What would you think of a relay runner who went to the locker room right after completing his or her lap? Perhaps you would think the runner had suffered an injury or had some other health concern. Aside from that, we would question their relationship with the rest of the team. A healthy relay team recognizes that success depends on the performance of each runner. Therefore, each member of the team who has completed their leg stays on the field and cheers on the remaining runners. They stay off the track and cheer from the sidelines.
In this series, we have been using the analogy of a relay race for finishing well in a ministry assignment. So, how do we cheer those who follow us as we complete our ministry assignment? How do we keep from getting in the way of their performance? Our relationship with those who follow us in ministry shapes our cheering for them as they run their lap.
Yes, it would be strange for a relay runner to go directly to the locker room. Similarly, it would be tragic for church planters to cut off the relationship with the local church leaders who succeed them in leading the new church. Tom Steffen wrote:
The seventh and final component is determining how church planters can maintain good relationships after the phase-out. They work themselves out of a job, but not out of a relationship. Continued fellowship includes prayer, visits, letters of challenge and encouragement, sending other people to visit, and cautious financial assistance.Tom Steffen, Passing the Baton, p. 18.
Cultivating a healthy relationship with future local leaders begins in the early stages of church planting. Specifically, we want to avoid developing dependencies even at the beginning. We accomplish this by pointing new converts and potential leaders to Scripture as our authority.
Paul reminded the Ephesian elders that he had served them with humility (Acts 20:18,19). He also provided them with sound theological training (Acts 20:27). Indeed, theological training is essential for preparing national leaders.1 See M. David Sills, Reaching and Teaching, p.151-172. and Tom Steffen, Passing the Baton, p. 190-201.
Furthermore, modeling and teaching sound interpretation principles are foundational to developing leaders as equal partners. That is, teaching dependence on the Bible and not on the church planter nurtures the relationship. Paul models that when he commended the Ephesian elders to God and the word of his grace (Acts 20:32). After we have run our lap with a firm grip on the baton (the gospel and Scripture), we encourage the next runner from the sidelines, acknowledging that we are equals submitting to the Bible.
After completing our leg of the race, we can’t run the next lap for our teammate. They have watched and cheered from the sidelines but must run their own lap. So as we complete our ministry assignment, our relationship with those who follow us changes. Tom Steffen proposed three stages of transition for these changes: resident advisor, itinerant advisor, and absent advisor2Steffen, p 22f; 204f. Similar stages will often describe finishing well in an administrative assignment, though on a shorter time frame.
A guiding principle in Steffen’s stages is “the church planter must never do for the national believers what they can do for themselves”3 Steffen, p 22. Indeed, from the beginning, this ought to characterize relationships with those we teach and disciple. For example, when I taught Greek at Alaska Bible College, I would respond to questions by asking students for their observations of the text to encourage them to find the answer for themselves. I still occasionally get emails from former students about a Greek text and respond the same way. This principle goes a long way in preventing dependencies.
Stage 1: Resident Advisor
At this stage in Steffen’s phase-out model, national believers are taking the lead in ministry. The church planter is not in the spotlight anymore. Instead, the national leaders are doing the ministry. The church planter focuses his attention on discipling (mentoring and coaching) the new church leaders. Steffen emphasizes the need for humility as roles change4 Steffen, p.20-37. As we cheer from the sidelines, there is great joy in seeing leaders we have discipled run well. We recognize that our ministry is not just about our lap. Instead, we cheer the ministry performance and results of those who have received the baton from us.
Stage 2: Itinerant Advisor
Planned absences by the church planter give local church leaders additional opportunities to exercise ministry gifts and skills. In these times, the new leaders serve without the benefit of immediately being able to ask for advice whenever they encounter a problem. They also are no longer under the watchful eye of their mentor. As a result, the congregation recognizes that the church planter trusts the new leaders to lead well. In this way, the local leaders establish themselves as spiritual leaders.
Periodic visits from the church planters continue to provide encouragement and consultation. Yet the church planter is not seeking to run the lap for them. Ministry decisions and plans are made entirely by the national leaders.
Stage 3: Absent Advisor
Leaving a church planting location does come with some emotional strain For example, note the response to Paul’s departure from the Ephesus church in Acts 20:36-38. However, if healthy relationships have been cultivated from the start, it can be a time of great joy. In short, healthy relationships between church planters and national leaders will help both to navigate between the two dangers of premature abandonment and paternalism5 Steffen, p. 162f. Communication ought to continue as the expatriate missionary moves on to another assignment. In this way, the national leader will feel their partnership in ministry as we see in Philippians 1:3-7.
Establishing healthy and mature relationships with those who follow us in ministry and leadership is crucial to this whole transition process. If we have established those relationships, we can cheer from the sidelines for those who follow us in ministry. We trust them to run their lap well. We make sure we stay off the track and out of their way. Finally, if they end up running better than we did, we are not jealous. We cheer because we are part of the same team.