Keeping lay leaders active

If you've ever watched in frustration as a lay leader became less and less involved, and finally faded from the scene, perhaps meaningful involvement was what was missing. How is your church's involvement quotient?

Lawrence G. Downing is pastor of the Anaheim Seventh-day Adventist Church in Anaheim, California.

This is the last constituency meeting I will ever attend. All we are is a rubber stamp. Our opinions count for nothing."

The woman's words cut the air. The speaker, one of the delegates from my church, had been elected to represent us because of her keen insight, her administrative skills, and her acquaintance with how the Adventist Church functions. She had grown up in the system, had attended Adventist schools, and was a highly trained professional. Now she was angry. As she spoke, her anger began to affect those of us who listened. We nodded our agreement. Our frustration grew with hers as we listened to her develop the reasons for the disappointment she felt. Several expressed similar opinions. It was not a happy experience.

Reflecting on what my parishioner said, I recall some of the thoughts that went through my mind: I agree. The organization has gotten so big that one person's opinion has little effect. How can one feel part of anything that big? You're right. What's the use? We are just rubber stamps.

Then another thought hit home: This woman is not involved in our local church either! Does she feel the same way about it? What has alienated her?

It certainly is not my intention to alienate people. I do not want folks to come away from our meetings believing that they have wasted their time. I want each person to feel he or she is important and that his or her ideas have been seriously considered. But as I reviewed the church membership list, I came to realize that more than half of the members have little or no involvement in the church program. They do not even attend services, much less contribute in some way to what we are trying to do. Here I am ready to labor with the conference brethren when there's trouble right here in River City!

I confess that it is more satisfying and much less threatening to consider problems affecting the conference than those that lurk on my own doorstep. However, after reflecting on what my parishioners have said, I would like to suggest that the question of lay involvement in church governance begins at the local church level. It is our opportunity as clergy to design programs that prepare people for meaningful involvement in all levels of church governance. It is likewise our opportunity to educate men and women on how the church operates, how decisions are made, and how they can use their influence in the decision-making process.

That's the secret, I thought: education. Educate the laypeople, and our problems are over. But in the midst of my cogitations a disturbing thought crept in: Do I really want people to have meaningful involvement, or do I prefer to share decision-making only in those areas that I select? Is it possible that I have become comfortable with my hierarchy of decision-making and decision-makers and don't want anyone else involved?

When laypeople began to take a less active role in church leadership a vacuum developed. (I believe evidence is available to support the proposition that at one time laypersons had a greater leadership role in the Adventist Church than they do now.) We clergy stepped in to fill that vacuum and have rather enjoyed its rarefied atmosphere.

Wilfred M. Hillock wrote in his book Involved, "The most important earthly position in the Christian church is that occupied by those filling the pews."1 Many religious professionals would agree with Hillock. But belief does not always work itself out in practice. I have observed that we have established unwritten but clearly defined and understood boundaries beyond which laypeople are neither invited nor involved. Our delegate confronted one such boundary at the constituency meeting and came away angry. I believe that similar boundaries exist in the local church. We religious professionals must face the challenge of bringing our practice into harmony with our stated beliefs.

Who sets the goals?

In A Gathering of Strangers 2 Robert C. Worley discusses personal and organizational goals. We Adventists understand goals. But think for a moment. Where do our goals originate? Who talks most about goals? Is it clergy and administrators, or is it the people in the pew? It is not that there is something inherently wrong in discussing and establishing goals. A person's well-being depends upon setting personal and organizational goals. At issue is the process we use for determining organizational goals, and the extent to which we allow or desire the people in the pew to be involved in that process. Unilaterally established goals do not encourage congregational participation.

But we do not always stop at establishing goals and objectives for our members. Consider the effect upon people when we reserve significant decision- making as our special function. How do delegates feel when we proclaim that we cannot allow such and such a decision to be made, or tell them that they must take a particular action?

Religion and religious leaders wield a powerful force in people's lives. We would do well to examine how we use that power. Men and women may bow under the pressure of a strong person, but afterward they will feel great resentment.

If they feel that they have been manipulated, they may simply withdraw rather than continue to resist. Their withdrawal will create another vacuum, and the church will suffer.

Worley calls the church a gathering of strangers that "exhibits a mixture of many kinds and degrees of involvement of persons." 3 He further proposes that a person's level of involvement with a congregation is directly affected by three factors: personal, congregational, and organizational goals.

Goals, he reminds us, are established through organizational process and arrangement. In establishing congregational and organizational goals, personal goals may be ignored, but only at great peril.

The goal establishment process is itself an exercise of power. We clergy do not usually discuss power and its use except with close friends and in a quiet voice. It's time to speak up. After all, we know how to use power and how to use organizational process to achieve our purposes and goals.

We have been equally hesitant to articulate how organizational power affects church members' involvement, what I call their "involvement quotient," or IQ. The greater involvement, the higher the IQ. When we clergy establish goals and ask our church members to work toward fulfilling those goals the IQ is lower than when we use an inclusive process that incorporates the goals the church members believe important. Yet, merely involving people is not in itself adequate.

"If persons have goals which they think are important," says Worley, "these goals assume the force of a moral imperative: 'We should.' 'We ought to.' If persons holding goals lack power to attain them, they may calculate and plan ways in which they can achieve them nonetheless. Or they may make statements and engage in actions by which they become increasingly estranged from leaders and other members, behavior that psychologists call alienative involvement. They may even manifest that ultimate form of alienative involvement, withdrawal." 4 Worley points out that withdrawal is the most intense and dramatic form of estrangement. We in the church have witnessed this and it troubles us. It troubles me. But I have been reluctant to initiate ways to find out why some of my most valued people have left the church. When I look I do not like what I find. I have avoided having to deal with withdrawal, because it is silent. But my congregation has paid the terrible price of the loss of involved members.

The involvement quotient becomes even lower as we move from the local church to the local conference and then to the union and the General Conference. Suggestions have been made and evidence presented that the situation may be changing. Laypersons are taking a stronger role in the decision-making process. Constitutions now mandate that specific proportions of laypeople be elected to local, union, and General Conference committees.

The challenge

We as religious leaders are challenged to bring to fulfillment our ideals and to give life to our hopes and dreams, while at the same time being true to the gospel and to the Lord whom we serve. We likewise do well to remind ourselves that others may differ with us about how a plan, program, or proposal can best be implemented. It might also be well on occasion to remind ourselves that ordination may bring authority, but not infallibility. A disagreement with the pastor is not equal to a disagreement with God. Even election as a conference officer does not provide infallibility.

We have within our churches some of the finest, most dedicated, and well-trained men and women in the world. These are the people I want to keep from alienating. The key to keeping them with us is, I believe, meaningful involvement. We clergy can make the situation better or worse, depending on how much meaningful involvement we are pre pared to let our laypeople have. Here are some suggestions for opening the doors to involvement:

First, we clergy need to learn to openly welcome those who may have opinions that are different from ours. We in the parish have an opportunity to encourage a climate where divergent views are cherished and those who propose differing ideas are welcomed.

Second, the church board and pastor can work together to create a purpose and goals document for the church.

Third, local church leaders need to learn how the political process within the church functions. Those who are selected as delegates to constituency meetings might well be briefed as to what they can expect, how their voice can be most effective, what they can do, and how to do it. Specifically, we clergy can share our political expertise with the laypeople and clearly describe for them what makes the system tick.

Fourth, when people disagree with us we can avoid making a moral issue of it. It is natural for us to avoid those who oppose us. It requires special grace to model acceptance.

Fifth, we can share with the church members in developing a theology of leadership and together examine the implications involved in the New Testament teaching concerning the priesthood of all believers. We need to give special emphasis to determining how this applies to leadership.

Sixth, we can establish a pulpit/parish committee to which the pastor is accountable on the local church level. This committee should be responsible for evaluating how the pastor performs and how effectively the pastor guides the church toward implementing its purpose and goals statement.

From experience I know that this is not an easy process. I have spent frustrating hours with my church members working through the development of a statement of goals and a statement of purpose. Regular evaluation by the pulpit/parish committee, established at my recommendation, is not the most pleasant experience. Having people disagree with me and counter my proposals, even reject them, is not fun. But giving them the opportunity to do so communicates worth to them.

If the people in the pews are the most important members of the church, let's treat them accordingly!

1 Wilfred M. Hillock, Involved (Nashville:
Southern Pub. Assn., 1977), p. 13.

2 Robert C. Worley, A Gathering of Strangers
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976).

3 lbid., p. 28.

4 Ibid., p. 29.

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Lawrence G. Downing is pastor of the Anaheim Seventh-day Adventist Church in Anaheim, California.

October 1986

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