The designation of ministers as “teaching elders” is a feature of the new Form of Government that is somewhat controversial among Presbyterians. Many, especially ministers, would prefer to return to the “Minister of Word and Sacrament” title; and they cite many good reasons for this. However, in no mode of ministry is it more appropriate to call the minister a teaching elder than for those who work part-time. For in a position where time is limited, ministry has to be boiled down to its essence, and a lot of this has to do with teaching.
Full-time ministry tends to see many areas taken over by, or assigned to, the pastor as the congregation’s paid professional. We have become so accustomed to the luxury of full-time ministry over the past few centuries, that large parts of the ministry of church members – the ruling elders, deacons, and laity – has largely atrophied. People regularly expect the pastor to be the one, often the only one, who makes hospital visits, leads the people in prayer, provides educational programs for adults, teaches the Confirmation Class, or preaches. Responsibilities that clearly fall to the ruling elders in the Book of Order, like ordering worship, stewardship, and evangelism, are routinely given over to the pastor. The pastor will do these things theoretically on the people’s behalf; but at the same time the deacons and ruling elders have to be cultivating the skills, knowledge, or expertise to bear a lot these responsibilities themselves.
I contend that teaching is the essence of ministry based on the example of the Lord Jesus and the apostles of the New Testament. We often underestimate how much of their work consisted in training others in ministry. Jesus sends his disciples out on two missions, and many of his teachings are given to the disciples for their spiritual and missional formation. Even his own ministry of healing and teaching often has an exemplary purpose. He is giving his followers behaviors to imitate.
The new worshiping communities established by the apostles had no regular “pastors” as we understand them. Neither were most Gentile gatherings likely even to have a complete copy of the Bible (which would have been the Greek Old Testament). What they appear to have had was a group of well-trained elders, and an assortment of different visiting preachers and evangelists. Yet the theology they did get was so strong and attractive, and the communities they formed so loving and supportive, that the young sect grew explosively. With hardly any of the resources we have come to depend on, I suspect the main way faith in Jesus Christ was taught to people in the earliest church was by example and imitation, first of Jesus, then of those who imitated him.
Teaching, therefore, must not be reduced to the model of one person disseminating information to students sitting in rows in a classroom, or even around a table. While of course there is a place for this, teaching happens even more effectively by example or in conversation. Having a class on prayer is fine; but people are more edified when they experience the pastor praying, and are given opportunities to pray, and lead others in prayer, themselves. Holding a Bible study is good; but the people should be able to see how the pastor’s whole life is an encounter with the Word. And they should be given access to high quality resources on Scripture and theology. Doctrine should not be a matter of dry and technical memorization; doctrine has to be a reflection of, and on, our practice. And the exemplary practitioner in the local congregation is the pastor.
In part-time ministry, pastors have to decide how to invest their limited hours. Some things – many things – have to be let go of as responsibilities assigned to the pastor. If these are not just non-essential or missionally pointless activities, they will have to be picked up by members of the church. The job of the pastor, then, becomes more than the doing of ministry; it broadens out into the teaching of others to do ministry as well.
So part-time ministry doesn’t just require the pastor to have an approach very different from that of the full-time pastor we have become accustomed to, the members of the congregation also have to change their expectations, both of the pastor and of themselves. Part-time ministry demands that the people reinvest themselves into the fullness of ministry. It means that otherwise often trite slogan about how all-the-members-are-the-ministers, actually expresses a legitimate aspiration and even becomes true.