A balancing act
I remember my feelings when I received my first multichurch district assignment: feelings of inadequacy, nervousness, and excitement. Though pastoring a single church had its own distinctive challenges, it certainly had spoiled me. Even without the experience of district pastoring, I had a feeling that ministry would be a crucible in which I would learn quite a bit—about pastoral ministry in general and about myself in particular. Four years later, my suspicions would prove correct.
Sending out signals
People who are stranded or in some other form of trouble send out distress signals meant to attract the attention of searchers to a particular location in order to aid in a time of need. I am not in the emergency personnel field (except the work of rescuing people from sin through the preaching of the gospel), but I do know that if a search and rescue team sees a distress signal, they can then focus their energies on those who require attention. As a district pastor, I have come to understand that every local church sends out its own signals. Better said, they send out a call for individualized, specific attention. And the pastor must respond. The response for one church may not be the same as for the other church or churches within the same pastoral district.
Gary L. McIntosh in his book One Size Doesn’t Fit All1 lays out, among many others, these critical evaluation points as necessary for successful ministry. Knowing, understanding, and adapting one’s ministry approach and style based upon, at least, this clear signal greatly assists with a district church’s health and growth.
A district pastor, though having two or more churches, is still only one person. The pastor brings their own personality, temperament, skill, and mind-set to each church. They sometimes make a grave mistake when the signals of each church in the district are ignored or confused for the signals of the other church.
In my limited experience, I have found it much more productive, humane, and respectful to first grasp how best to minister to and empower the congregations to be what God created them to be. By evaluating the congregation’s size and appropriate needs, discovering its orientation, and learning how the church is structured, this can be accomplished. According to McIntosh, this means formulating a plan respectful of the church’s size.2 It means the plan must be suitable for the church’s orientation, whether it be relational, programmatical, or organizational.3 It means being mindful that a church’s structure at its cellular (root) level can be single cell, stretched cell, or multiple cell.4 I believe that when district pastors are aware of these informational components, they better know how to plan their evangelistic and administrative approaches.
All things to all people
I have discovered that district pastors need to be relational in their church and community ministry. Becoming one with those we serve is crucial to winning hearts and minds to the gospel as well as empowering the already enlisted for active duty in God’s service. Out of respect and love for those whom we serve, I truly believe we should honor the unique personhood of each congregation. Used rightly, blending in can be a valuable ministry skill. Consider the relational testimony of the apostle Paul: “I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22, NASB).
Adaptability and flexibility, as it relates to meeting the needs of each congregation in a district setting, while necessary, are not always easy. It requires a self-sacrificial spirit that only Christ can perform within the pastor. Yet such a daunting challenge has positively and beneficially forced me to know myself and, as Paul counseled Timothy, “Pay close attention to [myself]” (1 Tim. 4:16, NASB). Understanding my own personality type, leadership style, emotional disposition, thinking patterns, and temperament has not only helped me to be a more confident person and effective minister but has enabled me to be cognizant of when and how my own persona interferes with a congregation’s need to express itself in its own God-given, unique way.
Does this mean that I have no place or authoritative voice within the particular congregation I am serving? On the contrary! My role is valuable as I fulfill it according to Christ’s instructions.5 I just have to be careful that I do not allow my position and influence, which so often makes me a target for flattery and idolatry, to override or drown out the unique voice of the local churches that I serve.
If we equip and empower them, they will be blessed
Why do I think the aforementioned so important? First of all, we who pastor more than one church cannot act like we have only one church. Consider the fact that, for us, our attention becomes divided. It seems that before we can get a program running smoothly, we have to go off to the next church, and by the time we return, we have to start all over again. This seems to be an endless cycle with the pastor at the center of evangelism and member care.6 Neither can we act as though we have only one church in two (or more) different locations. When we help each of our congregations discover and embrace their identity in Christ and empower them to do the work He commissions, it gives us a freedom to focus on and be true to our role as the equippers we have been called to be.
Equipping the church members: that’s the bottom line. While in a single church setting the pastor can be more visible, more internally active and more directive to the same people they see each week; district pastors have to rely on their leadership even more to accomplish the same effect. It becomes all the more urgent for those churches to discover, reclaim, and embrace what it means to be a church filled with involved people laboring to finish the work. When properly equipped and empowered, churches in the district situation do not need to wait for a pastor to do God’s work. If we are faithful to give them the charge, they will be faithful to do the work with or without the constant oversight of the pastor.
The pastor’s respect for the unique identity and DNA of the churches in their district hopefully encourages them to formulate their own vision (not the pastor’s)—with proper facilitation and encouragement. The pastor becomes part of the team, rather than the team itself, using their giftedness to assist the church in bringing the Spirit-enlightened vision of the church members to fruition.
The district pastor cannot adopt this philosophy without also being committed to a macromanagement rather than micromanagement approach. Micromanaging (sitting in or chairing every meeting, telling everyone what to do and how to do it, never releasing responsibilities to others) only weakens a church’s ability to think and make full use of the grace that Christ dispenses for the finishing of His work (cf. Col. 1:28–2:1).
Macromanagement, on the other hand, can be described as more of a role of facilitation and equipping. It is empowerment. It is keeping the big picture in view and equipping key persons to accomplish the objectives of the plan. Through those key people the congregation is instructed, motivated, and equipped to carry to completion the agreed upon vision.
Heavy investment in key leadership is vital. I have focused primarily on building, educating, and mobilizing the elders, pouring into them whatever good I can to help them lead the congregation in the fulfillment of the vision. My ambition in every case includes following the example of Paul who declared to the Ephesian elders, “ ‘For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood’ ” (Acts 20:27, 28, NASB).
A pastor in a district situation should be aware of how easy it can be for a small congregation to lose its unique Adventist identity and mission on its way to becoming a medium-sized church. In desperation, they easily graft in all kinds of ideologies, practices, and theology from the Protestant mainstream in order to fi t in and produce growth. Pastoral guidance is needed here not only to help the church accept and embrace its identity as an Adventist church in its own particular community but to reacquire and renew its commitment to Matthew 28:18–20 and Revelation 14:6–12.
Frustrated, torn, and tempted
Switching from church to church on a biweekly basis can be frustrating. The pastor is called a pastor because of God’s call to be a shepherd. By nature, pastors have a genuine love and concern for the members of their churches (or certainly should). But due to the inability to concentrate on more than one church for a consistent length of time, it can seem and feel unproductive.
I have found encouragement in knowing that my people appreciate my efforts and some even understand that I must do what I am assigned to do. I have heard members say, “I wish you did not have to divide your attention between two churches,” or “we need our own pastor.” Such words are flattering indeed. For a relational pastor to become unsettled and infatuated by such flattering love is easy. To know that you are so valued by your congregations is gratifying. Such words can make you as the pastor desire to do more to accommodate the wishes of your members.
If you give in to such honest flattery, you may try to stretch yourself beyond your call of duty for the sole purpose of their comfort and not in order to fulfill your ministry. But I have learned that the best way to love my people is to stay focused on what is best for them and not get swept away by their coaxing for more attention from me.
It has been, and continues to be, a rewarding yet challenging experience serving as a district pastor. I have grown personally, professionally, and spiritually.
My ministry has had many challenges. I have perspired quite a bit at times when facing very difficult ordeals and controversies. Nevertheless, while in this crucible, I have gained a new admiration and deeper respect for servants of God like the apostle Paul—servants, who suffered so much for the cause of Christ, yet maintained a deep level of concern for all the churches that they served.
And for this multichurch pastoral ministry, I am most grateful.
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1 Gary L. McIntosh, One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Bringing Out the Best In Any Size Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1999), 7. Because these three elements have so profoundly impacted my ministry, I simply took the first three chapters in the
table of contents—size, orientation, and structure, and made them the focus of this section. While, in my estimation, much of the book is geared toward the pastor or lay leader with a one church focus, there are valuable principles that can be useful in any church ministry situation.
2 Ibid., 18.
3 Ibid., 30.
4 Ibid., 38.
5 I am an avid proponent of the message of Eph. 4:7–16.
6 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, 7: 21, 22; “Followers of Christ Will Be Missionaries,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, January 8, 1895; “A Call to All Our People,” The Indiana Reporter, February 25, 1903. In these quotes, Ellen White advocates for full member involvement in the work of evangelism and member care through small groups.