Equipping Pastors: Developing a Vision for Vocational Discipleship at Your Church

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Pastors considering how to help church members integrate faith and work can face numerous challenges. The journey can feel arduous – full of false starts and stutters – as well as rewarding. The Imagine Church Project at the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity suggests a six-step approach to implementing change.

1) Cast a vision for whole-life discipleship.

James Collins, author of Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies emphasized that thriving organizations have core values and a core purpose. Even as times change and strategies shift to adapt, the overall vision or mission remains intact. For churches equipping congregants to follow Jesus in every area of their lives, including work, a vision can steer the course.

Miroslav Volf described the vision of a whole-life-discipleship church well:

We need to build and strengthen mature communities of vision and character who celebrate faith as a way of life as they gather before God for worship and who, sent by God, live it out as they scatter to pursue various tasks in the world.”

It is the gathered church on Sunday (or through other channels) that empowers the scattered church for every other day of the week.

2) Focus on the frontlines.

The places where people already spend time outside the church are contexts for mission.

Every church’s context will be different. While there is value in ministry outside of one’s usual cultural contexts, the places where parishioners are already spending their time aretheir missional contexts. Of course, this is challenging. In some ways, it can be easier to share your faith when you’re on a special mission trip, set aside for that very purpose, than it is to imagine what it means to bear witness for the kingdom of God in a completely familiar, possibly secular, context. This is where the vision of the church—to create whole-life disciples, sent out to point the world the kingdom of God in every arena—meets the duty of leaders described in Ephesians 4:11-12:

“The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…”

This can be difficult for some pastors, especially those who might be unfamiliar with life outside the church. However, pastors are making gains in this area by learning from churchgoers in the workplace.

For example, British Baptist Pastor David Coffey says: “

In my time as a Pastor, I made a regular pattern to visit church members in their place of work, whenever this was appropriate. I have sat with the defence lawyer in a court room; I have watched a farmer assist in the birth of a calf; I have spent time with a cancer consultant in his hospital; I have walked the floor of a chemical factory and sat in the office of a manager who runs a large bookshop. I have driven a tank and spent time with some senior military officers; I have shared the tears and joys of family life with homemakers; I have visited a London hostel for the homeless and walked round a regional prison with a Governor. The purpose of such visits is primarily to encourage and disciple a church member in that place where God has called them to be a worker.”  (David Coffey in an unpublished paper, “Supporting Church Members in the Workplace”, produced for the Church Leadership Commission BWA Council Dresden, July 1999.)

Each church can to identify the particular opportunities and challenges their people face in their places of work. Do people work as professionals, managers, labourers, technicians, public servants, teachers, or service workers? The opportunities and challenges vary widely between these types of work. Do congregants’ jobs have high status, pay, opportunity, power, security, and mobility, or low?

Pastors can also learn from how churchgoers are already experiencing God in the workplace. In fact, through his research, David Miller, author of God at Work, has found that lay-led and lay-founded groups are generally more effective at understanding and meeting workplace integration needs’. Lay people are best at identifying their everyday concerns and can be the best contributors to a whole-life theology. A workable theology requires practical testing to investigate its robustness and relevance. It can be a cooperative effort between Christians in the workplace, pastors and theologians. This requires conversation and collaboration. Pastors can serve best not by presenting themselves as experts, but as encouragers and supporters coming alongside parishioners. A good question to ask is “How do you see God at work?”

3) Grow a core team.

A core team is a group of engaged people who will communicate the vision, encourage initiatives and pilot the change process. They also cheer each other on when things get discouraging, or when strategy needs to be readjusted. As with any great mission, a core team is essential.

4) Make one-degree shifts.

Promote small but effective changes that act as levers reinforcing each other towards an overall change of culture.

Affirming the call of Christians in the workplace can happen through multiple means. These include preaching, prayer, visual images, small group activities, benedictions and larger endeavors, such as intern programs, speaker series, commissioning services and conferences.

5) Share stories.

Celebrate small and everyday signs of growth and change. Listen for the stories that can be shared to encourage and bless others. This includes stories of God-at-work among the congregation, as well as stories that affirm the work of your core team. For example, Tom Nelson, pastor of Christ Community Church in Kansas City and author of Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work received the following encouragement. As Christ Community incorporated the idea of God-at-work in everything from testimonies to benedictions, people would come up to him and say  “I have always felt like a second class citizen before” or “Pastor, thanks for telling me my work really matters.”

6) Redefine the church contract.

For some churches, the call to integrate faith and work requires a change of focus. Leaders and members learn to see church not only as a place to receive pastoral care but also as a place to develop deeper vocational capability.

As Dallas Willard put it, “The church is for discipleship, and discipleship is for the world.

7) Set aside time to assess and re-adjust.

We would add a seventh step to the Imagine Church Project’s process: set aside time to assess your progress and re-adjust. No single model of workplace engagement could fit every church. Successful churches assess, evaluate, adjust and innovate to stick with – or discover – what works, while discarding what doesn’t. This process involves a continual process of listening to the needs of the community and adjusting as necessary, while holding to the church’s vision.

Pastors and church-based leaders, what do you think? What has worked for you? What hasn’t? Let us know by commenting below.

If you’re not a pastor or church-based leader, what do you think? How do you see your church as partnering with you in your call to bear witness to God’s kingdom in the world beyond the church itself? What is helpful for you? What isn’t? What would you like to see?

This post is part of the Theology of Work Project’s summer blog series, focused on helping pastors and leaders to “equip the saints” (Eph. 4:12) at work. Stay tuned by following us here, on Facebook or via Twitter.

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