Toward a Theology of Lay Ministry: throwback Thursday

This is a lecture originally delivered in November 2006 to master’s level ministry students at what is now known as the Eastern Region Ministry Course, based in Cambridge, UK.  It was also shared with students at Ripon College Cuddesdon, and the Oxford Ministry Course.  It was developed further for a symposium on ecclesiology at the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium) in November of 2008.

I stand by the vast majority of what I said in this, and think that it needs a wider sharing.

Toward a Practical Theology of Lay Minstry

Dr Wendy Dackson, Research Fellow

                                   Ripon College Cuddesdon

Although most Christians are not ordained, there is very little coherent reflection on the place and purpose of the laity in the Church, and what distinctive ministry they exercise. In this lecture, I will attempt a theological exploration concerning the vocation of the lay Christian, the gifts the laity exercise on behalf of the ecclesial community, and the authority by which their particular place is recognised.

  1. Introduction: There really isn’t a practical theology of lay ministry.

In the last year or so, most of my work has focussed on clergy, and much of what was said about lay ministry in that context was concerned with how to share ‘priestly’ tasks with lay people.  Partly, this is understandable.  Stipendiary clergy are spread more thinly than before, so there have been a lot of justifications for sharing out the work, based on the concept of ‘the priesthood of all believers’.  I’m not sure I think this is particularly helpful.  I am most disturbed by a strategy document from the Diocese of Derby in 1998 called ‘A Better Way.’  It claims to be ‘in support of [the] fundamental ministry of the baptised’.  It is, however, driven by ‘the reduction in the number of clergy’, creating an ‘emphasis on lay ministry’, and most especially on authorised ministry.  The language is that of episcopate and priesthood, rather than allowing the laity to contribute to the life and ministry of the church in and through their distinctive vocation.

It would be logical to think that Congregational Studies would be fertile ground for such reflection.  This body of work may still prove to be a resource, but it is not there yet.  Congregational studies are still focused on the clergy and their relations with the congregation, and most often, with key individuals (stellar or otherwise) within those settings. Notably, work in the field such as Penny Edgell Becker’s Congregations in Conflict focus on difficult relationships between clergy and their congregants, and laity can too easily be presented as either a problem for clergy to solve, or an illness to be eradicated.  In Britain, the two ‘textbook’ works in Congregational Studies do not have an index entry, let alone a chapter, devoted to lay ministry.

I trace a part of the difficulty, to the quote by Archbishop William Temple, that ‘Nine-tenths of the work of the Church in the world is done by Christian people fulfilling responsibilities and performing tasks which in themselves are not part of the official system of the Church at all.’ Ronald Preston insisted that the Church needed to listen to the expertise that lay people brought from their professions when the Church had to make ethical statements. We honour what individuals bring, but we have no articulated notion of what it means to be a part of this class of people called ‘laity.’

Archbishop Robert Runcie gives a more generalised view of lay ministry in his book on authority. He articulated the vocation of lay people, saying that the ‘unordained part of the people of God have a pro-active role in testing, scrutinizing and proposing how the faith must be proclaimed to those who have the ministry of listening on behalf of the church.’[1]  This raises questions about who the ‘people of God’ are who have this responsibility. I suggest the notion of ‘laity’ is layered, much in the same way that citizenship is—an infant born in the United States is a ‘citizen’, but not in the sense of an adult.

Furthermore, despite the move to devolve more of the clerical tasks onto lay people, there is a decided lack of attention to the diaconal focus of the church’s life.  A reconsideration may be in order.  David Clark argues strongly for a ‘diaconal church’[2]  However, his view of laity is still very much that of people who receive the ministry of the ordained, and take their guidance and insights out into the world.  I am, however, concerned with the one-way flow of the church’s ministry:  clergy educate the laity for their work.  Lay persons are to be ‘community builders’ for the ‘dispersed church in the world’, clergy are to resource this.   However, there is little mention of the laity’s role in educating the clergy:  through their local knowledge and expertise, the relationships they have in the communities in which they live and work.

Runcie’s description of the vocation lay people exercise is more a more dynamic partnership which requires that the clergy reflect on the experience and expertise of the world outside what one priest called the ‘holy huddle of parish life.’

  1. Mapping Out the Territory

The Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer for ECUSA (1979) asks the following questions:

  1. Who are the ministers of the Church?
  2. The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons.
  1. What is the ministry of the laity?
  2. The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.

This first question and answer pair suggests that laity could (perhaps should) be considered as a distinct order of ministers, but it is still questionable whether ‘lay persons’ refers to a collective identity or just an aggregate of individuals. The second question doesn’t help to clarify: ‘the laity’ is singular, indicating that there is a specific collective vocational identity for ministry.  But immediately, it switches to plural, and dissolves into a series of individualised tasks.  So, as we work toward articulating a theology of lay ministry, the first question suggested by the Outline of the Faith is whether or not there is a distinctive vocation, or at least markers for lay ministry.  But that raises questions that need to be considered first.


III. A Biblical Exploration

Occasionally, someone will say that ‘laity’ comes from laos, and thus clergy are also laity.  It’s rare in the church that we actually live our etymologies with much exactness.  While there have been periods of history when the distinction between lay and ordained Christians has been sharper than others, I am not entirely convinced that there was ever a time when no differentiation existed.

This vocational differentiation is at least suggested in the synoptic Gospels.  Looking at the call of the first disciples, Mark’s gospel begins to make this distinction:

As he was walking along by the Lake of Galilee he saw Simon and Simon’s brother Andrew casting a net in the lake—for they were fishermen.  And Jesus said to them, ‘Come after me and I will make you fishers of people.’  And at once they left their nets and followed him.

Going on a little further, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John; they too were in their boat, mending the nets.  At once he called them and, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the men he employed, they went after him.[3]

We often hear about the vocation of the four and generally understand that as a call to ministry in another place. We hear much less about the tacit vocation of Zebedee and the men he employed.  And yet, I think it’s worth thinking about this in terms of what the vast majority of Christians whose service to the church is in the place where they encounter God through Jesus in the course of their daily lives.

It is the father, the employer who has been left on the lakeshore, to continue the work he was doing.  Without the crucial skills James and John learned from their father, they would have no deep understanding of Jesus’ call to be ‘fishers of people.’  It is reasonable to think that Zebedee was successful in his business (he needed workers beyond his own sons), and well-respected in the community.  Furthermore, he had the ability to bring a valuable resource to others in the local community.

I would summarise this brief biblical reflection as indicating that lay ministry requires (at minimum):

  1. Transmitting a memory and skill set from which all ministry (lay and ordained) issues.
  2. Stewardship in the form of resource conservation and development—not just giving.
  3. Relationship to and roots in the local community.

Without these things, there is no basis for the vocation to ordination to develop, and no place for ordained ministers to serve.

Additionally, when I had this discussion with students a few weeks ago, there was much objection to saying that ‘lay ministry’ requires more than baptism.  Examples were given of children ‘ministering’ to others just by being children, or people who were incapacitated or suffering in some way ‘ministering’ to others.  I am very cautious about this.  If it is ministry, it is a very passive form—God ministering through, rather than a ministry to which someone is called.  If another’s suffering, or difficulty is a ‘ministry’,  it needs to be measured by suffering of Jesus—a conscious, willing, mature, purposeful bearing of difficulty.  Otherwise, I wonder how much of it is justifying another person’s misfortune by the beneficial spiritual effect it may have on others.

  1. Proposing Some Answers

Moving forward from a brief biblical reflection, I would like to propose some (perhaps surprising) answers to the questions I’ve put before us.

First, who are the laity?  Are all baptised persons, including infants, ‘lay’ in the sense of being able to fulfil the vocational tasks?  Undoubtedly all baptised persons, whether adult or child, are full members of the Christian community.  However, according to Yves Congar, a layperson has the ‘duty, and the corresponding right’ to become an adult Christian.  [4]  The US Catholic Bishops say that ‘[A]dulthood implies knowledge, experience and awareness, freedom and responsibility, and mutuality in relationships’, and that lay adults are ‘called to exercise the same mature interdependence and practical self-direction which characterize them in other areas of life.’[5]  To the extent that these qualities are present, lay ministry becomes possible.

Secondly, when can it be confidently said that a person is now ready to exercise lay ministry? Confirmation might be a ritual marker.   But is it necessary to mark all Christian service with a liturgical or ritual occasion?  Unlike ordained ministry, the tasks of which are generally considered invalid without such a ritual acknowledgement, lay ministry is gradually (almost invisibly) ‘grown into.’

By what claim/commission does the laity exercise its vocation? There are certainly particular ministries (such as Readers) that must be authorised.  But again, I would argue that they are more a delegation of tasks commonly associated with ordained ministry—somewhere between ordained ministry and a sort of ‘pure’ lay vocation. I think most of the vocation of the laity is not authorised ‘from above’—the Bishop does not confer the ability to provide resources, memory or skills on any lay person, and there is no liturgical celebration by which this is done.  Rather, they are acknowledged ‘from below’:  other people, lay and ordained, will identify these local experts.

I am also concerned that David Clark has adopted the idea that geographic parishes are becoming more irrelevant to Christian living and mission.  Although it may well be true that people no longer live their lives entirely or even predominantly within  parochial boundaries, it is equally true that as embodied creatures we do live in physical locations.  Clark says that one of the great assets of the ‘communal group’, one of the core social collectives he identifies as something the church should strive for, is that it can ‘be l located anywhere’, it is ‘not restricted to a particular place.’  It may even include overlaps between several places, such as when people live in one place and commute to jobs.  But it cannot be ‘no-place’.  The laity will best experience these overlaps and disjunctures, and they must have some role of instructing the clergy on how best to work in a commuter world.

All of the foregoing indicates that lay ministry is a mixed economy. The mixture determining whether any ministry may be exercised by a particular person must take into consideration the church, the persons for whom the ministry exists, and sometimes non-ecclesiastical sources.  Some ministries are simply acknowledged by the congregation because someone does them well when they are needed, and they don’t need to be authorised.  Others need to be cleared with authorities concerned with child safety and welfare, and might be required to undergo a background check or specific training.  Readers or authorised lay preachers have canonical requirements to fulfil.  Furthermore, for some ministries, secular standards are applicable, and the training for them may come largely from non-church entities.

It is more difficult to say where the ‘exit’ for lay ministry is. There may come a time in the life of very active lay persons when conscious, willing and mature participation is difficult or impossible.  Is lay vocation indelible in the same way that priestly ordination is?  That is an open question.  It may make sense to explore the concept of ‘retired laity’ in the same way we speak of ‘retired clergy’, or leaves of absence—an irrevocable state, but not currently engaged in active ministry.

This leads to a final question. There is much talk about what is given at ordination, in terms of the authorisation to celebrate sacraments, give assurance of forgiveness of sins, and so forth.  But I wish to ask: is anything taken away? If lay vocation is primarily exercised locally, and ordained ministry most commonly means leaving one’s community of vocational discernment and testing, it becomes impractical to continue to exercise lay vocation once one is ordained.  Furthermore, the usual pattern of stipendiary ordained ministry involves several changes of location over the course of a career. So, much in the contemporary practice of ordained ministry creates barriers to the deep local memory and relationship that is implied by lay leadership.  It also raises the question of lay people who relocate being acknowledged in their new place.  One rarely steps into acknowledged lay leadership after a move in the same way that ordained ministry is recognised regardless of location.

  1. Summary: Toward a Theology of the Laity

A well-articulated theology of lay ministry has not, in my mind, been developed—at least not for mature twenty-first century Christians.  Practical and pastoral theology are raw materials.  Congregational studies could be a rich resource, but at the moment I question its accurate portrayal of the laity as a whole.

A practical theology of lay ministry will attempt answers to the questions I have described.  Moreover, questions of how best to discern and develop lay vocation need to be addressed from both theological and secular sources.  Most importantly, such a theological examination that is continually examined and refined to meet current challenges while drawing on the richness of the Christian intellectual and spiritual traditions, can make a vital contribution to the future life of the Church and is therefore an urgent task.

[1] Robert Runcie, Authority in Crisis? An Anglican Response. London:  SCM Press, 1988.  p.  48.

[2] David Clark, Breaking the Mould of Christendom: Kingdom Community, Diaconal Church and the Liberation of the Laity. Peterborough:  Epworth Press, 2005.

[3] Mark 1:16-20, New Jerusalem Bible.

[4] Congar, Laity, Church and World, 23.

[5] USCCB, ‘Called and Gifted’, para. 8.


9 thoughts on “Toward a Theology of Lay Ministry: throwback Thursday

  1. Thanks for this, Wendy. Do you have this in .pdf form? If yes, and you’re willing to let me have it for personal use (I will create links to this blog version if I need to refer to it for others), can you DM me a copy? Blessings.

  2. My Canadian $0.02 worth (which is even less given the exchange these days). There is ministry, and ordained ministry — saying “lay ministry” is kind of like saying “pizza pie” — it’s a redundancy. If you want to distinguish these, what about “baptized ministry” and “ordained ministry.” When we say “ministry” and “lay ministry,” it continues the tacit assumption that somehow the ministry of the baptized has less dignity than the ordained.

    1. Unfortunately, David, the tacit assumption is very much the reality. It is treated by the church as having less dignity than the ordained–no matter what the ordained say.

      It’s one of the reasons I’ve distanced myself from church participation.

      I spent a couple of years doing observer-participation research with clergy. After it happened about 100 times, I stopped counting when a priest or bishop started their comments to me with “Well, you wouldn’t know this because you’re not ordained, BUT…”

      Bull$#!+. I studied in an Episcopal seminary alongside those training for ordination. I know exactly what they studied, what kinds of attitudes and habits of mind are “formed” in seminaries. Some of it is very good, but there is this underlying assumption that lay people are somehow inferior Christians to the ordained, or that the laity is a problem to be solved or enemy to be conquered.

      I’ve kind of had it with that.

  3. I too prefer to talk about the ministry of the baptized or the ministries of the baptized. Bishops, priests and deacons then have specific functional roles within and for the sake of the health of the whole community of the baptized. No one would want to go to a lay doctor. In cultural use, lay means unprofessional and has nothing to do with being part of the whole people of God.

    1. And yet, the ministries of bishop, priest, and deacon are also baptized ministries. Lay is the only term we have for those who are *not* ordained that doesn’t indicate a lack of something.

      Perhaps we need a different word than “lay” ministries (as in somehow not adequate to the task) and “baptized” (because ordained ministry is also baptized–or damn well better be–and something to differentiate the ministry of those who can be trusted not to be ordained from those who the church needs to control more closely).

    2. Additionally, there are some grey areas.

      I am not ordained, but with a Ph.D. in theology from a large Jesuit university, am I a “lay theologian”? (A qualification that the vast majority of priests do not have, by the way.) Does a collar make a priest more of a professional theologian than I am, even if s/he has only the minimal qualifications for ordination?

      Are my abilities as a theologian less important to the church because I am not ordained? The truth is, the church definitely has behaved that way for the last 20 years in which I’ve been trying to offer those abilities to the church. It pays lip service otherwise, but actions speak much louder than words.

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