Ministry is not something you do in isolation; rather it is something you do in community. Far too often pastors feel alone. In an article titled, “Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work,” the New York Times printed an eye-opening article on the real epidemic of pastor burnout. “The findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.” Over the years, our church has hosted a disciple-making conference for pastors. When I talk to many of them, discouragement and loneliness are real issues. I know because I’ve experienced it firsthand. If you have been a pastor for any length of time, you know what I mean. The pressure to get results, demanding deadlines, unreasonable expectations, divisions in the church, unresolved conflicts, people leaving your church for another one down the street, financial pressures, and struggles at home; all of these can build up walls that imprison and isolate a leader. But ministry was never intended to be done in isolation. Nor was ministry ever intended to be solely the pastor’s job. Ministry has always been intended to be done in community, alongside other brothers and sisters in Christ. The role of the pastor is not to do the work of ministry alone, but to equip a team of people to accomplish the work together. The secret to doing ministry together in community and raising up co-laborers is an intentional disciple-making strategy.
“Give me one hundred men who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not whether they be clergymen or laymen, they alone will shake the gates of Hell and set up the kingdom of Heaven upon the earth.” — John Wesley
Jesus taught this principle. In Luke 10.2, Jesus saw the hurting crowd and he told his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Jesus didn’t say, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few, so I’ll just do it myself otherwise it will never get done.” But that is what many pastors do. They give in to the notion that no one wants to help and no one cares. But that is simply not true. If you want more laborers in the field, you have to pray for God to send them your way. You have to train them to join you in the work, and then release them to do it. Jesus never envisioned a single laborer in the field trying to get it all in. Can you imagine that? Picture a massive wheat field, acres and acres of grain ready to be harvested, and only one guy with a sickle in his hand looking at it all. Can you imagine how discouraging that would be? That’s how many pastors feel. Plugging away at the ministry, carrying it completely on his shoulders. Instead, Jesus envisioned many laborers working side by side, bringing in the harvest together. Not only did Jesus teach this principle, he modeled this principle. Jesus worked under the radar engaging spiritual seekers with the truth of his identity. He called men to follow him and drew them into community, exposing them to the ministry (Matthew 4.18-19). He then identified twelve emerging leaders and began to intentionally invest time in them (Mark 3.13-14). He taught them truth, he demonstrated for them the power of God, and he involved them in the ministry at increasingly greater levels. He released them to minister on their own, but with oversight and accountability (Luke 9.1-2). Then he led those leaders to identify and raise up more leaders (Luke 10.1). Soon the twelve became seventy-two, and the seventy-two became one hundred twenty (Acts 1.15). The one hundred twenty, in turn, became five hundred (I Corinthians 15.6). From the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he was engaging in relationships and bringing them along with him for the purpose of training them and releasing them into the harvest field.
You see the same pattern in the Apostle Paul. From the moment Paul was saved, believers surrounded him. The very people he had sought to imprison and kill in Damascus reached out to him and took him in, even at one point saving Paul’s life (Acts 9.19, 25). Barnabas reached out to Paul and invested in his life, ultimately taking Paul to Antioch where they ministered together and raised up a leadership team (Acts 11.25-26; 13.1-3). When the Lord led Paul to take the gospel to the Gentile nations, he didn’t go alone. He took men with him. As they traveled, they preached the gospel and established ministry teams (Acts 14.23). He loved these men and poured his life into them. Men like Timothy (I Corinthians 4.17), Titus (2 Corinthians 8.16, 23), Silas (Acts 15.40), Luke (Colossians 4.14; Philemon 1.24), Epaphras (Colossians 4.12), Barnabas (Acts 11.25), Gauis (Romans 16.23), and the elders in Ephesus that he loved so dearly (Acts 20.36-38). When Paul traveled, he was joined by men who were his disciples from various parts of the country (Acts 20.4-5). When Paul was in prison, he was cared for by the community of believers (Acts 28.11-16). As you read the letters of Paul, he often mentions the people he trained and released into ministry (Romans 16.17-23; 2 Timothy 4.19-22; Colossians 4.7-18). Paul knew that ministry was never to be done in isolation, but in community. He wrote in Ephesians 4.11-12, “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…” The role of the pastor is to raise up people who will walk with God, reach the world, and invest in a few. Where did these people come from? Initially, they came from the people he had personally discipled! That’s how Jesus did it. That’s how Paul did it. And that’s how disciple-making pastors do it today. That is why I love the quote from John Wesley that I placed at the top of this chapter. Wesley was a powerful evangelist. Thousands came to hear him preach, and thousands came to Christ under his itinerate preaching ministry. But the power and genius of Wesley wasn’t his preaching, it was his ability to raise up leaders and establish small groups of disciple-making communities all across the nation. Wesley correctly understood that if he had one hundred men who were passionate about Christ and trained to reproduce, there was nothing that could stop them. I still believe that! The only way ministry moves forward is by training up men and then releasing them into the ministry alongside you.