Sharing the Load
TEXT: Exodus 18:13-27; Acts 6:1-7
The first church I served was in rural, northwest Florida. It was small, just 125 members, and as is often the case in small churches, as the pastor, I did everything. Naturally I preached each Sunday, and because there wasn’t a secretary, I did that work as well.
When someone was in the hospital…a frequent occurrence with an older congregation…I went every day, even though it was an hour’s drive one way. I ran the youth group, wrote the Vacation Bible School program, put up the Christmas tree, picked out and helped install the sound system, fixed the toilet and copy machine, cleaned the sanctuary after worship, and when the organist told me mid-week that she would not be playing on the coming Sunday…which just happened to be Easter…I recorded the music myself on a keyboard and played it that Sunday through the new sound system.
The church doubled in attendance across my three years there, and there were some leaders who rose up to help me. But during that time I was also going through the ordination process with the Florida Board of Ordained Ministry. They appreciated that I was having a successful ministry in a rather notorious location. But they could also see that I wasn’t going to last long at the rate I was going. “You’re burning out,” they said. “You have to learn to delegate.” And they were right. One more year of doing it all, and I would have been out of ministry entirely.
Such issues are not new for religious leaders. In the Old Testament lesson this morning, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, watches with amazement as Moses serves as a judge for every petty case that the people of Israel had…from morning until night. Probably this had been going on since they had left Egypt, and Jethro takes Moses aside, much as the Board of Ordained Ministry did with me in Florida and said, “What are you doing? Most of that work can be done just as well by others. Delegate. Find faithful people who can take on the small cases and you just handle the major things that only you are qualified to handle.” Moses does just that and Israel goes about its business very well.
We see the same thing in the passage in Acts. Here is the church in its very earliest stages of formation. It had been a group of disciples who lived and traveled with Jesus. Now Jesus was physically gone from their midst and the focus was on spreading the Good News of his resurrection and the coming of the Kingdom of God. That meant organization. There was a task to complete, a mission to fulfill, and the disciples were trying to sort out the best way to get it accomplished.
As the organization grew, there were more things that needed tending, including the care of the new converts. They could hardly represent Christ if they were neglecting the poor and the widows and orphans. But the twelve disciples were trying to do it all themselves, and the job was too big. Before long, they found that their whole purpose and mission was being undermined. They were so busy caring for the people who had already been converted that they were no longer fulfilling Jesus' direct command to them to go and make disciples of all nations. There was no time left to preach and teach because there were so many needs to tend to.
In this case, the Disciples can see the problem themselves. They call the congregation together and say, "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word." They are not saying that the task of caring for others is beneath them. They are not saying they don't care about the plight of widows and orphans. They are saying that they have been sent to do a particular task and other people with different gifts need to be recruited to do the other necessary work.
The thing I find the most amazing about this passage is the next sentence which reads, "What they said pleased the whole community." I can tell you that in the vast majority of churches in America today, if the pastor...groaning under the weight of trying to care for the sick, recruit volunteers, help the poor, counsel the distressed, administer an organization, preach every Sunday and teach during the week...if the pastor got up on a Sunday morning and said, "It is not right that I should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables," those words would not please the whole community. The higher-ups would get letters, the pastor's popularity would drop, and people would leave in a huff, deciding that the pastor was an uncaring, snobbish person who should probably find another job.
But we have a calling, a mission...some very particular way that we are to contribute to the Body of Christ in the particular place where we are. It is not the pastor's job to do all the ministry for the congregation. The pastor is called to mold and shape the spiritual life of the congregation, and to delegate all the other responsibilities.
For the pastor to do it all, as I did in my first church, is not only damaging to the pastor, it is harmful to the congregation. If you are not empowered to find and fulfill your calling from God, then the same things happens to the Body of Christ as happens to a physical body when parts of it are neglected and unused. Muscles atrophy and become more vulnerable to disease. Other parts have to work harder to compensate and are often injured as a result of doing too much or doing things unsuited to their place in the body. For a church to be truly healthy, everyone needs to discover and live out their calling.
This past summer we sent two people to be trained in an international, ecumenical program called Stephen Ministry. Named after the first of those men in Acts 6 who were chosen by the apostles to care for the church, Stephen Ministry seeks out those in the congregation whose calling is a ministry of visitation and compassion.
Like with Jethro’s advice to Moses, Stephen Ministry recognizes that most people going through a difficult time do not need the specialized skills of the clergy. They simply need the caring presence of a compassionate Christian who will listen without judgment and encourage without demanding. While sometimes situations end up being referred to the pastor, in most cases, the Stephen Minister is the primary caregiver. The Stephen Minister and not the pastor is the one who brings the healing presence of Christ to a person in need.
Across this fall, you’ll see information sessions where you can find out more about Stephen Ministry—the first one is next week after church, and we hope to have the first class of Stephen Ministers begin their training in January. This will be the third church where I’ve worked with the program, which goes a long way to help me be able to focus on my calling to preach the Word of God, while enabling those of you gifted in compassionate listening to use those gifts in God’s service.
Maybe this sermon seems to you like either a giant ad for Stephen Ministry or a giant excuse for me not doing as much. But I have given the issue of sharing ministry the weight of a sermon because I think in all areas of life, such sharing is critical for both our physical and emotional health and our spiritual growth.
God’s very first act after Creation was to delegate the care of the earth to Adam. When I see the shape the earth is in today, that may have been a poor decision on God’s part, but God has let it stand. Once Jesus rose from the dead, he could have stayed around another million years and blessed and helped a countless number of people. But instead he ascended into heaven and delegated the work to his disciples. Those who followed Jesus and those they taught would now become the Body of Christ in the world.
From the minute that God looked at Adam and said, “It is not good that the man should be alone, I must find him a helper,” it has been God’s intention that we share the load with others. This has spiritual benefits. To share the work fosters the important virtue of humility. You have to be able to acknowledge that you are not the only one who can do a certain task. It also speeds up a person’s spiritual growth when they are able to discover a gift that God has given to them and actually use that gift in God’s service.
When we are sharing ministry together, we are being the Body of Christ, where every member of the Body has its own special function and ability. When we are sharing ministry together, we can keep on doing it for the long haul because we are less prone to burnout. When we are sharing ministry together we learn how to be in community and how to work through our differences in healthy ways.
Not even Jesus went at it alone. He called 12 others, trained them, and then sent them out to do the work. God is also calling you. Every one of you. Your calling will be appropriate to your gifts and graces, your age and stage; but there is no such thing as a Christian who is not called to service in God’s kingdom. None of us can do it alone, but together we can be the Body of Christ in this place. What is God calling you to do? Amen.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson