There is nothing sadder than hearing about a ministry that has been successful and doing the work of God and then falls apart because a leader left. Unfortunately, it is a common story in the church world. We hear stories of churches who were thriving and growing, then something happened to the pastor or he left, then “poof,” the ministry vanishes. The church wasnʼt train proof.
What do I mean by “train proof?” For your church to be train proof means that it can survive and continue forward in fruitful ministry, even if you got hit by a train tomorrow. What happens if you are no longer at your church starting tomorrow? Is the churchʼs vision solidified and clear? Is the leadership structure built so that decisions will continue being made? Are there leaders and men who have been raised up to preach? Are there people who counsel the hurting, broken, and needy in the church? In other words, if you were removed from the equation tomorrow could your church survive without you?
A Test for You
If you are curious as to whether your church could survive in your absence, conduct a test. Send the following questions to your elder or deacon team, ministry leaders, staff, and other influential people. You could also send it to the family who is fairly new and see their perspective.
- Do you think the majority of our people in the church could summarize the vision?
- Are their people in our church who congregants would comfortably go to for counseling other than the pastor? Do people know who they are?
- How would decisions be made if the pastor were gone tomorrow?
- Do we have people who could preach for an extended time in the absence of our pastor?
- Would the church continue growing and thriving if our pastor were not here?
If you have the courage to send this out, and people have the courage to answer you back with honesty, what do the answers reveal? Is your church in a healthy place? Are you so entangled in every aspect of the church that to remove you would crumble the organization?
If you do not like the answers this test reveals, then you have to do some soul-searching. Why is your church not currently train proof? Is it because you enjoy being needed for everything? Is it because your church depends too much on you and your gifts? You must be able to answer these questions with honesty.
Regardless of what is driving the dependence on you, you must labor to change it. This does not mean you are working yourself out of job. We cannot make the church dependent on us simply because we think it gives us job security. The best pastors are not hands off, but they also are not the ones who bear-hug the church and suffocate it to death. The church will eventually have to do ministry without you. Whether because of a new calling, aging, or death, your church will eventually be without you.
So how do you prepare it for that day?
First, you spend time with your top leaders, instilling the vision deep within them, training them as shepherds and care-givers, and equipping them to do ministry with you. This means training teachers and preachers. This includes pouring into those who can counsel. This involves making others communicate and articulate the vision so that it is not only you doing it. Ask yourself right now: how many ministries or teams would fall apart if I were gone tomorrow? How many things are me-dependent at our church? If you do not like the answers you get, begin implementing a plan to equip and delegate more to other leaders.
Second, you must create a culture within the church that says, “the pastor is not the only minister.” The church must learn that you are not the only person who can teach the Bible. They need to know you are not the only person who can counsel and walk with them through issues. People need to have relationships and fellowship with folks in the church without needing to be personally connected to you. The church as a whole needs to know the vision of the church. Each committed person to the church needs to be able to articulate in their own words what the church is about. If they canʼt do this, they are leaning to heavily on you and your ministry. And if youʼre gone, there will be no vision there to hold them in place. This is why so ministries flounder after gifted pastors are not longer there. So speak frequently about the churchʼs vision so people understand where the church is heading.
A Concluding Charge
Pastors, we want to know that our ministry is changing lives. We want to be appreciated and needed, it is only natural. However, the healthiest churches are the ones that can and will flourish even after its pastor is gone. This does not mean it is easy and not filled with bumps in the road, but the church that is healthy can survive. We should be working to make our church train proof. So that after we answer the call to another ministry or receive the call to our heavenly home, the church will stand. Your leadership today will come into clearer view on that day more than any other.