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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Solo Ministry?
October 6, 2011

Our denominational home office maintains an “opportunity list” of all pastoral vacancies nationwide. Back in my early days of ministry, those lists were updated monthly and kept in the presbytery office, assuring a steady stream of pastors beating their way to presbytery central. The internet has changed everything – online dating has replaced consulting the matchmaker. Who needs the presbytery any longer?

One of the things that pops up regularly in those online position listings is the category of “solo pastor.” The term is meant simply to distinguish churches with just one professional ministry staff person from those that have several. But I wonder whether it also betrays an account of ministry that is fundamentally at odds with our tradition.

From the beginning, our Reformed forebears were convinced that congregations and pastors could not do authentic Gospel ministry in isolation from one another.  This led them to establish church “courts” where leaders from a region’s congregations gathered regularly to nurture their ministries, exercise discipline, and cooperate in mission. In Geneva during Calvin’s ministry, there were two such meetings – each week! One was a midweek session called the “consistory,” a gathering of pastors and elders to hear disputes and administer discipline in cases of misbehavior. The other was called the “congregation,” where church leaders would gather on Fridays to worship, study scripture, and consider together what was most needed for effective gospel ministry in their precincts. Attendance was not optional.

It is in our DNA as Reformed Christians that no ministry is “solo ministry.” Congregations and their leaders need one another for mutual encouragement and admonition in their common calling as Christ’s ambassadors. What we now call “presbytery” is our formal way of acknowledging and living out that interdependence.

Each Friday in Geneva, after worshiping together, church leaders would engage in a vigorous theological study. Typically, they would go sequentially through a book of the Bible, each week a different pastor taking a turn in presenting what we would now call an exegesis paper. Today, we require a pastor to submit just one such paper to presbytery in a lifetime, as part of the ordination exam process. But in those days, each pastor’s turn to submit an exegesis paper came up three or four times a year. Beneath that practice lay the conviction that none of us – not even Calvin himself! – is adequately equipped to frame independently our understanding of what Scripture teaches and Gospel ministry requires.

Some of our congregations are considering whether God is calling them to leave the fellowship of our presbytery, or whether to curtail their support of our common ministry with their participation and finances. The very idea that a congregation or pastor could decide entirely on their own whether or how we belong to one another in Christ would be unimaginable to our Reformed forbears. Alas, we have become far too accustomed to flying solo as congregations and pastors. If we have gotten habituated to doing ministry and theology in isolation from one another, it should be no surprise when we seek to make decisions about whether to support or to leave our fellowship without consulting each other. Even though I believe that none of us reaches such decisions capriciously, too often we make them independently. Brothers and sisters, it should not be so.

We have fallen far short of our covenant in the Lord to learn, nurture, and exercise our Gospel vocation together. Too much of our life and witness – whether as congregations or as church leaders – has been de facto solo ministry. What can we do to recover our core vocation to learn Christ, follow him, and fulfill his commission together?

Your partner in the Gospel,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery

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