When equipping the saints can be hazardous

The Greek word katartismos is more commonly used for mending nets. It literally means the “making fully ready” of something or somebody.

Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus, talks about using particular gifts of ministry to “equip the saints for works of service”. It was something of a buzzword back in the 1980s and ‘90s, something I associate with the (very good) ministry of John Wimber. But as I go on to explain, there can be a catch.

Ephesians 4:11-13. Paul writes:
“And He [Christ] 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, until we all attain to the unity of the faith…”

The passage continues in an overlong sentence, which spells out the objective: producing unity through growing people into spiritual maturity, such that they are not prone to be blown off course or get themselves into deception.

So, equipping the saints is all about building up individual believers in their faith and their gifts and their ministry, working with them and encouraging them. It comes from a pastoral heart. For those being equipped or encouraged, having an experienced friend on hand is a great confidence boost when stepping out into something unfamiliar – which can often feel quite exposed! We all value a bit of coaching at these times.

What does this achieve?, Finding ones God-given gifts, passions and attributes is how we all grow from people who attend ‘our’ church in receiving mode, to become those ready to serve in God’s church and share in some part of the ministry. It moves us from a view of  ‘our’ church to the more generous view of  understanding how those at the early stages of their Christian journey might perceive ‘their’ church.

This kind of leadership is popular among church members, and rightly so. Where once the the priest/vicar/minister/pastor saw themselves as a solo performer, they are now repositioned as essentially a coach and mentor; not just using their gifts but making room for others and growing theirs. That requires some maturity: a sense of not having anything to prove and a certain generosity of spirit.

But there is a downside, I have discovered. It may be that not everyone thinks that equipping the saints is such a good idea! There are a few particular alligators that are likely to appear and start snapping.

1. If you have been elected as a lay leader, and come to rather enjoy your new position and status, surely (so the deception goes) I should be the one coming to the front, not someone down in the ranks. God, however, is no respecter of persons, and often raises up people we might not have thought of.

2. If there in a culture of control in the church (be honest, there will be somewhere) an emphasis on equipping the saints doesn’t play out well with this. We can’t be releasing the saints and trying to control them at the same time. If lay leadership has been perceived as telling the saints what they can and cannot do, a minister who has heard the call to equip others is a threat.

3. A minister who has that generosity of spirit to prefer others and see others grow, raises the bar for everyone. By extension, everyone is now required to summon up that heart to release, that generosity that sees the gold in others, the patience with those who are taking baby steps of faith and responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Now it’s expected that everyone is free to “prefer others” which is such a strong message in the Bible,  but which conflicts with the flesh and the way of the world.

Everyone likes the sound of servant leadership. Everyone likes the idea of equipping others. Most will agree that this is following the Way of Jesus.

But those that set out to do it can find themselves vulnerable to those who feel safer doing the opposite – becoming a target for the church bully and those more concerned with their own self-esteem. Releasing people into growth as disciples is what the church of our time needs so badly, and it is what the enemy hates and targets. So, proceed prayerfully and carefully,  and with the courage of being called to pursue God’s kingdom purpose.

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