Sarah sat at the table thinking about plans for next quarter’s eighth-grade class at Covenant Reformed Church. The task of contextualizing lesson plans in a creative and relevant way always seemed to be a lonely experience. “I feel like I am operating in a vacuum,” she said aloud to herself. “How does what I do fit into what is happening in the rest of the congregation? I wonder who else I could and should be partnering with as I write these plans? I’ve got to talk with the pastor.”
If you’re an educator, you’ve probably experienced questions similar to Sarah’s—and wondered where to turn. How are faith formation questions addressed in your church? Who talks together about education plans? Who is ultimately responsible for nurturing faith and building disciples in the church?
The Reformed Church in America’s Book of Church Order, like similar books from many denominations, defines the congregational minister as “pastor and teacher.” According to the BCO, The minister preaches and teaches the Word of God, administers the sacraments, shares responsibility with the elders and deacons and members of the congregation for their mutual Christian growth, exercises Christian love and discipline in conjunction with the elders, and endeavors that everything in the church be done in a proper and orderly way. As pastor and teacher, the minister serves and lives among the congregation that together they become wholly devoted to the Lord Jesus Christ in the service of the church for the world.
Notice though that the pastor isn’t the only “teacher” in the congregation! Teaching is a responsibility shared with elders, deacons, and members of the congregation. In fact, what is noticeable in the Book of Church Order rubric is that the task of diakona (serving) is equally matched with the relationship or the koinonia.
Koinonia is a rich and interesting word in the New Testament, most frequently or commonly translated using the word fellowship. (1 John 1:7 “if we walk in the light as Christ is in the light, we have fellowship with one another . . .”). But koinonia is more dynamic than enjoying one another’s company over a potluck supper or a cup of coffee. It has to do with partnership and speaks of covenantal relationship. Read the verse from 1 John again: ”If we walk in the light as Christ is in the light, we have partnership with one another . . . .” Partnership connotes a team approach rather than individualistic effort. Partnership is serving together rather than competing against one another. Partnership is working together toward a common aim. Our Lord brings us together and gives us a mission to share the message of God. Indeed, Christ partners with us in this mission.
Partnership is the koinonia shared by the Trinity. While each person of the Trinity is unique, the Trinity shares a common responsibility—the redemption of creation. They work so closely as partners that it’s difficult to tell when the responsibility of one member of the Godhead stops and another starts.
In a similar way, the task of discipleship—that is, resourcing each member of the congregation to grow in his or her faith—happens through a partnership of persons offering their unique gifts and personality. Many persons contribute to building mature disciples.
The pastor and teachers bring particular training and education to this responsibility. They also bring their unique personalities, shaped by experience and time. Both have something unique to offer in the ministry of nurturing disciples. Partnering together they weave a tapestry that enriches the learning environment. Again and again, studies as well as personal testimonies demonstrate that the learner matures through the relationship shared with a teacher as much as (or more than) through the content shared in the learning encounter. The experiences the developing disciple shares with church leaders can be educational opportunities that later are seen as watershed moments in the younger disciple’s life.
Partnership opens the possibilities of collaboration between pulpit, education committee, classroom, and small group circles. When the congregation affirms the partnership of all its leaders, the entire body is enriched. What happens in the sanctuary complements what happens in the classroom. Likewise the activities that unfold in the classroom connect with learners as the congregation gathers around the Table.
The partnership relationship begins with one person seeking the other. The teacher doesn’t need to wait for the pastor to come to him. Seek out the pastor’s cooperation. Suggest ways that the pastor’s work can reinforce the lessons. Listen to the pastor’s ideas for enhancing the learning goals. The value is working together to meet the desired outcome. That value overrules the individual “stardom.”
What can happen through partnership is synergy (an energy that is greater than the sum of the participants’ contribution), serendipity (the discovered, surprised, unexpected joy in relationship that can’t be anticipated), and confidence or assurance in the task performance.
The relationship of the Trinity is mirrored, albeit dimly, yet the relationship is modeled in all of its glory and idealism for the entire congregation to experience, when pastors and church educators nurture disciples together . . . as partners in ministry.
Rev. Dr. Larry Schuyler is a minister within the Reformed Church in America. He serves as the Classis Coordinator for the Holland Classis RCA. Larry holds a D.Min degree from McCormick Theological Seminary. He served as the lead pastor of congregations in Illinois, Indiana, and Holland MI, where he and his wife, Jane, currently reside.