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I magine a church where the pastor goes on sabbatical and during the pastor’s absence, every aspect of the church (worship, messages, care, consistory, etc.) continues without missing a beat. Imagine lay leaders having fun and rejoicing at the opportunity to use their gifts. Imagine a post-sabbatical debriefing retreat where a room is filled with stories of celebration and praise that culminate with one of the lay leaders sharing, “We have moved from serving in the church to being the church.”

That picture you just imagined? It was a reality at Faith Community Church in Littleton, Colorado, last summer. After more than five years of intentional discipling, the consistory considered it most appropriate to invite leaders in the body to lead. As further preparation for the sabbatical, the consistory and staff developed a 12-month plan to invite, prepare, and provide lots of practice for the leadership to lead fully in all the areas of the church.

Using the square to make disciples

Some leaders were already in place, and an intentional plan was developed and executed over the course of a year to help others live into being the priesthood of all believers during the sabbatical—especially in areas normally provided by a minister of Word and sacrament on a Sunday morning. We call it square equipping because the process has four steps, easily visualized as moving around the four sides of a square: I do/you watch to I do/you help to you do/I help to ultimately you do/I watch.

The diagram below shows the progression of a disciple/leader around the square:

The “square equipping” diagram shows the progress of a person growing in competent leadership.

Let’s look at some examples of how square equipping was put into practice in this small church on a big mission:

  • Worship: A worship theme—Adventure of a Lifetime—was developed for the year leading up to the sabbatical. The congregation was invited on the journey of discipleship, moving from relationship to revelation to releasing to rejoicing. The four phases of the journey also connect with the four sides of the square equipping disciple-making process.
  • Messages: Six leaders in the congregation were affirmed by the elders and invited to share the weekly message as a part of Sunday worship in the months leading up to the sabbatical. On these Sunday mornings, each leader was introduced by the pastor and was invited to share about their journey of faith discipleship in recent years. After the testimony was shared, the pastor prayed over the person and then invited them to share the message of the day. This approach helped the body to hear what God was already doing in the lives of these leaders within the church as well as to embrace and celebrate their sharing of gifts in the season ahead.
  • Communion: Every week, Faith Church celebrates the Lord’s Supper. While the elders regularly provide communion in homes for people who can’t make it to church, the idea of the elders regularly stepping into this role in worship was a challenge. Over nine months leading up to the sabbatical, the elders gradually took on additional and larger roles in the weekly provision of the Lord’s Supper. At first, the elders did pretty much what they had always done—they watched the pastor and helped in the distribution of the bread and the cup. After a few weeks, the elders were publicly invited by the pastor to help in the sharing of a portion of Scripture related to communion. After a few more weeks, the pastor and an elder would switch roles and each would share a different portion of the Scripture. The point of the various roles was to provide as many opportunities for practice as possible. In the spring, the roles evolved further and the elders began sharing all the Scripture while the pastor took the lead in sharing the meaning of the sacrament and the invitation to the table. After Easter, as we entered the releasing phase of the Adventure of a Lifetime message series, the elders took the primary role in all areas of the provision of the Lord’s Supper. The pastor continued to participate up front but had moved into the role of the roaming elder, bringing the elements to those at their seats who were not able to come forward to receive the sacrament.
  • Care: The phases of the square equipping process had already been put in practice within the church’s care ministry. We praise God and celebrate that this gifted team of lay leaders has led the way in church, blessing countless people both in and beyond the membership of the church.

What do lay leaders have to say about square equipping?

Let’s hear from them.

Joel Kraai, vice president of consistory, elder
During Jeff’s absence, it was exciting to see the leadership come together to fulfill all the roles in the church. It was even more exciting to see them take on new roles within the leadership. And in working with and speaking with the other leaders, I could tell that the work was being done happily and not with simply a sense of duty. We were enjoying the work! For the future, the sense of calling is tangible. I believe the leadership of Faith, past, present, and future, is being called to experience more growth, and take on more ministry, as we move forward with our vision and mission.

Cynthia Dekker, elder
For the past few years, I have sensed God’s directing me to “step up” to more challenges in his ministry. In spite of any apprehension, I always knew that God’s faithfulness, strength, and power were always there, encouraging me along each step. Going through the “square” helped me ease out of my propensity to sit back and watch others take part. I am blessed to be part of a family on mission that embraces the true meaning of church.

Susan Keesen, elder and executive leader
I have been a part of leadership teams during pastor sabbatical times in the past, and it was not a pleasant experience—but Pastor Jeff’s sabbatical last summer was an entirely different experience. … The model of moving individuals around the square was familiar to the congregation, as it had been presented and was being used within the congregation. Choosing those who would provide the messages and having them speak in the months prior allowed the congregation to become familiar with the speakers and to eliminate the fear of the unknown. It also provided the opportunity for Jeff and the worship team to provide constructive input on how the presentation could be improved.

The congregation also had the opportunity to hear the stories of many who are in various leadership roles in missional communities and small groups. Hearing these stories allowed congregants to understand they, too, had stories they could share and live into a life of becoming a disciple. Upon Jeff’s return, it was a smooth transition to have others involved in the worship service and continue in their leadership roles, being active members of family on mission. God has a plan for Faith Community Church, and he used this positive experience as an opportunity to live into our roles as disciples making disciples and move forward into whatever he has planned for Faith.

Jessica Harcarik, elder, emerging generation
It was an exciting season of seeing the congregation stepping out of their comfort zones. The best part of this stepping out is people wanting to step out because the Lord was calling them to it, not because they had to fill a spot. … It created a new atmosphere among people in our church to rejoice in what the Lord was doing in and among our congregation. With my role, I had the opportunity to speak to our congregation. … All in all, it has made our church family stronger, and when Jeff came back from sabbatical, there was (and still is) a strong willingness to make this church a church of the Lord, not a church where the preacher does all the work. 

Kathy Velzen, deacon
We learned so much from the summer sabbatical. What went on was far closer to what Christ means for his church to be, and what it originally was, than much of what goes on in most churches I know. There was no authoritarian presence of “the minister”—the professional who has all the answers and calls most of the shots. Instead, we discovered lay leaders with enthusiasm, creativity, and gifts; we became more like family. We missed Pastor Jeff and Elyse because they are part of our family, not because we needed someone to be in charge. Our greatest challenge going forward is to continue on the path of becoming less like strangers and more like brothers and sisters (disciples) who offer one another truth spoken in love, understanding, and strength. I want more than ever for all of us to take that understanding and strength and go out and make disciples.

Where do we go from here?

Returning from sabbatical, it was a blessing to hear the leaders rejoicing in the blessing of being released to lead. In fact, during the post-sabbatical debriefing retreat one person said, “Now that you’re back, we hope that you are not going to pick up all the roles that you have helped us to take on during your absence.” This was music to my ears!

I quickly affirmed that the equipping and releasing of leaders to lead was a new normal at Faith Community Church. I praise God that we are continuing to hear messages from a variety of gifted men and women leaders from various generations from the pulpit. I praise God that elders are continuing to take the lead in the provision of communion. And I praise God that the priesthood of all believers is providing the vast majority of care in the midst of our congregation. Further, I celebrate that our journey has led the church leadership to encourage and release me to be a catalyst and equipper of others in the Reformed Church in America.

We are living the adventure of a lifetime together at Faith Community Church. It is a disciple-making adventure that God is inviting us all to live into as the priesthood of all believers.

This article was also published in RCA Today, the Reformed Church in America’s denominational magazine.

Want to unleash the priesthood of believers in your church?

If you would like to talk about some of the discipling ideas shared in this article, Jeff would welcome the conversation. You can contact him at jallen@rca.org.

Jeff Allen

Jeff Allen is lead pastor of Faith Community Church in Littleton, Colorado, and author of Small Church on a Big Mission: Cultivating Missional Discipleship in Smaller Churches. Jeff also serves as a discipleship catalyst in the Far West and as lead coordinator for discipleship for the Reformed Church in America.