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Bishop Column: Is our emphasis on clergy or lay ministry?

Posted: July 26 2021 at 03:35 PM
Author: Bishop John L. Hopkins


Question 4: "Is our emphasis on clergy or lay ministry?"

Hopkins John L

Bishop John L. Hopkins

"He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. His purpose was to equip God's people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ. until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God's son. God's goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ." Ephesians 4:11-13 (CEB)

In the early years of the United Methodist movement, clergy were itinerant. They traveled from place to place, taking the good news of Jesus Christ to people, baptizing converts, identifying local leaders, organizing small groups of disciples, and moving on with the assurance they would return for more preaching and teaching. Our annual United Methodist Charge Conference is a remnant of the Quarterly Conference held when a circuit rider would come back to preach, teach, and check on how the local leaders were doing.

What happened when the pastor left to travel to another village? The local lay leadership started organizing and running the church until the pastor returned. They were inspired, equipped, and empowered by the pastor who had served among them. They took responsibility for sharing the faith, forming new disciples, and overseeing the church. When the pastor returned, they were expected to report on what God was doing among them.

In my assignment to the East Ohio Conference in 2004, I discovered a church that dropped so much in attendance that a previous bishop appointed a pastor to them who was also appointed to three other churches. That meant they did not have a pastor at their church except once a month. The church members were not happy.  

For almost a year, people did not do much except show up when the pastor came. One day some members decided they did not need a pastor to have singing, prayer, Bible study, and Sunday School. A few people took responsibility for reaching out to people in the community and leading the small groups. Eventually, the church started to grow so much they requested a full-time pastor to be appointed. However, the church requested the bishop appoint a pastor who would teach and inspire them but not take away the effective leadership of the members that had grown the church.

Do you think our emphasis should be on clergy or lay ministry? How do we "equip God's people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ"?

Over the last century, we have increasingly become a specialized society. From medicine to manufacturing to education, we have people who know more about their area than the general public. Most of us today are specialized in our studies and our employment. The downside of this specialization is that we have given over responsibility to specialists. We have given health over to medicine, education over to schooling, and spiritual formation over to church programs.

Clergy are expected to make things happen, show results, and be held accountable for their work in a church. Most clergy work hard to take responsibility and work to make the church run well. Unfortunately, church members sometimes drop their children off at programs and are reluctant to serve their church because they are so busy with whatever they specialize in. If a church hires a youth director, they expect that person to grow the youth group when their actual job is to help the members grow the youth work. Consequently, members often defer to clergy to lead. Likewise, clergy leaders want to do well and sometimes micromanage work they could delegate to the members.

About 15 years ago, I was flying out of the small international airport in Rochester, Minnesota, where the Mayo Clinic is located. The plane was small and only going to the big airport in Minneapolis-St. Paul. I struck up a conversation with the woman next to me who happened to be a Mayo nurse and active in a Roman Catholic Church. When she found out I was a United Methodist bishop, I learned most Catholics hold their bishops in high esteem.

I asked about her church, and she said it was going just great. Then she added, "We have a new, older priest." I joked that many of our churches want a young pastor with a family who has 40 years of experience. Then she said something that touched me personally. She said, "We had a couple of young priests who saw our parish as a project to climb up the church ladder. Our new priest is non-anxious, allows us to participate more, and teaches us how to take responsibility for our faith."

The demand for clergy to succeed in growing the church can impede their ability to encourage church members to initiate ministries. It also can reduce a church's ministry to the programs it offers and inadvertently encourage members to be consumers of ministry rather than producers of ministry. The church becomes the focus rather than the ministries of its members.  

When I ask people about their ministry, they often tell me about some committee they're serving on at church. Then I ask them what they are doing for Jesus beyond their church work. Usually, I get a puzzled look. I believe clergy are gifted, called, trained, and appointed to "equip the saints" for their ministries. The church is the base camp for each of us to be in ministry every day—lay and clergy!

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