(Note: 10/24/18: I wrote this article following the defense of my doctoral dissertation in 1998 at Andrews University. It was originally published in Ministry, April, 2000. The focus of the article is equipping the members of a local congregation through biblical principles of organization and Holy Spirit-led leadership. However, in the light of recent denominational developments in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, it seems appropriate to share it once again.)
EMPOWERING THE SAINTS FOR SERVICE AND MINISTRY
© Loren L. Fenton, D.Min.
Business leaders face the ever-daunting challenge of inspiring their employees to maximize production and enhance the company’s bottom line. Many wise managers have discovered that their success is dramatically increased when they empower the people closest to a task with (1) broad, autonomous decision-making authority, (2) enough resources, and (3) all the appropriate training needed to do the work. Business firms founded and operated on these kinds of principles are creating shockwaves of productive change in the world of commerce.1
Although the church is by no means a business per se, church leaders can learn much from the experience of successful business operations. The single most difficult task confronting a local church pastor is to put the members to work in an effective, meaningful ministry. The purpose of this article is to explore how that can be done in such a way that members are inspired and empowered for a lifetime of service and ministry.
Historically, evangelism, witnessing, and giving Bible studies have been the focus of “putting the members to work.” In recent decades, a spiritual gifts-based ministry has become popular. NET events and witnessing by videotape are currently in vogue, allowing skilled professional evangelists to do the preaching via projector and VCR. But despite promotions ad infinitum, worldwide satellite seminars, “how to” clinics, classes, and impassioned calls for commitment, the laity has yet to take up the gospel torch en masse for a last-day Pentecost. The question must be asked, Why are we still languishing in the doldrums of lukewarm Laodicea? Could it be that we preach but not really practice the doctrine that all believers are the priests of God? Are we perhaps unwittingly obstructing the work that God would do through His church by disempowering members instead of empowering them for service? What would happen if we could find away to release the power of the laity, the true priests of the New Testament of grace, instead of trying to control it? To accomplish this, it is necessary for us to radically change our way of thinking about ministry in general, and church life in particular. In this article I am writing specifically about the internal relationships within a local congregation, and our need to release the necessary components of empowerment back to the people.
As Protestants, we believe that every member is a priest of God, a dispenser of grace to a world filled with ungrace and towering need. This is a key biblical concept. At Mt. Sinai God declares to Moses and the nation of Israel, “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5b-6a, NIV). In the New Testament, John proclaims that Jesus “has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father” (Rev. 1:6, NIV), and the apostle Peter, writing to God’s elect scattered throughout the world, says, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9, NIV).
The “priesthood of all believers” doctrine taught by Martin Luther and other founders of Protestantism focused primarily on the right of every individual to confidently approach God’s throne of grace “so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:16, NW). This Reformation doctrine was indispensable to the success of the movement. Sweeping away the medieval system of lay bondage to professional priests and prelates, the message of individual spiritual freedom fueled a gospel fire that could not be quenched. Through the centuries since the beginning of the Reformation, the “priesthood of all believers” has remained a cornerstone in the belief structure of all Protestant churches and continues as such today.
Little emphasis, however, has been given to the other side of priestly function. A priest also dispenses God’s gifts to the people. The New Testament priesthood makes every believer everywhere into a primary delivery conduit, anointed by the Holy Spirit to dispel the darkness of the world through living God’s love in service to others and in ministry to their needs. A church is composed of two or more believers (New Testament priests) who assemble themselves into a unified body for worship, fellowship, ministry, evangelism, and discipleship.2
In the early 1960s, a Quaker named Elton Trueblood described the church as “the company of the committed” in a book published under that title.3 In this landmark book, Trueblood developed the concept that every Christian is called to a vocation of witnessing for Christ. The believer’s primary calling is to ministry and service in behalf of the waiting world, for bearing witness to the saving power and grace of God. The church, Trueblood contended, is thus a gathering, or fellowship, of ministers. In a later book, The Incendiary Fellowship, Trueblood develops the idea further.4 Trueblood’s view of the church is that it is a society of ministers working from a base, going out into the world to serve the needs they find there, and returning periodically to the base for renewal and rest.
The question we are faced with is how to create and nurture an empowering church environment where members are energized for ministry and pastors can fulfill their biblically mandated role as equippers and coaches, as Ephesians 4:12 describes. Before this question can be answered, however, we first need to understand the nature of power itself, and what constitutes true empowerment.
Ultimately, all power comes from God, the Creator. In the creation of the universe, and more specifically our planet, God imbued the elements with power to function according to His design. “He spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm” (Ps. 33:9, NIV). By the same creative power, He filled the earth with life in all its many forms. He defined each “kind” by placing unique powers within them to act in distinct, definable, and predictable ways. In His crowning act of Creation, to a limited degree, God gave human beings the Godlike power to give other people power. He empowered us to empower others.
Three dimensions of empowerment can be identified: (1) The granting of authority; (2) Providing resources and raw materials; and (3) Giving the education and training necessary to use the authority and resources properly and effectively.
First, to “empower” means to grant decision-making, problem-solving authority to the holders (stewards) of responsibility. Jesus spoke of this kind of empowerment when He said to His disciples, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matt. 28:18). The NIV translates the word “power” in this text as “authority.” It is the Greek word exousia. People placed in positions of responsibility, but who have no authority to make decisions or execute plans are powerless puppets, only acting out someone else’s agenda. Nothing is more pitiful, or more frustrating, than to have straw men and women filling church offices but afraid to move without first getting permission from some authoritarian person or board who holds the reins of power. Effective, empowered ministry requires the freedom and authority to make major decisions relative to the conduct and success of the ministry. True empowerment grants authority equal to the responsibility.
Second, to “empower” also means to provide adequate resources for the work. Raw materials are essential to empowerment and success. Workers who run out of spare parts on an assembly line are forced to shut down production. They have to have the right supplies, or they simply cannot do the job expected of them.
The story of the Israelites enslaved by the Egyptians is an example of this. An irritated Pharaoh commanded his foremen, “You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota” (Exod. 5:7, 8, NIV). The heartless demands of Pharaoh created an intolerable condition for the Israelite slaves, calculated to distract them from their desire to worship their God. The effect, however, was not what Pharaoh expected or wanted. His rash requirement stirred up even greater resistance and rebellion against his rule in the hearts of all the Israelites. The result was the greatest mass labor walkout in history.
In stark contrast to Pharaoh’s treatment of the Israelites, the empowerment received by the disciples of Jesus on the Day of Pentecost was full and complete. On the Mount of Ascension, Jesus told the disciples,” ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NIV). The word dunamis is used here to convey the meaning of dynamic, explosive, earth-moving power. The implication in this promise is that the Holy Spirit will supply whatever it takes to accomplish the goal of carrying the gospel message to all the world. The second chapter of Acts describes the fulfillment of this promise. The disciples were given all the resources necessary to accomplish that purpose. They were empowered by the Holy Spirit.
A third aspect of “empowerment” is the provision of education and training for a task at hand. Popular wisdom accepts the maxim that “knowledge is power.” Authority in control of resources but devoid of knowledge is either totally powerless or totally dangerous. God says through the prophet Hosea, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee” (Hosea 4:6).
On the other hand, authority supplied with resources and endowed with knowledge can accomplish anything. King Solomon declared, “By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the deeps were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew” (Prov. 3:19, 20, NIV). It was God’s knowledge that enabled Him to create the earth. In human endeavors, it is the presence of knowledge that enables people with authority to make effective use of whatever resources are at their disposal.
Thus, true empowerment for church members means giving them whatever Authority, Resources, and Knowledge (the “ARK” of empowerment) is needed for the job they are asked to perform. If there is not enough money in the budget to cover the costs of a project, give them permission to raise it. To empower the saints for service and ministry means to support them in every way possible, including staying out of their way so they can work effectively without interference or micro-management from above.
A good leader-coach doesn’t play the game for the team on the field. Instead the players are invested with whatever they need to reach the goal. A good pastor-coach must be a person of integrity, vision, and personal spirituality, someone who lives by the deep values of a character ethic. Living and working from a principle-based philosophy creates authenticity and fosters trust.
The truth is that trust is the single most important element affecting the entire process of empowerment for every-member ministry. When doubt and distrust prevail through domineering attitudes, then discouragement, discord and entrenchment soon follow. The weeds of fear and protectionism choke out the Christian graces of love, acceptance, and forgiveness. As trust dies the church dies. If the church is to revive and survive, trust must be revived and restored. Trust is an absolute necessity for organizational life and health.
Trust cannot be created. It can only be cultivated. Trust flows from trustworthiness and reliability. An atmosphere of trust within a church will thrive as pastors and other church leaders cultivate the principles of empowering ministry, showing themselves to be trustworthy and reliable. Trust is multiplied by trust. Within a networking, member-empowering church, all information related to whatever ministry of the moment must be shared with everyone involved in that ministry. The empowerment process moves forward driven by the engine of trust, fueled by openness. It allows unrestricted access by all to all information relevant to the mission.
Many church members truly want to make a difference. God has inspired them with genuinely worthwhile ideas and has given them wisdom to make right decisions. When church members see that they can contribute to deciding the focus of ministry they respond with enthusiasm. The people who are doing the work usually have the most direct knowledge of the needs and challenges they face. They must be given the freedom to meet those needs with their own vision. When teamed up with other member-ministers who have similar interests and passions, the rank-and-file church members work tirelessly for the cause.
There is need, however, to bind the church members together in a common vision of purpose. Michael C. Armour and Don Browning, in a book written to address the problem of unifying congregations filled with people who all have different ways of thinking, put it this way: “Because an empowerment model, by its very nature, disperses decision making, the absence of a uniting vision invites every ministry to go its own way. Like Israel in the days of the judges, everyone does what is right in his or her own sight (Judges 21:25). The result was chaos and anarchy in Israel. The same thing will happen in the church.”5
Here is where a praying, visionary pastor, or other local church leader, becomes indispensable in the empowerment process. It is their calling to lead the congregation, perhaps steeped in local as well as denominational tradition, through the process of change so that the church becomes a robust, permission-giving body.
This ministry calls for dedication, vision, patience, understanding, love, and abundant grace. The pastor must first clearly understand the path the church needs to follow, and then present a clarion call, a blinding vision of what can be. Inspiration gained through personal Bible study, prayer, and wide reading must fire the soul of the church leader, who then can touch the lives of the people in the congregation.
True empowerment comes from God. Nevertheless, even as the life force God gave to Adam continues to flow through generation after generation of human beings, so the ability to empower other people with Authority, Resources, and Knowledge also flows through generation after generation of believers. The challenge of leading congregations to become centers of empowerment for individual members and ministry teams is a calling worthy of a lifetime. To reach this divine purpose, God empowers pastors to release the energy He has given to the saints for ministry and service.
1. For example, see Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline; The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization (New York: Doubleday Publishers, 1990); and James A. Belasco and Ralph C. Stayer, Flight of the Buffalo: Soaring to Excellence, Learning to Let Employees Lead (New York: Warner Books, Inc., Publishers, 1993).
2. These five arenas of church life are explored in depth by Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message and Mission (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995).
3. Elton Trueblood, The Company of the Committed: A Manual of Action for Every Christian (San Francisco, Calif.: Harper & Row Publishers, 1961; Harper’s Paperback, 1980).
4. Trueblood, The Incendiary Fellowship: How the Church Can Be Set Aflame Today as it Was in the First Century of Christianity (San Francisco, Calif.: Harper & Row Publishers, 1967; Harper’s Paperback, 1978)39.
5. Armour, Michael C., and Don Browning. Systems-Sensitive Leadership: Empowering Diversity Without Polarizing the Church (Joplin, Mo.: College Press Publishing Company, 1995).