Exploring a possible church plant

As many of you know, my wife, Kelley, and I moved back to California earlier this year, returning from over 13 years of ministering in Puerto Rico. Looking strictly at circumstances, it would seem the economic situation in Puerto Rico forced this move. But we believe God is sovereign over circumstances, and that the timing of this change was—and is—in his hands. The church there has transitioned from being overly dependent on one paid elder/pastor to being served by three unpaid, bi-vocational elder/pastors (along with others stepping up to do their part in ministry). They are now realizing the level of team leadership and teaching to which we always aspired. Although it was sad for us to leave, this is a good and healthy change.

imagesAs for us, we’re now in Placerville, CA (between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe). The transition for us hasn’t been as smooth as we had hoped. Over the past few months, we’ve had trouble finding good jobs, finding a place to live, and dealing with ministry opportunities that didn’t pan out. But we still trust God’s timing and believe that he has been working through these circumstances. We’re praying for wisdom and the sensitivity to be aware of any guidance God is giving us.

We’re prayerfully considering planting a church in the Placerville area. Some have asked me what a new church would look like (whether here or somewhere else). So I’ve written out four core commitments I see as essential for a new church. I’ll post them here one at a time. I’m not implying that these commitments would be unique to us. Some could prove to distinguish us from other churches, but this isn’t really the intent. The idea is that these four core commitments, together, would constitute the DNA of a new church. All other distinctive strategies and methods we might develop would be built on the foundation of these core commitments.

You may notice these posts don’t include a detailed description or vision for this new church. This is intentional. As you read through these commitments (or if you’ve read many of my posts on church leadership), you’ll see why for me to plan out in detail my vision for a church plant—and then look for people who will support my unique vision—would be contradictory. It’s not that I don’t have a vision or a lot of ideas for a new church! But the plan is to first establish a consistently biblical vision for a church plant. Then, as a team, we can brainstorm how to best apply these biblical principles to our specific context. The comment threads of these posts are a great place for this kind of discussion!

Just call me Curt

We live in an area with an extremely transient population (at least the expat population). I know it’s common for many churches today to watch members of their church family move away, but what we’ve seen here in Puerto Rico far exceeds anything we’ve experienced in other places. Many of our people―even those on our leadership team―will stay here for only 2 or 3 years and then move back to the States. That’s a part of ministering here; we’re used to it.

But with a church our size, that means the make-up of the congregation can change dramatically. And it does. It’s amazing how fast our church gatherings can begin to look very different, and even feel different. Something I’ve been noticing over the past few months is the number of people here now who seem to feel the need to call me “Pastor” or “Pastor Curt.” We’ve had people in our church family before now who have referred to me this way. This is traditional for many believers. I understand this, and I’ve tried to be gracious and not make it an issue. For the past few years, we’ve been able to not address this and still maintain our informal, family dynamic.

But with the latest class of WithoutWall’ers to join us (brothers and sisters for whom I am deeply thankful, btw), we run the risk of seriously altering the DNA of our church family. The terminology we use affects how we and others understand the church. And misperceptions that aren’t corrected, but instead become a common (mis)understanding of the church, can eventually change the nature of a church, or at least cause conflict if we seek to clarify the issue too late.

Now, I understand this isn’t some heretical teaching that will draw us away from the truths of the gospel. But I think it’s still a significant issue for us, and one that affects the tone of our church life and ministry. So let me suggest five reasons why I prefer not to be called “Pastor.”

1. It’s not biblical
Jesus once told his disciples, “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am.” But in Matthew 23:8-10, he instructed us regarding what we should, and should not, call each other:

Don’t let anyone call you “Rabbi,” for you have only one teacher,
and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters.
And don’t address anyone here on earth as “Father,”
for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father.
And don’t let anyone call you “Teacher,”
for you have only one teacher, the Messiah.

We could plug “Pastor” into this, and the same principle would still apply because it is the Lord who is our Shepherd/Pastor (1 Peter 5:4). This passage doesn’t mean we don’t have people in the church who teach or lead. Other Scriptures make it clear that this is so. But we are not to refer to these people by honorific titles such as Rabbi or Teacher. In the same way, we have people in our congregation who pastor, or shepherd, others. But we should not refer to them by a title. It’s interesting that Peter and Paul are frequently identified as apostles of Jesus Christ, but they are never once in Scripture referred to by that title. No one seems to have called them “Apostle” or “Apostle Paul” in the way we sometimes use “Pastor” or “Pastor Curt.” They just called them Paul and Peter. This seems like a good example.

2. It perpetuates a different class of Christians
One of the principles that was boldly proclaimed during the Reformation was the “priesthood of all believers.” The idea (a very biblical one) is that as the New Testament church we no longer have a separate priestly caste. We don’t have to go through any other person to come to Christ; we can go to him directly. All believers are called saints. We are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9). Unfortunately, many of the reformed churches retained the exalted status of the pastor and essentially made him into a protestant priest. Only the pastor was to baptize, serve communion, officiate weddings, etc.

We still often make the same distinction today. Only pastors are referred to by their title. We have Sunday school teachers, but we don’t call them “Teacher Sue.” We have small group leaders, but we don’t call them “Leader John.” It’s rare to hear someone called “Deacon” or “Elder” in place of their name. We reserve this honor only for pastors. Why? We speak of pastors being “in the ministry,” when all of God’s people are to serve in ministry. We speak of the call to ministry as if it’s something specially reserved for pastors, but each member of the body is called by God to serve. By giving a title of honor to only one part of the body, we falsely distinguish that part from the rest. In our church, we don’t believe in distinguishing Christians as “clergy” or “laymen.” The only one who should be distinguished from the body, and honored above the body, is the head of the body―Jesus Christ.

3. It isn’t really accurate
As I mentioned before, Jesus is the Pastor of the church. He does call others to share in this ministry of shepherding the church, but this involves more people than just me. We have others in the church who minister pastorally. Cecy Barbosa shepherds the children. Monty Smith has a group of people he shepherds. We usually don’t call everyone who shepherds others in the church “Pastor,” even when they officially serve in a pastoral role. (How many call the youth pastor in their church “Pastor”?) In our church, we have a team of elders who pastor the whole church, with no designated senior or lead pastor. At different times, this team has included not only me, but Steve Lantz, Darren Draper, Ken Sanner and Sam Murphy. Currently, Nino Caceres and Kurt Ziegler serve as elders,  co-pastoring the church with me. In the future we hope to add to our elder team. So it’s simply not accurate to refer to only me as “Pastor” or even “our pastor” (as in “I’d like you to meet our pastor”).

Some of you may be thinking, “Yeah, Curt, but you serve full-time. I call you ‘Pastor’ because that’s what you do.” But do we do this for anyone else in the body? When was the last time you said, “Hello, Professor” on Sunday morning? (We have a number of professors in our congregation.) If someone in law enforcement was part of our church, would you call them “Officer” or “Agent?” Years ago, a friend of mine was a pastor in California. A man he knew well fell into the habit of greeting him “Hello, Pastor Keith.” So he started reciprocating, “Good morning, Banker Bob.” It didn’t take long for the man to understand that it’s really kind of silly to call someone by their vocational title, especially in the church. (At least one of our ministry leaders, when greeting me as “Pastor,” has had me respond “Hello, Ministry Leader.”)

4. It makes it harder for me to interact naturally with people in the community
You can ask any pastor and they’ll tell you that identifying yourself as a pastor often causes people to start acting artificially around you. The man sitting next to you on the plane starts explaining that he ordinarily never drinks three scotches. People begin internally editing everything they say so they won’t shock the ‘man of God.’ Of course, pastors shouldn’t hide what they do, but we do try very hard to develop a natural rapport with people in the community. I work to get to the point where they’ll interact with me as a real person instead of some religious icon. Not long ago, I was in a public place talking with someone, developing this kind of rapport, when someone from our church came in and greeted me enthusiastically: “Hello, Pastor!” I could feel the tone of our interaction change immediately as this person slipped back into be-careful-this-guy’s-a-pastor mode. Religious titles unnecessarily build walls between pastors and other people. It’s hard enough for us to rub shoulders with non-Christians. So, help us out a little!

5. It doesn’t fit with the church as a family
The family of believers has only one Father―and it’s not the pastor! The elders/pastors of a church are not to be fathers to the church; they’re more like spiritually older brothers. What do you call your older siblings? Do you have some exalted title that you bestow on them? Or do you simply call them by their names? Maybe a ‘bro’ or ‘sis’ now and then. So, if it’s too awkward to call me simply by my name, I guess an acceptable, familial substitute would be “Hey bro!”

After reading this, if you still insist on having some official title to call me, then I actually prefer “Your Magnificentness.” Oh, and don’t forget to kiss the ring.