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Breaking Free: From Caregiver To Equipper

By Greg Ogden

The Protestant Reformation promised a revolution and the Augustinian monk Martin Luther was its first revolutionary. Luther issued the following broadside against the hierarchal, clerically bound Roman Catholic Church of the 1500s: “Through baptism all of us are consecrated to the priesthood. For whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop and pope.”1 Gone would be the division between clergy and laity. The old caste system and class distinction between the ordained and nonordained would be obsolete. Why? The New Testament envisions a universal priesthood inclusive of all who are baptized into the name of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6; 5:10).

How have we done in fulfilling the promise that all are priests before God and priests to one another? David Watson prophetically wrote, “Most Protestant denominations have been as priest-ridden as the Roman Catholics. It is the minister, vicar, or pastor who has dominated the whole proceedings. In other words, the clergy-laity divisions have continued in much the same way as in pre-Reformation times, and the doctrine of spiritual gifts and body ministry have been largely ignored.”2

What is the evidence for this? The Church has been compared to a football game with 50,000 people in the stands who are in desperate need of exercise who watch 22 players on the field who are in desperate need of rest. This spectator mentality manifests itself in the way people approach worship. Many worshipers believe those on stage are to provide an engaging, meaningful, and entertaining show, while the worshiper’s job is to critique the worship service as he passes through the receiving line following worship. On many Sundays, after the pastor has concluded his morning message, he may have expected the choir to raise cards rating his message — 9.9, 9.4, etc.

How did the church get here? What are the reasons for the gap between the biblical and historical promise of universal priesthood and the spectator reality of everyday church life? We might wave the theological banner of the priesthood of all believers, but my conviction is we have inadvertently adopted a dependency model of pastoral ministry that has created passivity among God’s people. We need to shift from a dependency model to an equipping model of pastoral ministry to see the promise of an every-member ministry become reality.

Dependency Model Defined

What is the dependency model? Pastors do the ministry and God’s people receive their pastoral care. The church has inadvertently adopted a professional caretaker model of ministry that has resulted in passivity among the people of God. Most pastors know a major portion of their job is to respond to the needs of their members and constituents. If someone is hospitalized, grieving the death of a loved one, experiencing a life-altering setback, facing marital difficulties, or struggling with a rebellious child, the pastor is expected to assist him. The emotional contract between pastor and people in most churches is: If a parishioner is having difficulty, the pastor is expected to be there to help. If the pastor does not come to provide care, he is failing to do the job pastors are supposed to do and has failed as a pastor.

Pastors have been turned into responders. I led a two-day seminar for Methodist pastors and noticed that the attendees came tethered to their beepers and cell phones. When beepers vibrated and cell phones sounded, pastors excused themselves from the meeting. Later, after having attended to the need they were beckoned to meet, they returned.

An Unhealthy Family System

The caretaker/dependency model of ministry can be compared to an unhealthy family system. Parents who keep their children perpetually under their thumb and never allow them to develop into caring, responsible, and independent adults are not well thought of. This kind of family is dysfunctional. Yet this has become an unexamined and accepted model of ministry. We pay pastors to be spiritual guardians of dependent children who need constant care. As a result, the children remain dependent. Pastors are trapped by an interlocking set of expectations between themselves and their people that has been equally unhealthy for both. Both pastor and people have equally entered into this conspiracy of dependency.

Only the pastor can deliver real ministry

One manifestation of this unhealthy family system is the belief that only pastors can deliver real ministry. There is a commonly held myth that pastors bear the presence of Christ more than the average layperson.

Jerry Cook, a pastor in British Columbia, tells the following story. He heard that a woman in his congregation was upset with him. She had been in the hospital 7 days and he had not visited her. After she returned home from the hospital, he decided to call her. Before he called he did some investigation and discovered that during her 7 days in the hospital she had been visited by an average of 4 people a day from the church. Here is their conversation:

“Well, Mrs. White, how are you feeling?”

Mrs. White replied curtly, “Well, I’m fine now.”

Ignoring the sharp tone, Pastor Cook replied, “I understand you were in the hospital.”

“Well, it’s a little late.”

Pastor Cook responded, “A little late for what?”

“I was there 7 days, and nobody came.”

Pastor Cook mentioned her many visitors during that time. Then she revealed her true convictions: “Yes, people from the church came, but youdid not come.”3

What is the tragedy of this story? Did the pastor fail to do his job? Hardly. He and others had created a mobilized ministry, and Mrs. White was well cared for. The tragedy is she missed the presence of Christ in her visitors because she believed only the pastor could deliver real ministry. The authentic ministry of God’s people was discounted because she believed the pastor occupied an elevated position.

The need to be needed

The flip side to the belief that only the pastor can deliver real ministry is pastors who believe they are indispensable. One of the psychological profiles for many pastors is a need to help people. There is nothing wrong with that, unless it becomes an inordinate need to please people.

I received the following note after visiting a 75-year-old man who was in the hospital recovering from surgery. With tears, Joe spoke movingly of an emotional and spiritual encounter with the Lord as he prepared for his surgery. The family was willing to give me considerable credit for this epiphany.

Dear Greg,

Busy as you were, you came to visit Joe. We consider this a great blessing. Yes, many saints visited too, but still your visit meant the most.

Prayers were answered through the nurses, doctors, and you. Joe is doing well.

Enjoy your well-earned vacation.

With our love,

Joe and Evelyn (not their real names)

Wow, what an emotional hook. “Busy as you were.” I brought a blessing. I am more important than the rest of the saints. Emphatically, God answered myprayers. Now I can go on mywell-earned vacation. Unknown to them, these sincere and wonderful people were reinforcing my megalomania.

The dependency model of ministry subverts the biblical teaching that the church is the body of Christ and every member has a valuable part to play. We can affirm the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers while denying it by how we do ministry in the local church. To the extent we endorse pastors as authorized caregivers, believe only they can deliver real ministry, and make heroes of them when they are there in our time of need, is the extent by which we create a system where pastors are domineering parents and the people of God are perpetual children.

Even if pastors want to break out of this unhealthy system, many pastors revert to the dependency model because there is such a great a price to pay to become an equipping pastor. Pastors feel trapped by the people’s expectations. The last thing they want is to fail to live up to in-place expectations. The path of least resistance is to succumb to the pressures of congregational wants rather than go through the painful process of re-education.

A healthier model views the pastor not as a caretaker for those who cannot fend for themselves, but as an equipper who encourages and provides a context to train God’s people for ministry.

An Equipping Model Of Ministry

A biblical job description for the pastor is found in Ephesians 4:11,12: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ” (New Revised Standard Version).4

The following diagram5 by Ray Stedman serves as a visual exposition of this text (page 132, Unfinished Business).

Paul defined equipping in terms of results. Equipping occurs when saints (common, ordinary believers) do the work of ministry and the body of Christ is built up. It is here that Satan diverts pastors from their call to adopt the high-sounding role of caregiver. Satan pulls off a masterful ploy. He gets pastors and teachers distracted from equipping saints for ministry.

A generation ago the lay Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood wrote The Incendiary Fellowship. In this work, he proposed that equipping was the primary calling of those in pastoral ministry. The following statement is the best summary of the New Testament view of ministry I have read: “The ministry is for all who share in Christ’s life, the pastorate is for those who possess the peculiar gift of being able to help men and women to practice any ministry to which they are called.”6

The Greek word for equip(katartismos) is instructive. One definition comes from the medical term used to describe setting a broken limb or bringing a joint back into proper alignment. Equipping conveys the sense of mending a part of the body so it can function again according to its proper design. In Mark 1:19, James and John are mending their nets. A fishing net is useful only if it does what it is designed to do. The word equip is also used for an artisan who works with his hands to make something useful or beautiful. Equipping implies the saints have a particular function or ministry for which they are suited.

The following diagram illustrates the various dimensions of equipping ministry, which can be explored more fully in my book, Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God7 (page 136).

Ministry is not what pastors do, but what the people of God do. A pastor’s part is to assist members of the Body by helping them find and develop their abilities so they can contribute to building up the body of Christ.

An image that defines the equipping relationship between pastor and people would be useful in describing the function of an equipping pastor to the contemporary congregation. Trueblood proposes and rejects some alternatives. If we call a pastor the minister, it seems to disclude ordinary people of God who are also ministers. The Scriptures equate pastor with elder, but elder does not describe function. Overseer, shepherd,orpastor conveys spiritual oversight and protection of the flock, but not empowerment. For these reasons, Trueblood ventures beyond biblical language and uses fresh imagery to define the function of an equipper. He proposes the image of coach as the best modern equivalent. But realizing that the word coach can sound as if pastors only shout instructions from the sidelines, he adds a qualifier — player-coach. In other words, equipping pastors partner with parishioner players in the game of ministry.

One consequence of urging pastors to shift from a dependency/caregiver model to an equipping model is it creates an identity crisis. If the pastor is not the one upon whom people have learned to rely, then who is he? Trueblood addresses this, “The idea of the pastor as the equipper is one which is full of promise, bringing back self-respect to people in ministry who are sorely discouraged by the conventional pattern. To watch for underdeveloped powers, to draw them out, to bring potency to actuality in human lives — this is a self validating task.”8

I remember the impact the term coach had the first time I used it to describe my role. I was an associate pastor. My title was Pastor for Leadership Development and Discipleship. Since equipping people for ministry in the areas of small groups, spiritual gifts, and discipling was integral to my job description, I was trying to define my equipping identity. After finishing my first newsletter article, I signed “Your Coach, Greg.”

I was caught off guard by the reaction caused by the term coach. First, people had fun with it. I received slaps on the back accompanied by comments like, “How’s the coach?”

Coach was obviously an image people could relate to. It also broke down clerical barriers. Yet one particular interchange reinforced how much the image of coach captured the relationship between pastor and people.

With great enthusiasm, Shirley approached me and said, “Let me see if I have this right. If you are our coach, then we must be on the same team. Right?”

I assured her there were not two teams — a clergy team and a laity team.

She went on, “If you are our coach, then it must be your responsibility to help me discover my role on the team and assist my development on it. Right?”

I said, “You got it.”

The image of coach brings to reality the idea that the church as the body of Christ is a team on which all the players are valued and can make a contribution. For this reason, a church I served in Northern California adopted the phrase On This Team Everyone Plays as its motto.

What are the implications of an equipping model for the way ministry is carried out? How does the equipping model bring the priesthood of all believers to full flower? To bring an equipping ministry to reality it must impact pastoral priorities, leadership manner, and the structure of church life.


In the dependency model, the pastor is primarily a responder to the pastoral needs of a congregation. I often ask pastors how people get on their schedule. Do they proactively seek out people in whom they make a planned investment or do people place themselves on the schedule because they have a concern they need addressed? How should player-coaches spend their time? They should spend their time developing people who want to be engaged in ministry. Here is my rule of thumb: 80 percent of a pastor’s time beyond preparation to preach or teach should be spent with the 20 percent of the congregation who have the greatest ministry potential. It is an inviolable truth that our ministries will only succeed through the efforts of self-initiating, Christ-honoring disciples.

Jesus modeled and understood this better than anyone else. Why did Jesus invest in the Twelve? Why was His prayer in John 17:1–19, at the end of His earthly ministry, focused on the Twelve? He trained them to carry on His ministry after He returned to the Father. How strategic are we in investing our lives in others?

Leadership manner

There is a leadership manner that is consistent with empowering others for ministry. An equipping leader is first a genuine person. Equipping pastors come off the pedestal, come alongside God’s people, and share the journey. Anyone around me for any length of time knows I have at times been crippled with undefined fear and anxiety. My condition became so bad I sought assistance from those in the body of Christ who exercised the spiritual gift of healing. Does this diminish my authority? Not at all. First, it tells people I am willing to do what it takes to become Christ’s person and second, people think, He deals with the same difficulties I do. If he can face them, so can I.

Beside being a genuine person with others, an equipping pastor delights in highlighting and shining the spotlight of ministry on others. An equipping leader takes pleasure in believing in and seeing the ministry of others come to fruition.

I coteach a class with Chuck, a layperson in our congregation. Every week people say, “Chuck is such a good teacher. Where did you find him?” I could interpret their affirmation of Chuck as an implicit criticism of me, or their statements could feed a desire to covet all the attention. Instead, I choose to be thrilled that Chuck is ministering in a context where his gifts shine.

Decentralized structure

An equipping ministry is a decentralized ministry.

Small groups. In Exodus 18, Jethro instructed Moses to manage the nation of Israel by placing able, trustworthy leaders over groups of 1,000s, 100s, 50s, and 10s. It is hard to imagine an equipping ministry without a small-group structure where equipped laypeople are given the tools and responsibility to care for a group of 10. The most important leader in our church is not the senior pastor or any of the paid staff, but the leader of a ministry team or neighborhood group of 10.

Gifts discovery. It must also be emphasized in an every-member ministry that all of God’s people have been gifted and called to ministry. Whether you have a formal process of classes and coaches to help people clarify what they contribute or whether it is built into the psyche of your church, there must be a permission-giving atmosphere showing that everyone is valued here.

At a retreat one of our lay leaders used a phrase that summarized how the body of Christ is to function. He said, “We don’t have it all together, but together we have it all.” That says all are needed. God has gifted everybody through His Spirit. Each person has something to offer.

Discipling. Growing people to maturity through discipling must be intentional. The most important time of my week is spent with three other men from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday. Our purpose is to mature in Christ and to equip ourselves through multiplication to disciple others.

The closing chapter in Howard Snyder’s book Liberating the Laity is entitled “Pastors: Free To Disciple.” Snyder states that discipling is the primary focus of a pastor’s ministry: “Essentially, the pastor’s first priority is to so invest himself or herself in a few other persons that they have also become disciplers and ministers of Jesus Christ. It is to so give oneself to others and to the work of discipling that the New Testament norm of plural leadership or eldership becomes a reality in the local congregation. In others words, it is to bring the ministry of all God’s people to functioning practical reality.”9


Let me conclude my attempt to contrast the dependency model with the equipping model by sharing the testimony of one pastor’s journey from being a do-it-all caregiver to becoming an equipping leader. (I received the following letter while I was director of a doctor of ministry program. This pastor makes reference to my book Unfinished Business, from which the thoughts of this article are derived.)

“In 1998, I submitted my proposal (for the final project) and it was approved. You pointed out that I needed to add your book to my bibliography. In my excitement I purchased your book the same day. After I understood where you were coming from, however, my excitement turned to disappointment. I wanted to write my thesis on the omnicompetent pastor. Your book with its radical ideas stood in the way.

“At that time I was working 80 hours a week doing absolutely everything within my abilities to be a successful pastor. Yet my church wasn’t growing. In fact, it was losing membership and finances.

“In December 1999, I was on my knees asking the Lord to transfer me to another church, but He did not. After my prayer that night, I went to my basement to light the furnace. There on the top of the furnace was your book. That night I read the whole book while anger burned within me because you were tearing down everything I believed was biblical about pastoral ministry. During the next 6 days I read it four times, and each time I felt better about your message.

“For a year and a half I have been applying your book to my ministry. People in the church are more relaxed. At this time, we have 26 church members directly doing ministry that a year ago would have been strictly my domain. Our attendance has gone from 70 to 180. This year alone, during the first 6 months, we have had 21 baptisms. It took me a long time to internalize your message, but it has definitely been life changing.”10

GREG OGDEN is executive pastor of discipleship at Christ Church in Oak Brook, Oak Brook, Illinois.


1. Martin Luther, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” Works of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1943), 282,283.

2. David Watson, I Believe in the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 253.

3. Jerry Cook, Love, Acceptance, and Forgiveness(Glendale, Calif.: Regal, 1979), 102.

4. Scripture quotation is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright, 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the u.s.a. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

5. Ray Stedman, Body Life (Glendale, Calif.: Regal Books, 1972), 81.

6. Elton Trueblood, The Incendiary Fellowship (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 41. Italics added.

7. Greg Ogden, Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003).

8. Elton Trueblood, The Incendiary Fellowship (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 41. Italics added.

9. Howard Snyder, Liberating the Church (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 243. For a more complete exploration of reproducing disciples see Greg Ogden, Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time (InterVarsity Press, 2003), and Greg Ogden’s curriculum for discipling entitled Discipleship Essentials: A Guide To Building Your Life in Christ(InterVarsity Press, 1998).

10. Used by permission of the author

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