Right now I'm in the middle of my first year doctoral residency at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. During this residency I've had to be several hours away from my family...and also from my congregation. And in this format there's no real chance to go back for "pastoral emergencies." This means other people have had to cover for me in my absence.
Last week an elder from the congregation did the preaching, and this week another elder will be preaching. Yesterday we experienced a death in our congregation. The elders took the primary responsibility for providing bereavement care in that situation, though another local pastor is officiating the service.
I must confess, I do feel a bit guilty about being away during this time, especially for my friends who are suffering such a great loss. But I'm also finding this to be a tremendous time of growth, not just for me personally, but I think (I hope) for the leaders of our congregation. The elders are beginning to fulfill the biblical role and calling of the elders and becoming much more than communion presiders.
I'm reminded of the pastoral model of the Apostle Paul, who spent his time gathering a fellowship of believers and training them up to be the Church, then leaving them in the hands of qualified leaders who came from among their own ranks. Paul's whole process of developing churches was to build them up in such a way that one day they'd be able to function without him. This may be a frightening concept to many pastors and to many congregations, but what do you think would happen if we began to adopt that model of ministry?
I think there would be a lot less burnout among pastors. This is just theoretical and not based on any concrete study on my part. But I do notice the extent to which many churches' ministries are centered around the pastor and rely most solely upon her/him for leadership, pastoral care, and just about every thing else imaginable. If there was this underlying understanding that the responsibility and the opportunity for ministry really belongs to the people, then I think the people would hold more of a stake in things and actively take more leadership roles and responsibilities. The load of pastoral care, teaching, and shepherding the congregation would at the very least be shared more evenly between the leaders and the pastor than it usually is. This sharing of the load would free the pastor up to do what pastors are meant and called to do: Be with God and be with people.
I think there would also be a dramatic resurgence (maybe this is just hopeful thinking) of passionate spirituality amongst congregants. Such a model would, I believe, force churchgoers to critically rethink their understanding of church and to come to the great realization that we all have been called to participate in the ongoing ministry of Jesus in the world, not just those professionals or those ordained into ministry.
What do you think might happen?