Pastoring in a multichurch district

Juggling multiple expectations while pastoring more than one church

Brian D. Jones, Ph.D., is pastor of Berkley Springs and Charles Town Seventh-day Adventist churches in West Virginia.

Pastoring a multichurch district need not be overwhelming. While it has its challenges, it also has its joys and rewards.

Whether you pastor one church or several, you will always feel that your district and congregations have more needs than you can meet. Success or failure in your commission depends not on how much you can do to keep the churches running properly but on how well you can work together with your congregations in motivating and train ing them to carry the burdens and responsibilities of collective ministry.

Members must be trained to carry out their responsibilities with a sense of calling and commission, not as substitutes for their overworked pastor and their underserved church. When pastor and congregations understand this, pastoring two or more congregations need not be much more taxing than pastoring one.

In some ways it may be even easier. Often one-church parishes are overdependent on their pastors and expect them to be doing much of the work that members should be doing—such as the church bulletin, the newsletter, clerical chores, and even administrative tasks that are part of the deacons' and elders' duties. In the multichurch district, it is easier to guide church members to recognize the pastor as primarily a spiritual overseer, trainer, and soul winner rather than as a kind of bellhop-general who bounces about doing whatever task comes up.

For the past six years I have pastored multichurch districts. From the outset, I found it helpful that my members understand two major principles. First, "every member of the church should become an active worker—a living stone, emitting light in God's temple."1 Second, "those who have the spiritual oversight of the church should devise ways and means by which an opportunity may be given to every member of the church to act some part in God's work."2 This is not a clever strategy to lighten the pastor's workload but a comprehensive principle that will help the church thrive. It is the New Testament model of service (see 1 Cor. 12:4-14; 1 Thess. 1:1-8; 2 Tim. 2:2).

If pastors do all the shepherding and impart all the spiritual instruction, they are actually doing their congregations a disservice by hindering the members from discovering and developing their spiritual gifts. They are perpetuating the medieval mystique that only pastors are spiritually qualified to preach the word and minister to the flock. When ministers see the church as a training center for members, the place in which the members' gifts are put to use in advancing God's kingdom, they have a foundation for understanding how to pastor a multichurch district.

Here are some things I have learned in pastoring in multiple church settings:

Survey your field

Spend your first three to six months in a new church district getting acquainted with your members in the whole district. If you don't do this early, the ever-mounting demands of your pastorate may crowd out this essential beginning. Learn the basic history of each of your churches. Every congregation has its distinctive corporate personality, as does the larger community to which it ministers. Be sensitive regarding programs and ministries that will be effective for each church. Em ploy a customized rather than a standardized approach. Programs that will work in one church may not strike fire in another (or may strike fire of the wrong kind!). Don't introduce any changes just for the sake of placing your stamp on the church. Members may interpret that as egotism.

Acquaint yourself with each church's strengths and weaknesses. Avoid making unfavorable comparisons privately or in public regarding different congregations. Wherever possible, utilize the strengths in one congregation to off set the weaknesses of the other. For ex ample, you may have several excellent lay preachers in one church and none in an other. Until you can train some in that congregation to preach, enlist the help of gifted preachers from other parts of your district. This also bonds churches and promotes a sense of sisterhood among them. But don't let a smaller or "weaker" congregation feel like the poor relative. Identify gifts in that church that could be used elsewhere.

Plan for development of churches

From the outset, see yourself as being in your district to advance the work. Place your plans and ministry aspirations first before your local leaders. Be consultative but recognize that your lay leaders are in most cases looking to you for direction and leadership. Let your plans take into account the perceived needs and capacities of your churches. Welcome the advice and insight of members and help them own the plans. Work closely with your church boards and prayerfully seek to mold each board into a unified, affirming group.

Don't be afraid to alter and enlarge your plans as the work progresses. Neither be grandiose nor overambitious. Just be realistic, practical, depending on the Spirit to motivate and lead your churches.

Delegate responsibilities

Essential anywhere, this step is in dispensable in a multi-church district. Don't assume that after the nominating committee has done its work and all offices are assigned, your delegation of responsibilities is over. Church members need to know the duties of their offices, and many need help in learning how to carry out those duties. They also need to be empowered and encouraged in performing their responsibilities, affirmed for their success, and helpfully counseled when success eludes them.

Educate and train your leaders. Provide them with resources and guidance to develop their skills. Keep abreast of training events and encourage your members to attend those that would help them. Acquaint yourself with re sources available to you and your churches, such as those from Advent  Source and the local conference. Take your elders with you for home visitation. Train your elders to preach. By scheduling elders (where appropriate) and guest speakers to preach, you will be free to rotate with all the churches. This way you will get to know your people better and understand the congregational dynamics of your congregations. And they will enjoy having their pastor with them every now and then.

Supervise with grace and wisdom

In addition to visiting, use the telephone to keep in contact with your members. An encouraging call now and then, without any express business purpose, will be welcome. The people will know they have a shepherd who cares. Be especially diligent to visit the sick and those in the hospital. Show no partiality to one church over another, unless you have a good, well-intentioned reason to do so; such as during special meetings, or when one church is showing particular response or the promise of special growth. Make yourself equally available to all your churches. Of course, members will understand that you must put more time tending an 80-member church than one of 18, or attending to a church that has an evangelistic campaign than one that has not.

Do not neglect prayer meetings in your larger churches, and do not fail to provide good studies. Such study galvanizes faith, convicts of present truth, and promotes evangelistic zeal. Make arrangements for prayer meeting to be conducted in all your churches, under the leadership of your most able presenters.

Share district news through a newsletter, prayer meeting announcements, bulletin information, etc. Have an annual district rally or social, perhaps at your home, or let the churches alternate in hosting these events.

Be available for all the churches

Avoid giving the impression that you are so busy it would be best for the members not to call you except in emergencies. Make your specific schedule known to each church in your district. At least specify which days of the week or month you'll be in each part of your district. Systematically visit your members and train them in soul winning.

Have a toll-free home or office number for your members who have to call you long-distance. Even if the churches cannot help you bear this expense, it is a service that will go far to make the members feel cared for. Answer all your phone messages without delay. Members feel hurt that their calls are not important enough to warrant your prompt attention.

Do not neglect your own spiritual and family development

Church business has a way of crowding out the time we have for caring for our own spiritual life. Personal prayer, study, and devotion are too easily neglected. This danger is even more present for pastors in multichurch districts. "Nothing is more needed in our work than the practical results of communion with God.... This will impart to the [minister] a power that nothing else can give. Of this power he must not allow himself to be deprived."3

Keep close to the Lord. Discern the Spirit's agenda. You will accomplish more, you will preach with power, and you will be a conduit for heaven's motivating and unifying grace.

Take a day off each week to study, meditate, and be with the family. Do not be so married to your pastorate that your wife and children languish.

Be positive. Do not complain about being overworked, underpaid, or undervalued—not at home and not before your members. Negative remarks will not yield long-term positive results. The result could well be a backlash: "Our pastor is not happy here; he or she will be moving as soon as a call comes along."

The conclusion is simple: Whether you pastor one church or several, you co-labor with Christ. His yoke is easy, and His burden is light. Ministering with Jesus helps us find strength in Him. We may grow tired and need rest, but with the right attitude, you will never become jaded or stale.

1 Ellen G. White, Christian Service,
(Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1947), 62.

2 Ibid., 61.

3 Ibid., 510.

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Brian D. Jones, Ph.D., is pastor of Berkley Springs and Charles Town Seventh-day Adventist churches in West Virginia.

September 1999

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