Ministry Isn't an Individual Sport

by Jared Bumpers January 3, 2017

When I was a senior in high school, I signed up for a class called “individual sports.” (I also signed up for “strength and weights” and “team sports,” so basically every PE class my high school offered! I really decided to challenge myself academically!) We spent most of the semester playing ping pong, although we discussed other individual sports like golf and tennis. As the name suggests, the class focused on sports in which an individual competed alone. The success or failure of the game or match was entirely dependent upon the individual. This class stood in stark contrast to the “team sports” class, where we played basketball, ultimate Frisbee, wiffle ball, and other team-based sports. The success or failure of the game or match was dependent upon the team rather than an individual performance. While both classes were categorized as “physical education” courses, they were distinguished by their emphasis: one on individuals and the other on a group of individuals working together.

Carrying these categories over into pastoral ministry, let me ask you a question: is your ministry an individual sport or a team sport? In other words, does the ministry you oversee depend solely upon you, or are there multiple believers working together toward a common goal?

I am afraid far too many pastors and ministry leaders view their ministry as an “individual sport,” where the success or failure of the church or ministry is dependent upon them and their efforts. They do all the work. They carry all of the load. They feel the all the weight of the ministry. It is essentially a one-man show. This mentality, while prevalent, is simply unbiblical. Scripture indicates ministry and service should be more “team oriented” than “individual oriented.” Two passages in particular illustrate this point: Exodus 18:13-27 and Ephesians 4:12-13.

Exodus 18:13-27: A Narrative of Shared Ministry

In the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt, Moses dealt with all of the disputes that arose among the people of Israel (apparently quite a few, since Moses stood from "morning till evening" judging between the people!). When Moses' father-in-law saw and heard what was going on, he told Moses plainly, "What you are doing is not good" (vs. 17). Jethro recognized the danger of Moses carrying the load alone. He said, "You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone" (vs. 18). Trying to do all of the judging between the Israelites would lead to a breakdown for Moses, since the load was too heavy for one person alone to bear. You could phrase his comments this way: "Ministry is not an individual sport!"

Jethro provided an alternative to solo ministry. He told Moses to select able men with good character and allow them to judge alongside him. If Moses would simply involve others in ministry, Jethro said it would be "easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you" (vs. 22). His advice was basically for Moses to involve others in ministry and not attempt to do ministry alone. What this narrative illustrates is that ministry should be a team effort, not an individual endeavor.

Ephesians 4:12-13: Paul, the Ephesians, and Shared Ministry

The principle of involving others in ministry is not simply illustrated in the Old Testament; it is explicitly taught in the New Testament. In Ephesians, Paul wrote, "And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ" (vs. 11-12). One of the reasons God gave leaders to the church was "to equip the saints for the work of the ministry," not to do all of the ministry themselves. Pastors and leaders must understand that part of their responsibility is to train and equip believers to serve and to do the work of the ministry.

Now, how does one go about incorporating others into ministry? How does a pastor or leader move from an individualistic approach to a more team-oriented approach? Although much could be said about this, there are four things that are crucial when it comes to involving others in ministry:

1. Select the Right People

Yes, it is important to involve people in ministry, but it is equally important to select the right people. Jethro told Moses, "Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens" (vs. 21). Moses was told to look for men who were competent, but he was also told to look for men with character. This character was obviously rooted in their relationship with God, as evidenced by the command to find "men who fear God."

When selecting people to involve in ministry, you should look for these same things. Does the person have a personal relationship with Christ? Has their relationship with Christ produced godly character? Are they capable of doing the work of the ministry? Only those who profess faith in Christ, have character that demonstrates faith in Christ, and are capable of doing the work should be selected to involve in a particular ministry.

2. Train and Equip People

After selecting people to involve in ministry, you must train those people. You would never (hopefully!) hand over the keys of your car to your child without having first taught him/her how to drive. If you did, the results would be disastrous. In the same way, launching people into ministry without providing any training can be disastrous. It can be detrimental to the faith of the believer and to the health of the ministry.

So, instead of just launching them into ministry, let them spend some time observing first. Let them watch you and others in the ministry and ask questions. Use this time to explain to them what you do, why you do it, and how you do it. Then, slowly give them responsibilities and let them assimilate into the ministry. Don't think your job is done once they are assimilated, though. Make sure you follow up and provide evaluation, as well as further training. The goal is to help them continue to grow and mature as they participate in the work of the ministry.

3. Do Ministry with the People

As the pastor or leader, your job is to equip the people to do the work of the ministry, but this does not mean you abstain from the work. It is important that you don't simply dump the work of the ministry on your people. Instead, you should lead in the work and demonstrate what faithful ministry looks like for your people. This is why Paul encouraged the believers in Thessalonica "to respect those who labor among you" (1 Thessalonians 5:12). The leaders there were laboring among the people, doing the ministry and serving the people.

Likewise, pastors and ministry leaders must serve and labor among the people. They involve the people in the work of the ministry, but they do not abandon the work themselves. Bottom line: don't use the "ministry is a team effort" approach to be lazy. Work and serve with the people in your church and/or ministry.

4. Depend on the Holy Spirit

Although I have assumed those who minister and serve do so in the power of the Holy Spirit, it is worth stating explicitly at this point: pastors and leaders must rely on the power of the Holy Spirit. If pastors and leaders are not depending on the power of the Spirit, it really doesn't matter if they are flying solo or incorporating others...they are doomed to fail. Nothing lasting will be accomplished apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, and leaders and ministry teams must learn that ministry must be done in the power of the Spirit.

At the practical level, this means pastors and leaders, as well as the teams they lead, must pray for the Holy Spirit to work and depend on the Holy Spirit to produce results. First, prayer is essential. Pastors, leaders, and teams must pray and acknowledge that God alone can enable them to do the work of the ministry, and only the Holy Spirit can change hearts and change lives. Second, it means relying on God to produce results and not on human efforts.

Pastors and leaders, ministry is not an individual sport. You shouldn't be doing it alone. Find other qualified people, train them to do the work of the ministry, and do the work together in the power of the Spirit and watch God work!