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Defining and honoring lay ministry in the church

Defining and honoring lay ministry in the church

I am struck today by Laurie Gudim’s essay at Speaking to the Soul regarding lay vs. ordained ministry. This is a topic close to my heart, as a layperson doing fulltime church work. Gudim writes:

I have to admit to feeling a surge of disappointment sometimes when some dedicated and faithful lay person discerns that they are called to ordained ministry. Everyone else will be greeting their decision with joy, and I will find myself a little on the edge, unable to fully celebrate with them.

I’ve done a lot of soul searching about this. Why do I feel as I do? What does it mean? Am I jealous? Full of petty resentment? Maybe I should be thinking of the priesthood myself?

The cause of my letdown, I have realized, is that I don’t like the conclusion we all leap to – that because someone is very serious about their spiritual life and desirous of dedicating their days to serving God, they need to become a priest. I wonder if they are not mistaking a call to love God with all their heart, soul and might for a call to become a pastor in a church. I know that often people are genuinely called to that more specific way of being in relationship with Christ and Christ’s church. When that is true, it is truly a cause for celebration. But so is any clear discernment of any calling. We ought to be celebrating each with equal verve.

Our job in this era is to redefine for ourselves what it means to be a lay person. The church as we know it may not survive through this century, and if it does, leadership will look different than it does now. And so we common folk need to put our elbows out and bring to words for ourselves and for the Body of Christ what it means to be an on-fire bunch of saints bearing witness and living into our gifts right along with our priests. That means all our gifts, since each one of us is called. We need to make places for ourselves that fit new found understandings of the need to put God first in our lives. There are no roles, so we need to do the arduous work of creating them.

I wrote on this topic myself a couple years ago. I feel absolutely no call to ordained ministry, but there are times when I think wearing a clerical collar would make my job easier. I don’t mean that clergy have easy jobs, of course. I certainly know better. It’s just that so many people tend to accept the Christian ministry and witness of clergy so much more readily than efforts at ministry by those who are not ordained. I would love to know what clergy and lay people think about how we can better define lay ministry in the church. I agree with Laurie Gudim that it bears re-examination. Your thoughts?


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IMO, your lay-ministry is hobbled if it looks for approval or permission from clergy. (No insult intended here towards clergy, btw). In the RCC, most ministry is done by laity & religious, not clergy, and has been for generations. E.G., St. Vincent de Paul Society, Sisters of St. Joseph, etc. All self-started, self-maintaining, self-affirming. Clergy are occasionally invited to celebrate anniversary masses and the like, but not much more. So, we need to rethink where we find our affirmation and motivation. Also, we need to expand our notions of spirituality regarding the laity’s ministry. We used to have a more formal idea what it all meant back in the late 19th-early 20th century. Let’s re-acquaint ourselves with our own history regarding this. 🙂 Kevin McGrane


It has been my experience that unless one has ministerial credentials or seminary experience, no one listens. Too many in the Church ( and not just the Episcopal Church) think that the only role for lay persons in thing spiritual is doing children’s Sunday School, altar guild or food preparation. Any teaching by lay persons is considered lesser in spiritual merit. After all how could someone not educated and ordained by human institutions (you know like say a Galilean fisherman) know anything about Spirituality?

Clint Davis

Why do people still keep wondering what to do with Confirmation when stories like this make it so obvious, now that this Sacrament has been released from its association with admittance to the Eucharist? And now that it’s not just a sweet rite of passage for budding adolescents but rather a sign of mature commitment to the Church, this is a ready made opportunity to shift the focus of Confirmation to the empowerment of the Laity. Perhaps strengthen the preparations somewhat and we’d really have a winner.

Elizabeth Hoffman Reed

Amen, let’s channel Verna Dozier!

This topic is near and dear to my heart, too, as a woman who worked full-time in the Catholic Church as a “lay” professional for ten years and now works as an ordained minister in the Episcopal communion. The topic is complicated and has many roots and tendrils. So much in our tradition has undervalued “lay” people. I’ll just note two things today (out of hundreds that could be said).

First, something practical and immediate. At our parish (Grace, Allentown), we’ve incorporated a petition about our daily life and work into the Prayers of the People each week. We say something like “For the work our members do each day, in our workplaces, institutions, schools, and households, that we may be signs of God’s love with all we meet.” Or, “For the schools and organizations and neighborhoods and households where we work and live, that our presence will bear Christ’s light to places of darkness.” Or, “For the institutions in which we work and volunteer, that …” You get the idea: the daily life of all of us gets put out there as a place of God’s activity and ours.

Second, something less immediate and on a much bigger scale: our buildings are among many things in church life that often reinforce distinctions among us instead of our common call to love God and our neighbors. Most worship spaces “tell” most participants that they are an audience of spectators. Much of the way our liturgies are enacted conveys the same message: that a few do important things “for” the many. I say this as a reminder that the nonverbal messages we send and receive, in architecture and ritual and symbol, shape us in deep ways. Sadly, the messages are not of equality and common call and common work. Happily, these are things we can change.

The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck

I’ve written about this before (

and I will no doubt write about it again….

So much attention has been given in the past thirty years to 1) how do we attract people to our church and 2) who can and can not be ordained, that many clergy have really lost track of the calling to send the people out into the world. Let’s channel Verna Dozier!

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