I am a United Methodist layperson. For the past eighteen years, I have dedicated myself to ministry full-time – what some people call professional ministry in that it is my chosen occupation and my life’s work. Like other laypersons with serious commitments to ministry, I often find myself running afoul of the expectation in our church and our culture that ministry is the work of the ordained. We are in many ways betwixt and between. Sometimes we are expected by virtue of our status as lay persons to wear the hat of a church member. And sometimes we are expected by virtue of our job responsibilities to assume the attitudes, protocols, and responsibilities of the ordained. The problem is, it can be quite tricky to figure out who expects you to behave in which manner and when.
As a lay ministry practitioner, I also find myself in another paradox. My role is still somewhat unusual in that it defies certain expectations. Depending on one’s ministry setting, it can still be fairly rare. In many of my professional encounters, I am the only lay person in the room. But at the same time, lay professional ministry is becoming increasingly common. A significant increase in lay church staffs is widely acknowledged, yet no one is monitoring the trend in the United Methodist Church.
In 2007, I was one of the instructors for a course entitled “Theological Issues for Church Staffs” in Wesley Theological Seminary’s Equipping Lay Ministry program. Preparing for this course, I was surprised to discover an almost complete paucity of information and literature related to lay staff ministry in my denomination. But I discovered a lively dialogue and discussion about lay ministry among scholars and theologians in the U.S. Catholic Church. I was struck by the irony of this, as I considered the priesthood of all believers to be a Reformation doctrine.
In the U.S. Catholic Church, more than 30,000 lay persons are part of the ecclesial workforce. By the late 1990s, the number of lay ministers had actually surpassed the number of priests in parish ministry. Admittedly, some of the factors fueling the growth of lay ecclesial ministry in the Catholic Church (the shortage of priests and the prohibition against ordaining women) are not at play in United Methodism. But lay ministry is growing for a myriad of other reasons. The lay empowerment movement, the growth of multi-staffed megachurches, and the demand for specialized programmatic ministries are part of this trend. In smaller congregations, particularly those that cannot support full-time clergy, laity assume many vital ministry functions.
Learning of the 30,000 lay ecclesial ministers in the U.S. Catholic Church caused me to wonder: How many lay persons are in the United Methodist Church’s ecclesial work force? Is it possible that lay ministry practitioners outnumber the ordained in United Methodist churches as well? It seems that no one has taken a head count.
In this blog, I will share what I have learned about the magnitude and nature of lay staff ministry in the United Methodist Church through research conducted over the past two years for a Doctor of Ministry Project Thesis on The New Church Leaders: Lay Ministry Professionals in the United Methodist Church. And I will attempt to articulate the theological underpinnings of a more inclusive paradigm of ministry that transcends the dividing line between clergy and laity.
I begin the blog with this question: What do you see happening with lay staff patterns in your church?