Over the past months a number of people have made reference, often jokingly, about my preference not to be called pastor, minister or any other associated term. I thought it was perhaps time I explained why.
When Jenny and I were talking about getting married and spending the rest of our lives together my sense of call to church leadership was part of the discussion. I remember Jenny saying that she didn’t want me to be a “pastor”. Why? Not because she had anything against pastors, she just wanted to make sure any children we might have didn’t grow up inoculated against God because of their experience of church. It was an important and profound desire I shared and so I agreed I would not be a “normal” pastor. By that I meant I would endeavour to put the welfare of our children before my pastoral ambitions and endeavour to protect them.
Yep - we looked young then!
What Jenny and I knew intuitively then is now, more than 30 years later, much clearer. There are things about the way churches and pastors relate and work that is far from healthy working against the message of the good news.
Avoiding the terms of pastor or minister is not an attempt on my part to avoid leadership, but in a small way try to help us rethink, redefine and reform the way we do church and church leadership.
Being a Baptist
One of the foundations of the “Baptist” way of doing church is the “priesthood of all believers.” We believe the church is one body in Christ and all the members of the body occupy the same relation to Him, whatever
their special gift or office. We have no distinctive class of priests with all members being “priests unto God” by the death of Christ (Rev. 1:5-6).
But sadly, we often slip into ways that undermine our heritage. We operate as if there are two tiers of Christians, the “clergy” (Priests, Pastors, and Ministers) along with the rest of God’s people – the “laity”.
I recently read it in less flattering terms. We have the “up-fronters” and the “pew-warmers”, or the “leaders” and the “followers”, or the “workers” and the “watchers”, or the “performers” and the “audience”, or the “elite” and the “masses”, or the “trained” and the “untrained”, or the “qualified” and the “unqualified.” Such distinctions are not only un-Baptist, they are unbiblical and they debilitate the effectiveness of the church. Calling all Christians priests is not only about our access to God, it has also to do with serving God and fulfilling the ministry of the church.
The implication of the priesthood of all believers is that every member of the church is called to share in the church’s ministry and mission. Paul says in Ephesians 4:11-12, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are given “for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Yes, there are leaders, but their job is not to do the ministry but to equip others to do it.
The concept of a pastor or minister up front doing most of the stuff and “lay” people in the pews or seats responding as an audience most of the time has no biblical basis. For the church to be effective every one of its members is called to be a minister. Here ministry is not concerned with running church programs or services, but being salt and light in and across our community. This is the real work God has called us to, and he has called each and every one of us to it.
It is my belief that our misunderstanding of the place of ministry in and through our churches cuts to heart of one of the biggest issues we face in our churches and the single biggest reason why the church is so ineffective in the world. This is true for Hobart Baptist Church (HBC) too, the place where I am in leadership. If the church is to again become an effective force in our community it is going to take the combined effort of all of us, not just a few leaders. This ministry will take place in the boardroom, the marketplace, the doctor’s waiting room, the local park, the political party, the local council and every imaginable sector of society. This is where God calls us to be his salt and light.
That is not to say that I’ve given up on the local church. I wouldn’t have accepted the invitation to work among HBC if I had. But I see my job among the believers there more like a “coach” than a pastor.
As I said in a recent sermon, gathering together on a Sunday is a bit like a huddle in a football match at quarter or half time. We huddle together to be encouraged and re-energised so that we can then go out in our week to “play the game” of mission in the world. Our challenge is not so much what we do in our “Sunday morning” huddle, but what we do when we break from our huddle and head to our Monday morning assignment. This is what it is to be the church of Jesus Christ.
On a more personal note, I too need to be careful in the way I see myself. I need to be on guard that my identity and sense of purpose and meaning doesn’t get swallowed up in the role of pastor. I need to ensure that being a “pastor” does not end up defining who I am when the reality is that that I’m just carrying out a task. I want to ensure that I am not defined by the expectation of the role rather than who I am as a person.
It is my privilege that for a time I am serving among HBC as “pastor,” not so much as a “normal” pastor, but as a “coach” helping us work as a team as we each go about fulfilling the work Jesus, the head coach, has called us to do.
May God bless you all in each of your particular ministries.
Stephen L Baxter
PS A note from Jenny: Not so long ago our two older girls, in their early 20s, were at a conference where a session for PKs was held – Preacher’s Kids. They had never really thought of themselves in that category, but were encouraged to go along, which they did in good humour. They were amazed to discover most of the other participants had a great deal of bitterness and resentment to work through as a result of their parent’s lifestyle choices. These parents were no doubt well-intentioned, but sadly, their kids had not come through unscathed. Perhaps our girls have been affected too, but their surprise at the others responses seems to suggest they have somehow escaped the worst!