Disability Series, Part 3
What is the purpose of a pastor? Is it to stand in front of a congregation, eloquently preaching from translated and exegeted original language notes? Should his or her leadership model the values of the world, where his congregants follow his lead because he sways them by the intellectual prowess and physical abilities that society so values?
For me, the pastoral role is best described as “shepherd,” following the Biblical comparisons of the person tending a flock of sheep to the person caring for the “church” or “gathering” (from the Greek, ecclesia). I have practiced pastoral leadership through preaching and teaching God’s Word, leading the direction of the church, and caring for people within my flock. It is always a single objective: my responsibility toward them. The shepherd doesn’t expect the sheep to take care of him. So, what happens to a pastor when accident, illness, or disease changes the status of those abilities, shifting his position and relationship with his congregants? All the answers I cannot provide. However, I can speak as one learning to live and function as a physically disabled pastor.
The Church Model: Centralized versus Decentralized
The vast majority of churches in the United States operate on a centralized model for pastoral ministry. This has been partially influenced by Scripture. Acts 20:28 is Paul’s admonition to elders. This text utilizes clear shepherd/flock language and calls presbyters (πρεσβύτερος) to be “overseers” or “guardians.” However, many churches within the American model have taken this a step further, viewing the pastor (pastor = shepherd) as the only gifted, professional shepherd. All of the church looks to the central person—the pastor—for answers, for direction, for encouragement, and for accomplishing necessary church work—whether administrative, preaching, teaching, or visitation. With these expectations in mind, into what role, if any, does the disabled pastor fit? Is the congregation adversely impacted with a physically challenged pastor unable to perform as sole executor?
In contrast, a decentralized model allows and encourages the entire body to function—much as Paul encouraged the young believers in Corinth to recognize we are all different in gifting and all the gifts need be present for a healthy body (1 Cor 12; especially note verse 27).
I assert that the decentralized model provides space for the disabled pastor, while also allowing for the giftings amongst the church body to flourish. This is not to say that all churches need move away from having a lead pastor. Rather, a paradigm shift is required, revising the pastor as the only “executor” (or CEO) for the congregation into a role as a guide, as a pillar of church vision and biblical truth (1 Tim 6:20–21), and as a shepherd protecting his congregants from the “wolves” which may seek to destroy their faith (Acts 20:28–31). And while I do not laud any disease or disability as a benefit, God may use the perceived “weakness” of a disabled pastor to highlight and enact the biblical truth of the necessity that each individual member of a church be active for the health of the whole Body.
Each model maintains advantages and disadvantages, about which I now better understand. I am officially disabled. The centralized model has been the one within which I have generally functioned, while I acknowledge the advantages of the other. Leading my congregation in the centralized model for eleven years, during my twelfth year a neurological disorder forced me to begin functioning in a decentralized pastoral role.
Through this transition, I have felt vulnerable and ineffective. I was unable to study, preach, perform congregational care, and other pastoral duties. The time came for a difficult but honest conversation with the church board, during which I informed them of my disabilities. With this revelation, the church leadership faced difficult decisions. Can a disabled pastor remain their pastor? Is the best option for a healthy church dissolving the relationship between pastor & congregation?
Lessons Learned from Being a Disabled Pastor
The First Lesson: Functioning as the Body of Christ
Being a disabled pastor has taught me many things. One of the first lessons learned is the importance of allowing myself to be the recipient of the spiritual gifts granted the whole body of Christ. To the individual members of the Church are given a diversity of gifts that together serve the common good (1 Cor 12). This not only means that such gifts are to be used for the outward mission of making Christ known to the world, but also that there would be an inward concern for one another as fellow members of Christ’s Church (vv. 25–26). When a congregational member finds himself or herself afflicted with a disabling event, the Church comes around that person to provide support. It is also the pastor’s privilege to care for a person both physically and spiritually in such a time.
However, is the pastor not also to be the recipient of such care? Paul’s list of spiritual gifts given for the benefit of the Body includes service, encouragement, and mercy (Rom 12:7–8). If I deny the use of such gifts by those under my care, not only in service of others, but also in care of myself, am I not lifting up my own self and role within the body as greater than others, simultaneously devaluing the impact and importance of such gifts offered freely? What does it mean to shepherd a congregation? Is the pastor merely the CEO who should be released when his management prowess no longer functions as it should? My past as an engineer in the corporate world would certainly tempt me to think so. However, the radical example of love and unity I have experienced through the congregants at Pleasant Valley Reformed Church (PVRC) has taught me otherwise. Through their sacrifice, not only to one another, but also to me, I have witnessed Christlikeness thriving.
The Second Lesson: Christ’s Church Suffers and Rejoices Together.
If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor 12:26–27, NRSV)
I made the initial announcement of my disability to the leadership in June 2020, explaining that I was experiencing seizure-like episodes and movement control loss. I suggested they pray about how best to move forward. I recommended a dissolution of our formal relationship leading the church to seek a healthy “body part.”
The expected response from any local church is self-preservation. Humans have self-preservation as their most basic need, so why would it not carry into the leadership of any given church? However, for PVRC, the response was unexpected from my viewpoint. Upon the news of my inability to continue in full-time service to the church, the leadership decided to seek pulpit supply (i.e., guest preachers) relieving me of weekly sermon preparation.
As my episodes, which I so desperately tried to hide, began seeping into Sunday services, the people of the church began springing into action. Men of the church, to whom I had pastored for years, graciously carried into my home the wheelchair with me in it. They never suggested my episodes were a distraction in worship; they merely took direct action with my care as their greatest concern. As things have progressed, they have cared for me and my wife in other tangible ways, including funding a wheelchair ramp for our house, driving us to countless appointments, checking on my health, and performing tasks I would normally have done. While the denomination encouraged the church to dissolve the formal relationship with me as their pastor, church leadership made the extraordinary decision to support their pastor, all the while acting as pastors themselves.
PVRC has pastored the pastor and demonstrated care in so many ways that the relationship between us deepened rather than weakened or dissolved. God’s Church is not the pastor alone nor is it a few leaders alone. We share all things together and I’ve learned what one body part experiences must be shared across the entire body.
The Third Lesson: Christ’s Church Firm in Its Responsibilities.
The financial position of countless small congregations in the United States all too often becomes a major influencer of congregational decisions. I used to serve as a revitalization consultant for churches. I know the weight financial realities carry. It is also common that the small church’s budget is dominated by the cost of the full-time pastor. When I was an engineer and the company was low on cash flow, the first thing to go were employees. A disabled pastor is an easy answer to economics—stop paying for services not received. Yet, PVRC was as the fish swimming upstream. When my workload was reduced to a fraction, the leadership continued to pay my full salary. They recognized that I needed to live, that bills existed now more than normal. I realized that the economics of the secular world should not exist in God’s Church. As we suffer and rejoice together, we also have responsibilities to each other. God’s Church should be firm in practicing those responsibilities.
God’s Church on earth is called to an extraordinary lifestyle. However, far too often, it operates on the same principles experienced in secular life. When the PVRC leadership was asked why they have stood alongside their disabled pastor, they pointed back to Paul’s illustration of Christ’s Church. If a part of the body becomes ill, we seek restoration and health for that part—we do not, as a first course of action, amputate.
Paul points out in 1 Corinthians, “To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all” (1 Cor 12:7; NET). Every person, as a part of the body, is critical. A congregation may be stronger and more effective when it accepts that the diversity of gifts discussed in 1 Corinthians 12 will benefit all when all are practicing these gifts. Notice the progression for Paul moves from use of gifts to manifestation of love in chapter 13. The love of those within the PVRC congregation has done more in advancing God’s Kingdom than I could have ever done as sole executor of the church mission. My weakness becomes the church’s strength.
By developing the points throughout this piece, I by no means want to argue that a church should retain a disabled pastor at all costs. Such decisions are ones that require honest conversation, consistent prayer, counsel, and wisdom. As I continue to pastor PVRC, assessments of how best to care for the church in light of my own health limitations will be necessary. The interests of the pastor should not be compulsive, ignoring the interests of the congregation. However, if we had dissolved our formal relationship earlier on, I would not have had the privilege of witnessing such clear pursuit of Christlikeness and such radical use of varying gifts to support not only me, but the church body as a whole. After all, is this not the goal towards which all pastors strive? In this case, God chose to highlight those gifts at least partially through my disability, rather than in spite of it.