Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Preparing My State of the Mission Address

It’s always a daunting task to welcome American teams to Cameroon. Especially when a Bishop is among the group!

This Saturday, we host the arrival of Bishop Larry Goodpaster, Alabama-West Florida Conference, who will be coming with three pastors from his conference (Rev. Neil McDavid, Rev. Tonya Elmore, and Rev. Don Smith), and a pastor from my home conference, Rev Jan Davis, North Texas.

They are coming to help host the second annual UM Pastors’ Retreat, which we will take place in Kribi next week. They will be teaching different workshops throughout the week on a range of issues, including “stewardship,” “church budgeting and fundraising,” and “spiritual gifts.”

I am excited about their involvement, and also grateful that Bishop Goodpaster has shown such interest in the Mission, ever since he visited Cameroon in the summer of 2005.

The retreat is important for the Mission’s pastors for a number of reasons. One, as mentioned above, it is a forum for teaching, training, and sharing resources. Two, it brings the pastors together, where they can enjoy fellowship and make connections with one another.

But the Pastors’ Retreat also gives me a chance to make a State of the Mission address, which I will give next Tuesday afternoon. Last year, I announced that the theme of 2006 would be “Building Strong Foundations.” I spoke about the need for the pastors to focus on laying the framework of a solid, serious church. I emphasized that “church” was not about buildings, or church-y activities, or even social projects. I challenged the pastors to live lives of honesty and integrity, that they would model discipleship for their people. And I asked them to focus, not on rapid growth (which is what the pastors want to see!), but on sustained, disciplined, and focused congregational development.

It’s a theme that worked well, and the pastors continually referred to it throughout the year.

But they are also wondering what I will say next week … I have already chosen the theme for my address – and the retreat! The theme will be, “Empower Your People!”

I will be challenging the pastors to focus on helping the members of their churches to discover their own call to ministry, to identify and nurture their spiritual gifts, and to send them out in service and ministry to their villages and towns.

Churches around the world have a tendency to over-emphasize the role of their pastor in matters of service and ministry. That is especially true in Africa, where the “chief-leader” mentality is prominent. In this model, the leader is “chief”; he (and it’s almost always a “he”) makes all the decisions, is the designated mouthpiece of God, and does all the “real ministry” in the church.

I am hoping to help inspire our pastors to a different understanding of ministry, and I think the best resource is our very own United Methodist Book of Discipline, Part III, “The Ministry of All Christians,” which reads in part:

“All Christians are called through their baptism to this ministry of servanthood in the world to the glory of God and for human fulfillment. The forms of this ministry are diverse in locale, in interest, and in denominational accent, yet always catholic in spirit and outreach … this ministry is both a gift and a task. The gift is God’s unmerited grace; the task is unstinting service.”

That will preach! But it’s always good for us pastors to remind ourselves that we are not the chiefs of our little domains, who lord it over our subjects.

The Mission Office is currently located next to a large parish church of another Protestant denomination. Two times a week, the courtyard outside that church is full of people who sit on long benches and wait. They wait for enormously long periods of time without moving – sometimes all day!

I asked someone what the people were waiting for. And I was told this was one of the days that the resident pastor was available for prayer. They were simply waiting to see the pastor for personal prayer! And this was an all-day affair!

I don’t want to discount the role of the pastor as counselor and priest, but a pastor who hoards the responsibility of counseling and prayer is not only acting out the role of “the chief,” but is also keeping other people, who have the gifts of counseling and prayer, from being able to serve! The pastor doesn’t have to do it all, and shouldn’t do it all!

We have people in our churches who can pray, who know how to console, counsel and encourage. We have people in our churches who have a relationship with Christ which can be shared with others.

But we have to give them permission to serve … and that will be my plea to our pastors: empower your people!