On the eve of the 2015 North American Division Year End Meetings I felt a bit hesitant and nervous. Pastor Dan Jackson, our Division President, had asked that we developed a bold missional vision for North America. Our team, in consultation with some of our Union and Conference leadership and several pastors, had a plan. During the days before the event we had spent a few hours making presentations to the Union presidents, and Union administrators, without a major pushback, but the next day was the day. Dan had asked to cast the missional vision and launch the initiatives during the Presidential Report and a vote would be taken. This was in no way an attempt to interfere with the great things happening in churches, conferences, and unions across North America. It was an effort for a greater collaboration which would involve as many active participants as possible.
My father was home for the meetings. As a Conference President, he would be participating and voting on the missional initiatives. So in an attempt to find assurance before my presentation on the next day, I mentioned to him one of the big pieces of our plan - the Plant1000 Initiative, which calls for 1,000 churches to be planted between 2016 and 2021. After I spoke to him about it, I asked, “Dad, do you think you would support an initiative like that?” The reply from the conference president I thought would be the most supportive one was quick and shocking: “Not sure! In New Jersey we have lots of territories where we need new churches and we have planted a lot of ‘Caleb Missions’” (that’s how they called their church plants there), but it is going to be difficult to plant more. Our budget is maxed with the pastors we have, and we cannot hire more pastors to plant more churches. I am sorry.”
As the conversation continued, I remember thinking about a very special group of people, with whom I had spent a whole weekend at their retreat in Camp Kulaqua, Florida earlier in 2015. I don’t know how much I inspired and taught them during that event, but they had surely inspired and taught me. They were the volunteer lay pastors from Florida Conference. So, I reasoned with my dad: “What if you were to enlist some of the awesome and faithful lay leaders of the Conference, equip them properly, and empower them as church planters?”
On the spot we called our friends, Mike Cauley, Florida Conference President at the time, and Walter Castro, Director of Volunteer Lay Pastors, and we asked them a few questions. During that conversation we learned that there were about eighty-nine volunteer lay pastors in the Florida Conference, who pastored eighty-nine churches and mission groups, with a total of about 12,000 members under their leadership, thus helping the full-time pastors and opening more lanes to plant churches and to do ministry. After the conversation ended, my father said: “I am willing to give that a shot. If it is as good as they say, it can be a blessing to our church and a tremendous help to our pastors who already do so much!” To make a long story short, he supported the Plant1000 initiative, as did the other Conference presidents, but he went beyond that. My dad returned to New Jersey, and between January 2016 and September 2017 (when he retired), twenty-nine new mission groups had been planted under the leadership of volunteer lay pastors working in direct collaboration with the local pastors, making that Conference one of our top church planting Conferences in North America!
History of Volunteer Lay Pastors in North America
Of course, the concept of Volunteer Lay Pastors is not new and has been practiced in North America for over 30 years. There is a document, “The Ministry of the Lay Pastor” which was published in 1988 by our Division. Today, the Ministry of the Volunteer Lay Pastors is operating in several Conferences across North America, and very successfully when done intentionally and is well organized. There have been instances where it has had a negative effect when not carried out appropriately.
Missional Objectives of the Ministry of Volunteer Lay Pastors
As I’ve met with Conference Presidents and Administrators around the Division, the concern continues to be the same, “we have plenty of territories without Adventist presence, we agree that planting churches is vital to reaching each corner of our Conference, yet we do not have enough pastors to plant the churches which need to be planted.” This is how the general interest and the need for Volunteer Lay Pastors began to spark across the North American Division, out of a missional need. The conversation and the need, both, originated locally as several Conference leaders thought about kingdom growth.
The objectives of the Volunteer Lay Pastors Ministry are the following:
1. Put more hands on deck: The Ministry of Volunteer Lay Pastors in North America is not intended to replace full-time pastors, or as a short-cut to full-time ministry, but rather a ministry designated to collaborate with pastors, as more missional lanes are opened to reach the millions of unreached people in our Division.
2. Enable church planting movement: As previously mentioned, it is impossible to plant the amount of churches we need, in order to effectively reach our territory, with pastors alone. Although pastors are key, the work is great, and the laborers are few. Our pastoral team in North American needs help to get the work done! Besides, our Conferences do not have the funds available to hire more pastors to plant more churches. Therefore, the need of enlisting lay leaders, who are dedicated, faithful, skilled, passionate about the mission of the church, and willing to be equipped, is paramount.
3. Provide financial flexibility: I know a pastor in North America who has three churches, and each church is located in a different state. I know many other pastors, in North America, who lead districts with 3-4 very small churches, which are also very far apart. In these types of situations, which are common in our Division, especially in our most rural territories, the pastor spends most of his/her time on the road and the churches are not able to experience the leadership or ministry of the pastor in frequent and consistent manner, creating frustration for the congregations as well as for the pastor. Equipping and appointing volunteer lay pastors, who live in the community and are able to provide presence, and leadership to each one of these churches, would allow the congregations to receive better coverage and at the same time would give the Conference flexibility to place the pastor where his presence, leadership, and gifts can be utilized more efficiently, perhaps in church planting.
In our consultation with Conferences which have done this in an intentional manner, we have heard that both pastors and churches feel positive about the Ministry of Volunteer Lay Pastors.
North American Division Guidelines for Volunteer Lay Pastors
Having considered the previous points and after receiving multiples inquiries from the field about the effectiveness, appropriateness, and legality of having a Volunteer Lay Pastors Ministry, our Ministerial Team worked in collaboration with Secretariat, a group of Conference Presidents and pastors who have been engaged with volunteer lay pastors, and recommended to make the Ministry of Volunteer Lay Pastors official in the North American Division. After two years of hard work and vetting with different teams, committees, and legal counsel, our North American Division Executive Committee officially voted the “North American Division Guidelines for Volunteer Lay Pastors” during our 2017 Year End Meetings.
These guidelines are available for the use of Conferences who have an active Volunteer Lay Pastors Ministry or would like to begin one. There are a few words of caution here, and I will deal with them a bit more in an upcoming newsletter. Yet this is a special word of caution for Conference leaders. If you are going to launch a ministry of Volunteer Lay Pastors in your Conference, please don’t cut corners. Be intentional, well organized, and follow the guidelines, which are in place to bless the church, bless the volunteer lay pastor, and to protect both. The failure to do so, may result in the detriment to the church, the volunteer lay pastor, and the mission of the church in North America. Please, if you are not going to do it right, perhaps it is better to wait till you are ready to do it.
(to be continued)
Pastor Jose Cortes Jr., is an Associate Director of the Ministerial Association and leads Evangelism, Church Planting, and Adventist/Global Mission for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.