How to Optimally Mobilize Your Congregation for Ministry

This article is primarily for pastors/elders, but would be beneficial for deacons, church administrators, ministry staff, and ministry area leaders as well.  It is a call to take seriously the teachings of the apostle Paul regarding the missional importance of equipping and mobilizing our local expressions of the body of Christ (i.e., churches/congregations) for maximum Kingdom impact.

The needs and nature of church ministry are so varied and numerous, it is easy for pastors and other leaders to become bewildered and disillusioned by the burden.  Some simply can't handle the psychological weight and opt for less stressful careers.  Others try to reduce the scope and complexity of ministry by fixating on a particular, isolated aspect of God's mission and making that everything.  But if we are to remain faithful to the call of God to shepherd and equip His people, we need a comprehensive vision and framework for church ministry that accounts for the rich diversity of gifts and callings that exist among the body of believers He has entrusted to our care and leadership.  In the following paragraphs, I would like to propose a model of vocational stewardship for the local church that has revolutionary implications for how we organize ourselves for ministry.

The apostle Paul writes to the church in Ephesus:
"And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love" (Eh. 4:11-16, ESV).
That is Jesus' mission statement for church leaders just as much as the Great Commissions of Matt. 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8.  It would be hard to overstate the extent to which this crucial fact is obscured by churches and church leaders today.  Rather than equipping the saints and building up the body of Christ for the purpose of cultivating Christian maturity, it has become popular to construe the mission of church leaders as:
  • Cheerleaders, charged with hyping up the crowd of Jesus fans with emotionally loaded exhortations and calls to action.
  • Chaplains, charged with soothing anxious souls with simplistic, well-worn religious platitudes which change nothing but make us feel better about ourselves.
  • CEOs, charged with directing, developing and managing complex organizations via the most expedient and efficient methods, regardless of their compliance with the kind of kingdom Jesus ushered in.
Most recently, it is becoming especially popular to conflate the roles of apostle (missionary/church planter), evangelist (proclaimer of the gospel out among the lost) and shepherd/pastor/teacher.  To lead their congregations toward missional faithfulness, we are told, the pastor must avoid the grave danger of spending too much time shepherding his flock (under God) and must make sure he is investing lots of time being and sharing the gospel with unbelievers, being active in the community, and so on (i.e., performing the role of an evangelist).

As a result of this confusion, congregations are burning their pastors out through conflicting and unrealistic expectations, pastors are neglecting to fulfill their uniquely-ordained duty of "equipping the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ," and many other staff members, ministry leaders, and volunteers are burning out as well.  This is a recipe for long-term ecclesiastical and missional disaster.  And it's not the way God has providentially designed the Church.  He has designed us—individually and collectively—strategically for partnership in His mission.  There are four steps you and I can take to align our churches with this "divine design".

The first step to optimally mobilizing your congregation for ministry is to clarify and fulfill the unique role God has given you as their pastor (i.e., shepherd/elder/overseer/teacher).  If God, you, and your congregation are not on the same page regarding the nature of pastoral leadership, the fruits of your (collective) ministry will be stunted and eventually may disappear altogether.  The health and effectiveness of churches rises and falls on leadership (not just the senior pastor, but the collective leadership of the congregation).  So this is where ministry revitalization begins.

The second barrier I've found to optimal mobilization of our congregations is poor stewardship of the God-given gifts (e.g., spiritual gifts, natural abilities, expertise, personal strengths, personalities) of the other leaders, staff, and members of the congregation.  Rather than fitting talent to task, we make the mistake of appointing willing people to responsibilities for which they are not well-suited.  We view most people as essentially "Jacks of all trades" or "utility players," assuming that willingness and faith are all that's required for effective, or fruitful, ministry.  We create staff positions that cover broad ranges of responsibilities which require a broad range of strengths that would be extremely rare for any one individual to possess.  Once again, the result is burnout of the staff member and stifled ministry effectiveness.

The second step, therefore, to optimally mobilizing your congregation for ministry is to recognize that ministry is most effective when organized primarily according to gifting, rather than "ministry area."  By "ministry area," I mean, for example, Children, Youth, Adults, Worship, Small Groups, Outreach, and so on.  The ministry area is the sphere or realm we seek to influence.  It's "where" and "whom" we serve.  It's often defined by objectives, times and locales rather than tasks. The model of mobilization I am proposing is one in which ministry is divided primarily according to task rather than objective.  It's a radical shift that I am confident will produce radically more effective and fulfilling ministry.

Let me illustrate an example of what I'm talking about.  You have a youth ministry, and you are trying to recruit people to serve in that ministry.  What's your pitch?  In the "ministry area" model, you would appeal to people's sense of obligation or compassion toward this particular demographic in your church (or community, if it's outreach-oriented).  You would try to attract fun, "youthful", energetic people that have time to devote to attending weekly (or more frequent) youth gatherings.  You would ask them to be and do a variety of things: to be an extroverted relator, an excitable game-player, a skilled discussion facilitator, an empathetic counselor, a wise and knowledgeable Bible teacher, etc.  However, in the "ministry task" model, you would identify all essential tasks or duties needed to facilitate effective ministry and you would recruit a uniquely-gifted individual for each of those unique task areas.  By employing people in exercising their greatest strengths, you empower them to make an optimal contribution to actual ministry needs, thus contributing to superior results and a greater sense of fulfillment for each servant.

The third step, then, to optimally mobilizing your congregation for ministry is to help each individual in your congregation assess their areas of greatest strength.  There are numerous tools available for this, ranging from "spiritual gift" inventories to personality inventories like Myers-Briggs (MBTI), work style assessments like the DiSC, and general strength assessments like Gallup's Strengths Finder 2.0.  My professor and faculty adviser at TEDS, Dr. Phillip Sell, had his students take each one of these in order to get a well-rounded understanding of who God had providentially designed us to be.  Whether a staff member or a lay leader, you would do well to find someone in your church who is qualified to administer these assessments and make this a primary ministry role for them.

The fourth step to optimally mobilizing your congregation for ministry is to establish a two-tier system of teamwork.  On the first tier, you would organize individuals into task-based teams according to their areas of gifting/strength:
writers, encouragers, child caregivers, teachers, musicians, audio/visual production technicians, graphic designers, web designers, social media / electronic marketing experts, craftsmen, accountants and other businesspeople, visual artists, interior designers, cooks/chefs/bakers, educational administrators, biblical scholars/theologians, strategic planners, public speakers, groundskeepers, housekeepers, those gifted in hospitality, project coordinators, event coordinators, worship planners, worship leaders, IT/CIS technicians / programmers / developers... the list could go on!
Each of these gift-based teams would be given responsibility for the development and execution of common tasks needed throughout a variety of ministry areas.  For example, instead of having your Children's Ministry Director produce promotional pieces for Children's Ministry initiatives and your Youth Director produce promotional pieces for upcoming youth events, you have a Communications Director and/or Team, with skill and expertise in current marketing, editing, and design best practices, produce promotional material for all ministry areas after soliciting the vision and raw information from the Ministry Area Leaders.  The Ministry Area Leaders then may devote themselves to discerning and developing vision; aligning volunteers and/or lower-level staff with the mission; recruiting, equipping and managing staff and volunteers; and maintaining their own focus on the big-picture.

Recognizing this diversity of strengths, the second tier of teamwork addresses what the professional world calls "cross-functional collaboration."  On this tier, members of each "task/gift team" collaborate with members of other task/gift teams to address the complex needs of a given "ministry area" (e.g., Children, Youth).  The Ministry Area Leader would facilitate team gatherings for reinforcing mission and vision, evaluating the church's effectiveness at working toward those, and planning strategically how to more effectively carry them out.  Once a clear plan of action is determined (facilitated and drafted, of course, by a person skilled in strategic planning), each task-based "point person" would bring their task back to their gift-based team to work on production / implementation.

Sound too complicated?  It's actually much simpler in the long run than trying to coordinate the vast array of specialized tasks among fewer sets of generalists (whose strengths likely do not match many of the needs in a given ministry area) organized by ministry area.  The latter is easier to conceive on the front end, because there are fewer categories readily apparent to us.  But the tremendous diversity of needs/necessary tasks becomes painfully apparent during the planning and implementation phases.  And by that point, you've wasted a lot of people's time and energy, subjecting them to frustrating processes, ending with inferior results and, in some cases, shrinking your ministry reach and impact.

Now, amid all this talk of results, effectiveness, and organizational management, you might think I've gone the way of the theologically inept pragmatist.  But I am actually just acknowledging and analyzing a dynamic that was on the forefront of the apostle Paul's mind when he wrote both the Ephesians passage printed above and the 12th chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth.  "Concerning spiritual gifts," he wrote, "I do not want you to be uninformed" (1 Cor. 12:1).  Why?  Because the health and mission of the Church are dependent upon a proper understanding and administration of Spirit-empowered gifts / strengths.

The Lord has gifted a few for the historic offices of the Church, but He has gifted the entire body of Christ to carry out His mission in the fulfillment of His vision for the world.  It is our job as leaders to teach these principles to our congregations and to organize them, according to gifting, for optimal ministry impact, to the glory of God.

Time for reflection!  
  1. Do the above concepts resonate with you?  Why or why not?  
  2. Do you have anything to contribute to the conversation that could nuance this model and make it more useful?  
  3. Do you know of any churches who are modeling it well?  
  4. Do you believe this is possible for smaller congregations who can't afford a separate staff person for every specialized task area or ministry area?  Why or why not?

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