Mutual, I'm Sure.
Success in ministry is a loaded term. At the risk of stating the obvious, whether or not a church's work is "successful" depends entirely on what one defines as success. Today we're awash with conflicting definitions. Success for some is growth. For others, the depth of spiritual formation and the persistence of a congregation. For still others, the degree to which a church engages in community partnerships, justice efforts, and more. For many struggling churches, success is measured by whether their doors are open next year, or next month, or next week. How we define success depends on our interpretation of the Bible, our training, and the company we keep. It depends largely on values, some of which we all share, and others that seem diametrically opposed.
By many of these measures of success, Seattle's Soma community scores high. Soma's founder, Jeff Vanderstelt, is in demand as a speaker and writer. They're locally involved. They're growing through conversion in the largely post-churched Pacific Northwest, and using what they've learned to plant and train other churches across the country.
I sat down with Jeff behind a white-screened partition in the speaker's lounge at the Exponential church planting conference. While our espressos cooled to the sipping point, I asked him how he grounds the church's more overt points of success, such as growth and media visibility, with deeper factors like personal maturity, faithfulness, and discipleship. The key, he says, is mutuality between church leaders and the congregation.
How did you first realize that you needed to take steps to balance out Soma's leader/congregation relationships?
In the early days, we felt like we'd figured out "church." Honestly, I think we were slipping into method-olatry. We were worshiping how we did ministry. Our leadership has regular times of prayer and fasting. During one of those, God confronted us in our pride and the Spirit told us, You guys are arrogant.
We all heard it and knew it was true. We all thought that Soma was a big deal, and we had the attitude that the way we were doing ministry was the right one. We realized the stench that our arrogance was to the Lord. As a result, we went before the whole church and we repented. We told them that our hearts were wrong, and that we were sorry.
That began a culture of regular repentance from the leadership. I can't tell you how many times we've confessed something from up front—personally or as a leadership team—and repented of it. It lowered us. It took us down to where we should be. Part of the body.
Is this just a posture, or does it impact your church structure?
It certainly impacts our structure. All of our leaders are required to be in a missional community—a very intentional small group. We don't ever call anybody at our church to do something that we're not willing to do ourselves.
What that means practically is that nobody's impressed with me. There's something about living closely with a leader that creates real relationship and notches down harmful pastoral mystique. When he heard that I traveled to speak, one guy in my missional community said, "I don't get it. Why would people like want to hear you speak? You're just a normal person." And he's right.
Soma's shared leadership grounds us too. I'm not the guy. I don't call myself senior pastor or lead pastor or any of that stuff. When I get up I say, "I'm Jeff. I'm one of the teachers here." We always use one of language instead of I'm the. The only person who gets elevated here is Jesus. As leaders we mutually submit to one another, and that culture spreads to our congregation.
Soma talks about "gospel fluency" a lot. What does that mean for a church body?
The gospel addresses every aspect of life. We teach that God goes ahead of us to prepare avenues for us to live and share the gospel. It doesn't matter if you're a mom building relationships at the park while your kids play, or you're building a career, or whatever. You're a missionary in every context you find yourself. The Spirit is always sending you. That's gospel fluency.
We regularly tell our people, "You're all full-time staff—you just don't get paychecks with the same company name on them." My paycheck says, "Soma." Someone else's says, "Boeing." Either way they're from our Father who's providing for us to do the work of Jesus in that place. That changes people's posture. Ministry is 24/7. We're always engaged in the ministry of the gospel because we're Jesus' ambassadors everywhere we go.
Gospel fluency is also understanding our life stories in the light of the gospel, and how all of our life is discipleship.
Are you discipled too?
Yes. I've been in a DNA group—a triad of three guys—for seven years. There's some rotation in the group, but it's pretty integrated. In the beginning it was a lot of me discipling them. But then we realized our need for mutuality, to disciple one another. I'm with those guys once a week. They're also in my missional community, so they watch my life, see my marriage and how I am with my kids. They have permission to ask me any question about my life. They know my Achilles tendon. They know what's going to take me out. They ask me every week: "How's your affection for Jesus?" They've confronted me in sin.
Do they really take you up on your invitation to rebuke you?
They really do. Early on when I invited them to speak into my life, the group said, "We are afraid to do that." I said, "Don't ever be afraid to confront me. I need brothers who are going to love me and come to me and talk about my sin." I taught them how to correct me. I've done that with everybody I've ever discipled so that I never get in a place where I'm the master and they're the student. I only want Jesus to be the master. So I put myself in a place where my discipleship includes me being discipled by them, not just me discipling them. And that includes them having freedom to correct me when I'm wrong.
My missional community is in my home, and they're part of my life. We're like family. As elders, we're assessed on a regular basis. Part of that process is to call in people from the elder's missional community and ask them about life. How's Jeff doing loving his wife, loving his kids, loving his neighbors, sharing the gospel?
The last time I was assessed, one of the brand-new Christians in my group said, "Hey, Jeff is way too busy. He's traveling too much. We don't see him very much. He's not been on mission like he used to be. I can see it affecting his family." So the elders came in and said, "Okay, it's got to change." I said, "You're right. It does."
So we sat down with my wife and a few other members and cut down my travel time to what they all believed was appropriate, and I submitted to them. I gave up having the final call on my schedule. I have a limit on how many days I can go, set by my community and my elders. Before I make a decision to go someplace, they have to agree that it's okay. I've made myself available to be shepherded by our congregation.
I see a lot of pastors who are afraid of close relationships with people in their church. Where does that come from?
It comes from a self-protective instinct. People will hurt you. In our culture leaders and Christians, not just pastors, have bought into the idea that a Christian life was meant to be comfortable and easy. Especially if we've been hurt in the past, we want to protect ourselves from future pain. This makes sense, particularly in pastoral ministry!
We need to learn how to grieve this pain, past, present, and future, before we'll be ready to embrace our people openly. Pastors need to go to Jesus and say, You know what, this really hurts. I need you to meet me in this. I'm fellowshipping in your sufferings. People hurt me. They betray me. They turn on me. Thank you for giving me the privilege of identifying with you in your suffering. Such a joy. Thank you. It hurts like crazy, but I know that I get to know you better. But now will you help me? Because I need healing. I'm hurt. The way this looks in my life is that I schedule a regular time of solitude where I go away and ask the Spirit, Where have I been hurt where I haven't grieved or been honest about how badly it hurts? Will you heal me in those areas? And I'll walk through each one of them, so that I can go back and give myself away to be killed again, potentially. Because I will. I'll get rejected or judged unfairly. People are going to hurt me.
How does this honesty affect your congregation?
Well, a lot of pastors think that their effectiveness is based upon how impressed people are with them. You know? Churches set us up as idols; they want a pastor who lives a perfect life that they can't. But the only pastor who lives a life you can't live is Jesus. I think people love to vicariously live through someone else other than Jesus Christ. That's what I think the papacy is all about. But Protestants have just replaced that with a lot more little churches with little popes, where somebody else is the godly one who represents us to Jesus. So people want the most impressive, have-it-together pastor, because they assume that will be better for them. But that's backwards. If you organize your church as a holiness ladder, you're building a potentially idolatrous system.
And that's why at Soma we say, "We believe there's only one senior pastor, and that's Jesus Christ." We just never want anybody to think that one of us is on the top of the org chart. Jesus is the one on top of the org chart. And every time I have leaders talk to me they're like, "Yeah, yeah, right. Okay now really. Be honest. Where does the buck really stop?" And I go, "With Jesus." "No, no, no. It's you. You're the visionary leader." I say, "No, I never make a call for the whole of our church without being in submission to the rest of the body and the elders as they look to Jesus." I just don't. Our elders prayerfully submit to the Spirit until we get unity. I don't get to make the final call.
I love that. But you've also had the benefit of building Soma from the ground up in the open-minded context of Seattle. What about pastors in a more structured church, looking at their ministry and thinking, I don't know how to change it. What do you say to them?
Wrestle hard. You better have a biblical, theological, Christological conviction for all this before you even think about changing a church's direction. I think there are plenty of good reasons for the church to operate more like a missional family. But if you look at this as a fad or a new programmatic shift, without going through the hard groundwork in your context, it will flop. So ask yourself: Is my ministry faithful to the biblical call of the church? If you believe it is, then I don't think you should change a thing. If not, repent humbly and publicly and positively to your congregation. It will earn their respect.
You'll have to change your metrics—to measure different things than you used to measure. Stop judging yourself by your offering, by your staff size, by your weekly attendance. Ask how many disciples you have on mission every day.
Then begin to create a culture where it's okay to fail. Acknowledge that you failed up to this point and that God's still doing good work through it. Then lead change, don't just make change. Live it. Make disciples. Submit. Be the example of the flock.
Forget your mission as a leader in the church. Join the church in living out Christ's mission in the world.
Paul Pastor is associate editor of Leadership Journal, a writer and grassroots pastor from Portland, Oregon.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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