The headline read “Lay Ministry Is at a Dead End.” I took a deep breath before reading the accompanying article. This was not how I had expected to begin my participation at a national convocation of people working in the area of lay ministry.
I had arrived at the event excited about spending a weekend with others who shared an interest in the ministry of the laity. My excitement also involved representing the Alban Institute, which has explored this issue for 30 years. But my arrival was met with questions about an article that was making the rounds: Had I seen it? What did I think about it?
When I finally tracked down the provocatively titled article, I discovered that it had been written by Loren Mead, Alban’s founder and long-time president. Initially, it felt as though someone had pricked the balloon of my excitement with a pin. Although the balloon didn’t pop, it did begin to deflate. But, as I read the article, I realized that Loren had captured some of the questions, concerns, and issues with which I had been struggling in regard to lay ministry. He began with a question about the viability of lay ministry as a genuine goal for religious institutions. After all, he noted, not much has changed “on the ground” since the 1950s, when the pioneering works on lay ministry were written.
Loren voiced his sense that the religious community has been coming at lay ministry from the wrong direction. “We act as if another book, or another program, or another experiment, or another process will somehow do it,” he explained, adding that simply continuing to do the same old things will not produce new results. The problem, he said, is not simply one of programs or processes. Rather, it is a systemic issue. “Anything we do to enhance lay ministry causes a reaction in the system that negates what we do,” he contended. “The system is self-correcting. And it self-corrects back to the same old clergy-centered sense of ministry that we are trying to get away from.”1
Obstacles to Living Fully into Ministry
As I continued to reflect on Loren’s article, I realized that what he described as a dead end, I had been thinking of as a series of obstacles: obstacles that keep all people from entering fully into the ministry to which they are called; obstacles that stop individuals from claiming and using their gifts in response to God’s call; obstacles that stop congregations from being communities that help people discern and live out their call—both within those faith communities and in the larger world.
I have to admit that I was surprised by the biblical story that emerged for me as I thought about those obstacles. It was the story of the Apostle Paul. As I reflected on what keeps people from fully living into ministry, I thought of how Paul struggled against obstacles to be accepted by some as a minister.
In working with groups around the issue of lay ministry—or what I’ve come to call the “ministry of all”—I developed a guided meditation based on Paul’s struggles (see the box below). The meditation invites participants to imagine the obstacles that might block individuals within their congregations from living fully as ministers. It has been fascinating to listen to the obstacles that emerge for people during that experience. My sense of those obstacles also has developed as I have worked with groups, been in conversation with individuals, and read the works of others.
What do I see as obstacles to the ministry of all? One of those obstacles is language. I have moved away from talking about “lay ministry” for that very reason. The language we often use within congregations makes a marked distinction between clergy and laity. In contemporary usage, we define clergy as the body of people who are ordained for religious service and laity as all those persons who are not members of a given profession or other specialized field. That distinction does not appear in the New Testament. Laos, from which we derive “laity,” referred to the “people” and was one of the general terms used for Christians. Kleros, from which we derive “clergy,” referred to the “lot” or “inheritance” that all believers received through Christ. By the fourth century, however, the church had adopted a secular model for thinking about itself. In the Greco-Roman world, kleros referred to municipal administrators and laos to the people who were ruled. As that distinction grew within the church, kleros became associated with the sacred and laos with the secular.
The language that had so much promise in its New Testament usage may well be too layered with centuries of misuse to be helpful today. While the “ministry of all” is far from a perfect alternative, perhaps it at least moves us in a helpful direction.
Another obstacle involves expectations. Our congregations are filled with expectations. Clergy have expectations of themselves: I should be good at everything. Since I’m the professional, I’m ultimately responsible. I’m needed by people, so I can’t disappoint them. If I opt not to do certain things, perhaps others will think I’m lazy.
Laity have expectations of clergy: They are the ones who do “real” ministry. They have the skills and knowledge to handle every situation. They somehow are different, so we can expect more of them than we do of ourselves.
Laypeople’s expectations of themselves run from being “just” a layperson to being the judge of a clergyperson’s ministry. Clergy may expect laypeople to be administrative leaders, organizational volunteers, personal supporters, or needy spectators.
Until congregations help their members—clergy and lay—explore and renegotiate their expectations in healthy and liberating ways, those expectations will continue to serve as an obstacle to the ministry of all.
Other obstacles include congregational structures that support a two-tier system that encourages an unhealthy dependency on the clergy; questions of leadership and authority that result in unclear roles and potential conflict; and issues of accountability that diminish a faith community’s ability to work together as one body.
Although I believe we must address each of those obstacles if we are to live into the ministry of all, I think there are two obstacles that present an even greater challenge. First, I believe many people within congregations operate with a vision of ministry that is too limited. For some of us, that limited vision results in our viewing ministry as something best done by professionals. For others, it means limiting ministry to that which is done within the confines—or, at the very least, through the sponsorship—of the church.
This obstacle can leave people with a sense of inferiority and isolation as they travel their faith journey. It seems odd that in traditions that historically have emphasized the “priesthood of all believers” there has emerged a sense that certain experiences and expressions of faith are more highly valued or acceptable than others. This limited vision also keeps people from recognizing and celebrating the ministry they do within their families, in their workplaces, within their communities, or at their schools.
Second, we live compartmentalized lives. What we do on Sunday isn’t connected with what we do in the rest of our lives—and that compartmentalization impacts clergy as well as laity.
One of the important people in my life is Sr. Barbara Schmitz, a Benedictine sister who lives and works in a monastery in Ferdinand, Indiana. For about a year, Sr. Barbara was my spiritual director. We would get together every three or four weeks and talk about what was happening in my life—the joys I experienced in my ministry, books I was reading, things about which I was worried, my hopes and dreams for the f
uture. Sometime during each of those conversations, after I had talked and talked and talked, Sr. Barbara would ask, “And where is God in all of this for you?” She was the only person who asked me to connect the various compartments of my life into a whole.
How are we to overcome the obstacles of a limited vision of ministry and of compartmentalized lives? What are things that we can do—indeed, must do—if we are to live into a vision of the ministry of all?
To overcome these challenges will require more than a systemic change—which I agree with Loren Mead is needed. Overcoming these obstacles to the ministry of all calls for a cultural shift in our congregations. At least three things can help us make that shift: do theology, practice spirituality, and tell stories.
In one of the congregations I served, we began a class on “thinking theologically.” Each week we explored a specific theological question or issue. I’ll never forget one particular Sunday morning. We were in the middle of a fairly intense discussion when a class member pushed his chair back, slapped his palms on the table, and demanded, “Why has no one ever asked me to think about these questions before?” The young man was a successful attorney. He had grown up in the church and attended a denominationally affiliated college. He had served in a number of leadership roles in his current congregation, including a term as board chair.
As we talked later, he explained that his “doing” of theology—being more intentional about identifying the important questions in his life and exploring how his answers to those questions might shape his beliefs and actions—was providing a new framework for him. He was beginning to see how the various aspects of his life could connect in meaningful ways. He also was recognizing that what he did—both within and outside the congregation—was in some way ministry.
The theologian John Cobb has argued that Mainline Protestant congregations have experienced decline because their members have stopped taking responsibility for their theology. We have moved to a place where we rely on professionals to do that work and where theology has become disconnected from our daily lives.
Congregations can help individuals reclaim the responsibility of doing theology. Preaching and liturgy can offer avenues for people to enter into theological inquiry. Small groups can provide time and space for individuals to ask hard questions. Leaders can help others reflect theologically on specific situations by guiding them through questions such as: Where is God present for me in this situation? What questions does this situation raise about my beliefs? What can I learn about myself and about God through this situation?
When I was in college, there was a spiritual-life organization on campus. As a freshman, I attended some of the meetings. I even signed up for one of the small groups on prayer. The leaders of this organization laid out a plan that was supposed to work for everyone—a specific way to read the Bible, specific ways to pray, specific ways to do just about everything. The problem was that those specific ways didn’t seem to work for me. And, at that point in my life, the only solution I could come up with was that there was something wrong with me. Imagine how those self-doubts blocked my seeing myself as being able to claim any type of ministry.
Since that time, I’ve come to understand spirituality differently, to define it as the lived experience and expression of our faith. It is both personal and communal.
If spirituality is the lived experience of our faith, then we can’t insist that it be a one-size-fits-all approach to spiritual life. The way in which I experience and express my faith may not be the same way in which you experience and express your faith. Each of us must find ways in which to live out our faith that are personally meaningful and authentic.
And yet spirituality calls us back into the context of our faith community. This communal aspect of spirituality provides us with a framework of tradition and understanding. It provides us with an ongoing reminder that the faith we experience and express calls us to something larger and richer than our own needs and desires. And it provides us with traveling companions for our spiritual journey.
Congregations can provide opportunities through which people may explore their own sense of spirituality and try on a variety of experiences and practices. These opportunities can encourage individuals to experiment with and expand their experiences and expressions of faith; to make connections within their own lives, their faith community, and the world; and to discover a spirituality that is enlivening and empowering. The result may well be the tumbling of obstacles that prevent people from claiming their own place in the ministry of all.
The power of story has reemerged as a topic for consideration—thanks in large part to the work of Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Gardner has sparked thinking about the importance of narrative, especially for leaders.
In Gardner’s definition of story, there must be a protagonist, goals, obstacles, and an ultimate resolution. He explains that story is a “more encompassing, realistic, enveloping thing” than a message or vision or slogan. The telling of a new story asks an individual to “put aside or reject the story you have grown up with, believed in, internalized and seen yourself as a character in.”2 Stories can help bring about such shifts or changes in our lives both individually and corporately as congregations.
I grew up in a household filled with my mother’s stories. Because of the stories she told about her childhood, I constructed a world of magic and wonder for her. The games she played, the people she knew, and the things she did seemed more exciting than almost anything else I could imagine. It was only as I grew older that I realized how truly poor my mother was as a child. Her stories transformed her Depression-impoverished childhood into a world of wonderful memories and adventures.
That’s part of the power of story. Stories in their purest form help us create new worlds. Not worlds of escape or denial, but worlds in which the best and truest parts of our lives and the lives of others find a place to take root, grow strong, and blossom. In these new worlds, we can celebrate and draw strength from the positive energy of life. Nurtured by the stories that create these worlds, we can dare to dream, dare to take flight.
Stories also provide us with a context for how we live and interpret our lives. Our Jewish sisters and brothers understand the importance of this aspect of storytelling. With care and intentionality, they tell stories around their religious observances as a powerful way of explaining what they are doing and why.
Stories also connect us with other people. Think about the stories your family has shared around the dining room table. In and of themselves, those stories really hold no significance. It’s the connection they provide that makes them so important. What you do and what I do become what we do. The stories stitch us together.
For all of those reasons, telling our stories and hearing other people’s stories can help us live into a vision of the ministry of all. Those stories can help us imagine new possibilities for ourselves and others. They can infuse what we do with new meaning so that we are able to see it as ministry. They can connect our individual efforts into a powerful ministry of all.
I agree with Loren Mead that it’s a fallacy to hope that if we keep doing the same old things, somehow we won’t get the same old results. But perhaps as we remove the obstacles that exist, we will discover a new way that will l
ead us into realizing the power and promise of the ministry of all.
1. Loren Mead, LayNet, Winter 2004 (Vol. 15, No. 1), 7.
2. Howard Gardner is quoted by Edward Prewitt in “Getting from Oranges to Apples” in the online publication CIO Magazine (April 1, 2004).