor, the first order of business would be to revive the church, gather the scattered flock, and try to get things going again. Not so at Southview. Eddy Hallock, the new minister, found a group that was growing spiritually and numerically. The twelve deacons (there must be some apostolic significance here) had gone right on leading worship, preaching, baptizing converts, and counseling members. Bob Rung, one of the twelve, admits there was a void with the pastor gone, but "we didn't close shop," he remembers. "We encouraged one another and shared. Our body grew from that experience. We learned to rely on the Lord."
Southview's experience may be a bit unsettling for men of the cloth. What if every church were able to do without a pastor for a year? Some of us get nervous if the church survives our three-week vacation! But Southview ought to bring some lessons to mind:
First of all, it ought to teach us "not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think" (to paraphrase the apostle Paul). Pastors, probably more than most professional groups, are prone to delusions of grandeur with a Messianic twist. We talk about being servants, but most of us have to fight the temptation to play the king. So, whenever you feel an attack of the "indispensables" coming on, remember Southview and picture your congregation flourishing, growing, thriving—after a year without your leadership!
I'm not saying that your role is unnecessary and that churches would get along better without their pastors. Some pastors are, and some churches would—but not most. I am saying that the pastor who truly believes his church cannot function with out him is sooner or later disabused of the fantasy, usually by extremely unpleasant means.
Second, Southview ought to suggest to us some different standards for determining pastoral success. Have you never experienced the subtle rejoicing of heart that steals over you at tidings of difficulties befalling the congregation you recently left? Things were going along just fine as long as you were there, and now the church or the new pastor can't keep together what you built. Isn't this evidence of your personal pastoral prowess? Southview, it seems to me, points us in the opposite direction. What a successful pastor the departing minister, Dennis Wood, must be to so inspire and equip his members that they could carry on the work of the church by themselves for a whole year! The successful pastor is not the one whose church falls apart when he leaves, but the one whose church has been so built up spiritually by his ministry that it can take over many of his functions and continue to operate.
In Deacon Rung's words, "We learned to rely on the Lord." That is the key to this kind of successful ministry. Too often the message our members receive is that we will rely on the Lord, and they are to rely on us. No wonder that when we leave, things sort of collapse until a new pastor comes that the people can lean on! The whole relationship is self-perpetuating: the people like it because it takes the responsibility for doing anything much off them and places it all on the pastor; the pastor likes it because thereby he gets to be the "father figure" for the church. And a little appropriate chafing over the burden of responsibility he carries can also make him look good. Such a system may make "strong" pastors, but it makes weak churches, and thousands are in just such a situation.
A truly successful pastor is secure enough to turn over responsibility to his flock without worrying that it will jeopardize his position as shepherd. It's true that most pastors don't like to turn over responsibility. But it's also true that most members resist, tooth and nail, having responsibility turned over to them. This is no doubt true even in such a shining example as Southview Southern Baptist church, for Deacon Rung feels that most people don't know how to be used by a church. They don't realize the potential they have. But part of the Christian message, if you take it seriously, is: "We are adequate in Christ."
Getting such a concept across to your congregation, as well as training and motivating them to do for themselves, is a complete topic in itself. But Southview ought to be telling us that a pastor is successful to the extent that he can train his people to accept and carry out responsibility successfully. For a whole year the Southview Baptist church members cared reasonably well for much of what their pastor had been doing, even though no pastor was there to help them. Don't you suppose that your members ought to be able to do quite a few of the tasks that you have been doing, especially with you there to guide them? Smart pastors—and those that avoid heart attacks—delegate every thing they can.
Perhaps even more interesting than the fact that the twelve deacons at Southview Baptist were able to keep the church functioning so long without a pastor is the fact that when a new pastor arrived, they didn't gratefully "retire" and leave him to assume all the usual leadership functions alone. These deacons are now serving in a sense as "assistant pastors," leading out in various fellowship and study groups within the church. And the new pastor is happy about it. Says he, "I can't personally minister to all 350 to 400 members of the congregation. There aren't that many hours in the day. A pastor ought to pray for qualified leaders."
Southview Baptist church seems to have been fortunate in both its departing and arriving pastors. The one left a church that was able to function fairly well without him, and the other apparently was not intimidated that this was so. So the next time you begin wondering what on earth your church would do without you, remember Southview. Like that church, yours might do just fine. And if so, that makes you a success.—B.R.H.