One body. Many parts. In the practice of ministry, it’s easy to allow the “many parts” portion of Paul’s “one body with many parts” metaphor for the church to drive one’s ministry. This is problematic on multiple levels. First, ministry becomes primarily about relationships and interactions with individuals or individual interest groups. These individuals and interest groups can begin quickly to pull the minister in a variety of different directions. Without a sense of the “one body” guiding ministry, the minister may feel divided and unsure how to proceed. Before long, the minister driven by an awareness of the “many parts” likely will feel overwhelmed by the demands of ministering to each of the many parts, and may even feel as though there no longer is any “one body” at all, but rather a bunch of little bodies. Feeling so much pressure, the minister rarely has any energy left to equip the laity for the work of ministry.
Because it is so easy to fall into this pattern of ministry, The Equipping Pastor: A Systems Approach to Congregational Leadership by R. Paul Stevens and Phil Collins ought to be required reading for anyone involved in church ministry. Drawing on systems theory and family systems theory, Stevens and Collins repeatedly remind ministers to operate out of an awareness of and with attentiveness to both the “one body” and the “many parts.” Such an approach to ministry begins with a minister making an intentional commitment to join the body with which he or she is working. Having joined the church, the minister can then work to cultivate in the members of the congregation an interdependence characterized by the valuing of both unity and diversity. As the members of the church become interdependent upon one another and on Jesus, the head of the church, the minister can attend to leading “the process by which people find their maturity in their life together in Christ” (41). By giving themselves to the more manageable task of leading the process rather than leading each individual person, ministers preserve the time and energy to be attentive to the subsystems in the church (both structural and functional) and to the development of each member into a community of people, the body of Christ. It is important to recognize, however, that a minister’s success in developing such a community is predicated largely upon the fit of his or her leadership style with the style to which the church is prepared to respond at a given point in its history. Sometimes this may necessitate the minister’s adopting a different leadership style, but other times it may necessitate the minister transitioning to another congregation so that a more compatible minister may join the church.
While the case for taking a systems approach to ministry is convincing in and of itself, Stevens and Collins aren’t simply interested in such an approach for its own sake. The book culminates with a challenge from the authors for ministers to use this systems approach to ministry as a jumping-off point from which to liberate and empower the laity for mission. Thus, in the final chapter of the book, ten principles from the preceding material are highlighted and then applied toward the end of liberating and empowering the laity for mission.
In this era of one-size-fits-all instruction manuals for church leadership, church-in-a-box congregations popping up all around, and a childish rejection of theory in favor of all things practical (as though theories and practicality are somehow mutually exclusive), a nearly 20-year-old book that offers no solutions, no step-by-step directions, no money-back guarantee, and values theory is likely to be ignored by many. But ministers who recognize that each church is a unique context that requires thoughtful engagement and intentional, contextual leadership will benefit greatly from the wisdom of Stevens and Collins. Their perception into the systemic life of the church will be sharpened. Their ability to keep the one body and the many parts developing toward maturity will be strengthened. Their ministerial imagination will be ignited by the on-the-ground examples given in the book and liberated by the systems approach to ministry. In short, they will have been equipped more than adequately to become successful equippers themselves.