It’s Time to Release! A close look at the Volunteer Lay Pastor’s approach

By Walter Castro

Walter CastroOne of the questions church planters are often asked is “Why are you planting a church? Aren’t there enough already?” In Florida Conference we believe there are never enough new churches as long as we still have unreached communities. One of the values we uphold before all our staff is the necessity to plant churches.

Paid professional ministers simply cannot do it all. Pastor Eric Foley said it this way, “it is hard being a pastor in a traditional church setting. You have to be a theologian, a public speaker, a counselor, a manager, an event planner, a fundraiser, a mediator, a facilities manager, and about a hundred other things”. (1) No wonder professional training is needed and burnout is so high.

We need workers! Jesus’ words are still true today that “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few” (Luke 10: 2 NIV). In order to fulfill the mission of Christ and to reach new communities for God, we need volunteer leaders who can lead mission groups, companies, and churches. But we also need administrators and administrations to embrace the biblical model of training lay pastors, elders, and other volunteers because church planting is the best solution and the most biblical approach if we truly believe we still have a chance to make a difference in some unreached areas. Is it training sufficient to accomplish the need? No! The secret is in the combination of training and releasing. Most of our conferences and administrations are great in putting together outstanding training events, but only a few are willing to trust and release volunteers to launch new mission groups!

God released Lay Pastor’s in the Past

Richard Wibberding, Ph.D., (2) explains from the book of Acts how the Bible reveals Christ’s mission mandate to shape the church around three groups of leaders. The Apostle’s role was to expand the gospel’s reach into new regions. In modern terms, we might call them evangelists and church planters. The Deacons provided oversight of member care. Today, pastors and elders often fill this role but, biblically, it belongs to the deacons. The most defined qualifications of all New Testament offices are of the elders and deacons (1 Tim 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-9) which repeatedly appear as primary local leaders (Acts 11:29-30; 15:1-31; 16:4; 20:17, 28).

It is important to understand that lay shepherding is not only biblical; it is in fact, the preferred method of providing pastoral care to a community. The clergy/laity disparity that exists in today’s church is far from the biblical norm of every member involvement. (3)

Definitely, we have a popular misconception of the word “minister” and the person who goes into “the ministry”. Unfortunately, we have allowed the common, and not the biblical use of the term “minister” to segregate us toward a hierarchical class distinction. In this way, we distinguish between two kinds of people; those who have entered into a “holy order” ministry, and a second class status of “saints”, who have not called to be part of the “sacred ministry”.

Nowhere in the New Testament does the term “ministry” or “minister” indicate a particular class or church member set apart from the rest of the church. At this point, most of us are familiar with the noun diakonia (service, ministry, or mission).  Depending on the context, the personal form of diaknoia is translated “servant,” “minister,” or “deacons,” Greg Ogden affirms that “ministry” is the province of the entire body of believers. (4)

An incorrect punctuation in Ephesians 4:11-12 has been used for claiming a distinct class set apart for ministry. Some Bible versions insert a comma after the word “saints”, leading to the idea that only some gifted believers are to do all the ministry. A closer look reveals how a misplaced comma can change a lot. “And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers to equip the saints, for the work of ministry, and build up the body of Christ”. (RSV 1946). With the comma included, it would appear that these gifted individuals have three tasks: equip the saints, do the work of ministry, and build up the body of Christ. (5)

Many scholars agree that the comma after “saints” should be removed. Now the passage reads: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ” (RSV 1971 edition; NRSV). In this way, the “saints”, of which Paul refers, is the designation of all God’s people who do the work of ministry. Ministry is not delegated to just a few; it is conterminous with the entire body. (6) In other words, God released His people to practice and perform ministry. There is only one ministry, the ministry of the people of God!

We must never forget that in the earliest days, the church operated through the spontaneous movement of the Holy Spirit as He filled common and everyday believers for ministry. In the earliest church all were laity (laos), including the leaders. It is evident that clericalism arrived much later, as a result, it limited the ministry of ordinary believers and the expansion of the church. (7)

As the church experienced exponential growth, more organization became necessary. In Acts 14, we read that Paul and Barnabas, at the close of their first missionary journey, returned to each of the churches they established and “appointed elders” (presbuteros) (Acts 14:23 NIV). We can reasonably say that the terms bishop (episkopos) and elder (presbuteros) are synonymous and they were used interchangeably in the New Testament. (8)

Although the early church increasingly recognized the importance of leadership and structure, there is little evidence of rank or position. Elders and deacons of the primitive church were more functionary (different types of ministry) than hierarchical.

We need to get this straightened out and accept, once and for all, that the man-made divisions between clergy and laity that would later weaken the life from the church, relegating ordinary believers to second class status, simply does not exist in the New Testament.

Unfortunately, Christian history shows the damage and the catastrophic results of a top-down practice. Robert Munger explains that the division of roles between clergy and laity is the “greatest single bottleneck to the renewal and outreach of the church” (10).

The Seventh-day Adventist church is not immune to this challenge. In many places we tend to be a clergy-dominated institution. This institutional legacy has quenched the release of the Spirit in some places. Even though, our church has topped 19.1 million people on a planet of a 7.4 billion people, and doubled worldwide the number of local churches (11), we are in survival mode in some parts of the world, including our own backyard.

In order to be more explosive, missional, and effective, the Total Member Involvement (TMI) movement needs to strengthen here in North America, and understand that we only have 3,500 institutionally-recognized ordained pastors compared to 1.2 million priests and saints to also called to practice Ministry. Some need training. Many however could be released into the muddy sea of 300 million people as church planters!

God wants to release Lay Pastors Now!

Many churches complain about the lack of lay participation and involvement in the life of the local church. According to Thumma & Warren and the FACT research (The Other 80 Percent), organizations and clergy who focused more attention on developing and promoting a vision, evangelism, teaching about the faith, and recruiting and training lay leaders saw significantly increased volunteer recruitment. (12)

In Florida Conference, we believe this is the secret. It is in the right mix between assessment, recruiting, training, coaching, trusting, and releasing. For more than 13 years, the administration as a whole understood that we need a more biblical approach. We cannot neglect our structure, institutionalism, and the multitalented pastor mind set. But, we can aggressively practice a more missional and biblical lay model approach. The great potential for a continual cycle of growth, and baptisms in Florida should not be limited to the 200 institutionally recognized ordained religious figures. Why? Because our greatest potential for mission expansion lies in our more than 64,000 thousand priests and saints (members).

After years of learning from others, and also from our own mistakes, we have developed a solid, not perfect, but a solid, organic, church planting system that provides the opportunity for lay people to plant churches and the development of Volunteer Lay Pastors. What is the fruit of this approach? Today, nearly 11,000 thousand Florida Conference members are led by Volunteer Lay Pastors (VLP’s) under the supervision and coaching of our employed pastors and the Ministerial Department team.

The VLP’s of Florida Conference oversee nearly 90 mission groups, companies, and churches. The message is already out there, we trust you! That is why we are planting a new church every five or six weeks. Our VLP Pastoral team is formed by trained male and female ordained elders that have been recommended by the members of their own group. They are supported by the board of the mother church, and the sponsoring Pastor as “Lay Leader” of that particular mission group. They receive a top quality training twice a year (autumn and spring) in different areas such as: administration, church growth, discipleship, coaching, conflict management, theology, etc.

Some might say, “well, that system works only with some ethnic groups.” However, we have discovered that the system works with some 17 different nationalities. Hispanics from all over, Caribbeans, Caucasians, Africans, African-Americans, Asians, you name it!

We understand this is not a growth system model that will work for everyone. While some may resist, others may welcome the idea of lay shepherding. A Caucasian church in northern Florida had declined to just a few members when someone suggested, “the last person to turn off the lights”, but the Holy Spirit had a revival plan. A faithful motivated woman showed up, someone asked her if she would be willing to “try anything legal, but bring revival to the congregation?” She said “yes”! “under one condition”, “allow me to try anything”! The Conference Administration agreed, and she sold the church building! She said, “that is the solution here”. In a couple years however, the Volunteer Lay Pastor and a prosperous and growing group of “saints”, constructed a new church building. Now, they are back in the game, and looking for ways to influence the community and find new followers of Jesus Christ.

A Hispanic church in Miami has more than 400 members and double services on Saturday morning. They baptize an average of 30 per year. The Volunteer Lay Pastor is a professional chef and a spirit filled man of God. He practices pure ministry from the New Testament Church! I do not give to this Lay Pastor much of counsel except to say: “Slow down, don’t burn out! We truly appreciate what you are doing for the Lord, and we are waiting for the right science to clone you”!

The Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America is not growing the way it should. In the last 10 years (2005-2014) we have only increased our membership 15%. That is only 178,078 new members in 10 years-many of whom are membership transfers from other countries.  A 1.5% rate growth per year is considered by many church growth experts as no growth at all.  The 59 conferences of the North American Division have planted 540 new churches in last 10 years. (13) That’s an average of less than one church per conference per year. The reality is that many of our conferences are not planting churches at all. Only 7 or 8 of them are intentionally promoting and funding new church projects.

The good news is that the Evangelism Department and the Church Planting department of our Division is challenging us to “Plant1000” (nadchurchplant.org) for the next five years.

This initiative is very exciting! After launching the plan, the support system, and the release of funds, some young, energetic, spirit-filled pastors, many of them young, created at least two Facebook pages to support each other! In 2015, we have already broken the average rate of 54 new churches per year for the last 10 years to 57. More than 140 applications were received by the NAD in November of 2015 with petitions for new church projects. (14)

Remember, we have approximately 3,500 ordained pastors for 6,277 established churches. The reality is that pastors alone would not be able to complete the task of planting 1000 churches in the next five years, but many of them are willing to sponsor, support, mentor, or coach a Volunteer Lay Leader who is willing to take charge. We have a gold mine of 1.2 million members, with thousands of trained elders ready to be challenged, trusted, and released to serve as church planters/Volunteer Lay Pastors.

The laity (laos) of God have enormous potential for the mission of God in North America. Such are the present and future workers of the vineyard, the saints, the priests, and the prototypes of the kingdom of God not yet completed. They are not perfect, but they are in Jesus! As Seventh-day Adventist credentialed religious leaders, we can do a great service the next time we hear someone say, “I’m just a layperson”. We can certainly respond, “That’s more than enough”. We release you! Go into all the world and preach, plant churches, and baptize” (Mark 16:15). We trust you!

Walter Castro, DMin.
Field Associate for Volunteer Lay Pastors/Church Planting
Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventist

Edited by Tim Nichols, DMin.
Vice President for Pastoral Ministries
Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventist

Bibliography

1-http://dotheword.org/2011/07/06/how-to-start-a-lay-church-principle-x-use-volunteer-lay-pastors-to-lead-local-churches/

2-http://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1147&context=dmin

3-http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1258&context=doctoral

4- Greg Ogden, Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), p. 85.

5- John Stott, The Message of Ephesians (Downers Grove, IL: InterVaristy Press, 1979), p. 166.

6- 4- Greg Ogden, Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), p. 85.

7- Barnet James, The Diaconate: A gull and Equal Order (New York: The Seabury Press, 1979), p. 13.

8-J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1953) p. 95-99.

9-Barry Lawson, Lay Shepherding: Developing a Pastoral Care Ministry for the Small to Mid-Sized Church.,

http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1258&context=doctoral

10- Robert Munger, “Training the Laity for Ministry” Theology News and Notes (June 1973). p. 3.

11-http://www.adventistreview.org/church-news/story3843-adventist-church-tops-19-million-members.

12- Scott Thumma and Warren Bird, (The Other 80 Percent, San Francisco, CA: Zondervan, 2011), p. 93.

13-http://www.adventiststatistics.org/view_Summary.asp?FieldID=D_NAD

14-https://www.facebook.com/nadchurchplant/posts/285929778434235

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