Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Sunday, August 11, 2013

tent making ministry and the future church, 8.11.13

Acts 18:1-11
After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, 3and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together—by trade they were tentmakers. 4Every sabbath he would argue in the synagogue and would try to convince Jews and Greeks.

5 When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus. 6When they opposed and reviled him, in protest he shook the dust from his clothes and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’

7Then he left the synagogue  and went to the house of a man named Titius  Justus, a worshipper of God; his house was next door to the synagogue. 8Crispus, the official of the synagogue, became a believer in the Lord, together with all his household; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul became believers and were baptized. 9One night the Lord said to Paul in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; 10for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.’ 11He stayed there for a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.

1 Corinthians 9:3-7, 11-18
3 This is my defense to those who would examine me. 4Do we not have the right to our food and drink? 5Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? 6Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? 7Who at any time pays the expenses for doing military service? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk? …11If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? 12If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we still more?

Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. 13Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is sacrificed on the altar? 14In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.

15 But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in my case. Indeed, I would rather die than that—no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting! 16If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
            The first church I served was Beacon Presbyterian Church. Beacon had about 30 members in inner city Philadelphia. I I was an intern there during my second year of seminary, and became their pastor the next year. Throughout the fifteen months I spent as Beacon’s pastor I learned a lot. I preached almost every week and I led a weekly Bible study, but with 10 hours a week around the edges of a full time job, I could never do as much as I wanted to.

When we moved to Rochester, I felt certain that I wanted a full time position so I could do more. When I heard about Laurelton, it sounded like a great fit, except that it was half time instead of full time. So I prayed about it, met with session, and ultimately started here on February 1, 2009.

            What I learned from that whole process, and this is really going to surprise you, is that God knows better than I do. I was sure I wanted a full time position but as it has turned out, not only is this church the right fit for me, being half time has been a blessing in ways I couldn’t predict. God is teaching me a lot about ministry for the twenty-first century, and God is using our work together to remind the church of Paul’s model of tent-making.

            When Paul moved to Corinth he met Aquila and Pricilla and stayed with them because they were all tent-makers. In letter after letter Paul talks about how he works with his hands so he won’t be a burden to the church. He wants to make sure that financially supporting him isn’t a barrier to people hearing the gospel. At the same time, he reminds the church that the people who dedicate their life to serving the gospel should be able to survive by preaching, even though he doesn’t want financial support himself.

            It’s a challenging balance. The church benefits from having people who can spend most of their time working for the church. People who can travel to spread the gospel, people who can dedicate years to studying and teaching, people who can dedicate their full time to building up the church. At the same time, professional church workers are expensive, and we don’t want money to keep people from hearing the gospel or growing in faith. That was a challenge Paul saw then, and it’s still a challenge now.

            Most churches in our denomination are shrinking. Churches that employed two pastors ten years ago now have one, and many churches that have had a full time pastor are finding that harder and harder to maintain. Along the way, many churches cut basically every other kind of spending before even considering letting go of their full time pastor. For those of you who have been here more than 5 years, this is a very familiar story. Many of our neighboring churches are facing the same process now.

            That sounds like a lot of bad news, but ultimately, I don’t think it is. It is going to mean some really hard transitions for a lot of people and churches, but it is an opportunity to reexamine how we do ministry in the church.

            As early as Paul’s time, there was a place for paid people in the church; it was a good investment to allow some people to dedicate themselves fully to ministry in a way they couldn’t do if they were working. There are churches now that need full time pastors and other leaders. The question to answer is what we want to pay for and why. I think there are two main ways we can look at paid ministry in the church: doing ministry for us or doing ministry with us. When a pastor does ministry for the church, that means the church is paying the pastor to do things they know the church should be doing.

            Doing ministry with the church is different, and I think that’s most of the real calling of a pastor. Paul’s line is, “equipping the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” What that means is things like teaching, leading Bible study, having individual conversations, and moderating session meetings. It means working with members of the community to help people find and strengthen their spiritual gifts so they can grow in faith through ministry.

            So, if we think about visiting homebound members of the congregation, doing ministry for you means I go and visit those folks on behalf of the church. Doing ministry with you, equipping you for ministry, means that I work with people who feel called to a ministry of visitation to help you feel comfortable making visits. It means helping you (through the care team) organize a system so people are being visited regularly and talking with you about how visits go and what questions they raise for you.

            In terms of welcoming visitors, doing ministry for you means it is my job to be a friendly, welcoming face and to follow up with visitors to help them connect with the church. Doing ministry with you means helping you develop skills and confidence to welcome people and helping you develop ways to follow up with those visitors.

            There’s a role for both ministry with and for you, but the ministry with you is more important. In a church this size, I should know everyone at least a little and it’s important for me to stay connected with our homebound members, so I need to visit. I also need to welcome visitors. Whether right or wrong, there is something special for many people about meeting the pastor that makes them feel more comfortable and connected.

At the same time, the more important work is equipping you to visit and to welcome. After all, the real point is connecting people to the community of faith, not to me. If I am the only person a homebound member knows, they won’t feel very connected to the church. And if I’m the only person a visitor knows they might like me or not, but they won’t be connected with the congregation as a whole. Pastors come and go, but the community lasts. And feeling connected to a faith community is a blessing that far outweighs anything I can do through personal welcome and charm.

The last century the church absorbed a lot from the culture, some good, some not so good. Like in other professions we have absorbed the idea of paying a specialist to do something for us. We pay a mechanic to work on our car, a doctor to treat physical problems and a school to education our children. Sometimes we see church the same way: we pay a pastor to take care of our spiritual needs.

This creates a cycle where church members feel that many things that are a basic part of being Christian are the responsibility of the pastor because the pastor is an expert. That attitude affects things like prayer and scripture reading as well as visiting, welcoming, teaching and sharing faith. Even though the pastor’s real job is equipping the church for ministry, a lot of the way we have done ministry ended up having the opposite effect, making people feel less empowered to do ministry themselves and more dependant on paid clergy.

All Christians have a calling to live our faith in every part of our lives. My job is not to do that for you, but to help you do it better. In a church our size I think the first limit we reach is the time and energy the members have for ministry. It wouldn’t even make sense to have a full time pastor, because that would mostly increase my ability to doing more ministry for you, and the congregation would actually do less ministry. I think for Laurelton now, half time is about perfect.

            There are other benefits to our part time arrangement too. Of course, the financial piece is an important one. A part time pastor is challenging financially; full time wouldn’t be sustainable.

One of the hardest things for churches and pastors is to get out of the building and connect to people who aren’t in church. I spend half of my working time as well as my social time outside the church, so I automatically make those connections. That not only gives me more opportunities to share my faith, it also keeps me from getting tunnel vision and it keeps me connected to the wider community. Paul doesn’t talk about how the tent-making part of his time provided ministry opportunities, but I’m sure it did. My ambulance work is the same way, as is your teaching or cleaning or childcare.

            It also reminds you and me that we are the same. I am not some ivory tower professor or a spiritual champion. I am a person with faith and questions and other work obligations like you. I think knowing that I have another job makes it easier to remember that.

It also means that we can be more open about money. When we talk about the budget, my salary and benefits are a big piece of the puzzle, which means we need to be able to talk about it. When a pastor is the biggest financial obligation and you know they depend on the church, it is hard to discuss the budget honestly because the pastor’s livelihood is tied up in that. Since half of my income comes from somewhere else, I am less dependant on the church financially, which means we can talk about the whole budget more openly, at least, I hope we can.

The church of the future needs to be more flexible and more nimble than the church of last century. That’s because changing membership patterns make the big budgets and funding structure of the past unsustainable, and also undesirable. For some congregations, that will mean sharing or getting rid of their building to be more flexible. For many having a tent-making pastor or sharing pastoral leadership with another church will be part of the equation. In UPT we’re thinking a lot now about how our churches can share resources so we can all be more efficient and effective in this new century.

Whenever I think or talk about what it’s like to be a tent-making pastor I have to give you credit as a congregation for making this work well. A big part of changing from full time to part time is changing expectations. When Laurelton had a full time pastor, the pastor did more things: both more ministry with and more ministry for the congregation. You have done a great job realizing that I will not be able to do the same things. You will have to do more or let some things go, and you’ve done both. I very rarely hear complaints about what I’m not doing. Your flexibility and openness make Laurelton a really great place to work.

The flip side of that is that I count on you to let me know what I am missing, what you need more of. I make the best decisions I can about how to use my time, but if there are areas you feel need more attention, I’d like to hear that so I can reevaluate. One of the strengths of the Presbyterian tradition is that we lead together. I need you to help me be a good pastor.

The church thrives when we are all living our faith and sharing our gifts at church and in the wider world. We all have a role to play, and my role is helping your grow in faith and ministry. For Laurelton, tent making ministry is a part of our flexibility and life together. As we work together to make our church stronger, more engaged in the community and more faithful to God, we can all use our gifts as we grow in faith.

Thanks be to God.

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