Monday, March 27, 2017

Inbox: The ‘Stealth Pastor’

After reading our recent post on “The Role of a Senior Pastor”, David B. asks a perfectly legitimate question:

“From the ‘brethren assemblies’ perspective, what is your opinion on the ‘full time worker’?”

From any perspective, denominational or otherwise, there’s a point well worth considering here, and that is that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Things are what they are at their core, not merely what you label them. A garbage dump smells like a garbage dump even if you call it a Post-Consumer Product Management Initiative.

Sometimes your nose tells you what your eyes may not.

The Full Time Workers of Yesteryear

I replied to David as follows:
“Very briefly, it seems to me it depends on what the ‘work’ is understood to entail. It’s one thing for a local church to ‘commend’ a brother ‘to the grace of God’ (Acts 14:26) and send him off to do a work to which you and he believe he has been called (Acts 13:2). It’s quite another to install him as a ‘stealth pastor’ exclusive to your own group with a near-monopoly on the platform of a single congregation.

It seems to me the ‘full time workers’ of yesteryear were of the first sort. Today, maybe not quite so much.”
And, yes, it also seems to me that comment could use a little further explanation.

Life on the Road

You see, you can’t sell the idea of a full-time, paid “pastor” to Christians who are firmly committed to a non-denominational, priesthood-of-all-believers way of meeting. Not by that name at least.

But if you are bound and determined to bring in a paid hireling to do the bulk of your preaching, teaching and political maneuvering, you might just be able to do it under the rubric of “full time worker”, a designation such Christians rightly associate with hard-working individuals from the last century who dedicated themselves to planting new churches and encouraging believers in established gatherings, usually by driving or flying tens of thousands of miles annually to bring solid Bible teaching to smaller congregations that lacked it, by doing weeks of camp work in the summer while others were vacationing, and by spending any time they were not on the road doing things like marking Emmaus courses, visiting hospitals, counseling troubled believers and bringing the gospel to needy people in jails and on reserves.

In 1970, a “full time worker” in the “brethren assemblies” David refers to might spend three to four weeks of the month on the road preaching and teaching, living by faith on whatever gifts from God’s people might show up in the mail. There was no salary, no set portfolio of responsibilities, and certainly no appointment to a local position. Men who were referred to as full time workers lived on a fraction of what the average working Christian in their own local churches took home from employment, though many of them worked much harder than I have ever done. Some are still doing so today.

The View Up Close

I know. I had a full-time worker in my own family, and I’ve seen it up close. The commending local church that released my dad to follow the path on which he believed the Lord was leading him never sought to manage him or tell him what to do. Equally, they were never able to provide a living wage for him, and he did not expect it from them. He was, like the apostle Paul, freed up with the encouragement of his fellow believers to do the work to which God had called him, and he did so for over sixty years.

You may like this idea or not. There are arguments to be made that establishing a “circuit” on which traveling Bible teachers frequently occupy the pulpits where local believers should be cutting their teeth and learning how to use their own gifts keeps those young believers from growing and developing as the Head of the Church would have intended just as effectively as if the preaching and teaching schedule of their home church were given over entirely to a single man. And if that’s your concern, fair enough. You can certainly make the case that a preaching schedule carved in stone four years in advance and largely filled with visiting speakers may cramp and impede the development of local gift. That’s definitely a danger.

On the other hand, there are many small, rural churches made up largely of women and men who, for one reason or another, are unable to profitably preach and teach. These benefit immensely from visiting speakers, since the notion of driving 30 minutes to an hour down the road to fellowship with Christians in a larger community makes little sense to anyone, as you cannot very easily bring others along with you. It is most practical to go to church as close as possible to where you do your witnessing and where you live your life.

Under the Guard

But whatever you may choose to call such an individual, they are following a biblical pattern established in the book of Acts. When they run out of money, they drive a taxi or find a way to make a few bucks on the side in order to keep doing what they love.

On the other hand, the sort of “full time worker” who spends three to four weeks of every month teaching and preaching in a single, larger gathering while being conditioned to rely on a regular paycheque (whether formally acknowledged or otherwise) is in a little different category. He is functioning as a denominational “pastor”, whether he chooses to acknowledge it or not.

You can call such a man a “full time worker” if you wish, but he is nothing more than a stealth pastor. He is a convenient way of sneaking past the guard of a minority of well-intentioned believers who would prefer to see things done biblically.

It is not surprising that many of the men now doing this for a living are young seminary grads with little commitment to New Testament church principles. After all, there is a career to be had and probably student loans to pay back.

But is that really where you want to get your Bible teaching?

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