A little over a week ago, Bob Thune, Pastor of Coram Deo Church in Omaha, NE, provided some incredibly helpful and much needed perspective regarding the current state of church planting. In the article, Thune notes a decline in the percentage growth of plants within the Acts29 Network over the last few years and posits a few possible shifts in strategy that need to occur in order to see the "ongoing floruishing" of the North American church planting movement. His article resonated deeply with me, particularly the last of the shifts he mentioned.
Thune notes the need for "a shift in aspirations" of the men who desire to plant. He writes that young leaders whose impulse is to engage in the work of church planting should first aspire to serve faithfully in an existing local church context, most probably in a role other than Senior or Lead Pastor.
Amen and amen.
There are few things more alluring in a world full of religious red-tape than the idea of a blank slate to work with. The sermons can be preached rightly, the liturgy structured more soundly, the committees functioning more...non-existently. All of it sounds well and good, but the reality of starting afresh has proven to stand in stark contrast to the wayward wish-dreams of the weary church staff member looking to put a dent in the scores of the "unchurched" in our communities. Oh, that ministers-to-be might give themselves to the time and to the process of becoming the man God will use to shepherd his people.
For young, aspiring pastors, a yearning for right doctrine and right practice often outpaces the maturity and depth of character needed to fulfill the weighty calling to the position. Indeed, zeal and idealism do not equate to compentence and qualification. In his providence and by his grace, God has placed in our midst seasoned leaders who feel compelled to heed the call to train others. Their investments are wholly kingdom-minded. Serving on staff or in a volunteer role under godly leadership before taking off to plant or replant could be the type of crucible a young leader needs in order to make sure the committment he makes is one that is long-term.
I don't claim to have the corner on this thing, but I'd argue that time under the leadership of others has done this very thing for me. I've served in various roles in church leadership for the better part of 10 years and am currently part of a church planting residency, under leaders committed to the sort of training and shaping of future pastors Pastor Thune mentions in his article. Further, I've seen and heard enough behind closed doors to know that unfounded idealism won't do enough to send my roots deep when in the throes of pastoral ministry. I've realized a great need of mine, and perceive the same need in others, to be well planted, before committing to the hard work of planting the gospel in hard places.
With this need in mind, I'd like to give three possible benefits of a season spent in a second or third seat at the table.
1.) You'll witness grown men weeping.
It seems to take a certain amount of bravado to do the public tasks a pastor performs, but suffering with and amongst the saints has a way of knocking the swagger off. Hear me say, no one knows the weight of being a pastor apart from pastors themselves, and their immediate families. But as a staff member, lay leader, pastoral resident, etc., you are privy to the underbelly of pastoral ministry, the part that gives rise to all sorts of heartbreak, anger, and insecurity - things we do not foresee when blinded by the glimmer of adding our two cents to the on-going gospel-centered, missional endeavors around the country. Praying with and for your pastor(s) in this season all but ensures a better shot at being grounded when your turn comes. You won't be able to avoid the pain, but you'll have a headstart on being able to view the pain rightly, even as it reaches its ultimate resolve in Christ.
2.) You'll make big mistakes. And it will be okay.
Headed into pastoral ministry? Then check your pride at the door. The calling has a unique way of breeding humility into leaders, whether they desire to be humble or not. Serving under another leader will invariably soften the blow; that is, the hits to your pride won't be quite the shock to your system as they would be if everything was under your care alone.
You'll be given ample on-the-ground experience, and you'll get to see firsthand what it's like when things go wrong. You'll be talking with someone and not know what to say. Or worse, you'll say the wrong thing altogether. You'll misuse a verse in a sermon, spend over budget, choose the wrong song, be late to a meeting, forget to lock the sidedoor after service, and offend the church's longest tenured member. Twice. And, by virtue of your position under a senior shepherd, you won't always bear the full weight of the consequences for those things. You'll be given an opportunity to learn and grow - to move toward maturity - in ways you wouldn't be afforded to otherwise and you (and the church you end up serving in the future) will be much better for it.
3.) You'll grow to love the church more than you ever thought possible.
Serving under other leaders for a season puts you in the middle of convesations and meetings that, in many ways, expose the church for who she really is. The body is full of people beset with sin and with many who are making war against it. It's a messy endeavor.
Even still, there is something about seeing the imperfections of a thing that endears it to us more. Generally speaking, we tend to care differently for the wounded, for the underdog, for the down and out. Double it down with the church. While we wouldn't characterize the church as exactly those things, we should acknowledge her flaws and be attentive to all the many ways God uses those weaknesses to display his strength. And with that acknowledgement comes an ever-deepening, ever-increasing love for her that isn't subjected to the whims and fancies of the latest disagreement or debate. It's solid and it's real.
Spurgeon, in speaking of the fruitless search for a perfect church, spoke to deep pastoral realities, too: "If I had never joined a Church till I had found one that was perfect, I would never have joined one at all! And the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect Church after I had become a member of it. Still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us..." That's her - the church. The dearest place on earth to us. We take her, as one of my favorite professors says, "warts and all." We serve her, fight for her, speak truth to her, and labor to present her to God, fully mature and found in Christ (Col. 1:28).
Young, aspiring pastor - consider these things and know that, should you choose to spend your time under the leadership of others, your time will not be wasted.
Author's Note: As an aside, if you're in the Kansas City area or are headed this way, Emmaus Church (the church I currently attend and serve at) is accepting applications for its Pastoral Residency program. You can find more info and a link to the application here.