Leading churches

Leading Toward Unity

Partners with the President with Kevin Kompelien

Every month, EFCA President Kevin Kompelien highlights stories, vision and leadership from around the EFCA in his monthly e-newsletter, "Partners with the President." This month, Kevin encouraged all of us to consider the role of the pastor, and how leaders and congregants can work together to grow in unity and maturity.

When I sit down to read Scripture, I often ask myself, “What surprised me from this text?” For me, this is a helpful way to remove personal expectations and bias and let the Text truly disciple my thinking. In the case of Ephesians 4—continuing Paul’s passage on unity from last month’s “Partners with the President”—the unexpectedness jumped out almost right away.

"But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.’ (What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers...” (Ephesians 4:7-11, emphasis mine)

Paul begins this next section by quoting a psalm of ascent (Psalm 68) that paints a picture of Christ ascending to His throne in heaven after His victory over sin, death and hell. As He’s ascending, Jesus gives “gifts to his people”—gifts of grace, as Paul points out in the first verse. Everyone is given an apportionment of grace from Christ.

God's gift to the church are leaders—people who invest in the lives of others.

Naturally, one might think—as I did—Paul would next list individual spiritual gifts (like Romans 12 or 1 Corinthians 12), but that’s not where he goes. Paul’s not talking about individual gifts; he’s talking about leaders: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers...” God’s gift to the church are leaders—people who invest in the lives of others. As I talked about last month, our current context of ministry is one defined by tension, divisiveness and polarization. The uncertainty of a global pandemic, the brokenness of racial injustice and the politicization of a number of issues have created fear and exhaustion. Within the church, these harsh realities have affected one group, in particular, at every turn: our pastors and leaders. Earlier this month, Eddie Cole (EFCA executive director of national ministries) wrote an article for the EFCA Blog about how this tension is driving pastors away from full-time ministry:

"Thom Rainer, the former CEO of LifeWay, has become a reputable, trusted Christian leader. He recently stated that up to 50% of pastors are planning on leaving their current ministries once a new normal is established after COVID-19. As many as one in five pastors will leave ministry altogether. There are six prominent reasons they are leaving ministry:

  • Pastors are weary from the pandemic, just like everyone else
  • Pastors are dispirited by the division among church members about the post-quarantine church
  • Pastors are discouraged about losing members and attendance
  • Pastors are uncertain about the financial future of their ministry
  • Pastors are receiving much more criticism as they implement COVID safety protocols, address cultural challenges, steward resources and shepherd their flock
  • Pastors’ workloads have increased greatly: on top of increased pastoral care needs, most have had to adjust their ministries to provide new online opportunities that were not being offered prior to COVID-19

In addition to COVID-related reasons, several other challenges are stretching pastors to their limits. I’ll name a few: the ongoing issue of racial injustice, conspiracy theories regarding government overreach and an abnormally hostile political climate. On top of all this, many church members share their unfiltered and highly partisan opinions on social media. I’ve spoken with pastors who can’t believe what they’re observing." (Eddie Cole, “Encouraging Pandemic Pastors”)

This is our reality. Amid this tension and polarizations, pastors and ministry leaders are getting beat up. The very people Paul tells us are gifts from Christ are now being driven away from our churches and ministries. Sam Huggard, superintendent of the New England District of the EFCA, wrote another recent blog article (“Come, All Who Are Weary”) on how pastors can respond to their own weariness. Now, I’m not saying, “Don’t be critical about anything of your pastor”—we need to hold our leaders accountable—but we also need to honor that God has given us these leaders, as Paul says, for a specific purpose:

"So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13, emphasis mine)

The purpose of leadership isn’t power; it’s transformation. It’s unity. God gives us leaders in the church “to equip [us] for works of service so that the body…may be bult up until we all reach unity in the faith in the knowledge of the Son of God.” In a cultural moment of disunity—a moment that is pushing pastors out of the church—leaders have been given to the church to promote unity. This month, I talked with Jon Payne, superintendent of the Forest Lakes District, about challenges EFCA pastors and leaders are currently facing and how we can encourage and support them. You can watch that video at the top of this article.

Yes, leaders have a responsibility to lead their flocks toward unity, but congregants and members play an equally important role.

In Ephesians 4:3, Paul talked about our need to maintain the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” In Ephesians 4:11-13, it’s about growth—God gives leaders to help us grow in unity in our faith, so 1) we come to know Christ more and 2) we come to reflect Him within our unity. I love that idea. We grow in unity to know Christ better, and as we know Him better, we naturally reflect His character and His heart in what we say and do. This doesn’t mean we agree on everything culturally or politically with everyone in the church. It means “unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus”—a unity that transforms us into the image of Christ Himself. When we think about interpreting this passage in our local church contexts—especially at this time—the application is really two-fold: for leaders and for congregants. Yes, leaders have a responsibility to lead their flocks toward unity, but congregants and members play an equally important role. Unity only works when each member of the body works together.

For pastors and leaders

Pastors and leaders: keep your eyes on the North Star. Your responsibility, your call is to lead the way toward unity by pointing your congregation toward Christ. As you “equip [your] people towards works of service,” the end goal is for them to evidence the character and the heart of Jesus, which leads to unity in the faith, which leads to spiritual maturity. There are plenty of issues in our current cultural context that could pull pastors and leaders away from this main goal. And it’s not that we shouldn’t address those issues—we absolutely should, but let’s speak to them with an eye on our end goal, with an eye toward maturity in Christ. Leaders, your goal is to prepare and equip people in your church—the people God’s called you to serve and lead—so they’ll be united in the faith and reflect the character of Christ. That’s the ultimate mission. That’s the North Star.

For congregants

Congregants and church members: work with your pastors, elders and church leaders. Don’t fight against them. Although we live in a time where it’s easy to disagree with and criticize church leadership, let’s make sure to remember this perspective from Ephesians 4: God has entrusted these leaders with the goal to foster unity and maturity in Christ within the body. This is a gift to us! Remember verse 11: “So Christ Himself gave these leaders to the church.” October is Pastor Appreciation Month. Rather than fighting against them, let’s find ways to work together. Yes, you might have disagreements with your leaders—and that’s OK—but remember Jesus gave them to you for a purpose. Instead of pointing out flaws, judging and leaving the church, let’s be constructive with our criticism for the purpose of working together.

Working together

During my time as a pastor in San Jose, California, our leadership team shared a major decision with the church. I can’t remember what the decision was, but after the service, I distinctly remember a woman from the congregation walking up to me. “Pastor Kevin,” she said, “I just want you to know, I disagree with the decision. I don’t think this is the best way for us to go.” Now, as a pastor, I’d had these conversations before. I braced myself for the negativity and criticism I’d faced before with major decisions. But that’s not what came next. Instead, this woman said, “I know you love us and wouldn’t do anything to purposely hurt us. And so, I want you to know, I’ll walk with you into this. Thank you for caring for us.” What an incredibly powerful picture of Christ-centered, Christ-honoring unity within the church! Friends, let’s not lose this sense of unity in the faith—the mission that unites us to grow in maturity and “glorify God by multiplying transformational churches among all people.” Leaders and congregants, we’re in this together. God has given us to each other as gifts. Let’s walk together toward unity and maturity in Christ.

Kevin Kompelien

President, EFCA

Kevin Kompelien is president of the Evangelical Free Church of America, serving in this role since June 2015. He previously served more than 20 years as a local pastor in the EFCA and then nine years as international leader of the Africa division with EFCA ReachGlobal. He and his wife, Becky, are members of Hillside EFC in San Jose, California.

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