Ministry Today magazine cover

The Teaching Pool





In the age of do-it-yourself study, a group of maverick preachers is reinventing the task of sermon preparation.
Those who work alone won't work for long. This sentiment has become increasingly accepted by the business world, as corporate gurus predict a wholesale move from individualism to collaboration.

"Teams at Work," an Industry Week (September 2000) article by Peter Strozniak, noted that businesses are now more team-oriented than ever. Strozniak argues that "leadership must shift from the traditional command-and-control mode to a coach-and-collaboration style that supports a team environment."

Peter B. Grazier notices this trend in his article "Collaboration Movement Alive and Well" at Teambuildinginc.com, stating that more companies than ever are redesigning workspace for collaboration, using team-oriented software and tapping into the collective mind of the workforce.

The church, on the other hand, has been notably slow in this regard, with an approach to leadership and ministry that remains strikingly individualistic at its core. Pastors continue the hard work of solo leadership. Rather than seek alternatives to the loneliness at the top, they choose harmful methods of dealing with the issue.

Ideally, the business of church is rooted in a communal model of leadership, particularly when considered from its Hebraic roots. Like other rabbis, Jesus had a group of students whom He taught through a process of debate and dialogue.

In an essay titled "Bible Study—Communal in Nature" at Logos.com, Fredrick James Long cites several examples of studying communally through the Bible, including Jesus and His disciples, Nehemiah and the public assembly (see Neh. 8) and the early church in the Book of Acts. In fact, Long notes that "Jesus Himself benefited from the community of Jewish interpreters, as at 12 years old He surprised the teachers with His questions and insights" (see Luke 2:46-47).

David Ryser, in an online article titled "Teaching, Training and Discipling in the Christian Community" (www.openheaven.com), notes that in both the Jewish and Greek cultures in the Bible, relationship was key to learning. "Teaching and training biblically is relational and interactive."

As pastors become increasingly frustrated with this area of their responsibility, some are seeking to return to an ancient model. The first place to start would be areas in which pastors are investing time on their own that could then be transformed into a community activity—for instance, preaching and teaching. Several pastors have done just that—creating a new way of sermon preparation and moving from an individualized to a communal study model.

The Movement of Alliance Communities (MAC) is a group of six churches, all spawned out of one mother church located in Muncie, Indiana (www.munciealliance.org). These leaders have always had a maverick style about them. The lead pastor of the mother church, Guy Pfanz, was saved during the Jesus Movement in the 1970s. That same spirit of holding loosely to organizational structures has carried over decades later into a leadership style that has been adopted by the group. You won't find any five-year plans here. There are also no pastors' offices, no dress code and no hierarchy of staff.

One of the natural consequences of this organic model of church leadership has been the development of the communal study model. In the last two years, the pastors of these churches and other church planters within the MAC movement have gathered each week to debate the upcoming sermon text and create a community outline.

Three years ago, Muncie Alliance Church planted its initial community an hour north in Huntington, Indiana, called Springwater Church (www.springwaterchurch.org). Soon thereafter, four more were launched. The desire to stay as connected as possible led to the creation of the "teaching pool"—the name given to a weekly sermon preparatory group.

"In the beginning, it was a way to mentor the young leaders we had planting churches," notes Pfanz, 52, senior pastor of Muncie Alliance Church. "But it wasn't long until I found my own self changing as I was allowing myself to study in community with others."

Each Wednesday morning, the pastors of each church, along with several visitors, gather for three hours to discuss the text. The meeting is opened in prayer, and then the study begins with general themes of the passage being highlighted. Each pastor generally weighs in with his thoughts and other notes of interest from his own personal study. There are also several other regulars who join in, as pastors from other local churches have discovered the benefit of the teaching pool.

"I've learned through this group how to exist in community," says Glen Robinson, a local Wesleyan pastor who has been a part of the group since the beginning. "Since I'm used to doing things on my own, this teaching pool has forced me to depend on others for encouragement, insight and friendships."

Robinson is not alone, as others also have changed their sermon schedules to correlate with the New Testament series debated within the teaching pool. One of the strongest benefits of studying in community seems to be in the perspectives gained on the text in question. While the majority of the members of the teaching pool are from the Christian and Missionary Alliance, there is also a retired pastor from the Assemblies of God, a Churches of God (General Conference, Findlay, Ohio) pastor and several Wesleyans.

Chris DeMarse is the associate pastor of Exit 59 (www.exit59.org), a church-plant in Gas City, Indiana. He notes the diversity within the teaching pool is unique, and the perspectives have helped greatly.

"The teaching pool has become one of the most significant factors in my understanding of the Bible, because it forces me to think outside myself and accept a perspective from someone very different from me," DeMarse explains. "Each week, I gain the perspectives of a pastor in the inner city, a retired pastor and a pastor who is also an entrepreneur."

The entrepreneur in question is Darren Campbell, owner of several bookstores and lead pastor of Exit 59. With previous pastoral experience within the Wesleyan denomination, Campbell has experience with both models of sermon preparation, but he won't go back.

"The collective knowledge in the teaching pool is better than any commentary I could use. Since we come from different church backgrounds, our perspectives vary, bringing a balance to our teaching. Frankly, I never want to pastor the 'old way' again. I wish more pastors could experience what we have."

Within the teaching pool, there are people from different denominations, age groups and passions. There are also vastly differing beliefs on various scriptures and facets of theology. Because of this, tensions can run high, and arguments are a weekly occurrence. However, the commitment to each other and to the communal experience keeps the group together for the long haul.

"While we may have times of disagreement or even anger, it never lasts past our meeting time," Pfanz notes. "For a group like this one to prosper, or even form, they must be committed to something bigger than their personal opinions or viewpoints."

"In my mind, it would be impossible to do it alone," says Heath Pearson, pastor of Springwater Church. "Of course, I continue to study on my own, but the group effort and support by going through the text together opens up insight, keeps me from being blind and challenges me in ways that I could never be challenged on my own."

Another aspect of developing a communal study group is the mentoring that it allows for emerging leaders and teachers. Pearson interned at Muncie Alliance Church after attending Indiana Wesleyan University. Soon thereafter, he began sitting in on the teaching pool, learning what it means to develop a sermon, gleaning study methods and developing his own habits throughout the week. Soon, Pearson was filling in at the various church-plants when the particular pastor had to be away.

Now, Pearson is pastoring his own church, having had the chance to learn along the way. And, yet, he is still able to receive help from the weekly meetings. "No price can be placed on the teaching pool. Without it, I would be unable to do what I am doing in a lead pastoral position," he says. "I am an equal in a room with pastors who have been in the ministry longer than I've been alive."

Pfanz agrees that the model has served the church-planting movement well. Soon after coming to Muncie Alliance Church, an internship program was developed by Pfanz and others for those looking for ministry training. But even with that in place, there was another step missing for those who felt called to teach on a regular basis.

"With the internship program now in its sixth year, I have seen that side of the ministry grow and develop into a unique preparation. The teaching pool is the next step as young pastors launch into new sites," Pfanz says. "It serves as a model for them to catch ministry more than learn in a class setting."

Campbell, 33, agrees with the mentoring aspect of the teaching pool. "You often think of mentoring as a one-on-one thing, as in an older, mature person taking a younger, less-experienced person under their wing. In our teaching pool, the collective experience of the group becomes that mature person, and all of us, despite our age or experience, become the person being mentored. It is unlike any mentoring model that I have ever heard of."

Perhaps the greatest aspect of the teaching pool has actually been for the personal spiritual health of the leader. Each pastor within the MAC movement noted that the weekly meetings are personally enriching and have become a source of much-needed energy.

Robinson says he has learned better how to be the church in his own life. "I've learned how to follow the Father, Son and Spirit in more practical ways by watching and catching the things we teach and model for one another."

Campbell agrees, adding: "The teaching pool is bigger than just a device that we use to study Scripture. It really is my church."


Matt Conner is a church planter in the Indianapolis area and pastor of The Mercy House. He is senior editor for Infuze magazine and writes for Relevant, HM, Group and several other publications.

Nuts & Bolts
How to make community sermon prep more than a utopian dream.

While studying in community sounds good, the reality is that it’s a lot harder to begin and maintain that it may seem here. Because of this, it’s vital that some key elements are in place when developing such a group.

Developing Roots: It is impossible to develop a teaching pool by just studying together. Placing random people together in a group to study communally will hardly ever last. The disagreement and frustration that can happen in the dialogue require stronger ties. Instead, the group needs to be rooted in something deeper. The teaching pool described here spends time retreating together, praying for each other and even time simply relaxing with their families. These bonds hold things together when disagreements develop.

Freedom of Expression: It is vital to the group that each member feel valued and appreciated. Therefore, each person is free to express his or her viewpoint on the topic without feeling ignored or crowded out. This has to be stated from the outset and it’s even important to return to this every now and then to remind everyone that there is freedom to speak your ideas.

Truth in Love: Many times, the debate over theology or scriptural interpretation can turn into biting sarcasm and passionate responses. The problem is that our modes of communication can become focused only on speaking truth without worry of how we are saying it. It’s essential to remember to deliver your point of view in a way that maintains an atmosphere of love and acceptance. Ultimately, any disagreements need to be left in the room that they started in. Leaving and being upset is never an answer and will only split the group.

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