A great deal can be learned by looking at the titles that were applied to the leaders of the early church. In 1 Thess. 3:2, for example, Paul says that he sent Timothy to the congregation in Thessalonica and refers to him as “our brother [adelphos in Greek] and co-worker for God [sunergon tou Theou] in proclaiming the gospel of Christ.” “Co-worker” here can be translated more literally “worker together with” or more loosely, “helper,” “fellow laborer,” or “colleague.” Also see Rom. 16:3, 9.21; 2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25; Philemon 1, 24. While some of Paul’s colleagues may have been apostles, most of them were lay leaders assigned to govern churches as he continued his missionary journeys.
In his letters, Paul’s associates are recognized personally and given affectionate titles: “sister” (Rom. 16:1; Philemon 1); “beloved” (Rom. 16:8,12); “my relatives” or “compatriots” (Rom. 16:7, 11, 21); “mother to me” (Rom. 16:13); “partner” (Philemon 17); “fellow-soldier” (sunpatrios, Philemon 2). Although we know that there was dissension in some of the churches Paul founded and troublemakers enough to go around (see Rom. 16:17-18; 1 Cor. 1:10-17; Gal. 1:6-9; 5: 7-12), the overall impression is that there was a great deal of cooperation, love and loyalty among the co-workers for Christ.
In light of this scriptural background, what are some practical ways that these examples can be realized in our congregations today? First of all it is clear that the first lay leaders were ordained to “work with” the pastors as ministerial colleagues, not “work for” them as subordinates. In our churches we recognize this aspect of partnership, as leaders serve as lay preachers, liturgists, administrators (many lay leaders have more experience in this area than most pastors do), peacemakers and negotiators, pastoral visitors, commissioners to presbytery and commissioned ruling elders and certified church workers (G-2.10-2.11). From the start of a new pastor’s tenure, in addition to normal welcoming activities, many congregations organize a small pastor-parish committee (made up of former members of the pastoral nominating committee and representatives from the session) whose role is to meet regularly with the pastor, discuss unexpected opportunities and problems, and be trustworthy friends in ministry.
Ongoing supportive feedback regarding sermons and the reception of church programs is a priority for any ministry that seeks to assure continuing cooperative work. All church leaders need critical input from co-workers — critical in the classical sense of giving honest analytical evaluation as well as appreciation. All of us, regardless of the level of self-assurance, can never get enough face-to-face input, notes, phone calls, Facebook comments or Tweets, especially if they are meant to be upbuilding and helpful. As Paul suggests in Romans 16, it is important not only to have colleagues in ministry, but to have friends, mentors, role models and people as close as family, brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers in the faith.
Co-workers, associates, fellow-fighters, friends, brothers and sisters, beloved colleagues in ministry — all these titles remind us of the closeness of the relationships between church leaders and their pastors. As Paul urges us in 1 Corinthians 1:10 and 3:9, we are called to “be united in the same mind and the same purpose” because “we are God’s servants, working together (sunergoi).”