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The Ministry Table

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 306

 
Issues relating to church and ministry are often the most critical and anxiety-perpetuating issues. Church and ministry issues include...
* The role of the pastor;
* The nature and extent of the pastor's authority;
* The role of the laity; and
* The nature and extent of lay authority.
Perhaps one of the most frequently disputed aspects is the relationship between the pastor and the laity. Issues relating to this relationship often have to do with these two areas:
1) the expansion of the laity's power at the expense of the pastor's appropriate authority; and
 
2) the encroachment of pastoral authority at the expense of the laity's appropriate involvement.
The tension between these two issues can be one of the most central issues in the church. The manner in which these issues are resolved will impact the degree of over/under-functioning of the pastor as well as the over/under-functioning of the laity. More importantly, it will influence the overall vigor and vitality of congregational ministry.
 
A Johari window of this dynamic (Figure One) demonstrates the potential influence of this critical relationship between pastor and laity.

Pastoral Function

Lay Function

Over Under
Over 1 3
Under 2 4

Figure One: The Pastor-Laity Relationship

Figure One illustrates the following types of relationships
 
1) Both Pastor and Laity Over-Function:
 
In this case conflict is likely. Without clear boundaries, pastor and laity experience chronic encroachment on each other's appropriate boundaries, rights and authorities. As long as the over-functioning continues on both sides, conflict will be maintained at a high level which will tend to maintain the over-functioning until the tension is resolved.
 
2) Pastor Under-Function and Laity Over-Function:
 
In this scenario, the pastor's preference is to maintain safety. Whatever the reasons for pastoral under-function and laity over-function, the overall result is that the laity "run" the show. The passive pastor may feel frustrated, threatened or continually over-ruled. Other passive pastors, frankly, may enjoy the unhealthy distancing which may occur.
 
Over-functioning laity may often feel numerous anxieties. They may feel unsupported by the pastor, they may be overwhelmed by the pastor's overall apathy, or their anxiety might be that of satisfying a compulsive desire to keep the pastor "in check" so that they can continue to stay in control. As long as this occurs, tension will be directed toward the minimizing--or elimination--of the pastor's role. In the best scenario, the pastor's role is virtually merely symbolic while the "official" stated laity roles are dramatically expanded beyond their appropriate boundaries.
 
3)   Pastoral Over-Function and Lay Under-Function
 
This scenario describes a passive and dependent relationship. The unhealthiness of this relationship may not be readily apparent. Passive laity enjoy watching pastoral function. They praise and encourage the pastor's compulsive over-functioning. As long as things are going well, both laity and pastors largely enjoy their mutual relationship. When things turn for the worse, however, the unhealthy nature of this relationship may become more readily apparent to all parties.
 
This scenario also breeds other unhealthy dynamics. Pastoral burnout is the rule, not the exception. As the pastor continues to over-function, sooner or later some from among the laity may want to exercise an appropriate--and healthy--level of ministry function. The anxious climate created, however, may engender unfair labeling of such individuals as antagonists. Generally, the greater the degree of pastoral over-function and lay under-function, the greater the pastor's anxious resistance to give up control and the greater the laity's resistance to give up their passivity.
 
4) Both Pastor and Laity Under-Function
 
This scenario often results in a sense of self-sabotaging apathy. With neither pastor nor laity exerting the appropriate boundaries of their callings, this relationship is anxious in that it is directed toward collapse. As objects at rest tend to stay at rest, the ultimate consequence of this relationship is that it is virtually destined to rest...in peace!
 
Without either pastor or laity assuming their appropriate identities, the organization will lack identity and, eventually, existence as a ministry entity. Indeed, the decreasing levels of ministry activity and vision can have only one final outcome: the death of the organization. It may be slow. It may be artificially supported via endowments, single benefactors, fund-raisers, etc. But, unless the functioning on either side of the relationship changes, the end is certain and virtually unavoidable. In some cases, the functioning may change...but it may be too late.
 
Some Observations
 
The four unhealthy pastor and laity relationships described above share a number of things in common.
 
First, each of these scenarios is unhealthy.
 
Second, the unhealthiness of each of these scenarios may not be readily apparent to either the pastor or the laity. Things which may obscure this reality may include
* current ministry trends of increase or decline,
* a misunderstanding of the Scripture's view of this relationship,
* unhealthy denominational patterns for this relationship,
* unhealthy cultural influences on the church environment, and
* other personal, theological, local, and contextual factors.
Third, the levels of relative functioning for pastor and laity are not consistent with the Scriptures;
 
Fourth, the relative experienced levels of functioning may be the result of previous unhealthy and improper levels of functioning by the pastor or the laity.
 
Fifth, in many cases conflicts occurred because of the anxiety generated by the improper balance between pastor and laity. All too frequently, these conflicts may or may not have been healthily resolved. Resultantly, the conflict and anxiety remains unresolved; and
 
Sixth, unless healthy intentional steps are take to bring greater balance to the pastor-laity relationship, this relationship will be characterized by chronic, unresolved conflict which will further exacerbate the unhealthy imbalance throughout the congregational system.

Resolving The Balance: A Paradigm

Pastors, congregations and denominations at every level may struggle to resolve these issues. Doctrinal statements, Scriptural studies, denominational mandates, congregational rules and regulations, and heroic pastoral "Here I stand" positioning so often fail to resolve the conflict.
 
In so doing, these strategies may actually have the result of raising unhealthy anxious sensitivities rather than healthily resolving this important church and ministry issue.
 
Perhaps the way to gain insight on this issue is to look outside the "box" of ecclesiasticality and look to other relational paradigms which may add insight to this relationship. If a paradigm can illustrate   positive, healthy dynamics relative to this relationship, perhaps such paradigm, tempered by the rule of Scripture,  may "ease" the process of returning pastor and laity to healthy levels of functioning.

A Family At Dinner

If the church is a family, then a family paradigm may be appropriately illustrative. Consider a family at dinner. Though there are different kinds of families (e.g. single-parent, etc.), this family has a father, mother and children who interact according to a common understanding appropriate to their family unit. Everyone is seated at the table. The father sits at the head of the table. The children sit in their appointed places. The mother also sits on the other end of the table.
 
Each one has their prescribed place and function. As the father says the table prayer, the others participate as is the custom agreed to by the family. As dinner is served, the family proceeds in a mannerly way, understanding that the food will be passed with courtesy and respect. When asking for seconds, "please" and "thank you" are expected and said.
 
The conversation is usually along certain parameters of relevant subject matter: the activities of the day, new and unexpected things which occurred and, of course, consideration of the general overall health and vigor of the family. All leave when the final prayer is spoken.
 
The situation described above, admittedly, may be somewhat "ideal." Where this paradigm becomes most useful, however, is when the paradigm is adjusted. For example, what happens if the father changes his seat at the table and willingly allows a child to sit at the head of the table? Is the father threatened? Does the family unit experience more anxiety? No. At least not as long as the father continues appropriate father-functioning and the family recognizes that the father is still the father regardless of where he sits.
 
The family's unique identity is the sum of all its members. To deny any member of the family is to deny the essential relationship framework of the family. The family knows that the loss of any family member would be a source of much grief and anxiety. Therefore the family takes great pains to encourage, support and build intra-family relationships.
 
If, however, the father gets bent out of shape when someone takes his chair, anxiety will certainly appear in all gathered at the table. What things would trigger such anxiety? Family norms which would prohibit such exchange, an unclear understanding of the father's role by one or more of those at the table (including the father) and, among other things, the pastor's over or under-functioning.
 
Lessons From The Father's Table
 
Though this paradigm is admittedly limited, it is useful to illustrate several points.
 
First, healthy congregations, like the healthy dinner table, have a healthy understanding of the relationship between each family member. Regardless of where they sit, there is never any misunderstanding relative to their identities.
 
Second, healthy congregations, like healthy families, understand that their appropriate level of functioning in the family maintains and strengthens the family. Even if a child sits in the father's chair, the family knows that its not the chair that is the real base of authority. It merely symbolizes, represents and reminds the family of that aspect of family authority.
 
Third, healthy congregations, like healthy families, know that it is the relationships formed and the appropriate roles for each relationship that are determinative for a good mealtime experience. When one has to "insist" on the authority of their seat and "cling" to it anxiously, the problem is not the chair.
 
The problem is that relationship boundaries have been violated by either over-function or under-function. Thus, exerting the rights of the symbolic chair will not be the most effective solution. The real solution is to engage in a process of rediscovering the appropriate relationship function among all its members.
 
Fourth, there are times in congregations, as in families, when the authority and right of the father must be exerted. In such cases it would be inappropriate for the father to act from any other place that from the head chair. The visual impact of the importance of the father's chair underscores the relational re-adjustment which the father must bring to bear in such times.
 
Fifth, in healthy congregations, as in healthy families, occasions in which the father will have to intervene with authority will be rare, as they should be. If the father over-functions or under-functions in this interventive capacity, he will not only increase anxiety levels in the family. He will also risk destroying the healthy and free relational exchange of trust, fellowship, commitment and love among them.
 
Sixth, if the father or any other family member persists in over- or under-functioning in his role, the family will distance the father from their trust, commitment and love. Though they may "act out" obedience, their heart will become increasingly rebellious and resentful of the imbalanced, unhealthily-functioning father. This is certainly true for both pastor and laity in congregations.
 
Seventh, even though the child sitting in "Daddy's Chair" might imagine having paternal authority, the child is rooted in the reality of the relationship. The child knows it is not the father. It understands that the family roles are clearly understood, defined and maintained regardless of the table positioning. Instead, it is the respective relationship of the father and each of the family members that is determinative for healthy functioning.
 
The same is true in congregations. It's not the pulpit which, though it symbolizes authority, is the source of authority. The authority is in the relationship defined by God for the church.
 
Eighth, if the child decides to act out the father role from the head chair, other family members may play along. In a healthy family, however, that's as far as it will go. All will recognize that it is merely "play." Such play does not, in itself, violate the relational family balance. Instead, it may be a healthy demonstration of the freedom, spontaneity and life of the family relationship.
 
Ninth, if the father is unable to be present, dinner is still served. The family's overall well-being depends on it. The healthy family will make immediate and short-term adjustments which will momentarily compensate for the father's absence. But they know and understand that to replace the father or to ignore the father's critical role in the relationship would not only hurt the father. It would hurt them and devastate the family. For that reason they would never think of removing or substituting the father with some other role or entirely eliminating that role.
 
Tenth, ultimately the family knows that, whatever the family's practice, the institution of family is much larger than they are. They recognize that their practice of family is but one expression of family in which love, sharing, and fellowship occur. They understand that there are healthy and unhealthy expressions of family. They recognize that there are multitudinous examples of each.
 
Essential to all families, whatever their form, is that they regularly recognize and respect the importance of proper functioning in their respective relationships. When the functioning is impeded, appropriate steps are taken to bring the family back to equilibrium.
 
Eleventh, the father will sometimes assist with the mother's and children's roles. The father's role within the relationship does not preclude occasional assistance and sharing tasks. This fluidity, however, is occasional. The father's intervention to assist or correct another family member is always a function of his--and their--developmental capacity, his love, and the best way to lovingly perpetuate long-term health and growth of the individuals, the family, and himself. Others in the family will intervene healthily insofar as they do the same.
 
Twelfth, in a healthy family no one is threatened by a limited fluidity of roles. Each of them knows that the nature of family is to allow and encourage that to happen on an occasional basis. They also recognize that the family's health and vigor is dependent on their ability and will to maintain proper individual function. They are aware that any type of over or under-functioning in the family for an inappropriate amount of time can affect the family system in dramatic and devastating ways.
 
The Father: One More Look
 
An important insight from this paradigm is the importance of the father's long-term influence. A healthy father is trusted because, as a function of his love, he perseveres through thick and thin with the family. He hangs in there for the long term.
 
This longevity enables the father to have an enduring, stabilizing influence to maintain and enforce healthy family function. The longer the father's healthy presence and influence remains, the greater the confidence that each member has that each will function within healthy and appropriate bounds. Anxiety remains healthily managed.
 
The family, in response, thrives in greater health and vitality to the benefit and joy of all the members including the father. The same can be true in the church when congregations enjoy a healthy, long-term relationship with a pastor.
 
Ecclesiastical Diversity
 
The Christian church in its many expressions throughout the world is like this kind of family at dinner. Though the meal, the table settings, and the number of those sitting at the table may vary, they share the commonalties illustrated above.
* Healthy congregations are primarily relationship driven, not legislation/legalism-burdened as they live according to the authority of the Gospel.
 
* In healthy congregations, appropriate roles and levels of functioning are internally respected, maintained and, when necessary, adjusted.
 
* In healthy congregations, the authority of the church is not bound simply to visible symbols and formal statutes and procedures. Instead, they recognize as determinative that pastoral and lay authority have their seat in the role, relationship and calling of each respective individual in the church. This understanding is clearest when it is formal, informal and tacit.
 
* Healthy congregations recognize that the entire authority of a church is not bound up in themselves or in one person. The real authority of church and ministry is essentially and inextricably divine. It's His church. It's His ministry. It's His way of graciously sharing Himself in loving relationship with us and others.
 
* Healthy congregations recognize that the relationship between church and ministry supersedes any local desire, will or intent. The authority of church and ministry is not of their own doing. It is God's. It has been given to them to experience, enjoy and extend the ministry of the Gospel through the proper relationship between church and ministry.
Some Insights On Key Issues
 
Perhaps the most important insight is that power is not merely positional. Power is also--and eminently--relational. Power derives its power from relationship. Power within the church is derived exclusively from its relationship with God. That power is one directed to building relationships with God and others. That is why the inextricable ways this power is wielded is through forgiveness, reconciliation, fellowship, prayer, breaking of bread, worship, service, etc.
 
If healthy power results in healthy relationship, it is important to continually assess the impact of power on relationship in the church. In asking these questions, some of the most critical questions for resolving the over/under-function issue in the church can be raised, evaluated, and addressed.
* In what ways is the power in this church imbalanced?
 
* From where does the energy derive?
 
* Who is over-functioning? Who is under-functioning?
 
* Is the pastor-laity relationship one which, like the father at the table, is healthy, mutually-upholding and mutually respecting for that local expression of family? If not, why not? If so, what can be done to strengthen this God-given relationship so that it continues to reflect Scriptural principles for this relationship?
The Ministry: Always Authoritative
 
Analogies are limited in their application of any dynamic. The family illustration above is also limited. As there are different families each having their own customs, traditions, rules, expectations and standards, there are different church families (even within denominations) who may share a common doctrinal heritage yet live out their common doctrinal understanding with varied customs, rules and expectations. Worship styles, ministry focus, spiritual growth programming, and pastoral style are just some examples of this variety.
 
Relative to the Office of the Ministry, however, the bottom line must uphold the appropriate, God-given authority of the Office. This Office is rooted in the Gospel. It is authoritative. It is ordained of God. It is to be upheld and respected. Regardless of the family structure, they are to be faithful stewards of the Word. They are to oversee the flock. They must oversee the exercise of church discipline. Whatever form it takes, the words of Hebrews are an essential "bottom line" of the authority of the Ministerial Office.
"Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you." Hebrews 13:17 (NIV)
Are you or your congregation struggling with pastor-laity imbalance? Is your church family in an unhealthy pattern of over/under-function? Then consider dealing with this issue by going back to the table...the family table. Gather around the Word of God and feast on it together. Then examine in which ways your congregation can fully and completely honor God's gift of church and ministry by implementing a healthier balance between pastor and laity.
Thomas F. Fischer

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:04:45 PM