An Open Pulpit

By JR. Forasteros

Preaching offers an occasion for the inclusive nature of God’s activity to be revealed when the church includes laity rather thinking it the exclusive activity of trained clergy.

In maybe my second year as a youth pastor, our church staff had the chance to spend about an hour with an older pastor I really admired. Our senior pastor asked him, “How do you decide when to hire staff?” The answer he gave changed the course of my ministry career.

He said, “We don’t hire people to do ministry. We hire people when we need someone to equip our members for ministry.” Their church didn’t expect their children’s minster to do children’s ministry alone—they expected them to recruit and lead a team of volunteer members who did the ministry. Same with the hospitality ministry, the teen ministry and nearly every other aspect of their church. The pastor cited Ephesians 4:12, which describes the role of spiritual gifts as given, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

  “We don’t hire ministers, because every Christian is a minister,” he insisted. “We hire equippers.”

  Years later, after I had moved into a full-time preaching position at a large church, his words haunted me. My role was not to do ministry, but rather, as one called to vocational ministry, to dedicate myself to helping those to whom I am called to discern and live into their gifts.

  It was during this same period of pastoring and continuing to study and grow I became captivated by the open and relational nature of God. When God created the man and woman, in the Hebrew creation story, God invited them to join in God’s work. God planted a garden; the man and woman were to “till and keep”—gardening commands. God is a gardener in Genesis 2, so God invited us to join God’s gardening work. Jesus later insisted the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.

  This is the way of God: to give away power (because in God’s upside-down economy, power is an infinite resource, not something to be hoarded).

  But even in churches with large staffs and a wide volunteer base, there’s one position of power still reserved for a chosen few: the pulpit. I understood this before I began preaching full-time, but once I was preaching week after week, the weight really set in. Was I, like some latter-day Moses, meant to ascend the Sinai of solitude—my church office or a hip little coffee shop—, divine God’s rightly-divided Word for the week and return, tablet in hand (just one—our contemporary scroll fits all ten commandments on one screen), to deliver those sacred musings to a congregation gathered for their weekly manna? There’s a lot of power there.

I wondered how a church might open its pulpit. There’s not a list of spiritual gifts in the New Testament, after all, that highlights preaching or teaching as special gifts bequeathed only to a chosen few in each congregation. And there’s nothing about a call to vocational ministry that necessitates the gifts of preaching or teaching.

  When I interviewed at my current Dallas-based church, Catalyst, I told the board about my dream—to build a lay preaching team with the explicit goal of opening the pulpit and decentering power in the church. They were open to the idea, so I got started soon after I was hired.

As I was still getting to know the congregation, I began with educators—people who had skill and training in teaching. Might they be expressing a gift their church had not equipped them to employ for the benefit of their spiritual body?

Within a year, I had a handful of lay preachers. Most of them did not have formal theological training. So, contrary to the models I had seen, I didn’t simply hand them a text and wish them luck. Instead, we meet together. I tell each of my lay preachers that our goal is to discern three things: 

  • What the Spirit is doing in the text (Ancient interpretation)
  • What the Spirit is doing in the life of the Church (contemporary interpretation)
  • What the Spirit is doing in the life of the preacher (spiritual formation)

  Once we’ve identified the intersection of those three trajectories, we’ve found the heart of their sermon.

  Next, we work through an extensive outlining process that incorporates a number of minds from Andy Stanley to Nancy Duarte. This outline provides a familiar structure and helps them think through their message—it provides the dry bones of a skeleton they can flesh out and bring to life.

  In the last year, a couple of my lay preachers have begun to chafe at the strictures of my outlining process. This is an exciting sign that signals they’ve internalized the process to the degree it feels like a baseline. They have begun to experiment, injecting even more of their own personality and style into their sermons.

  This model takes a lot of coaching of the congregation. I must constantly field complaints—”Pastor, I don’t like it when so-and-so preaches.”

  I always assure them by pointing them back to the community of the Church. “That’s okay!” I insist. “Did you know that persons D, E and F all find so-and-so to be their favorite Preacher?”

  “Really, Pastor?”
  “It’s true. In fact, F likes so-and-so more than me.” I say it with a smile to show I’m not offended by this idea.

  “So it’s okay if they’re not your favorite. When they’re preaching, enjoy the fact that your brothers and sisters are having their best Sunday—and your favorite preacher will be up there soon enough!”

  I designed my responses to teach unity that’s not uniformity. I don’t have to like every single sermon or every single preacher to be a part of this congregation. And we have to get used to hearing God speak from every place and every person—not just our pastors.

  The net result has been overwhelmingly positive. Our preaching team has a strong sense of ownership in the direction of the congregation. And we have a plurality of voices preaching and shaping the theological imagination of our church. Our congregation has learned to see the sermon as a conversation, not a lecture. The most important question isn’t, “What did the pastor say today?” but rather, “What is God saying to us today?”

JR. Forasteros is the author of Empathy for the Devil and pastors at Catalyst Church in Dallas, Texas. He has been in full-time ministry for nearly two decades. He holds a Master of Arts in Religious Studies from the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he specialized in New Testament and Early Christian Communities. He hosts the Fascinating Podcast and In All Things Charity. On Saturdays, he announces for Assassination City Roller Derby, where his wife Amanda skates as Mother Terrorista.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

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