Several years ago I left a job in overseas church administration, moved to a community outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and started pastoring a three-church district. I was not a seasoned pastor returning to the pulpit after doing some overseas mission work. I had, in fact, never pastored a local church, except as a volunteer. After working with church planters in the former Soviet nations, I had become intent on working in the grassroots ministry back in the United States.
Hoping to level out the steep learning curve, I immediately joined my local ministerial association. I expected to meet a diverse group of local clergy, learn more about the community, and enhance my professional skills. And that is exactly what happened. But I found something else as well, something even more significant, and that was friends. And, for a new preacher in a small town, this is no small discovery.
Soon I was meeting monthly with Ryan,1 the pastor of an evangelical church just down the road from my house. We talked about church projects, and about the challenges of pastoring; we also exchanged advice on working with difficult people, compared favorite books, and introduced each other to new authors. And, of course, we prayed together.
A few years after we arrived, my wife gave birth to our second son. The day after delivery, she developed a blood clot in her leg. Complications multiplied and, as months dragged by, she grew frustrated about sitting on a couch with her leg in the air when she needed to be taking care of her kids. Family members prayed from afar, as did church members, friends, and colleagues. Then, one day, Ryan asked if he and his wife and a friend could come to our house to pray with my wife. When they arrived, I took the children downstairs to give the group some quiet. They stayed only 20 minutes, but it was obvious my wife had been moved and encouraged by their concern. Interestingly, her health has improved steadily since that day.
Ryan later told me that he considers himself our pastor, and that if ever we need him in that role, he will be available to us because pastors’ families like ours do not always have a nearby pastor to minister to their needs.
The point? If I hadn’t bothered to join my local ministerial group, I never would have met Ryan and his colleagues.
If they’re not against us, then . . .
I’ve learned God uses all of us, in spite of and even because of our differences. “Our ministers should seek to come near to the ministers of other denominations,” wrote Ellen White. “Pray for and with these men, for whom Christ is interceding. A solemn responsibility is theirs. As Christ’s messengers we should manifest a deep, earnest interest in these shepherds of the flock.”2
I am relieved to know that I’m not a lone voice in my community. The more I interact with my colleagues in ministry, the observation Jesus made in Mark 9 that “whoever is not against us is for us” (verse 40, NIV) speaks more deeply to me. I have come to know godly men and women of different faiths, and they have come to know me. I have learned from them and, I hope, they from me.
Ryan constantly pushes me in my spiritual disciplines and gives me solid spiritual advice that often finds its way into my sermons. Sometimes, I can do the same for him. Simply showing up to meet and eat with other pastors once a month provides me with scores of opportunities to share myself and my church with the greater community. When I meet people from other churches, I love to say, “I know your pastor. He’s a great guy!”
Misfit to teammate
As a Seventh-day Adventist, I admit that I first felt somewhat apart from the rest of the group due to my distinctive beliefs. And, although I avoided becoming a spectacle among my fellow ministers, I have wondered that if on some level they felt I didn’t quite fit. But, after four years of involvement in my current ministerial group, I have noticed a significant sense of ease among us that didn’t before exist. For instance, I never bring up the Sabbath during meetings, but they do. And we laugh together about our differences. For my part, I stick to what we have in common.
“Here is common ground, upon which we can meet people of other denominations; and in becoming acquainted with them we should dwell mostly upon topics in which all feel an interest, and which will not lead directly and pointedly to the subjects of disagreement.”3
“If our ministers show themselves friendly and sociable, and do not act as if they were ashamed of the message they bear, it will have an excellent effect, and may give these pastors and their congregations favorable impressions of the truth.”4
Not all ministerial groups are equal
I also joined a different ministerial group there as well. In this case, the ministerial group leader made it a point to introduce himself as soon as I moved to town. He was a wonderful man, and I appreciated his hospitality. However, he made it clear that the pastors in that area were not interested in sharing “truth” with each other. He related to me how another pastor had wanted an “iron sharpening iron” sort of relationship with him in regards to Bible truth. In other words, he wanted to debate and prove. This pastor pointedly explained to me that once everyone understood that this ministerial group was not that sort of forum, then all was well.
Interestingly, in the next ministerial alliance I joined, the president used the very words “iron sharpening iron” in a positive way. He looked forward to such a relationship. This has taught me that not all ministerial groups are created equal. Not all have the respectful team dynamics of the group in which I am now involved.
Nevertheless, I’m convinced that if a ministerial group exists nearby, Adventist pastors should join—if for no other reason than to help generate a constructive dynamic that would otherwise not exist. One thing is sure: no one can effectively influence the inside of a circle from the outside. For a pastor, a ministerial group is the most natural community circle in which to interact, and it lays a foundation for how the religious gatekeepers of your community perceive your church. That alone makes the investment worth every minute.
You might ask, though, “Where do I get the time? I don’t have enough time for my own members as it is!” I have found that church members are delighted when their friends of other faiths know and like their pastor. The more my church members feel the effects of their pastor’s involvement in the community, the more they encourage me to become more involved, and as a by-product they become more involved themselves.
Conflict: From within and without
I asked a few Adventist pastors about their experience in ministerial groups. Some had similar experiences to mine, others not. One pastor said that some in his own congregation attacked his involvement, fearful that he might be “contaminated.” To make matters worse, a congregation of another faith told their pastor to force the Adventist pastor out of the group because Adventism is a cult. Fortunately, that pastor sat down with the Adventist pastor and, after their discussion, was satisfied that his congregation was wrong, just as the Adventist pastor was satisfied that his congregation was wrong in fearing his “contamination.” He currently serves as treasurer for his local ministerial alliance.
I also learned from other pastors that, in larger population areas, multiple ministerial groups may exist at odds with each other over theological beliefs, which makes it more difficult to decide which group to join. One pastor made it a point to join both groups in his area. Another pastor chose to join the group that defines itself by what it is rather than by what it is not. In other words, he joined the group that was more inclusive than exclusive.
As in any good endeavor, Satan is going to make it as tough as possible for the gospel. The more he can separate Christian from Christian, the more he has divided and conquered.
In the grand scheme of things, as pastors we can’t afford not to become involved in a local ministerial group.
“The wisest, firmest labor should be given to those ministers who are not of our faith,” wrote Ellen White. “There are many who know no better than to be misled by ministers of other churches. Let faithful, God-fearing, earnest workers, their life hid with Christ in God, pray and work for honest ministers who have been educated to misinterpret the Word of Life.”5
1 “Ryan” is a pseudonym.
2 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Assn., 1948), 78.
3 White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Assn., 1946), 144.
4 Ibid., 143.
5 Ibid., 562.