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In Power to Empower: How Pastors in the Black Baptist Church Tradition Should View the Laity

by Pastor Vinton Copeland

Pastor Vinton Copeland

Philippi Baptist Church of Tippleton, Georgia used to be the hottest church in its community. People would come from all over to attend its services. In the past their pastor would lead them twice a month while he also led another congregation. As he would split his time between both churches, the congregation only was concerned about Sunday morning worship. The pastor became a major fixture in the community and was frequently invited to conduct religious services such as revivals and other special services at other churches. As their pastor aged and needed rest they called another pastor. The new pastor served them well, but membership declined. The remaining membership consisted of retired teachers, mill workers, and many prominent families within the church. As they saw membership drastically dwindle there was not much done to change the tide. Even though there were many still in attendance it struggled to get back the former attendance of full pews and the tradition of pulling out extra chairs. In short, Philippi was in decline.

Eventually, Phillipi’s senior pastor became ill and was unable to carry out his duties. He retired from day-to-day service and his title changed to Pastor Emeritus. The church scrambled to find a plan to replace him. So they began to fill the pulpit every Sunday with visiting preachers, but had no intention of dwindling down their search. Soon it became apparent that the church put all of the major decisions on the shoulders of the deacons. They operated from a confusing by-laws system which led to greater confusion within the congregation. The deacons continued this process for almost a year until the number candidates dwindled to a few. The candidates were invited to often preach, conduct Bible study, and perform ordinances of the church as ways to interview for the role of pastor. Throughout this search process they had several major plans they wanted to implement, but would not do so until a pastor was selected. In their searching they stumbled upon a young minister named Coleman Vick. Coleman was a twenty-five-year-old seminarian. Although he had been preaching for just two years, Coleman had many ideas that could benefit the congregation. They continued to invite Vick back to preach, month after month without any move toward a decision. Both Coleman and Phillippi became worried and overwhelmed at the deacons’ indecision. Coleman was eventually selected for the job.

Pastor Vick was excited to receive that call to lead at Phillipi. He knew that in his duties were not limited to preaching, but leading the entire congregation. Even though he received ample encouragement, he kept hearing about the congregation’s resistance to change. Many made statements such as “You have your hands full” or “I do not see how you are going to be able to turn that congregation around.” They were blind to the one reality of the pastorate, it all takes time. Yet, those in the community wanted Vick to implement change quickly. The requests for change from members became overwhelming from the start.

A pastor’s study should be a place of retreat, where a pastor can rest, and meditate, and prepare for worship. Yet, Vick did not establish appropriate boundaries early on and members would walk in and drop their proposals to him right before church. He appreciated the member’s eyes for change, they took the work of the pastorate as something secular and not sacred. The church does not change overnight and the pastor him/herself cannot produce “hot pocket” results in a church that puts the microwave on the longest cook time available. Successful transitions take an ample amount of time and resources, not just the pastor’s push.

Pastor Vick began serving the best way he knew how: he made sure the congregation knew he was available to them. As his new ministry opportunity began he could hear his Pastor’s voice in his ear, “The Pastor should lead, especially through preaching and teaching.” Pastor Vick began working with the congregants, preach, and teach, while keeping up with his seminary coursework, maintaining a romantic relationship, and wrestling with problems within his own family. Vick was wrong when he thought he could do all of this without becoming tired.

By his third week Pastor Vick’s schedule had gotten out of hand and was exhausted. He thought of ways to delegate the work, but he did not want to be seen as weak or unable to do his job well. Yet, he knew if he did not ask for assistance he would burn out before his first month. So he made a decision that he would split his teaching between himself and another lay leader until he completed his theological studies. The lay leader proposed “The church cannot assume you will do everything.” He was prepared to do so. Despite the churches expectation of him he knew that they were stronger together.

The Pastor should lead, especially through preaching and teaching.

From his story we can hear the trends of the black church tradition. A tradition that leans heavily towards a pastor-do-all approach. A prominent approach, it misses out on opportunities for laity involvement. Laity is a word derived from the Greek word laos, which means “people”. In the church context, this means God’s people, including the pastor. Since we are all people of God and all have a stake in the service of ministry, the laity can be instrumental in influencing the church. Many think of the laity as unlearned and incapable, wholly separate from the church leadership. I believe there is room at the cross for work for all. Pastors are better equipped when they see the bigger picture of ministry and not their own “ministries.” There is no doubt that the pastor should lead in the areas of preaching and serving, but when the pastor can empower others to be witnesses and partakers in the work of Christ then the whole church can participate in God’s work in the world. Throughout this paper I wish to encourage pastors in the black Baptist Church tradition to find ways to be inclusive of laity in church leadership. I believe the pastor’s role is integral in the spiritual growth of any congregation; however, the pastor should not expect to do so alone. A paper that focuses on the black Baptist church experience, it also has overtones for the Church all together. The phraseology black church, church, and black Baptist church will be used interchangeably.


A “Jethroan” approach for such a pursuit, Exodus 18:13-27


In Exodus we find encouragement for leaders and shepherds in terms of Godly administration. In Exodus 18:13-27, Moses continues as the chief leader and visionary and judge for the children of Israel. Moses’s father in law, Jethro, meets him on the sacred mountain of God and share a common meal with Jethro taking the lead. Jethro examines what is taken place in the Israelite camp and becomes “highly critical of the inefficient and tiresome procedure employed by Moses in judging the people.” Respected as priest of Midian, Jethro is given similar regard as “Melchizedek, king of Salem” and “priest of God Most High.” If anyone could counsel and minister to Moses Jethro could. Jethro possesses the experience to help him. The scene is clear; Moses is the judge of the Israelites. The people desire justice and feel as though it cannot be administered by no one else but Moses. Similar to churches, the thought process is similar. If the pastor is not doing it no one else can. Instead, Jethro gives us another side of organizational leadership. Jethro’s relationship with God makes such recommendations shocking and revelatory. Brevard Childs put it this way, “Jewish exegetical tradition has been consistent from the beginning in its treatment of Jethro’s visit. From the early Tannaitic times through the modern era Jethro is understood as a pagan who is converted to the faith of Israel, that is, to Judaism.” So Jethro coaches Moses from this disposition.

The day is set. In verse 13 we see that Moses is sitting as judge while the people stand awaiting adjudication. Jethro notices such an action and reacts stunningly with a question of wondering about Moses’s intentions. “Clearly, Jethro knew precisely what was happening, but rather he sought to elicit from Moses himself his own explanation of his role”, Childs states. The language used in Moses’s response in verse 15 has difficulty in expression. Normally, in Old Testament thought, in times of such difficulty the people would seek God, yet here in this text they seek Moses. One can only imagine the weight that is taken from the Almighty judge to the lonely judge of Moses. Thus, Moses must instruct the people in “the way they must walk and what they must do.” This contrasts strikingly with the role of the pastor and the mantle they carry and what they are to convey to the people that they serve. Moses’s struggle is the struggle of pastors today. Jethro pursues a loving approach by suggesting that Moses lead through service by way of admitting your weakness and accepting help. Verses 17 and 18 presents us with the most crucial verses of this capstone: “Moses father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” Jethro gives us hope!

Therefore, the pastor and those given such functions should allow the saints and the saints should produce their gifts within the Church as God gives them the opportunity.

From the pericope we also hear more pastoral overtones. In verse 21 we hear that Moses is to be the decision maker of the people, but also seek valuable help along the way. Terence E. Freitheim, in his commentary on Exodus, informs us that Moses is to delegate responsibility to those of integrity and incorruptibility. Moses should divide the people into units of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, which reflect the military organization of the nation. What became a job for a single person now became the work of the entire community, which sounds the trumpet and rings the bell for laity involvement within a church community. Freitheim puts his conclusion this way: “Jethro concludes by noting how this will not only serve Moses well but bring peace to a people who no longer have to stand in queues all day long.” Jethro’s place in society and Moses’s position with God poses many with questions. Why does one who has an interaction with God receive recommendations from a foreign priest, his father-in-law? Childs chides that “the world of experience was no less an avenue through which God worked.” Thus, as Christian leaders we should take the discernment we been given to know when the structure needs restructuring or remodeling. Freitheim calls this a “redemption and good order” text showcasing that redemption brings with it new perspectives and energies for any task or assignment. His assessment speaks volumes for our modern Church and especially the black church tradition. This is why this text should be taken seriously. If the “Jethroan” approach is taken seriously it would be a supporter for small study groups and a community that appreciates the gifts of those who’ve been meticulously chosen.


An Equipping Approach for such a pursuit, Ephesians 4:11-16


The Book of Ephesians was presented to “persuade its original audience that an ethically inclusive church based on religious affiliation was part of God’s plan and that both Jew and Gentile were equal partners in the new religious commonwealth.” Using such an understanding as the basis for its writings we can see the importance of Ephesians for the Christian Church, more importantly its insistence on Christian unity in and out of the corporate church. Within the Ephesian corpus, chapters 4 and 6 are included in the second part of the letter. In the fourth chapter, verses 1-16 stress the maintenance of unity even amongst a diversity of ministries. The Church is unified when it serves under the auspices of Christ and not the individual gifts and offices. Paul assures us in this text that offices are unimportant if they are not connected to the work of Christ. Slater posits that Paul refers to functions more than offices, which paints a larger picture to the inclusion of the laity in ministry. In verse 11, Paul lists the functions of the church as apostles, prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, and teachers. Giving us a detailed understanding of each function, Slater notes the apostles as founders, prophets possessed an avid gift, evangelists continued to travel doing the work of the apostles, pastors performed the ministry works on a rather mundane level, and teachers locally functioned as nurtures of the faith. Slater does a terrific job of setting us up to navigate verse 12 with intensity.

Verse 12 presents a problem that can be quickly solved based on where one may use as a resource. The text state the need for the aforementioned functions to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. Robert Mayes states that to understand verse 12 we must deal with the comma and whether or not it is placed in a certain place. Up until the mid-twentieth century, the comma was placed between “pros ton katartismon ton agion” (to equip the saints) and “eis ergon diakonias” (for the work of the ministry). When placed in the text, the comma possibly changes the meaning to pastors only being the ones to do ministry, but when left as presented in the NRSV and other sources it is clear that the laity is invited to the ministry with full rights. As time rolled on, ministry has become more communal and less individual according to Karl Barth in his evaluation of this verse. “All the saints are enabled by the four or five types of servants listed in 4:11 to fulfill the ministry given to them, so that the whole church is taken into Christ’s service and given missionary substance, purpose and structure.” Therefore, the pastor and those given such functions should allow the saints and the saints should produce their gifts within the Church as God gives them the opportunity. When we are given tools and showed how we are to use them for the greatest benefit then we are encouraged to use those tools. Paul encourages such an understanding of ministry, especially from 4:11-12.

Beyond the functionality in ministry we hear of shocking difficulties and how to handle them in verses 14-16. Verse 13 tells us that we are to “attain that maturity which is described as nothing less than reaching the stature of Christ in his fullness.” In 14-16 the Ephesians Church is under such threatening circumstances that causes Paul to plea for resistance to such pressures. Paul notes that unity is needed for the apostolic authority to bulwark and safeguard the Church. So growth and maturity was needed and one says that the “church grows toward Christ; it does not expect him to come to it.” As the church matures the writer understands that there will be many who will be against such growth which will make ministry difficult whether for all involved.

Paul uses medical terms for the reader to hear the importance of sticking together and how each portion of the body, similar to 1 Corinthians 12, has a growing role to defend the church from outside attacks. “Christ the head = his body, the church. It is through every joint (or ligament or connection) that the entire body is compacted and unified; and each part is supplied with a connection joint.” The pastor or leader sees to it that unity is being attained with the various parts doing their own part to make sure it is being carried out. Being among the people, on a more cohesive level, the laity can galvanize others to seek maturity and be a part of the body and not their own ligament. The problem that can arise is that joints (laity) begin to think they are the entire body as some pastors believe. Once everyone understands their gifts and functions the body is healthy and without infectious disease. Ephesians strengthens the argument that the laity is needed to thwart off outside attacks that every leader may not see. If they realize how powerful they are in the larger tapestry of the ministry, then they’ll want to be more involved. Ephesians showcases this well.

Vinton Copeland is the pastor of Powell Missionary Baptist Church in Talbotton, GA. He received his M.Div. in Congregational Ministry from McAfee School of Theology. Pastor Copeland is active in the General Missionary Baptist Convention of Georgia, Inc., and the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc.

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