International Ministries

Helping Lay Pastors to Become More Effective Leaders

January 21, 2012 Journal
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The Baptist Church of Congo has a two-tier pastoral system.  There’s the man (or woman) with formal training who provides overall spiritual direction and has primary administrative responsibilities in the local church – the pastor.  Then there’s the lay pastor who leads the inquirers’ classes, disciples new believers and often organizes daily prayers.  Many local congregations do not have a trained pastor.  In rural areas a circuit riding pastor often is responsible for congregations in several villages.  It is not unusual for a circuit riding pastor to touch base with a local congregation only for communion, baptizing new Christians and whatever campaigns the denomination has decreed.  

You can understand why, for many rural congregations, the lay pastor is the real pastor. He or she leads daily prayers, leads the Sunday service, and organizes Sunday school.  The lay pastor leads the congregation and effectively shepherds believers through the events in their lives.  It is astonishing that the denomination doesn’t officially recognize lay pastors.  Instead he or she is called a “catechist”, following the name of the teaching program for their inquirers’ classes.

Catechists may just be a local school teacher or Bible Study League leader, pressed into service.  In 1989 or 1990 a 4-5 week intensive training became available for them.  It covers all the bases: a spiritual life manual, an overview of a lay pastor’s work, an overview of the Bible, directions on how to teach the catechism as an overview of the basic knowledge a Christian needs to follow Jesus, what the Bible says to typical problems in African villagers’ lives, worship, preaching practice, church history, with an emphasis on the history of this church in Congo, the organization of the Baptist Church of Congo, and suggestions of appropriate ministries for a local congregation.  This course is divided into 5 modules and provides the basics for lay pastors who lack training for the job. It’s been in use now for over 20 years.

In October 2010, Pastor Rubin Ngalubenge, the denomination’s evangelism coordinator, convened a group of pastors in the Vanga area.  He pleaded for a thorough revision of the training materials, aiming to improve their relevance to current challenges of the church.  The pastors agreed with the need and suggested many changes and additions.  

But the group was too spread out to meet regularly for revising the course.  Instead, the work fell on a committee of 5: Brother Thomas, the Swiss-German Reformed pastor working in Vanga, myself and the 3 local pastors designated by the Vanga church district as trainers for the program.  Our pastor, Pastor Manunga, is one of them.  

I did first drafts of revisions in the course of typing the material into my computer.  (The last file was on floppy disk, long since lost.)  The editing committee discussed and reworked those drafts.  Finally, in 2010 and 2011, we tested the first three modules in training workshops at 9 different sites.  

The third module, covering doctrine and Biblical ethics, has been the hardest so far.  First it was obvious that we needed to redo how lay pastors teach.  Most catechists teach inquirers the catechism by rote.  Correctly repeating the phrases of the catechism is often taken to be sufficient evidence that a person has made an informed commitment to Christ.  Many candidates never do present a personal testimony to the baptism committee.  Catechists need to teach in a way that leads the inquirer or new believer to understand what they believe about God, about Jesus, and about living in the Kingdom and why they believe it.

Second, some subjects needed to be added.  For example, Congolese in general are very concerned about the role of spirits, God’s protection from malevolent spirits, the role of the Holy Spirit and the spiritual gifts.  Surprisingly, none of these are covered in the catechism.  Many people aspire to be prophets, but often think of this only in terms of identifying spiritual threats.  They neglect the more important functions of building the body, giving God’s direction, and challenging evil with good.  With gaps like this how is this church to lay a good foundation for its people?  We needed to expand counsel for following Jesus in daily life, going well beyond simply encouraging believers to be obedient members of the church.

Third, some questions were approached only from a Western point of view.  For example, responding to the question of physically handicapped people in our families is much more than caring for their needs, finding meaningful roles and preserving their dignity.  Congolese want to know why people are born with deformities or limitations and are they “real people.”  Another example is how we understand and respond to mental illness.  Congolese often attribute it to dabbling in the occult and having things go terribly wrong.  Christians need to consider the full range of spiritual, psychological and physical causes of mental illness.  The Bible is capable of speaking and should be allowed to speak to believers wherever they are in understanding.  We made an effort to find that Biblical interface.

For two months I was working on questions like these.  In mid-November the editing committee approved the third module, it was printed, and the trainers gave it its first road-test.  Unfortunately our pastor wasn’t able to hold his training seminar then.  The pastor of the hosting church was sick in the hospital and they put it off in that site.  But last week the pastors trained the second group of catechists in teaching inquirers’ classes and what the Bible says about the problems that trouble their church members.

While we were in church last Sunday morning, Pastor Manunga arrived back home from his seminar.  The third module has a lot of material to go through.  He and his charges worked hard all week.  The catechists were particularly enthusiastic; the seminar covered the core of their work.  The local circuit-riding pastor wistfully asked for a copy of the module, wishing that the pastors themselves had more opportunities to improve their practical skills.

Our catechist, André Kizima was in a different group.  Even though a lot of his fellow catechists didn’t come, those that did agreed that the material was really good.  André recognized that their method of teaching in the past had failed its purpose and said he was looking forward to teaching the new way.  He waxed enthusiastic particularly about the helpfulness of the lessons on common problems people face.  I suggested that when he crosses paths with the catechists that had not come, he invite them to come talk with him about the new material and what he got out of it.