In the 1960s the Catholic Church released the document “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity”. In it the Catholic Church strove to add new life to the laity by giving firm theological affirmations about what it means to be a Christian lay man or women. In it they declared that God’s plan for the world is for human beings to “renew and perfect” the temporal order. In other words human being have been created in a special role in the world, and the laity are called to lead the charge. I think the “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity” is a essential document, in it’s emphasis on the importance on the laity in the world and in the church.
If you are not from a mainline, Catholic, or Orthodox background the term “lay leader” or laity might be somewhat foreign. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines the laity as those people who are “distinct from the clergy.” I think that this definition underscores a problem that is endemic to the conversation of about laity. Often laity are defined by what they are not rather than what they are. For example we think of laity as unpaid, or not ordained, or, as the definition states, not clergy. Laity are however more than a collection of those defined by apophatic negation; clergy are people with particular roles and calls. In order to understand the importance of the ministry of the laity in the work of God in the world, an understanding of what positive affirmations can be said about their role is essential.
Recently I had the great pleasure of interviewing some men who are in lay leadership in the church. Although they come from diverse backgrounds and roles in the church, they had a great deal of wisdom that highlights some of the ways that all people are called into service in the church and the world.
What Lay Leaders Actually Are
1. As Christians Laity Are Ordained
The late Alexander Schmemann points out in his article, “Clergy and Laity In The Orthodox Church”, that within the sacramental life of the church all Christians are, in a sense, ordained with the positive power and grace to be Christians. All Christians are ministers. Although the men I talked to are not paid for what they do to serve the church they affirmed that there is a certain call on their life just because they are Christians. When I asked one man why he started doing ministry his response was, “um… because I was there?” He said that It just doesn’t make sense to him to, “work 8-5 then relax all evening and play all weekend, taking an hour off for God on Sunday morning, and call that discipleship.” To be a member of the Church of Christ is to have a calling. The Job that pays the bills is a part of that calling, but the vocation of minister doesn’t have a punch card.
2. Laity are an expression of the overall vocation of service
I find it interesting that one of the titles of the Pope is “the servant of the servants of God.” In a very real sense the expression of leadership in the church can most clearly be seen in the expression of service. One man I interviewed told me that leadership in the church “looks a lot like a combination of janitorial work, nursing, errands, valet service, and tutoring somebody else’s sons for their exams.” They told me that they prefer lay ministry over ordination because there isn’t the distraction of power and prestige. He told me ordination sometimes “leads to misplaced respect and an unwarranted assumption of wisdom – and [can be] mistaken for humility.” He feels that the more formal power he has the more damage he would do if he were to mess up. All Christians are called to the ministry of service and the more prestigious the call the greater the danger to ones soul, and potential there is for distraction from the foundational call to service.
3. Lay leaders are gifted by God
When asked why they serve, one man responded, “I felt a call to Youth ministry from God and wanted to fulfill that calling, and I have skills relating to teens.” Another responded, “ I want to serve the Lord. I have gifts and training. I see unmet needs and try to meet them.” There is one theme that pervade the motivation for service among almost everyone I have ever talked to about why they serve; they are gifted. Although gifting can be both natural propensities, and learned skills, the lay leaders I talked to all recognized that the gifts they had were given by God for a purpose and that that purpose was what they hoped to achieve in their service in the church. An important lesson I have learned in my years of “professional ministry”, is that God has given the clergy every gift they need to minister to the people, but more often than not that gift is found in the members of the congregation, not in themselves.
4. Lay leaders are more than their ministries
After all this talk about everything that lay leaders are it is important to remember that lay leaders are also more than their ministries. If we affirm only what a person can do and forget about who they are their can be a lot of dangers. One of the men I talked to mentioned that he wished he had known that becoming a liturgist would not be able to sustain his spiritual health. He said, “if you don’t have a prayer life outside of the services, you won’t have a prayer life. Going to church once or twice a day sounds pious, but if you’re leading the service then you’re always looking at the next prayer, the next reading or hymn, and every time you pray, you’re flipping pages to the next thing.” If the laity is seen as only people that fill roles of service in the church and not people deeply in need of God’s grace and mercy there can easily be cases of spiritual abuse.
Living in the kingdom of God
To be a Christian is to be one who is at one time both greatly in need to receive God’s grace and greatly called to demonstrate God’s grace. All Christians are ordained into the ministry of reconciliation that Christ has done, is doing, and promises to do. The life is never easy. The men I talked to had many struggles personally and within their vocations, but I was encouraged by their faithfulness to the call of Christ in their life. In the midst of trials they persevere. They continue to serve the Church in all her brokenness because they believe the promise of Christ, that the church dwells with God in all God’s fullness. May we all live as servants of the servants of God, for that is the heart of greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven.