Advantages of a Multichurch District
The head elder of the first church I pastored was angry when the conference assigned me a second church. “The pastor has been here only for six months,” he complained to the president, “and we are just beginning to see some growth. This will kill the progress we have made.”
“We are experiencing a financial exigency,” the president retorted, “and we have to make cuts.” (I had never heard the word exigency before, but I learned that it meant that I was now going to be driving 80 miles round trip twice a week!)
This incident leads to some bigger and more important questions: Are multichurch districts God’s plan for successful growth or just the result of budgetary restraints? Would growth be greater if we employed one pastor per church?
From what I have seen, the answer is not what most of us would expect.
First, after I was assigned my second church, over the next four years, the Santa Clarita church in California (my original church), though now part of this new district, shot up from an attendance of 70 to 200. Giving quadrupled, and the membership was growing. The Palmdale church (my new one) also grew dramatically, especially because of the addition of a Spanish language worship service. What happened next surprised me even more. Because of the church’s growth, I was released from the second church, leaving me to focus all of my energies on growing the first one. After three and a half years of hard work, the attendance dwindled from 200 to 180. Our growth turned negative.
I had become, I realized, what has been termed a hovering pastor.1 When the second church was added, I had to develop better my delegation skills. Elders were given preaching assignments, members did follow up, and Bible workers were trained. The churches were buzzing with activity. When I went back to only one church, much of the activity stopped—not that the people were not willing to preach but they now had me full time. Also, I found that in many cases, it just seemed easier to do things myself. If a work bee was needed, I did all the planning; if a lightbulb burned out, I replaced it. At my goodbye party, the head deacon said, “I hate to lose you, pastor; you’re the best deacon I ever had.”
Actually, these results should not be surprising. History shows us that they are exactly what we should expect.
For instance, during Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 13; 14), he planted churches in Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. “So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23, NKJV). Paul came back to Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe in both his second and third missionary journeys, this time inviting young Timothy along. Timothy was well recommended by the “brethren” (Acts 16:2, NKJV). Who were these brethren? Possibly the elders Paul had ordained on his return visit, for they were caring for the church while Paul went forth to break new ground.
Early Adventists copied Paul’s church planting tactics. Ordained ministers would go forth into new territories and raise up churches. James White wrote, “It does not appear to have been the design of Christ that His ministers should become stationed, salaried preachers. Of His first ministers it is said, immediately after receiving their high commission, that ‘they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the Word with signs following’ ” (Mark 16:15–20).2
James White considered the work of Seventh-day Adventist ministers similar to that of the early Christian ministers who entered a town, began preaching and teaching the Word, until they had formed a group of believers whom they organized into a church. “Then these ministers would pass on to a new field of labor. These churches were not carried upon the shoulders of their ministers, but were left to sustain the worship of God among themselves. Occasionally would they pass through and visit the brethren, to exhort, confirm, and comfort them.”3
The Adventist system of sending tithe to the local conference seemed to reflect a New Testament strategy also. Paul explained to the Corinthians that “I robbed other churches by receiving support from them so as to serve you” (2 Cor. 11:8, NIV). Paul’s effort in Corinth was supported by the church in Macedonia (v. 9). Ellen White urged the same concept on churches that were keeping ministers to themselves: “Instead of keeping the ministers at work for the churches that already know the truth, let the members of the churches say to these laborers: ‘Go work for souls that are perishing in darkness. We ourselves will carry forward the services of the church. We will keep up the meetings, and, by abiding in Christ, will maintain spiritual life. We will work for souls that are about us, and we will send our prayers and our gifts to sustain the laborers in more needy and destitute fields.’ ”4
Note the statement “more needy and destitute fields.” The criterion for pastoral placement, according to James and Ellen White, seems to be the lack of an Adventist presence. Today’s pastoral distribution formulas are the opposite: the more members and tithe, the more pastoral support is expected. Large churches are rewarded with greater staffing; the smaller ones are placed in districts with other churches. Early Adventists sent their tithe to the conference so they could use it to send ministers to new fields, and thus continual church planting was sustained. As the churches multiplied, so did the funds for new church planters. The potential for supporting new church plants was exponential. This mind-set was to be instilled in the very DNA of each new congregation.
“God holds these ministers responsible for the souls of those who are in darkness. He does not call you to go into fields that need no physician. Establish your churches with the understanding that they need not expect the minister to wait upon them and to be continually feeding them.”5
What, then, are the advantages of multichurch districts?
1. Workers are strengthened and multiplied. Ellen G. White tells the story of a business owner whose foreman was doing some simple repairs while six workers watched. The foreman was summoned to the owner’s office and fired. When the foreman asked why, the owner replied, “ ‘ “I employed you to keep six men at work. I found the six idle, and you doing the work of but one. Your work could have been done just as well by any one of the six. I cannot afford to pay the wages of seven for you to teach the six how to be idle.” ’ ”6
Russell Burrill explains the danger of today’s pastoral distribution system. “If the first-century church had attempted to plant churches as we do today, by appointing a pastor to watch over each new congregation, the result would have been weak churches composed of immature Christians who were not disciples.”7 He goes on to quote Roland Allen, “Where churches are helped most, there they are weak, lifeless and helpless.”8
During my later years in a church district in Montana, we planted two new churches; this left me time to speak in each church only once a month. The main church really did not need me that much for the elders could speak just as well or better than I could. They were even willing to go to the smaller churches and help with the speaking schedule. Talent was developed that would normally have been idle had I felt a need to be present more often.
This is the method being utilized today in South America. For my sabbatical, I spent three months in Peru, seeking to learn the principles behind the rapid growth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church there. One pastor of 25 churches invited me to come to a training session for his small group leaders. At 5:00 a.m. Sabbath morning, we took a small taxi to one of his churches. When we arrived at 6:00 a.m., there were more than 20 people worshiping in the church building, waiting for their morning training session. Development of leadership is the main activity of the pastors of this rapidly growing movement.
2. More time, less friction. “ ‘If pastors would give more attention to getting and keeping their flock actively engaged at work, they would accomplish more good, have more time for study and religious visiting, and also avoid many causes of friction.’ ”9
What causes friction? In the case of Moses, it was taking too much responsibility on himself. “ ‘Both you and these people who are with you will surely wear yourselves out. For this thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself’ ” (Exod. 18:18, NKJV). When the pastor spends the majority of his or her time developing the members’ ministry skills, ministry expands and many problems can be well handled by trained believers.
When I had a multichurch district, as opposed to just one church, I had to spend more time developing leadership among my church members. The result was that I had more time on my hands for the things I would like to do such as public evangelism and pioneering new work.
In one district, we hired a young college student to run a Magabook literature program for our youth. Wanting to make sure this was successful, I told my elders that they would not see much of me that summer. They blessed me and sent me forth. These competent leaders took care of prayer meeting, board meetings, and follow-up visitation. (They sent emails letting me know that the board meetings were running better without me!)
In my experience, the pastor of five churches and 500 members has more time and less problems than the pastor hovering over a single church of 200 members.
3. It forces the issue. When I accepted a call to the Westminster church in British Columbia, I informed the president and the congregation that I would do this only if they would allow me to have a second church. Westminster is a church of 350 members, with an attendance of 275, and tithe of more than $400,000. While this church would not normally be districted, I knew that if I became a single church pastor again, I would regress into the hovering mode, which is bad for the church and the pastor. A second church forces the local leadership to take on more of the work of ministry.
At a meeting in April to discuss the addition of the 55-member White Rock church to our district, I was asked who would preach when I was gone for two Sabbaths a month. My head elder quickly responded, “We have enough speakers to cover until Christmas.” The larger churches have talent that needs to be exercised, but they tend to exercise that talent only when the pastor is absent.
Adding churches to pastors, not pastors to churches
How do you add additional churches?
The first step is to teach the biblical and historical Adventist approach to pastoral care to your leadership. Gerard Damsteegt has written a helpful, comprehensive article on this subject.10
Second, find someone to replace you for everything you do. Preaching, visitation, Bible studies, chairing board meetings, even premarital counseling: these can all be done by well-trained members. Explain to your members that they are ministers, too, and, thus, they need to be prepared for the day you start or are given another congregation. If the elders buy into this new approach, the congregation generally follows.
Finally, the ratio of Sabbaths spent at the smaller churches should be weighted in their favor. I know this sounds strange, but the smaller church with less talent needs you more, and the larger church with more talent needs more exercise. Both congregations will grow and neither will feel neglected. Kalispell, my largest church when I pastored in Montana, was gracious enough to have me only one Sabbath a month. During that time, it was the fastest growing church in the conference.
By giving me a second church, my local conference saves half a salary. What could that money do if it was sent to other divisions, to “more needy and destitute fields”? I believe that both North and South American pastors would be less burdened and more productive for God’s kingdom if a larger portion of the tithe was sent where it is needed most. Multiple-church districting can focus North American pastors on the essentials, while saving more of the tithe to further develop the work in other places. Both the biblical and historical Adventist strategy for growing churches has been adding churches to pastors, not pastors to churches. A revival of this strategy should benefit the work the world over.
1 Hovering is a term Ellen G. White used for ministers who devoted their energies solely to the local congregation, while neglecting the work of opening new fields. For example, “The ministers are hovering over churches, which know the truth, while thousands are perishing out of Christ.” General Conference Bulletin, April 12, 1901, 204.
2 P. Gerard Damsteegt, “Have Adventists Abandoned the Biblical Model of Leadership for the Local Church?” in Here We Stand: Evaluating New Trends in the Church, ed. Samuel Koranteng-Pipim (Berrien Springs, MI: Adventist Affirm, 2005), 654.
4 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 382.
5 Ellen G. White, Pastoral Ministry (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference Ministerial Association, 1995), 100.
6 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1915), 197.
7 Russell Burrill, Radical Disciples for Revolutionary Churches (Fallbrook, CA: Hart Research Center, 1996), 60.
9 White, Gospel Workers, 198.
10 See note 2. This article can be downloaded from his Web site at www.andrews.edu/~damsteeg/Herewestand_sec_6.pdf.