You can put the Saturday night marathon study sessions to rest.
All across the country, several churches and their pastors are beginning to create a new way of constructing their weekly
messages, choosing to move from an individualized study model to a communal one. And the results, thus far, have been something to consider.
Leadership is lonely. Perhaps you’ve heard this phrase. After all, it’s used by the majority of leadership experts, whether Christian or not. The reasoning stems from our CEO society in which the leader is alone atop the pyramid, and the church is no different in its structure. Therefore, leaders must simply brace for the worst and hope for the best since there is no one around them to lean on or share the load.
The statistics demonstrating the problem are staggering. Consider the following:
• The Alban Institute recently conducted a survey in 2001 in which 17 percent of pastors are currently experiencing burnout and another 40 percent are “heading for burnout.”
• According to a 2002 Alban survey, 74 percent of pastors reported “that they had too many demands on their time.”
Leadership Journal also conducted a study stating 70 percent of pastors do not have someone they consider a close friend.
This lack of community and time has so negatively affected the pastoral role that something has to be done.
Because of this, leadership models both in and out of the church have begun to move toward something different. An Industry Week article from September 2000 by Peter Strozniak noted that businesses are now more team-oriented than ever. Strozniak goes on to say that “leadership must shift from the traditional command-and-control mode to a coach-and-collaboration style that supports a team environment.” Peter B. Grazier, founder of Teambuilding, Inc., also notices this trend, stating that more companies than ever are redesigning workspace for collaboration, using team-oriented software and tapping into the collective mind of the work force.
But while the business world may be moving forward, the church is still behind the shift. Pastors still continue the hard work of solo leadership. Rather than seek alternatives to the loneliness at the top, they choose harmful methods of dealing with the issue. A leader might mask the pain or loneliness, pretending that everything is going OK. Another leader will just continue to push himself until he can work no more. And this, in a large part, is where the statistics of burning out in ministry come from.
But it was not supposed to be this way. The business of church is actually rooted in a communal model of leadership if you take it back to its Hebraic roots. Jesus obviously had His 12 disciples. Rabbis always had their group of students, where they would study through a process of debate and dialogue. Leadership was not designed to be lonely then, and it doesn’t have to be this way now.
Fredrick James Long writes on this in his essay “Bible Study—Communal in Nature.” In it, he states several examples of studying communally through the Bible including Jesus and His disciples, Nehemiah and the public assembly (Neh. 8), and the early church in Acts. Also, historically the Essenes were also committed to such study methods. In fact, Long notes that, “Jesus Himself benefited from the community of Jewish interpreters at 12 years old and also surprised the Teachers with His questions and insights (Luke 2:46-47).”
So, what can be done? The best thing to do is to begin to look for areas in which pastors are investing time on their own that could be transformed into a community activity. One such area where Christian leaders are constantly pioneering on their own is preaching and teaching. Week after week, thousands of pastors are searching the Bible and culture for subject ideas, sermon texts and flashes of inspiration to get them through another week. Several hours, even dozens, are spent up to the last minute to make the message meaningful and entertaining. After all, like it or not, how well a pastor does in his/her job is largely based on how he/she speaks during the church gathering.
The pressure, then, can be difficult in having to continue to develop new, insightful talks. There are definitely some sources of relief available, especially with the development of Internet sites specifically for pastors looking for help. But this can only go so far.
Dr. David Ryser, in his article “Teaching, Training and Discipling in the Christian Community,” explains, “The western model of teaching and training is based in value being placed upon the dissemination of information.” But in both the Jewish and Greek cultures in the Bible, relationship was key to learning. “Teaching and training biblically is relational and interactive,” continues Ryser.
So why do leaders continue to labor in vain alone? Why have we gradually moved to an individualized model of studying the scriptural text? As pastors are becoming increasingly frustrated with this area of their responsibility, many are questioning the model and looking for alternatives.
One such group of leaders can be found in northern Indiana within the Christian & Missionary Alliance. The Movement of Alliance Communities (MAC) is a group of six churches, all spawned out of one mother church located in Muncie, Indiana. Instead of being willing to simply follow the
standard model of studying alone, a new learning method was born as the idea sprang forth to study the Scriptures together.
These leaders have always had a maverick style about them. The lead pastor of the mother church, Guy Pfanz, was saved during the Jesus Movement in the 1970s. That same spirit of holding loosely to organization has carried over decades later into a leadership style that has been adopted by the group.
You won’t find any five-year plans here. There are also no pastors’ offices, no dress code and no hierarchy of staff.
One of the natural consequences of this organic model of church leadership has been the development of the communal study model. Over the last two years, the pastors of these churches and other upcoming church planters within the MAC movement have gathered together each week to debate the upcoming sermon text and create a community outline.
Three years ago, Muncie Alliance Church planted their initial community an hour north in Huntington, Ind., called Springwater Church. Soon thereafter, four more were launched within a two-year span. The desire to stay as connected as possible led to the creation of the Teaching Pool—the name given to the weekly sermon preparatory group.
“In the beginning, it was a way to mentor the young leaders we had planting churches,” notes Pfanz, 52, senior pastor of Muncie Alliance Church. “But it wasn’t long until I found my own self changing as I was allowing myself to study in community with others.”
Each week, the pastors of each church along with several visitors gather on Wednesday morning for three hours to discuss the Scripture text. Usually some general announcements are discussed, the meeting is opened in prayer and then the study begins with general themes of the passage being highlighted. The pastors each weigh in with their thoughts and other notes of interest from their own personal study. Many within the group have their own favorite commentators or resources, and they bring those to the table.
There are also several other regulars who join in as pastors from other local churches have discovered the benefit of the Teaching Pool. “I’ve learned through this group how to exist in community,” says Glen Robinson, a local Wesleyan pastor who has been a part of the group since the beginning.
“Since I’m used to doing things on my own, this Teaching Pool has forced me to depend on others for encouragement, insight and friendships.” Robinson is not alone as others also have changed their sermon schedule to correlate with the New Testament series debated within the Teaching Pool.
One of the strongest benefits of studying in community seems to be in the perspectives gained on the text in question. While the majority of the members of the Teaching Pool are from the Christian & Missionary Alliance, there is also a retired pastor from the Assemblies of God, a Church of God (Findlay, Ohio) pastor and a couple of Wesleyans as well. Chris DeMarse is the Associate Pastor of Exit 59, a church plant in Gas City, Indiana. He notes the diversity within the Teaching Pool is unique and the perspectives have helped greatly.
“The Teaching Pool has become one of the most significant factors in my understanding of the Bible, because it forces me to think outside myself and accept a perspective from someone very different from me,” explains DeMarse. “Each week, I gain the perspectives of a pastor in the inner city, a retired pastor, and a pastor who is also an entrepreneur.”
The entrepreneur in question is Darren Campbell, owner of several bookstores and Lead Pastor of Exit 59. With previous pastoral experience within the Wesleyan denomination, Campbell has been a part of both sides. “The collective knowledge in the Teaching Pool is better than any commentary I could use. Since we come from different church backgrounds, our perspectives vary, bringing a balance to our teaching. Frankly, I never want to pastor the ‘old way’ again. I wish more pastors could experience what we have.”
Unfortunately, many pastors are unable to experience what these leaders are experiencing. Disunity, even within denominations, keeps potential communal study groups from beginning. Within the Teaching Pool, there are people from different denominations, age groups and passions. There are also vastly differing beliefs on various Scriptures and facets of theology. Because of this, the tension can be high, and arguments are a weekly occurrence. However, the commitment to each other and to the communal experience keeps the group together for the long haul.
“While we may have times of disagreement or even anger, it never lasts past our meeting time,” notes Pfanz. “In order for a group like this one to prosper, or even form, they must be committed to something bigger than themselves and bigger than their own personal opinions
or viewpoints.”
“In my mind, it would be impossible to do it alone,” says Heath Pearson, pastor of Springwater Church. “Of course, I continue to study on my own; but the group effort and support by going through the text together opens up insight, keeps me from being blind, and challenges me in ways that I could never be challenged on my own.”
Another aspect of developing a communal study group is the mentoring that it allows for upcoming leaders and teachers. Pearson interned at Muncie Alliance Church after attending Indiana Wesleyan University. Soon thereafter, he began sitting in on the Teaching Pool, learning what it means to develop a sermon, gleaning study methods and developing his own habits throughout the week. Soon, Pearson was filling in at the various church plants when a particular pastor had to be away.
Now, Pearson is pastoring his own church, having had the chance to learn along the way. And yet, he is still able to receive help from the weekly meetings. “No price can be placed on the Teaching Pool. Without it, I would be unable to do what I am doing in a lead pastoral position. I am an equal in a room with pastors who have been in the ministry longer than I’ve been alive.”
Pfanz agrees that the model has served the church planting movement well. Soon after coming to Muncie Alliance Church, an internship program was developed by Pfanz and others for those looking for ministry training. But even with that in place, there was another step missing for those who felt called to teach on a regular basis.
“With the internship program now in its sixth year, I have seen that side of ministry grow and develop into a unique preparation. The Teaching Pool is the next step as young pastors launch into new sites,” says Pfanz. “It serves as a model for them to catch ministry more than learn in a class setting.”
Campbell, 33, agrees with the mentoring aspect of the Teaching Pool. “You often think of mentoring as a one-on-one thing, as in an older, mature person taking a younger, less experienced person under his wing. In our teaching pool, the collective experience of the group becomes that mature person; and all of us, despite our age or experience, become the person being mentored. It is unlike any mentoring model I have ever heard of.”
Perhaps the greatest aspect of the Teaching Pool has actually been for the personal spiritual health of the leader. Each pastor within the MAC movement noted that the weekly meetings are personally enriching and have become a source of much-needed energy.
Robinson says he has learned better how to be the church in his own life. “I’ve learned how to follow the Father, Son and Spirit in more practical ways by watching and catching the things we teach and model for one another.”
Campbell agrees, adding, “The teaching pool is bigger than just a device we use to study Scripture. It really is my church.”