Jul 13 2011

The laity

Category: churchharmonicminer @ 7:00 pm

I participated in a weekend retreat recently that was run entirely by “the laity,” even though there were a couple of members of the clergy in attendance now and then.

As I considered it, I was reminded that it really is the laity, more than the clergy, that “keeps the church going.”

Yes, we need clergy, ministers, priests, pastors, whatever you call them at your church. But faithful, competent, committed, and unselfish lay leadership is harder to find than professional “people of the cloth,” or so it seems to me.

Consider the training required, just to begin. A typical minister, pastor, or priest may enter service at the age of 25 or so, after a mere few years of training. Yet, such a person, even with the same training but not in a professional role in a church he or she attends, can rarely be selected as a board member of a church, let alone for a major lay leadership role in that church, other than maybe high school Sunday school teacher. How many under-40 chairs of church boards do you know?

You don’t get to be a lay leader by getting formal education, although having some certainly doesn’t hurt. You become a lay leader by first serving in small roles, and gradually widening your scope of leadership, while building trust in your church. That takes time, often more time than it takes to get a ministerial degree. And, as already mentioned, churches seem far more willing to accept quite young ministers who have degrees but not much experience, than to accept board members of the same age, let alone chairs of church boards.

There is a sense in which lay leaders of the church function in a role similar to that of non-commissioned officers in the military. Sure, you can get to be a lieutenant in a mere four years or so, and at the tender of 22 find yourself in command of 30-something NCOs with vastly more experience and practical training than you got from the academy, Officers Candidate School or ROTC. But if you’re a half-smart young officer, you listen very closely to the advice your NCOs give you, and you understand that even though the final responsibility for your unit lies with you, those more experienced NCOs can save you with their insight and specific knowledge. Hopefully, those NCOs have the wit to respectfully communicate their wisdom to you while simultaneously building your confidence in both yourself and them.

Most military organizations could lose a majority of their commissioned officers and still function, until they were gradually replaced, even if such replacement involved simple promotion out of the ranks. On the other hand, if most of the experienced NCOs are lost from a military unit, commissioned officers usually can’t keep it together even with the best efforts from the ranks. They literally just don’t know enough, unless they came up through the ranks themselves, and even then, they can’t be everywhere at once, even if they can function effectively as substitute NCOs.

Thus it is in the church. The lay leaders are the glue that keeps it all together, and the sine qua non of a healthy church. Often, they are in the role they’re in partly out of successful service to a previous pastor, who selected them, so to speak. But lay leaders can seldom stay in the role without the support of the wider church body, and therein lies their value to clergy. Simply put, they know things, and they are influential. A pastor who can’t sell a big idea to the chair of the board needs to either reconsider the idea, or consider moving to a new church, but he can seldom hope to move the idea forward without lay support. And clergy who have tried to get chairs of boards replaced have many sad tales to tell.

This means, to me, that all of the responsibilities that the scripture lays on leadership of the church apply every bit as powerfully to lay leaders as to clergy. Faithfulness, transparency, humility, and willingness to defer are critical characteristics for lay leaders. Selfish motivations, personal animus of any kind, resentment of any kind, jealousy, and insistence on personal prerogative will be the death of effective leadership, even though the “leadership” may last a lot longer than its effectiveness.

Lay leaders don’t have to be perfect, thankfully. Who is? But they do need to be open to correction, both from church members and from the clergy, and they need to examine themselves for less than ideal motivations at all times. In some ways, they have more power than clergy, and with that power comes responsibility, along with the temptation to believe that they are the church in some special way, and perhaps that the church owes them something it doesn’t owe other members.

Thank God for people who are willing to serve, who seek His guidance and wisdom, and who aren’t in it for anything but the furtherance of the Kingdom.

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