Beside the door of the entrance foyer of the church where Peggy and I worship is a white plastic basket containing small pillows. The sign on the basket says, “Take one if needed for back support and return when finished with it.” My wife has suffered for many years with chronic back issues, so each time we enter the sanctuary she pauses to collect one of the pillows. Once we are seated she places the pillow in the small of her back where it remains throughout the service. On the way out at the conclusion of worship she drops the pillow back into the basket. This is as much a part of our Sunday worship ritual as the worship bulletin order of service, and we are grateful someone had the compassionate forethought to provide the pillows for those who need them.

This extremely ordinary happening recently set me to wondering about the process of “taking” and “returning” among Christians as we worship and minister together. Without doubt, all of us desire to take something from communal worship and ministry according to our need; whether that need is for edification, instruction, conviction, repentance, praise, opportunities to participate and serve, or prayer. But, having conceded this truth, it is essential that we remember to “give back” so the needs of others may be met as well. As surely as one who uses the pillows so graciously provided should share them so they may be used by others, it is essential that the grace gifts bestowed upon us by the Spirit of God be shared so others may be blessed as we have been blessed. It would be sad if someone hoarded all the pillows to himself/herself, and then insisted upon taking them home after the conclusion of worship. It is even more sad when some persons within a fellowship of faith insist upon hoarding everything to themselves and, thereby, deny others the benefits and blessings which they need as well.

I suggest there are many things that may be hoarded and unshared, sometimes selfishly and at other times simply thoughtlessly, within the life of a local church. First among them I would cite the importance of sharing leadership roles. Often it is observed that in the typical Christian congregation there are more leadership/service roles than there are persons to fill them. While this is often true, it is also true that some personalities tend to hoard various roles to themselves that others might very well be willing to exercise if those roles were made available to a larger circle of parishioners.

The justifications for hoarding such roles include longevity of membership, connections with influential church families, specialized expertise, significant economic contributions, and fear that the hoarder(s) will be offended by the suggestion that someone else may be able to effectively fill one or more of their proprietary roles. I suggest that, at the core, this is more a matter of personal ego than a matter of a limited pool of persons who may be able to provide effective leadership. And it may also be true that in many churches, and other organizations dependent upon volunteers, this proprietary attitude by some has led others to conclude, “Well, if so-and-so wants to do everything himself/herself, I’m going to let them do it. I can find some other place to invest my gifts and resources.” The end result is that the proprietary persons are left clutching entirely too many roles to themselves while insisting they must do so because others are unwilling to help.

 I recall a staff member in a church I served many years ago who tended to hoard leadership. When challenged to share the workload with others the reply was, “I love them too much to see them fail.” The person could not, or would not, hear the response that “Experiencing failure is one of the ways we learn and grow. It is impossible to provide people with the opportunity to succeed without giving them the corresponding opportunity to fail. Because they may not get it right the first time, does not mean they will fail to get it right every time.” The issue was, in this instance and in many others, the anal retentiveness of the hoarder, rather than the lack of ability on the part of others. The role of “equipper of the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12), whether exercised by layperson or ordained minister, is that of mentoring others so that both leadership and service roles may be shared with them to the benefit of all.

 Over half a century ago the youth group of my home church elected me to be Youth Pastor for the church’s annual Youth Week. The responsibilities included assuming the pulpit on Sunday morning, and providing leadership for a weekend Youth Retreat. It was organizing and implementing the retreat, rather than taking the pastor’s place in worship leadership, that almost overwhelmed me because, at the time, I thought being the leader meant doing everything myself. It was a wise pastor who spoke quietly to me as I bemoaned how much I was having to do. He said, “Larry, remember, if you do everything yourself, you get all the blessings. If you will share this with some of the other youth, they will get the blessings too.” Church leaders should not deny others the opportunity to learn, grow, experience, and sometimes fail by assuming they’re the only ones who can get it right. If you’re a leader, open yourself up to sharing the leadership, sharing the work, and sharing the blessings. In God’s grace there is enough to go around for everyone.

A second place where there is often an inappropriate lack of sharing in institutions, including churches, is in the area of decision-making. I maintain that, especially within Christian communities, while decision-making is essential, it must also be inclusive. It is one of the weaknesses of human personality that many of us, if not most of us, instinctively assume that our faculties for discernment and decision-making are superior to those of the people around us. Like other ego-centered assumptions, this often leads to the “Only I can fix it.” posture that has characterized much contemporary political discussion. While not dismissing the value of experience, professional training, personal maturity, and unique insight, I still maintain that these are not automatic guarantees that the person claiming such attributes is entitled to be deferred to in every decision-making process.

 My most revered teacher, Eric Charles Rust, introduced me to the philosophical concept of the “blick.” A “blick” is an unfalsifiable belief or assumption that underpins a world view or attitude toward things, persons, institutions, or foundational truths. All of us have “blicks” and all of us suffer from the danger of being misled by those “blicks.” One of the most dangerous “blicks” within institutions is the assumption that decision-making must be held in the grasp of an individual or a small group of individuals who deem the soundness of their judgment to be superior to that of all the others who are also a part of the institution. When persons within an institution succumb to this misleading “blick” they tend to include in the process of reflection and decision-making only those who share the “blick” with them. This leads to a kind of “group think” in which, while there may be several persons engaged in discussion, there is really only one point of view within the group; that of the overbearing individual, or the consensus of a group who have succumbed to lock-step like-mindedness.

While all of us have our social-cultural-political-religious “blicks,” it is important that these “blicks” be permitted to rub off on one another in order to smooth out the rough edges, refine the clarity of individual and collective thinking, and include insights and perspectives to which one’s personal “blicks” may blind one from seeing and understanding. Have you noticed that you may look through a telescope from either end, but your perspective regarding what you see is dependent upon the end through which you choose to look?

From childhood I have struggled with the visual problem of astigmatism. The cornea in each of my eyes is slightly misshapen on one side resulting in nearsightedness. I can see and read close-up without difficulty; but things at a distance are difficult to discern and that which is farther away is a mere blur. This physical problem confronted me with two choices: Either I could conclude “That’s just they way things are and I’ll never be able to see distant objects the way others can.” or I could avail myself of corrective lenses in order enable my distance vision while not impeding my near vision. It shouldn’t be difficult to figure out which choice I made. The perceptive distortions of “blicks,” like those of astigmatism, can be overcome by those who wish to improve the quality of their vision.

Yet another area within institutions, including churches, where there often fails to be an appropriate balance between receiving and sharing is in the arena of the allocation of the institution’s resources; economic, personnel, space, and time. I am not suggesting that some demands upon a church’s resources must not take precedence over others; all I am suggesting is that the allocation of priorities be given careful and respectful attention. Over many decades of church watching I have observed the tendency of certain organizational leaders to become private empire builders who insist that their particular organization/ministry have its demands upon the church’s resources, material and otherwise, met whether those of other organizations and ministries are met or not. And more than once I have witnessed a threatening heavy-handedness by such persons whether their “pet” ministry had to do with missions, recreation, music, benevolence, maintenance, or some other demand upon finite resources. Often this eventuates into one, or several, persons designating their financial gifts to their “pet” ministry thus refusing to assist with the economic support of the church’s other administrative and service ministries. This is both selfish and shameful.

Personnel resources often become unequally and unfairly distributed when high profile activities/ministries, and the influence of charismatic personalities, leads to the concentration of significant numbers of persons supporting those activities/ministries while the low profile, “grunt work,” of the church is left to a small handful of persons who understand that these less glamorous tasks must be attended to in order to prevent the glamorous stuff from collapsing upon itself.

This same point applies to the allocation of the church’s space and calendar. I recall, in my first full-time pastorate, an unfinished educational building the church had occupied for years. It didn’t take much observation to note that the floor space occupied by adult Sunday School classes was in much better shape, more attractively painted, and better furnished, than that delegated to youth and children. Put bluntly, the people who had the economic resources looked after themselves and their creature comforts without bothering to look at the space allocated to their children and grandchildren. I proposed to leadership that we turn the allocation of space upside down so the preschoolers, children, and youth had the most attractive space and furnishings. Once this was done it took only a matter of a few months before the adults decided it was time to renovate the entire educational building, top to bottom, so everyone could have appropriate and attractive space in which to conduct various activities and ministries. It was sad that these supposedly mature Christian adults could not see the needs of their children and youth until a twenty year old novice pastor advocated on their behalf.

The management of calendar time is absolutely essential to effective local church ministry. However, care must be given to insure that a church’s calendar is not so cluttered with activities and responsibilities that individuals and families have no time for themselves; nor should any single aspect of the church’s ministry be permitted to so dominate the calendar that other ministries/activities cannot function effectively. Too often I have heard someone lament that “We can’t do what we feel led to do because this or that ministry/activity has already claimed all the space and/or calendar.”

The allocation and distribution of a church’s finite people and material resources cannot be left to mere happenstance or the demands of the most forceful personalities. The end result of such approaches inevitably reduces the concept of “servant leadership” to that of “You be the servants, and we’ll be the leaders.” Or, to return to my original metaphor, “Some of us will hoard all the pillows, while the rest of you are left holding the basket.”

Akin to the appropriate sharing of resources is that of the process of determining a local church’s ministry priorities. There will be some determination of ministry priorities, either by proactive decision or by default. Obviously I would prefer that such priorities be determined by proactive decision. However, the Baptist in me insists that they must also be determined congregationally under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. In an eloquent Christological passage from Colossians Paul points out that it is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, “who is the head of the body, the church. . .” (Col. 18). In various other places Paul makes use of the “body” metaphor to illustrate how important it is that all the various “members” of the earthly Body of Christ work together harmoniously under the direction of its single “head,” our resurrected Lord.

Some of you who are reading this are saying to yourself, “I get this Gregg. But what does it have to do with determining the priorities of a church’s membership, staff, budget, volunteer resources, etc. Simply this; The writer of The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus inaugurated his earthly ministry by quoting from Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath sent me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord (Lk. 4:18-19). Matthew 25:35-46 speaks of the need for Jesus’ followers to minister to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. Without citing other passages that contain the same emphases, I submit that our “head” has already set the priorities of the local church for us. It is not for persons within the local church to determine our ministry priorities; rather, it is for us, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, to dedicate ourselves to the work of implementing those priorities in the most effective and Christ-like ways possible.

Returning to the “body” imagery, let’s remember that in a healthy body the diverse organs perform their specialized functions in harmony with one another; and they cooperate with one another to enable visual, auditory, mobility, digestive functions, and a myriad of other activities in faithful obedience to the cerebral signals that emanate from the head. Injuries to the body that impede its ability to interpret and obey the instructions of the head militate against effective function and achievement of intent. Separate the body from the direction of the head and, regardless of the complexity of its various and sundry pieces and parts, it is dead and cannot function at all.

There is an important insight here. When members of the corporate Body of Christ conclude that it is they who should determine the priorities of the local church, the end result is always conflict and confusion. The role of members of the Body of Christ is that of working together cooperatively to implement the priorities our Lord has already determined for us. A local church that chooses to do otherwise does so to the detriment of its spiritual and institutional health; and to refuse to heed the warnings of discomfort, pain, conflict, and confusion will eventually result in its demise.

The “pillows” of leadership, decision-making, available resources, and ministry implementation are all to be found in one spiritual and institutional basket at the entry to the places where ministry is done. They are there to give comfort and enable the collective experience of worshipping and serving God. All should be free to take them when needed; but all should remember that others have need of them as well and, thus, they must be shared. And it is never right for one, or a few, to take possession of all the pillows and prevent others from having access to them. The Body of Christ in the world works most effectively when it abides by the principle:  TAKE IF NEEDED; RETURN WHEN FINISHED.

Copyright:  D. Larry Gregg, Sr. 2023, All Rights Reserved

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