Labour shortage at a large church

by | 30 Jul, 2009

Peter Baker, Senior Pastor at Highfields Church in Cardiff, highlights some keys blessings and traps of large church ministry, with a particular eye on training.

It seems to me that there will always be a labour shortage in a church when mission is at the top of the agenda. That is why the Lord Jesus calls disciples to pray for more workers. It is what keeps us honest and dependent before the Lord of the Harvest.

He knew we would never be in a position to say that all vacancies are filled. In fact I reckon He would be concerned if that was the case because either we have underestimated the size of the harvest and we have a vision problem (ie. it is not big enough – which by my reckoning is where most of our churches fail) or because we have overestimated our ability to manage the problem and have come up with merely human solutions.

Certainly big churches can fall into this managerial trap believing that it is all about getting the right management techniques in place as opposed to prayer. So that having  advertised, we confidently expect to fill the posts after necessary compliance with health and safety checks, employment legislation and relevant job and person specifications! Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with such a process, provided of course we do not end up trusting in it rather than in prayer.

Certainly these observations reflect my experience as Senior Pastor of what (by UK independent evangelical church standards) is, with 700 adults and 150 children through the doors each Sunday, a large church.

We have never once been allowed at Highfields the luxury of starting up ministries knowing that all other bases are covered. And sometimes I have taken stick for moving us ahead in new directions without guaranteeing that all groups have a full quota of leaders, helpers or support staff to maintain what we already have.

But ministry just is not like that. There are many more opportunities than people to respond to them. Notwithstanding a church culture such as happily exists here in Cardiff, that pro-actively disciples people into works of service, and that seeks to identify, train, mentor and equip people for ministry. A church on the stretch in mission will always feel it is at breaking point.  

The assumption that big churches have spare capacity is laughable. I know that some smaller churches may well imagine that we have expensive unused talent sitting on the replacements bench just waiting to be brought on for the last twenty minutes to swing the game in our favour! Actually, we fight year round recruitment wars in which Ministry Leaders are looking for help. Right now as the summer approaches over the past month we will have said goodbye to 150 people, many but by no means all students. Some of them have been key workers, deployed in key areas and they are leaving massive holes.

The ability of the large church to manage the resourcing of its growth and of the inevitable revolving church door effectively in a socially mobile and often transient culture will always be difficult and challenging.

Over the next few weeks, I will sit down with individual Staff Members (that is full-time paid people), twelve of them. And I know what is going to happen. They will tell me about a leadership crises in their patch, a lack of workers and an impending black hole in the Autumn. Each of them has some gospel territory to protect, each of them believes the church should back their vision 100% and each of them is praying for more workers.

So how do we deal with this situation without acquiescing to a silo mentality or worse. Well, we will join up the dots so that everyone understands that this is not just their problem but one the whole church owns. We will prayerfully target the non workers – and there are always, for whatever reason, many of those in a large church. We will seek out the underutilized or the passengers. We will preach messages about service. We will work with the staff on one of their primary roles as those called to equip the saints for ministry. We will look to implement succession plans. And guess what, we will do it all again next year! And if truth be told, we will do this exercise at least three times a year, such is the level of rapid change and the organizational complexity and the amount of variables that come into play.

Where full-time gospel workers make a difference in a place like Highfields is their passion to multiply ministry (which creates its own supply problems!) and their time availability and skill-sets to get the job done.

Of course a creative tension exists in a multi-staff church between the paid and unpaid gospel worker. Theologically we know that every Christian is a gospel worker at one level. It is just that some of us have more time and a specific calling to fulfil it than others.

We do not want to create a church culture here in Highfields which generates a professional elitism on the one hand so that only theologically trained people can be gospel workers or a sacred/secular division on the other so that gospel work precludes the doctor in her surgery, the businessman in his board room or the housewife by the school gate. Each must see their mission field as co-terminous with the world, rather than within the confines of the organisation of the church.

Nonetheless, there is an expectation that if full-time gospel workers are doing their job properly, then more people are going to be mobilized for ministry in or outside the church structures. And that means growth and that means a lack of leadership resources to maintain the growth and keep in mission mode. It is a never ending demand and supply cycle.

The exciting part for full-timers in a large church is that they get to work all day and every day with people and programmes that have the potential to deliver more gospel workers for more mission fields.

The danger is that as full-timers they are seen as the answer to gospel work and the harvest field shortage. Especially when they are paid to do gospel work. In which case the hard pressed lawyer, cash rich but time poor, can see his gift aid as a substitute for his own personal and active ministry involvement.

I openly admit that the free church, independent sector, has many peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. I often wonder what Anglicans make of our funny ways and fuzzy leadership structures! We are sometimes far too wedded to our independency and seem to have forgotten the New Testament principle of interdependency.

But we are breaking away from a one-man-band culture and our isolationism. An every member ministry mindset is increasingly prevalent and not because congregations cannot or will not afford to pay anyone (!) but because training and mission are part of the DNA of the local church. So too is a partnership mentality in gospel work with others.

Those considering full-time ministry within this church stream are now better served than ever with a variety of churches like my own committed to schemes like Ministry Apprentices. This generalist training allows the MA to participate in our one day a week theological training course, ‘Network’, which is soon to be upgraded and hopefully accredited. It also provides cross church experience of ministry in at least two areas.

We now enjoy 4 of these sub species of gospel worker of whom two are involved part-time with us and part time in one of our church plants, while the other two full-timers,  specialize in cross-cultural mission or student ministry. Our future intention would be to expand and diversify even further with these general specialisms in schools, sport and pre-school ministry.

We are by no means on our own in all this. The landscape of the FIEC, to which we belong, is now characterised by a number of like-minded churches serious about training workers for the harvest field. We will continue to do our bit, recognising all the while that a labour shortage is hopefully a sign of a big vision that is matched by an even bigger dependence on the Lord of the harvest.

I find that more and more young graduates and people in their 20’s are using the MA track as an opportunity to see if they have the suitability and adaptability needed for full-time gospel ministry. There is something healthy about this “try before you buy” approach. It allows the person concerned to have a look and it allows the church a similar vantage point.

It seems to me that one of the best features of the current rethinking and remodelling of patterns of ministry is this willingness to experiment. We are finding here in Cardiff that the 21st-century harvest field requires workers who can operate in a fast changing environment where nothing stays the same for long and where the capacity for hard work, creative response and faithful service is essential.


Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join 9:38's mailing list to receive our latest news and prayer points.

You have Successfully Subscribed!