This past week, a result of our bad planning, we managed to achieve none of our elders were at our church. It doesn’t happen often. It was not intentional. It was not ideal. But nevertheless, here we are. One was on holiday and two were preaching out elsewhere. We only realised after we had all agreed to our particular plans.
Whilst we don’t want to aim for this, two things – one theological, one essentially practical – mean that I do not lose sleep about it happening. I’d obviously rather it didn’t. I would be worried if it was happening all the time (why are all the elders never here?!) But I am not overly concerned that it happened at all, even if I wouldn’t be aiming for it to happen again.
Theologically, I am not worried because we believe in a priesthood of all believers. The Reformation rediscovered this vital doctrine. This teaching insists there is a not a special priest-class and a lesser laity. There is not clergy or laity. There are believers and there are unbelievers. Which means any suitably qualified person, affirmed by the church, can be an elder. Any believer can baptise another into the church. Any believer may offer communion.
What does this mean in practice? Simply that the wheels do not come off when the elders are not around. For it is not only elders who preach, but any man recognised by the church as apt to do so. Communion still gets distributed because it doesn’t require a special blessing from a particular bloke wearing a special hat – despite doing a good line in hats myself – but can be offered by any believer. Prayers are not only able to be offered by someone set apart to lead prayers, but can be offered by any believer who has equal direct access to God. It means that there are not lots of areas of church ministry hived off by the elders alone or that is the preserve of the pastor alone. The church can happily function when we’re not there. There is no biblical reason others cannot lead a service, preach, pray, give out communion or any other thing.
The other practical reason is one that many pastors seem scared of. I understand that many worry that the church is paying their stipend so they don’t want to appear that they are not earning their crust. Of course, there is little point supporting a pastor who is doing nothing at all. This is not an excuse for being lazy or feckless. But, nevertheless, I think it is right. That is, we ought to run the church in such a way that it can function when we’re not there.
Whilst that fills many with fear and causes them to worry that the church will wonder why on earth they need this pastor at all when stuff can happen without them, it should be obvious enough why this is important. The bottom line is, you won’t always be there. Or, to put it another way, you are not God and therefore will not be around forever. If you have led your church in such a way that it cannot survive without you, it will not survive without you. But, as is true for all of us, the day is coming when it will have to!
Similarly, if we really want our church to grow, we have to give our people the ability to grow into things. By growth, I don’t mean numerical growth here. If we want our people to grow, we have to extend opportunities to grow to them. You don’t raise up preachers by never letting them preach, leaders by never letting them lead or any number of other things by never letting them do those things. But if we start giving people these opportunities, and they take them and prove themselves to be quite capable, it may appear to some that perhaps we don’t need the pastor after all. We’ve got people who are able to do everything he can do between them ourselves. To which I say, great! That means your pastor has actually done what he is supposed to do and has equipped your church for works of service so that they are actually now serving.
Of course, it might be short-sighted to get rid of the man who has managed to do that. It might be foolish to get rid of the bloke set aside to take on the bulk of ministry. You may find you lose consistency in favour of piecemeal preaching. You might find, if you just sack him, there is a whole bunch of ministry and work going on that you took for granted that requires someone else to take on. They may be less capable, less able or just lacking the time to do it in the same way. There are all sorts of things that might happen that bear consideration.
But that shouldn’t stop pastors from seeking to raise people up, help them grow, equip them for works of service and ensure their churches can function when they’re not there. Not because they’re worried about losing their job. But if they really care for the church the Lord has given them, they will be most interested in serving its long-term good. They will be most concerned about the long-term cause of the gospel in their community. If we are concerned about these things, we will necessarily be concerned about passing on the baton. We will be concerned about running the church in such a way that it cannot continue to operate without us. We will see it as a problem that the wheels come off if we’re not there, because sometimes we may not be and one day we definitely won’t be. If we want ministry to continue beyond us, we have to run our churches in such a way as that’s even possible.
So, though I don’t think it is good that all our elders were away at once, and I don’t think it is something for us to aim towards for lots of reasons, it equally isn’t something I lose sleep over. We’ll try not to do it again, of course. But the Lord is much bigger than any one of us. The priesthood of all believers means we aren’t a special caste of Christian. We want our church to grow and we want our community to be reached. We want those things to continue beyond ourselves. So, we necessarily want to run things so that if we’re not there, the work can carry on.