August 2012 for the Global Leadership Summit, WillowCreek
Joel Comiskey is the founder of the Joel Comiskey Group, a ministry dedicated to helping complete the Great Commission in this century. A leader in the cell group movement, Joel provides resources and coaching to plant new cell churches and transition existing churches to cell-based ministry. He has known Mario Vega for more than a decade. His book, Passion and Persistence: How Elim Church’s Cell Ministry Penetrated an Entire City for Jesus, gives a glimpse into Elim’s implementation of cell group strategy – as well as Mario Vega’s testimony, calling, and pastoral leadership. We asked Joel to conduct an interview with Mario Vega, to help us get to know Mario and his amazing church a little bit better. Below is their dialogue.
Joel: In your opinion, what is the current state of the Church in Latin America?
Mario: The Church in Latin America has grown enormously. So much so, that it has become a cultural
attraction. Yet, true transformation of our people through the Gospel is still a pending task. For example, in my own country of El Salvador, over 38% of the population confesses to be evangelical. Yet El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world! So far the growth of the church hasn’t led to social transformation.
The problem with many places in Latin America is that the church is not living out the claims of the Gospel. Believing in Jesus is still just a fad. Yet we know that Jesus calls people to follow Him and that means living like Jesus and shaping our lives around Him. Transformation will only come as the Church starts leading the way.
Joel: Why do you believe in cell ministry?
Mario: I believe in cell ministry because of its biblical and theological foundations. Cell ministry is rooted squarely in the model of the New Testament church which practiced the priesthood of all believers. Cell ministry allows Christians to edify one another and exercise their God-given church’s growth?
Without a doubt, our cell ministry has been the most important church growth factor at Elim. In fact,
Elim started as a traditional church and followed that path for its first nine years. After making the transition to the cell model, the church tripled its membership in just one year. Since then, the church hasn’t stopped growing
Joel: What is your leadership philosophy?
Mario: Integral servanthood. Integrity in the service of others is the key to leadership. The world
needs honest, transparent and truthful people.
Service is the incarnation of godly leaders reaching a needy world. Gandhi said it well: “Go and be the change you want to see in the world.”
Joel: How many full-time pastors do you have at Elim Church?
Mario: We currently have 92 full-time pastors working in the mother church in San Salvador. But we also have around 9,000 volunteers who exercise leadership and coaching functions within our cell model.
Joel: What character qualities and skills do you look for when raising up a new pastor?
Mario: Our cell model allows people to exercise their skills each week. The dedication, passion, love, effort and other qualities are visible for others to see.
The leadership path follows a similar pattern: a person starts as a cell member, becomes part of the leadership team, starts his or her own cell group, and eventually begins coaching other leaders. Then we assess the person’s knowledge of the Bible. I’m not talking about an evaluation of doctrine or theology but of Bible reading and spiritual disciplines. We look at calling, family priorities, and personal issues. Through the process, we discern whether God is calling a person to become a full-time pastor.
Joel: What leadership characteristics are important in your context?
Mario: The balance between truth and love. Love is the way, but truth is the goal.
Joel: You seem to be talking about the spiritual side of maturity. Tell us a little bit more about that.
Mario: Spiritual maturity is the ability to give priority to the truth instead of comfort or personal interests. Spiritual maturity is bearing your own pain and the pain of others while finding God’s purpose within. It is understanding God’s sovereignty, while acknowledging we are simply creatures under the hand of a loving Creator.
One of the key characteristics of a strong leader is integrity. The leader needs to walk through difficult times and situations that will test his or her character. Integrity is the only guarantee that the leader will remain strong and endure the fire. The leader’s character is tested in such difficulties. Weak leaders collapse in times of trial.
Anyone can rejoice in the midst of victories and blessings, but integral leaders remain irreproachable through the tough times and continue to press forward.
Joel: You are speaking at The Global Leadership Summit on the relationship between grief and tough decisions. Tell us about the tough decisions that you regularly face in your ministry.
Mario: As a pastor I constantly have to tell people the truth. Often this requires courage. If you truly want to help people take the next step in life, they need to know what is wrong with them and their decisions. Although telling the truth can be painful and cause wounds, ultimately, when you speak the truth in love, healing and health will occur over time.
Joel: What types of spiritual disciplines do you regularly engage in to develop your personal relationship with God?
Mario: I love meditation. I meditate on Scripture which flows naturally into dialogue with God. Prayer is simply dialoguing with God. My goal though prayer and meditation on Scripture is to know God. I find that as I know God I also discover myself in a new way.
I also believe that reading the Bible leads to self-denial. There is no life if there is no death.
Joel: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Mario: I love music. I listen to music everyday while driving from my home to the office. Actually, I listen to music whenever possible. I often try to listen carefully, so I can understand the composer’s intention for writing the song.
Joel: What else do you like to do?
Mario: Beyond music, the two things I enjoy most are reading and writing. When I’m doing these two things, I find that time passes very quickly. In fact, I never grow tired of reading and writing.