Ask any Seventh-day Adventist Church member, and he or she will tell you that pastoral work is not a solo enterprise. Ask any pastor the same question and he'll admit that despite the pastor's leadership role, nurturing and sharing the Gospel takes a real team, a village, or in this case, an entire church.
This group effort becomes readily apparent when multiple churches share one pastor. Don't be tempted to think of just traditional member involvement cooking a hospitality dinner, teaching Sabbath School, or collecting offerings. In some cases, necessity has inspired church members to fulfill one of the most traditional and distinct duties of pastors: standing in the pulpit.
In many parts of the worldwide Adventist church, one pastor per church is unheard of. No longer optional, member involvement is encouraged. When looking at the pastor-to-member ratio in some countries, the need for more member involvement becomes clear.
In India, there are more than 1 million members and fewer than 1,000 trained pastors. In China, 80 pastors lead some 340,000 members. In Zambia, the Adventist church has 500,000 members and only 120 trained pastors. Keeping these numbers in mind, it's not unusual for some pastors to have anywhere from eight to 20 churches, says Pastor G.T. Ng, former executive secretary for the Adventist church in the Southern Asia-Pacific Division, an area where lay members are actively involved. One pastor leading multiple churches is routine in many of the world's faiths, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church is no exception.
One example is Emmanuel Mwale, who pastors seven churches in Chipata, Zambia. At one point, he pastored 11 churches at the same time! Mwale's churches range from seven to 30 kilometers away. Needless to say, it is impossible for one person to adequately nurture and guide several congregations simultaneously, especially when they are some distance apart.
"It is not an easy work," says Pastor Mwale. He says pastoring a church is about more than just fulfilling administrative duties. "It is a very different work to nurture. Currently my itinerary is to visit churches every once in a while. This means I have to train church elders and give them skills on how to run a church."
Nathan DeLima says that in his country of Mexico, it is common for one pastor to have 10 churches. He himself has 16 churches, which means visiting only one or two of them each month. He relies on his elders or co-pastors to do a lot of leading.
Like Mwale, DeLima is concerned about the spiritual life of his congregations. "Members need to be nourished," he says. "I have 1,000 members in my churches. I can't see them all, and so I'll visit the ones who are sick and in crisis those who need more care." According to DeLima, the corporate church doesn't view pastoring as it should. He says that the Church focuses more on administrative work, while he looks at it as a crisis in leadership. While admitting that the support of church elders is necessary, he says, "We rely too much on elders who are sometimes not as committed. And church members don't always see their authority." However, this attitude toward lay pastoring differs depending on where you go in Mexico. DeLima says in the South, lay pastoring is an accepted part of the culture.
In many parts of the world, the church can't just hire more pastors. For many, it is a financial issue. In parts of Mexico or India, church members' wages do not allow their financial gifts alone to pay a pastor's salary.
Another challenge is training pastors. Seventh-day Adventist seminaries are not always close by for those who wish to do God's work on a full-time basis. For Pastor Mwale, who left teaching to become a pastor, most of his training has occurred on the job. His pastoral training comes in spurts. After just six month of basic training, he was assigned churches. For up to four months every year, he continues his theological training. This means that some pastoral responsibilities must either wait until his return or require him to travel up to 80 kilometers to perform a baptism. When asked how he functions in such a highpressure job, Pastor Mwale points to one of his favorite Bible texts, 2 Corinthians 5:14 and 15. "The love of God compels us," he quotes.
Many of the church leaders interviewed for this article, though, see lay pastoring as central to church growth.
In India only 10 to 15 percent of the church's population has some kind of formal education, which makes it difficult to draw qualified pastors from the membership, says Pastor John Rathinaraj, secretary of the Adventist church in Southern Asia.
"We have 1 million members and fewer than 1,000 trained pastors and 2,000 volunteers," he explains. "We don't let [just] anybody stand in the pulpit. They must be good Sabbath-keepers, tithe-payers, and well-versed in the Bible. The volunteers get so much experience doing ministry [that] at times they know more than those coming straight from seminary institutes."
"We believe that if we had one pastor for each church, then the lay pastor would sit back and do nothing," says Cornelius Matandiko, president of the Adventist church in Zambia. "It is advantageous that our elders are challenged to study the Word, do visitation, and be involved in evangelistic campaigns. This causes them to grow spiritually, which results in more and more church growth. Lay people are the whole reason the church is growing so fast. They are not as trained as pastors, but because their faith is so strong, they take things and run."
Not everyone is convinced that there is a link between the pastor-congregation ratio and church growth. Monte Sahlin, a vice president for the Adventist church in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States and author of Adventist Congregations Today: New Evidence for Equipping Healthy Churches, says that although "it would appear that maybe fewer pastors would increase involvement and growth, there is no real evidence to support this. It is true that those countries where there is high growth are also places where there are fewer pastors, but that does not prove a cause-effect relationship. In fact, it may be the reverse: because the church is growing, there are fewer pastors per member."
Michael Kaminsky, secretary for the Adventist church in the Euro-Asia region, does not agree. He talks of what the church was like under the Soviet regime where religion was forbidden and there were no official churches or pastors. He said those who learned of Christ's love shared the story with others. But once Communism crumbled and Christianity, long-stifled, was free to emerge, church members left the soul-winning up to pastors and public evangelism campaigns.
Without church responsibilities, Kaminsky said, those members who joined the church mainly through public campaigns soon left. In 2001, the church in that region decided to revisit the methods that the church's pioneers had used during the Soviet era. Personal evangelism has now become a major focus. Church leaders are now teaching church members that they too are responsible for sharing the gospel.
"We have enough pastors for our existing congregations," Kaminsky said. "We want to continue to get our members involved so that no one from our territory becomes too dependent on pastors."
Vasily D. Stolyar, president of the Adventist church in Western Russia, says "Many lay members want to help. It is like a first love for those who are new in the church. They need training, and we are preparing them with special books, with sermons and with DVDs."
There is no denying that most pastors would like more help from their members. In places like Japan, it is difficult to find ministers, so difficult that churches routinely recruit pastors and lay people from Korea.
Masaki Shoji, president of the Adventist church injapan, says thatjapanese church members are not filling the leadership gap either, leaving pastors overworked. He says pastors not only lead three or four churches, but at times they also work in the church's administrative office.
Harald Wollan, secretary for the Adventist church's Trans-European region, says that with a varied territory, there is no consistent number of members who are involved in their churches. "In the Scandinavian countries, there are not enough pastors, and more lay people are preaching in our churches on Sabbath," he says. "But in Britain there is a great deal of lay involvement even though there is a large number of pastors. When I first visited Serbia, I was amazed how many young people were involved. Yes, there will always be pastors supervising, but elders are running churches."
"The church belongs to the people, and they should be more involved in any position," says Francois Louw, from the Adventist church in Southern Africa. "We cannot depend on one pastor to spread the Word. The church is growing rapidly. Where there are more congregations than pastors, people are compelled to lead."
Wollan concludes: "No matter what you call them elders, co-pastors, lay leaders we all know that without them working tirelessly without pay, the work of the church would come to a complete stop."
Taashi Rowe is the General Conference Adventist News Network editorial assistant.