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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Balancing Lay and Ordained Ministry

This week's question comes from a minister struggling with the how to encourage lay ministry without diminishing her own call. She writes:

I am in a denomination which encourages lay ministry, and I don't have a problem with that. I was a very involved lay person before I candidated and was ordained. I think part of my role is to not get in the way of other people exercising their gifts in ministry. My dilemma is what to do when allowing/encouraging other people to exercise their ministry, diminishes my ability to exercise my ministry, and at times follow the call to this congregation.

This was a tough question for many of our matriarchs - lacking specifics, it's hard to know exactly what the issues are, and how to sort them out effectively. Still, we got some solid advice.

Sunday's Coming writes:

I’m sure there are times when we all get frustrated that someone else is printing the newsheet/arranging the chairs/talking to young people – and doing it less well than we know we could. The question is – when to step in and say ‘this is my ministry and my gifting and I want to offer the best to God’ and when to say ‘I can’t do everything and God can use second best, too’.

I try to strike a balance between thinking that as the minister my job is to do what other people don’t want to do – filling in the gaps (this is true, but not ALL that my ministry should be about) and only doing the things I feel I’m good at. I think the thing that helps me most is grace – helping me to value what other people offer, but also to value what I bring to God: and God’s grace keeps me sharp to when I’m avoiding the things I don’t like, or when I’m getting an over-inflated sense of my own importance. It helps me to keep at the heart of what I do that it is God’s work, God’s kingdom, God’s church and God’s gifts – I am by God’s grace, God’s servant.
Sorry if that sounds pompous: but I think it’s true.


The situation here may be two-fold: clear "job" descriptions for all ministries and an understanding of congregational size compared to it's leadership structure. First, sometimes this "confusion" of jobs/ministries happens when churches grow larger than their leadership structure. In other words a church may be program sized but still functioning like a family or pastoral sized church. Good resources for understanding this found through the Alban Institute, especially in Alice Mann's work on congregational size. Here is a link to Alice Mann's books: And, the Alban Institute:
Second, having job descriptions for every leader position including the clergy can help clarify who does what in a way that will both honor the lay leadership while at the same time defining the specific sacramental role of clergy.
The best way to help the leadership team to understand this is to have a leadlership team retreat and bring in an outside facilitator to lead them into this conversation and role definition.

Diane Roth adds:

I think that we all have a charge to empower lay ministry in our congregations, in the way consistent with the theology of our particular churches. I think the way to empower lay ministry without losing your own pastoral authority is to be actively involved in training people, or equipping people, if you will, for their ministry, whether it preaching, assisting or leading in worship, hospital visitation, evangelism, whatever. You need to be actively involved in discerning and in equipping people to do the work of the church.
I sense in this question that the pastor involved feels challenged in her leadership. How not to be protective of our own turf, how to be nurturing of all of the gifts of the congregation, how to lead out of security and not defensiveness? I think one way to do that is to create partnerships and allys with the lay leaders in the congregations, so that you are working together on a common goal.

What other words of wisdom might you offer on this issue? What kinds of difficulties have you run into when seeking to empower laypeople, and how did you deal with those?

Also, there are no more questions in the "Ask the Matriarch" queue. So if you've been thinking of sending one in, now's a great time! And if you haven't been thinking of sending one in, go ahead and think about it! Email us at


  1. Just want to say that I'm sorry for the lack of consistency with fonts. I was doing cut-and-paste and nothing I did would change the fonts to what I wanted them to be (I remember having similar issues when I used to use blogger for my own blog). If anyone wants to send me some tips on what I might try, I'd be grateful.

  2. This is an issue that is very dear to my heart, I will not clog up the comments with lots of words now, but will think on it and blog on this later.

    Thank you for raising it on Ask the Matriach.

  3. earthchick, don't worry about it! Actually, some change in the fonts helps break up a long post. But I understand the frustration with Blogger.

  4. We have an unusual situation at our parish--three churches with one minister. She can only make it to two of the three churches each Sunday, so there are a team of liturgists who pair up (nine of us) and go to give sermons and communion to the third church each Sunday.

    While there may have been an adjustment period, we get together for pericope and discuss difficulties, etc. It is really a team effort.

  5. I'm part of a quartet of commissioned lay ministers who assist our pastor -- usually as assisting ministers, or supply preachers/presiders in our pastor's absence. We have a monthly meeting where we share what's going on in our lives and where we plan our schedules.

    From my perspective, I think it's helpful if the pastor shares her or his vision for ministry in the congregation -- where do we want to be in one two five years? -- and uses that as a general framework for how lay ministers fit into that goal. For instance, at our place our pastor is planning on retiring in the next five years, so we have a long-term goal of preparing the congregation to come to terms with that, and to remain a healthily functioning congregation in the interim. Our pastor is on sabbatical right now, so we lay ministers have divvied up weekdays for office hours, where we're present in the church building to answer the phone and interact with visitors. He says that, in real way, it's a two-month practice run for the time when he's NOT going to be next door 24/7.

    I'm quite happy doing AM and occasional fill-in preaching. I've been moodling doing some sort of small group, but the size of our congregation really militates against having more than one adult group on a Sunday morning. And I'm not interested competing against the pastor's Bible study.

    We DON'T have written job descriptions at this point, but I think they're a good idea, and will be essential in our congregation in the months to come.

  6. Wow, LutheranChik, I like what your reflections on team ministry and sharing the vision. Great insights.

  7. I wonder from the way the question is asked if the pastor has had lay people insist on getting their own way by leaning on the "denominational tradition of empowering laity." There is a big difference between empowering laity and letting them bully you. I've been struggling with that myself lately and it's caused me to wonder a lot about how much authority is the right amount. I suppose the truth is that there isn't any answer to that question. But I also am pretty sure that what a couple of my parishioners see as "dictatorial" in me (a young, female pastor) they would see as collaborative in a middle-aged man! My advice would be to be very intentional about being collaborative, such that you can list back to people later what you did to make sure you weren't just running things. Then their insistance that you're dis-empowering laity will not be so effective at under-cutting your ministry.


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