Local pastors: the voice of the ministry

Local pastors are in a better position to speak about the future of the church. Let us hear more from them.

In addition to being professor of history of religion at the Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, Walter Douglas, Ph.D., is the senior pastor of All Nations Church, Berrien Springs.

I have been watching with interest the many recent articles and seminars about pastoral ministry that have appeared in our denominational publications. It strikes me as curious, however, that most of the authors and the seminar leaders are often not themselves practicing pastors.

Perhaps it's presumptuous, from one point of view, for academicians working mostly within an institution and for church administrators dealing mostly with administration, to say what will and ought to be the future of ministry in the Adventist Church. It seems that pastors in local congregations are in a better position to speak about that, along with informed laypersons.

Practically speaking, pastors involved so deeply in ministry must be the ones to bring a theological critique on their practice, so that the people to whom they minister may grasp the relationship be tween the gospel and the world, and how these two interact and affect each other.

Thus it is to the local pastor first and foremost that we should turn for help regarding spiritual nurture, church growth, Christian education, evangelism, ethics, theology, and liturgy. Some may disagree, but it is my view that denominational resolutions, proposals, and pronouncements have little or no authority, unless they take seriously the role of the local pastor and congregation.

The church is local first

As the denomination becomes increasingly preoccupied with structural changes, power, and global influence, there is the tendency to forget that, both biblically and theologically, the church is local first and foremost. Taken together, local congregations make up the denomination. My plea, therefore, is for more emphasis and attention on the local pastor and what he/she has to say and write about ministry and the function of the church in the nineties.

It is really local pastors who must wrestle with the practical questions and issues of ministry. They may not be the only ones, but certainly they are better prepared to deal with what is happening in the churches. Also, many honest and sincere laity are deeply concerned with matters of faith and practice regarding ministry. They are seeking solutions regarding the present state of affairs as well as the future of the church. They are open to painful theological reflection--a type of reflection that the denomination does not generally encourage in its laity. The local pastor as the practitioner has to work through these matters and develop strategies consistent with biblical paradigms that best serve the mission of the church.

Criticism of the denomination and its structure may well be deserved, since too often the intrinsic value and essential role of local congregations are minimized. Whenever this occurs, one could assume the need to revise our thinking on the nature and function of the local church. For example, the denomination might make proposals, pronouncements, policies, and resolutions on issues such as gender equality, racial justice, abortion, the environment, stewardship, unity in diversity, spirituality, Christian standards, Christian education, and the whole range of positions that are essential to the life and mission of the church. But, practically speaking, it is local pastors and their congregations that must develop strategies for fleshing out these proposals, pronouncements, and positions. They are the agents through whom the denomination must work to bring these to fruition.

Importance of the local pastor

One could argue that not all pastors are equipped to perform their functions adequately. Some might criticize them for lack of theological insight and sophistication or even express concern for their lack of evangelistic fervor. Some might raise questions about their skills as counselors. But whatever the criticism, the fact remains that pastors of local congregations are the only ones who can give form and substance to much of what the church is all about or ought to be about.

Why, then, are we not hearing more from our local pastors in our denominational publications? There is a universal gospel, but no such thing as a universal ministry or pulpit. Ministry, for all practical purposes, has to be local. And the form of ministry that works in one place may be quite different from ministry in another place. This is an essential point, because I believe that the context provides the agenda for doing ministry. The church needs to explore more fully the valuable resources and network already in place for developing different strategies for ministry, mission, and evangelism. Local practicing pastors and their congregations form this network.

We need to encourage our pastors to speak out more through our publications, conferences, and seminars--and with that invitation also provide the opportunity to do so. When attending conferences and seminars on ministry, I've always been concerned that the presenters are more often academicians and church administrators. Where are the district pastors? If indeed we are serious about finding solutions to the problems that deserve attention, then we must have our pastors participate in the process. Our failure to do this has created crises in ministry for some pastors. There are those who accept a position in some "office," believing that would provide them wider influence in the denomination. Others feel that in order to gain the attention of the church they have to specialize in some new form of ministry. At risk is the minister's sense of authority as a practitioner and his/her ability to define his/her role in both church and society.

Local ministry: crisis and opportunity

These are some of the manifestations of the crisis in ministry. Local congregations may suffer greatly from the tendency of some local pastors to acquire a reputation for being great preachers, good committee persons, trained theologians, or just a pastor who is not run-of-the-mill. They soon leave their congregations for a position of "influence in the church." I believe this condition is less likely to happen if the church gives greater attention to the local pastors as the ones who are best equipped to speak and write about ministry to day. The church should provide local pastors with the best possible professional training to ensure that they possess the skills and maintain the powers of discernment and discrimination that become increasingly necessary in our age. The practicing pastor ought to be able to bring the Word to bear upon the various structures by which human life is organized, influenced, controlled, and dominated.

Local pastors are called to minister out of all that they are--in their being, in their experiences, in their struggles, and in their context in history and in society. They then become the real experts and practitioners of ministry. Let us hear more from our local pas tors.

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In addition to being professor of history of religion at the Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, Walter Douglas, Ph.D., is the senior pastor of All Nations Church, Berrien Springs.

December 1993

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