Let the Laity do their work!

They will, says the author, if the pastor properly defines his own role.

Lynn Mallery is assistant professor of applied theology at Loma Linda University.

Which ministerial skill does a pas tor feel least qualified to exercise? Preaching? Counseling the dying? Mending tattered family relation ships?

All are challenging, as every pas tor will acknowledge. But the answer is none of these. It is inspiring and training lay persons for Christian service.

This is the response found most often in a recent study which listed twenty-eight ministerial skills that had been developed within five years of seminary graduation. Only 33.7 percent of the ministers responding felt adequately prepared to deal with this pastoral function. 1

How important is this skill? Church administrators often list it as the major role of the ministry! Certainly a church with the whole congregation witnessing to the community has a broader impact than one in which the minister alone is the bearer of good news.

But let me say right here: My purpose is not to propose new methods of securing lay involvement in witness. We've all gone through dozens of such programs—each with its built-in guarantee of success. Rather I'd like to look at several reasons the problem exists. My thesis is that lack of lay involvement in the church often can be traced to the pastor's definition of his role. Too often he is trying to be an Immanuel Kant a century too late. Before he died, in 1804, Kant taught a broad range of subjects such as logic, metaphysics, physical geography, anthropology, moral philosophy, mathematics, and a number of less-important ones.2 Kant was one of the last of the generalists.

Generalization was possible in the nineteenth century because technical knowledge was limited compared to today. With the recent explosion of knowledge, roles have changed in many fields. A few years ago a physician in general practice could have an adequate understanding of medicine; today he finds himself in a narrow specialty.

The minister should recognize that he, in a sense, is one of the last remaining generalists in a world of specialists. His church expects him to know something about preaching, teaching, architecture, building construction, education, church finance, as well as a multitude of other subjects. Fifty years ago he may have succeeded; today he would do well to confess his inadequacy.

A friend who for many years had worked as a teacher was placed in an administrative position. At that moment, he found, he was expected to make all decisions on all topics. He was expected to decide the color of the carpet when the building was redecorated, to work over the bud get, and to solve a marriage problem. He concluded that he might soon learn to believe that he actually did know about everything and therefore begin to play that role.

The pastor, too, soon realizes that most decisions are expected to come from him, whatever his competence. Knowledge of behavior modification helps us understand how he may begin to play the role his congregation expects of him. That is, he will begin to act as if he does know most things about almost every topic.

Not long ago a pastor told a member of a former congregation that he appreciated what this lay person along with others had done during several church projects. The pastor was amazed to hear the lay person reply, "You are the first pas tor who has ever indicated that you didn't know about everything. We have always wanted to help our pas tors, but we thought we should never step into his area."

Is it possible that we, as pastors, have become programmed by our congregations to be the expert on everything? In brief, is it possible that our attitude is one of the reasons lay people are not involved in the church today? Do we need to redefine our role before expecting them to redefine theirs?

I believe the answer is Yes. Here are four steps toward a more effective ministry of lay leadership:

1. We should admit that we do not know everything. It takes a man who is realistic about his abilities and his limitations to tell his church board, "I don't know a great deal about finance, and I need your help," or "I'm a novice in building construction, and you can help me in this area." These are not confessions of inadequacy, but a defining of role. Pastors who have done this have been pleased to find how lay people will cooperate when they feel needed.

2. Admit what we do know. The pastor does have a specialty. He is trained to preach, to visit, to teach, to do certain types of pastoral counseling, and to do grief work. Lay people generally are glad to exercise their specialties to give a pastor time to perform his.

3. Spend time on your pastoral role. If you spend all your time on what the lay people could do and not on what you have been trained to do, they will expect you to carry out their role. If, on the other hand, they see you are being a real pastor to them, they will be more willing to become involved with their role.

4. Accept the doctrine of spiritual gifts. If our theology of witnessing includes the role of the laity, we must believe that they, too, have been given special gifts to exercise in communicating the gospel. The good administrator develops and uses other peoples' talents. Be willing to recognize gifts in others and admit where your weaknesses are, as well as affirm your strengths.

I have not suggested specific items that the lay person should do. I have suggested that if the pastor properly defines his role, he may better allow the lay people to play theirs.


1 Don Jacobson, "Preparation for Ministry: A Study of the 1969-1973 Graduates of the Seventh-day
Adventist Theological Seminary" (unpublished Doctor of Ministry dissertation, Howard University, 1973), p. 54.

2 C. A. Beckwith, "Kant, Immanuel," The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, VI, pp. 294-296.

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Lynn Mallery is assistant professor of applied theology at Loma Linda University.

April 1978

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