Steering the Ship

Steering the Ship: Staying on Course in a Multichurch Setting

Seven steps to help steer God’s people down the course He has given them. . .

Murray Miller pastors five churches in southeast Kansas, United States.

Imagine a ship with a gifted crew, lots of supplies, and other equipment needed for a successful voyage. The crew demonstrates an eagerness to do what they have been gifted to do, and they have all the resources they need to complete their task. However, there are problems. They have no map and are without a captain! As much as they want to go forward with their mission, these hindrances effectively stop them from doing so. It is not that the first mate cannot get the ship out of the harbor and onto the sea, but is about all of the challenges they will face in the open waters. In what direction will they go?

This illustration is not perfect, but I use it to emphasize the need for a clear direction (map) and a person to steer the vessel (captain). Jesus is the Captain of our souls and the church (Heb. 2:10). The first mate and the rest of the crew are dependent upon Him for direction. One way Jesus directs the ship is to give gifts to the crew members. One of the gifts is “administration,” or “governing” (1 Cor. 12:28). The Greek word, kuberneseis, used here, literally means a “steersman” or “pilot.”1 We find it fitting to apply this function to both Jesus and church members, both paid clergy and lay leaders, who are gifted with the ability to “steer” the congregation in the right direction.

Anyone who has pastored churches (I currently pastor five) knows the need to decide prayerfully where God is leading the congregation and then to “steer” the church in that direction. This situation becomes even more complicated when there are two, three, four, or more “ships” to coordinate at the same time. How can they work together? Are there differences in direction that can be taken by some of them and still have them all reach the same destination? What can be done to not leave one behind while others press on?

My goal as a multichurch pastor includes helping God’s people prayerfully decide where God is guiding them, set sail, and steer them down the course that He has led them to pursue. How does one do this? Here are the steps I have taken to facilitate this goal.

Plotting the course

I begin with yearly planning sessions. If I am new to a district, I read up on where the church has been by reviewing the church records for as far back as I can. Then I come to the first board meeting with visioning questions: “If nothing changes and we keep on the current course, where will we be in the next five years? In the next ten years?” I also note activities the church is currently, or has in the past, engaged in and may want to have as part of next year’s ministry calendar. Before the meeting ends, I ask them to spend the next two weeks praying about what God wants us to do in the next year. When we meet again, we have a season of prayer for God’s guidance, and then share the ideas that have come to mind. We settle on our main objectives for the year and then plot them on a worksheet like the sample below:

Ministry Calendar Worksheet

The calendars are then posted on each church’s bulletin board and inserted into the bulletin for two weeks. The calendar functions as our “map.”

Setting sail

With a ministry calendar developed for all of the churches, I compile and condense them into a district calendar. This district calendar is sent to the elders and bulletin secretaries, so that they can promote events from around the district. I also make a plan of action calendar for myself that includes a month-by-month list of important dates and notes regarding what goals I want to achieve in each church (some of these notes are included in the condensed district calendar I send to the elders). Here is a sample section:

 

Keeping the destination before us

One crucial part of keeping the “ships” going in the right direction consists of communicating about the ministries going on through as many outlets as possible. I send out a weekly e-newsletter called E-Tidings with all the dates for a two-month period.2 I also use Facebook to announce upcoming events, and have a district Web site with links to each church’s individual site. When there is an upcoming outreach event in the district, I put it on the “Front Page” of the district site.3 The events for that church are posted on the calendar of that church’s Web site, which automatically places them on the homepage.4 In addition to these electronic methods of communicating, I use traditional methods as well: announcements, bulletin inserts, a list of “dates to remember” posted on the bulletin board, and board meeting agendas. All of these methods together help keep our goals for the year ever before us.

Land ho!

When a church reaches milestones in its yearly plan, I find ways to celebrate them. I usually do so from the pulpit during praise time or during my sermon. In addition to that time, I will include periodic entries on my weekly e-newsletter. For example, when the Thayer, Kansas, church conducted a wonderful Christmas program at the nursing home, I reported on that and included a link to one of the songs they sang. This not only helps other churches experience the ministry that has taken place, but also gives them ideas of what they can do themselves. Additionally, I send reports to our conference president, who includes them in his weekly email to the whole conference. Now that our conference has a Facebook page, I can also post comments and pictures from these events.5 Such information sharing encourages churches to get similarly involved.

Coordinating outreach

While each church progresses through the year with its ministry calendar, there are times when I am involved in evangelistic meetings or other outreaches in different parts of the district. During these times, I need to be sure that ministry continues in every part of the district. Usually, when conducting a series of meetings, I spend most of my time in the area where the meetings are held. Because of this, I cannot spend sufficient time in other churches for several weeks. What can be done? Well, I try to prepare each church for my absence. For the host church, I have a month-by-month checklist that I follow to help the church be fully prepared for the evangelistic meetings. Here is a sample of a checklist for one year to nine months prior to the meeting:

 

I train the elders at the church hosting the evangelistic meetings to do visitations as well as follow up. We meet every Sunday morning (or Sabbath afternoon) for these training sessions.6

While preparing the host church for meetings, I also accomplish several other tasks. First, I find guest speakers about six to nine months in advance for the other churches during the time I will be gone. One to two months in advance, I appoint a small group leader to continue the weekly study groups at each church and an elder to chair any board meetings that need to take place. I guide the elder by giving him or her a blank agenda form to fill out, and going over the items that were submitted. Lastly, I communicate through bulletins, e-newsletters, and so forth that members can contact the elders on any concern while I am away. Thus, elders are “manning the ship” while I am away.

Ministry during the meetings

Having done this for the last four years, I have learned that, while in concept, leaders easily understand the pastor’s absence, in reality it is not so. The primary difficulty has to do with pastoral visitation and preaching. In a one or two church district, a pastor may be able to conduct evangelistic meetings and still maintain routine ministries. Or, a visiting evangelist may take care of evangelism, while the pastor carries on his routine functions. Such situations may make it possible for annual evangelistic meetings.

However, a multichurch setting with three or more churches poses critical problems. As a pastor, you are responsible for the administrative duties of each of these churches, weekly study groups, and must ensure Sabbath speakers for each church. In addition, you must also care for evangelism because guest evangelists will not always come, especially in a small church with 80 members or less.

In my situation, consider church A. It has reached a plateau. To propel that church forward, I need to have some kind of semiannual outreach series. Meanwhile churches B, C, and D are in declining or dying modes. For these, I need an annual series of meetings to get the attendance up to a stable place. With all of these needs in the four churches and no additional pastoral help, if I choose one of the declining churches for evangelism, I find myself absent from the rest of the district for up to three months during the year—not including vacation and other events. This means that three churches may have pastoral continuity for seven to eight months but no clergy leadership for four to five months.

What should I do? Some of you may be thinking, This is the right time to apply the principle of the priesthood of all believers. This is true to the extent that the people want this paradigm applied to them. Even with that being so, the reality is harder to experience than the idea! Consider an example that even those in a one church district can relate to. Most churches, when they are trying to fill a pastoral position, do not like to be without a pastor for an extended period. This is usually a one-time occurrence every three years or so. How would a church feel with the pastor gone for four months each year? Reactions such as the following become common: “The pastor is never here,” “He is busy doing meetings over at one of the other churches,” or “The pastor never visits.” You could dismiss these as just complaints and press on, but, after a while, these comments add up to create a conflict situation. One needs to be aware of this when trying to enact any ideal model for ministry.

Other models may be tried, such as holding weekend meetings for six weeks, shortened meetings (ten sermons) in two weeks, or doing extensive Bible work leading up to a three weekend series of reaping meetings. Each option has pros and cons. What is obvious is the need to make the journey less turbulent for the whole district.

The journey continues

Since the elders and members have kept things going in my absence, when I take back my pastoral duties, the churches hopefully have moved forward in their ministry.7 Such an experience can be great because we have been sailing together with no one left behind.

At the completion of its yearly ministry calendar, each church conducts a celebration Sabbath where we highlight what God has done throughout the year. During the sermon, I ask everyone to consider prayerfully what God would have our church do next year, and then invite them to be a part of the process at an upcoming business meeting, usually in August. With five churches now to plan, I schedule one business meeting on a Sunday. During the business meetings, we review, evaluate, and plan (REP). We review what happened last year, evaluate the effectiveness of the activities we conducted, and begin planning what we want to do next year. After these business meetings, subsequent board meetings are called to take the ideas of the church and develop a ministry calendar. Ministry calendars are developed and the process outlined above happens all over again.8 As a result, churches move forward doing God’s work. This, of course, has enabled members to be involved in ministry, increased the number of laborers in God’s harvest, and has let God be the Captain of the churches rather than any one individual. Hopefully, when the work is all done, the dear people who have been entrusted to my care will all stay on a course that leads heavenward!

 

1 Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 457.

2 For a sample newsletter, visit www.southeastkansas-sda.com and click on the “Front Page” button. There you will find a condensed version of the weekly email I send out.

3 See www.southeastkansas-sda.com for an example.

4 For an example, see www.independence24.adventistchurchconnect.org.

5 You can find the Kansas-Nebraska Conference page by searching for it on Facebook or visiting http://www.facebook.com/pages/Kansas-Nebraska-Conference-of-Seventh-day-Adventists/202487973113165.

6 See Secretariat of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 17th ed. (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2005), 91, 92, accessed June 15, 2011, http://www.gcsecretariat.org/Evans_files/Seventh-day-Adventist-Church-Manual-17th-edition.pdf.

7 I do hospital visits and emergency counseling during evangelistic meetings that are four to six weeks in length, but the visits to touch base with the members usually have to wait until I get done.

8 Our ministry calendars have typically run from September to August. We include special Sabbaths, community concerts, seminars, evangelistic outreach events, study group start dates, district get-togethers, trainings, and other items.


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Murray Miller pastors five churches in southeast Kansas, United States.

August 2011

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