What if leaders created more leaders?

March 27, 2013

It was kind of a social science experiment.

The teacher of our spin class was sick. We all had gone to the trouble to drag ourselves out of bed for this 5:45 a.m. stationery bike class, so we didn't want to hang it up and go home.

Most of us had been attending for a couple of years. The teacher had a set routine and we all knew it. Could we manage to have a class without the teacher? Who would step up and lead? We looked at each other. We joked about it. But no leader.

Finally someone said, “Well—I have music on my iPad.” Another person said, “Well—I will watch the clock and announce the changes if someone else helps me remember the routines.” It was a group effort, but we managed to get a good workout and have a group class even with the teacher absent.

I’ve been mulling this experience over and how it might relate to our churches. We have many smaller churches in communities where we want a United Methodist presence. And yet those churches cannot afford full-time or even part-time clergyperson. Can we have a church without a pastor?

Once upon a time we knew how to do this. In early days, a circuit rider came through an area once a month at best to train up leaders, form new classes, and provide the sacraments. But the church—the body of Christ—was the people. They met weekly. They taught one another the faith. They cared for the sick and the needy. They invited others to the community and developed them as leaders. And the church grew.

Who’s responsible for ministry?

Gil Rendle, who has researched and studied the United Methodist Church, has said one of the cutting edges for the small church is to learn how to be the body of Christ without daily clergy leadership. What would it take to learn some new ways to be the church?

Clergy would really need to understand their role as the equippers of the saints, not the primary doers of ministry. And that has been problematic at times. Clergy can fall into the trap of believing that as the trained theologians and the ones with a pastoral license or ordination, they are responsible for all the ministry and they don't share and train others to do what they do. And laypeople can fall into the trap of believing they pay a pastor to do ministry for them.

That’s what happened to us in the spin class. We were so used to having a teacher lead us that we just zoned out and followed along. Coming to a facilitated class let us off the hook from leading. But we learned some things about ourselves that morning. We could lead it—and in doing so, built some deeper community and bonded in the process.

Now, hear me clearly: I value teachers. I am glad my spin teacher returned to class this week ready and able to lead. I value clergy; I am one! They bring great knowledge, gifts, and skills to leading and guiding congregations. But I know that I did not always do my best to share the ministry, to develop other leaders, to equip the saints. And the church was not the better for it.

What would it look like to share ministry in some new ways for a new time and what possibilities would it give us for new life in our congregations and communities?

Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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