Reforming the language of church leadership

I have become very sensitive to how the language of church leadership can reinforce a clergy-centric understanding of ministry in both subtle and not so subtle ways.  Feminist theology has helped reveal how language affects our theological world view and our self-understanding.  But unfortunately, there has been less focus on how language – words, titles, names, and metaphors – frames thinking about clergy and lay roles.

Much of the church is now very intentional in using gender-neutral language to signal its openness toward women.  I have come to believe that the use of “inclusive language” is similarly important in establishing a more inclusive paradigm of ministry and affirming the work of lay servants.

I am beginning a series of posts considering how some of the words, concepts, and images frequently used in the lexicon of the church and the language of ministry exclude and demean lay persons.  Of paramount concern, of course, is the way we misuse and understand the words lay and laity.  I have previously discussed the need to reclaim  the biblical meaning of Laity as the “People of God” to counteract the secular definition of a lay person as someone who is inexpert or amateur. But many other words and images are used in careless, inexact, and exclusive ways that subtly marginalize lay persons and lay ministry.

I look forward to sharing my thoughts and hearing your opinions on how Words Matter!

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Lay Staff Salaries: The Elephant in the Room

For many congregations, there’s a simple dollars-and-cents logic to the shift toward more lay staffing.  One pastor responding to my research survey put it this bluntly:  “Lay staff is cheaper than ordained staff.”

For the “price” of one clergy person with a conference-mandated minimum salary, benefits package, and housing allowance, a congregation often can hire several part-time lay staff.  One survey respondent explained:  “Clergy are far too expensive.  We can hire numerous part-time program staff who do a single, highly focused task and do it well for the price of one clergy.  The single clergy would never approach the volume of work accomplished by these folks and there is a huge market looking for these creative part-time jobs.”

Yet there is sometimes a reluctance to discuss the financial reality of staffing patterns openly.   There is sensitivity among lay staff – particularly those with levels of preparation and responsibility similar to those of the ordained – to the fact that they are compensated less generously than their clergy colleagues.  And it is troubling to clergy that many elders are being “priced out” of large church, multi-staff ministry at the same time that a growing segment of small churches can no longer afford an ordained elder.  The economic reality of the boom in lay staffing is the elephant in the room.

What are some of the facts about lay staff salaries? My research found that:

  • Most full-time lay staff in United Methodist Churches earn between $30,000 to $50,000 a year.
  • In all the size categories of churches studied, more than 40 percent of full-time lay staff had salaries of less than $40,000 a year.
  • The percent of salaries above $50,000 was greatest in church with average attendance of a 1000 or more (31.2 %).  In other size categories studied, only 9 to 16 percent of full-time lay salaries were over $50,000 per year.
  • For those in full-time jobs, the percent with church-provided health insurance was 80.3 percent in the largest churches, 72.2 percent in churches with average attendance of 750 to 999, 39.1 percent in churches with attendance of 500 to 749, and 50 percent in churches of 350 to 499.
  • Among the survey respondents overall, which included part-timers, the percentage with insurance through their church job was substantially lower.
  • A large percentage of lay staff are part-timers who make less that $25,000 a year — many substantially less.

Disparate salaries and benefits can be a potential source of division between lay ministry practitioners and clergy.  Some lay staff resent the salary, fringe benefits, and job security that come with a conference “union card.” And some clergy are skeptical about the “outsourcing” of their trade to less educated, lower paid workers.

But an inclusive paradigm of ministry calls us beyond such “two-track” thinking.  We must acknowledge, first and foremost, that clergy and lay staff are in it together.  Congregations need to honor the principle of  equal pay for equal work while at the same time recognizing the importance and value of the levels of theological education and spiritual preparation that clergy bring to a staff team.   We must confront the elephant in the room!

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Laity are the People of God

I once heard a highly regarded clergy leader refer to a particular individual as “an M.Div. who is just a layperson.”  Even worse, I often hear laypersons describe themselves this way.  The regrettable tendency to qualify the word layperson with the “J-word” is rooted in the secular definition of a layperson as an amateur. In common usage the term layperson has come to mean inexpert, amateur, inexperienced, or ordinary.  In some cultures, the terms lay or laity  connote political anti-clericalism or the advocacy of reason and secularity against religion. Even within the church, there is a tendency to think of laity as secondary, as a lesser order of Christians.

These distorted understandings flow from the dualistic paradigm of ministry which places clergy and laity in counter distinction to one another.  However, the distinction between clergy and laity was unknown in biblical times.  The ritual of ordination did not emerge until sometime around the year 200 CE.   The construct of ordination grows out of the concept of “order” (ordo in Latin or taxis in Greek) – a concept linked to the Greco-Roman political and social order of the time.   The concept of order displays a penchant for distinction and heirarchy that was part of the cultural mindset of the Roman world. With this came a distinction between the clergy (derived from the Greek term klerikos, meaning chosen one) and the laity (from laikos, meaning people).

But this dichotomy is unsustainable when laity is properly understood to mean the people of God. Describing the church as “the people of God,” the writer of 1 Peter used the Greek word for people, laos, which is the source of the words laity and lay.  One does not cease to be a part of the people of God when one is ordained.  Clergy are not the opposite of the laity.  They are part of the people of God.  Clergy are not something other than the people of God.

Reclaiming the full biblical meaning of the term laos is necessary to correct the abuse of the terms lay and laity in both secular and religious language.  It is necessary to honor and affirm the ministry of the whole people of God.  .

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Called and Committed

As part of my research on lay professionals in United Methodist churches, I analyzed survey responses from more than 750 church staffers.  The survey posed the question:  “What motivated you to accept a church staff position?”  The desire to serve God was the top-ranked explanation followed by the job being a good use of their skills, the desire to serve the church, and then the chance to work in an environment they enjoyed.  The lowest ranked reason was “the need for a job.”

The vast majority of the survey respondents had a long-term commitment to church work.  In all church-size categories examined, around half of the respondent had been on the job at least five years and about a third for ten years or more.  Just about two-thirds deemed it likely that they would spend the rest of the career in church work, with the major factor influencing that decision being a sense of call to Christian service. 

Between 85 and 95 percent of the lay staff surveyed saw their work as a calling.  While most said that they had been encouraged by someone else to consider their work a calling, about ten percent of lay staffers have come to understand their job as a calling on their own. 

Unfortunately, the theology and language of call is used too often in ways that exclude lay persons.  When we allow the phrase “answering the call” to be reduced to jargon for entering ordained ministry, lay staffers can easily assume that call does not apply to them.   Although call theology is prevalent in the literature and language of pastoral identity, too many lay persons are never encouraged to consider, examine, or share their call.

New ways of speaking about and listening for call can encourage all people who devote their energies to the church’s mission to hear the whispers of call in the events of their lives and the quiet of their hearts.  Taking great care to address the issue of clerical calling within the larger context of God’s call to all Christians prevents lay persons from feeling that God’s call does not extend to them.

In this day when the Spirit of God is calling so many lay persons to professional ministry, we can affirm the work of these committed servants by nurturing an inclusive understanding of call and calling.

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Rethinking the myths of church staffing

My research on staffing patterns in United Methodist Churches casts new light on some commonly held myths about church staffing.

MYTH ONEMost lay staff work in administrative and support roles.  In the churches studied, 35 to 39 percent of lay staff work in administrative, operational, and support roles.  This means, of course, that almost two-thirds of lay staff work in other areas of ministry, such as children and youth, music and worship, and other programmatic ministries. It is no longer the case that church staffers can be dismissed merely as functionaries.     While my research focused on larger churches, there is direct and indirect evidence to suggest that smaller churches increasingly rely on lay staff in programmatic roles as well.

MYTH TWO:  Most lay staff work in very large churches. While it is true that very large churches tend to have very large staffs, their staffs do not constitute the majority of lay staff in the denomination.  My research suggests that only about 12 percent of an estimated 40,000 or more lay church employees work in the largest churches (those with average attendance of 1,000 or more.)   More lay persons are employed by churches with attendance of 350 to 499 than by those with average attendance over 1,000.  And there are more employees in churches with attendance below 350 than above.

MYTH THREE:  Mega churches are more heavily staffed than other churches.  Another common perception is that there is something about the scale of operations or the model of ministry in very large churches that requires them to be more heavily staffed than other churches.  One of the most surprising findings of this research is that the ratio of lay staff to worship attendance actually decreases as churches get larger.  Churches with average attendance of 1000 or more have an average of one lay staff person for every 55 worshipers while churches in the 350 to 500 attendance range have one for every 40 worshipers.  While the amount of non-clergy compensation per worshipper is higher in larger churches due to higher pay scales and the presence of more full-time staff, they also have substantially fewer clergy per worshiper.  So the total compensation – clergy and non-clergy together – appears to be less in the largest churches.  Additional research on clergy staffing in large churches is necessary to confirm this suspicion.  But it calls into question the notion that the large church staffing model is inherently inefficient.

Indeed, one of the major learnings of my research is that there is a great deal of consistency in the patterns of staffing across the size tiers studied.   Staffs are larger, more diversified, and more specialized in the largest churches, but in board terms, the pattern is generally “more of the same.”    The smaller churches studied tend to have staff in many of the same areas as large churches, but their staff is more likely to be working on a part-time or very-part-time basis.

MYTH FOUR: Lay staffs are almost exclusively female.  This project found that lay staffs in the congregations studied are preponderantly, but by no means exclusively, female.  Overall, the percentage of female staff in the churches studied is about 70 percent and the percentage falls to 65 percent in the very largest churches (attendance over 2,000) were a higher percentage of staff is full-time.  While men are in the minority, to overlook the ministry of men who serve as  lay staff  would be just as egregious as ignoring the 25 percent of ordained elders who are women.

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An invisible army of 40,000-plus church workers

Over the past two years, I have been researching lay staffing patterns in United Methodist Churches.  I have studied in depth the staff configuration of about 400 churches and surveyed hundreds of lay staffers and clergy.  (See the Methodology and Findings pages for more details.)

My research reveals that the preferred model of staffing in many churches has moved away from the traditional emphasis on full-time ordained clergy toward a larger number of lay staff.  Over the past several decades, this trend has been fuel by a number of factors:

  • the influence of the megachurch model of ministry
  • a changing culture of volunteerism
  • the demand for specialized programmatic ministries
  • a shift away from clergy generalists in favor of lay specialists, many of whom are part-time
  • a preference for lay hires because of their lower salaries and the control local churches can exercise in their hiring.

Denomination-wide, the percentage of total church expenditures spent on non-clergy compensation has grown consistently over the past two decades.   In 2008, the denominational average was 19.4 percent.  In every size category studied, and in the denomination as a whole, that percentage had grown consistently since 1989 when records were first kept.

Using staff totals derived by analyzing the staff listings on church websites together with statistics on non-clergy compensation in churches of different sizes, I was able to estimate that there are at least 40,000 part-time and full-time lay personnel in United Methodist churches. Roughly half work in churches with average attendance of 350 or more and half in smaller churches.

These co-laborers in the vineyard often go to unnoticed by agencies and institutions beyond the local church – annual conferences, denominational agencies, and theological seminaries.  Yet they are the front line of ministry in an increasing number of churches.  They constitute on “invisible army” dedicated to the work of providing Christian nurture to our children, counseling our youth, leading the ministries that engage others in Christian formation, education, and outreach, offering worship, and ordering the life of the church in a myriad of vital ways.   Over the past several decades, their work has become increasingly important to many congregations, especially larger churches, but not exclusively in larger churches.

I have tried to learn who these servants are, what they do, and how they understand themselves and their ministries.

 

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Why Focus on Lay Ministry Practitioners?

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?

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