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Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

March 18, 2009

I met this great guy Erik a few months ago. We broke BBQ in Kansas City, in fact, which is a beautiful way to begin a friendship. Moreover, we know a whole bunch of the same (cool) people in Des Moines, and I liked him right away. Especially because his blog had the cool moniker ‘godisnowhere’ (ie, ‘God is now here’ or ‘God is nowhere’, depending on how you see it). He’s since moved his blog to a new (blog)spot, where his thoughts are as good as ever, and keep my brain percolating.

The other day he was playing with an interesting false dichotomy between what he calls ‘old school pastors’ and ‘new school pastors’. Which got my attention, because I used to be a pastor (which makes me a ‘post-school pastor’, I guess). And he used the term ‘equipping’ to describe the primary duty of ‘new school pastors’. This is a term I’ve used before, many times, but which I haven’t used in a long time. So it had a certain kind of reactivity for me.

I guess I’m wondering if by using terms like ‘equipping’ and ‘empowering’ we betray our assumption that gifts and abilities and power are centralized, rather than diffuse. I wonder if we– even and in spite of our dissent from systems where the pastor is granted too much influence and control– show that we really think that the pastor is ‘special’ and the repository/dispensary of all the good stuff of the church community, and we therefore ignore all of the wisdom and leadership and insight that is waiting to bubble up in those same groups. I’m afraid that if we assume that the pastor has that much influence, then the people of our churches have already lost their stake in the churches they attend. And not to put too fine of a point on it, but I’m afraid that attendance is what the people of the church will quickly learn (consciously or unconsciously) is the extent of what is expected of them. So that the pastors and the people who attend the churches (known variously as ‘parishoners’, ‘attenders’, ‘laypeople’, etc.) will be condemned to an endless battle of mutual blame and cajoling.

Of course an ‘equipping’ pastor is doing a far better job than one who is doing everything themself. But I think both kinds of pastors are hoarding power that doesn’t even belong to them, and ingratiating themselves to a system that rewards their codependence.

The objection should be made to the above thoughts that ‘equip’ (or whatever its Greek root) appears in our sacred Scriptures, and that is true enough. But I wonder if in a society and culture that was as stratified as the first-century Middle East, such a concept was in fact innovative and empowering and deeply subversive. So rather than following the letter of the first-century practices, we ought to follow them in spirit (or what some call ‘the redemptive arc’ of the Biblical narrative). In a society and culture where emergence is de rigeur, we ought to have a whole different understanding of churches as groups that are built from the bottom up, rather than the top down. Hierarchies are hegemonies, and pastors are too often part of the problem.

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7 Responses to “Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss”

  1. Mike Croghan says:


    Some day I will learn your kind and gentle, yet insistent, smack-fu. Some day, when I am able to snatch the pebble from your hand.


    (No snarky simile between the equipping pastor and the smack-fu master is intended; I truly am a sincere padawan astounded at the master’s art. Although the parallel is striking. If seminaries were smack-fu dojos, then there might be something to this “equipping” business.)

  2. Anonymous says:

    Is it truly realistic to expect all ‘attendees’ to assume an active role in church functions? As Jesus was called “Teacher”, should the pastor not also lead (equip?) these members? The Head of the Church directs others to the path of righteousness. It seems appropriate that any group should need a director or manager. Expecting individuals to automatically actively involve themselves in church work might be ideal, but unattainable and self-limiting. Would it be wrong, then, to adopt a more customary church program and expand outreach, meanwhile striving for a goal of the ideal alternative? Does this even make sense?

  3. Mike Croghan says:

    Anonymous asks the $64,000 question that I’ve been wrestling with lately (well, one of them): is it wrong to adopt the more customary approach, or just contextually inappropriate?

    We can say with certainty that it’s definitely not unrealistic to expect all “attendees” to assume an active role in church functions – *if* those are the community norms from day one, and *if* the church exists in/as a cultural context made up of people who are looking for that kind of participatory, “priesthood of all believers” community. Our own church (Mike’s and mine) is ample demonstration of that.

    But could this model possibly be applicable to all cultural contexts? (My guess: probably not.)

    Are there a great many churches (which exist at least partly in cultural contexts which would support the “priesthood of all believers” model) in which clinging to the customary model is holding “lay” people back from becoming active, intentional followers of Jesus, while at the same time keeping a lot of pastors and other staff busy with program/admin work instead of freeing them up to do the things Jesus did? (My guess: absolutely, big time, and this is tragic.)

    Paradoxically, though, is it generally kind and Jesus-like, or even possible, to turn an existing church with customary cultural norms into a “priesthood of all believers” community”? (My guess: almost never. Attempting to do this can do great harm to community, and to people’s faith.)

    My conclusion: we need more new communities that practice the priesthood of all from day one. That’s what I think, anyway.

  4. Erin says:

    To me, gathering with the church should be like a family holiday with relatives you trust. There is some work, as everyone pitches in to help cook or whatever, but mostly it is just hanging around and enjoying each other and the purpose of the occasion, getting well fed and replenishing the emotional stores. (the metaphor lacks a bit in the “preparing for the mission” aspect of church life but oh well) This is why I like paying pastors and church staff to do most of the daily decision-making, budgeting, long-term planning, establishing vision, and so on. To me, that feels like work. I just don’t care enough about most of those things to spend hours working on them in addition to all the other responsibilities of my life. I’d rather invest time in worship/learning and in relationships with people in the church. Transparency is good, but in my book, an obligation to participate in every aspect of church life can be damaging.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Mike C., I think you make some good observations. If your model starts out with the expectation of complete participation, this will be easier to accomplish. As a member of the church that Mike S. once pastored, this model can be encouraged, but perhaps not fully realized, if it was not the ideal when the group commenced. We all have our strengths, and weaknesses and therefore need to be there for each other. Whether we use familiar terms like family and community of believers – or conversation and narrative, what matters, I think, is are we making a difference for Christ in our group, area, country, world? Does our gathering reflect our neighborhood? Does it impact said neighborhood? If God has indeed gifted the church with different people with different gifts, all to His glory – won’t this look different, albeit somewhat similar, in every gathering?

    Tom D.M.

  6. Anonymous says:

    After reading all the comments, I feel led to leave my own…. The church, also known as “the body” is made up of many parts. God gifts each one of us with abilities, and we are meant to use these gifts as a part of the body, to make it whole. By using our God-given gift, it helps the church to not just exist, but to thrive, to grow, and to be able to share it with others. If we don’t actively use our gifts in the church, it struggles to operate, and certainly doesn’t thrive, just as your body struggles when part of it isn’t doing what it’s meant to.

    “God hasn’t gifted me…” you may say? I encourage you to specifically pray that he would reveal it to you, to open the door that allows you to use your gifts. He created you for a purpose, it’s when you begin to live in that purpose, and experience it, that you WILL see the changes begin to take place in your church, your family, and your neighborhood. Just begin by asking, and then listen for that still, small voice. He will answer it…..


  7. Thien says:

    Bill G., I’m glad you asked. I don’t have a lot of answers, but I’ll give you some ttghohus.Our family has been deeply hurt in the past by church friendships. We wondered if it was ever worth risking again. I’ve actually talked about this subject with the church. I make fun of the way some people don’t treat us like we’re normal to show just how silly it is. We also work hard to show our family as a normal family rather than being perfect. I think we’ve also matured some over the years and have learned to better work through conflicts. It may be easier in a larger church than a smaller one because everyone doesn’t have to know everything.

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