Sending the Pastor Away
But Bethany Lutheran Would Also Like to Get Him Back
“The basics of New Testament Christianity” is an ideal to which many believers feel today’s Church should return. The early church’s evangelistic fervor, powerful prayer life, and orientation toward community are traits the church would be fortunate to recapture. But how often does today’s church venture to rival the radical examples that fostered such signs in the churches in Acts? For example, how many churches today would be willing to send part or all of their pastoral staff to the mission field, as did the church in Antioch (Acts 13:1-3)?
Bethany Lutheran Church of Pueblo, Colorado is one church that has decided to make such a commitment. On August 1, 1989, this Missouri Synod Lutheran church of one hundred people sends Ralph and Jean Weinhold, its pastor of 16 years and his wife, to teach English in a mainland Chinese university for one year.
Bethany was not prepared to take such a step even five years ago. “I had a typical denominational understanding of missions, ” says Ralph. “Every congregation sends money to the district, and the district ‘does missions’.”
But the situation began to change when the Weinhold’s son Joel returned to Bethany in 1982 after graduating from Lutheran Bible Institute in Seattle. Joel’s vision for missions took root at Bible school, particularly after a series of lectures by Ralph Winter. “I don’t remember what he said specifically,” says Joel. “I just remember being impressed that we each have an obligation to examine our personal missions involvement before God. It struck me to think the church will have to give account for our deplorable use of (human and financial) resources.”
Using resources from the Association of Church Missions Committees (ACMC) such as the Missions Policy Handbook, Joel and Gil Botten, a local InterVarsity staff worker, helped develop a missions committee and a written missions policy. A single man and a couple from the church went on short-term missions projects. And the church’s mission vision began to grow.
Joel’s excitement rubbed off on his parents, who began hosting international students and attending conferences such as the Urbana ’84 and ACMC 1988 national conferences. Soon they began considering short-term missions. Ralph’s M.A. in English and eight years of college-level teaching were a natural avenue for mission service. The Weinholds applied to an agency which places teachers in China; they were accepted and will receive their assignment in May.
The Weinholds sought the blessing of the church’s board of elders before setting out for China. Darrell Farmer, missions committee chairman and member of the board of elders, says, “We prayed and gave them our blessing that they should pursue this call. The board is 100% behind them. In January, the board surveyed the congregation to determine the church’s apprehensiveness about it; an overwhelming majority is excited.”
During the Weinholds’ absence, a retired denominational pastor will assume some pastoral duties; he will share preaching responsibilities with several elders. “They’re concerned about pulling together to cover the vacancy, but they fully support our going, which is humbling to see,” says Ralph. Farmer adds, “We’re concerned that the body here continues to worship and put the Lord first. We’ll miss the Weinholds, but God will provide for us in mighty ways.”
The Weinholds hope their teaching assignment will serve as a bridge to their students. “I’m hoping God will give us meaningful relationships and opportunites for witness,” says Ralph. Many at the church hope the Weinholds’ year in China will impact not only students for Christ, but also the mission vision left behind. “Their trip has enlarged our denomination’s mission vision within our circuit (administrative unit) here in southern Colorado as Ralph speaks about his vision for tentmaking. We hope more serve as missionaries as a result,” says Farmer.
The Weinholds are not without fears about their assignment in China. The usual worries of culture shock and language barriers concern them, as well as their desire to be genuine learners and incarnational witnesses. “But I’m thrilled about their team overseas,” says Joel, who hopes eventually to go into missions with his wife Lisa. “I encouraged them for a long time to consider a short term for cross-cultural experience, as well as the witness and discipleship example it sets for the congregation.”
Could other churches follow Bethany’s example? The pastor is the key mover and visionary for any local church. Exposure to missions will most likely be life-changing for a pastor, and may result in a change in the church’s agenda. In Ralph Weinhold’s words, “Sending the pastor may have an equal, if not a larger, impact on the church than sending its laypeople. My congregation will look at this and say, ‘The pastor’s been talking about this for years; now he’s going. He must believe it.’”