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Equipping lay people for significant ministry is a great idea. But if my experience has taught me anything, it's that there are at least five good reasons not to do it.
If I had a choice between getting all the people in my city to an evangelistic crusade or having a lay person with an infectious love for Jesus work beside each of them at their jobs for one week, I'd certainly choose the latter. The same goes for our church's gatherings: Rather than have a few professionals participate while most watch, I'd choose to see every member actively involved.
At least, that's a more accurate picture of ministry as the New Testament paints it. As with many things, however, great ideas don't readily translate into reality. Consider the following difficulties.
1. They aren't as competent. I've heard some of the advice well-meaning lay people have passed on to others under the guise of counseling. It's scary. So is sitting through a worship service led by someone who has never done it before. It's safer to leave it in the hands of trained professionals.
After helping lead a troubled young mother to Jesus, I introduced her to a member of our leadership team for further counsel and encouragement.
A few months later, I got a call from the young mother. Things weren't going so well, and she told me how lonely she was. I asked if she had been getting help from the woman I'd introduced her to. "We got together a few times," the woman said, "but she didn't know how to help me, so we dropped it."
I cringe when that happens. I can't stand to see someone make a mistake with someone else's life. My training and experience are rich resources I bring into every ministry experience. I value them, realizing few in our fellowships come close to my preparation level. Although I've made my share of mistakes, my "batting average" is much higher than that of most lay people.
How can I really care about people and hand them off to others who don't carry the same qualifications for ministry? And when I do, how do I live with the mistakes they make?
2. They aren't as committed to the program. Recently we had a meeting of our curriculum team, a group of eight parents who formulate lessons for our children's classes. Only two came. One stayed home to finish the curriculum that was supposed to be handed in two weeks before. Two people forgot, even though they had helped choose the date. One was never notified, and two more haven't been to a meeting in months.
That would never happen with paid staff. Their responsibility to their jobs and their desire to see the church succeed are useful motives volunteers lack. Lay people aren't committed enough to drop everything when the need seems to demand it. They often have to work late, attend a family reunion, or stay home to watch their football team, or they decide to go on vacations at critical times. And when you try to talk to them about a lack of commitment, they tell you they don't like being pressured. "After all, I'm volunteering my time out of the goodness of my heart," they'll say in so many words. "If I'm not appreciated here . . ."
3. They aren't as efficient. Accomplishing any goal demands people who can function together as a team. That's much simpler when people work in adjacent offices. When they're spread all over the city, with other jobs and responsibilities demanding their attention, inefficiency often results.
While planning a worship service recently, the worship committee decided to ask Terri to lead it. One of the team was chosen to ask her, and if she wasn't able to do it, this committee member was to do it in her place.
Five minutes after the service was supposed to start, neither of them had yet arrived. Unable to keep people waiting any longer, I started the service. Ten minutes later, they both walked in. After the next song, I had people greet each other so I could find out what was going on.
They both looked shocked when they heard of the mix-up. Terri had never been asked to lead the service. The other team member thought I was going to ask her and call him if she was unable to do it. Since I had never called, the committee member thought Terri was set to go.
Adding people to any task multiplies the potential for miscommunication. Mistakes easily occur.
More people also mean more ideas. Those with enough initiative to volunteer their time usually have their own ideas about how to do the project. Not all of them are willing to cooperate with those in charge, particularly when they think their ideas are better. Somehow the lines of authority run clearer when paychecks validate them.
So do commitments. How many hours have I spent listening to excuses about why people didn't do what they said they would? I can even sympathize with their excuses, but the result is the same: the task doesn't get done on time, and others often pay the price.
4. They aren't as available. The nice thing about working with staff is they're around all day. They can meet at 10:30 in the morning or 3:15 in the afternoon. Not so with volunteers. They have to meet at night or (ugh!) at 6 in the morning.
When everyone finally agrees that Monday night at 7 is a good time, finding a free Monday for all the principals may prove impossible. This problem is only compounded when a crisis necessitates an unscheduled meeting.
5. They aren't as consistent. Paul understood this when he spoke to the elders at Ephesus. He knew some of them would turn sour and in doing so lead others astray. He didn't know which ones, but he knew he could expect lack of consistency in some.
What pastor hasn't had people who evidenced great maturity change after they were given responsibility? Suddenly they began to exhibit great weakness or complacency, or they stumbled into major sin or a bizarre teaching.
Bill and Nancy were coleaders of one of our home groups, and he was a member of our board as well. Through unwise employment choices and undisciplined spending habits, they drove themselves into financial ruin, and ultimately bankruptcy. Their weakness hurt not only themselves, but also others who trusted them and looked to them as examples. Facing this kind of situation, it's easy to wish you hadn't given people ministry responsibility in the first place.
Thus, equipping the laity sounds better than it works. The drawbacks and risks are enormous. Wouldn't it be easier to leave ministry to professionals?
If I were the jury deciding on the above evidence, the matter would be settled. But I'm not, and the above is certainly a limited view of the evidence. Two nagging realities shake me from my premature conclusion.
First, Paul was clear in his letter to the Ephesian church that leaders are to equip others for ministry. That's our job description. Whether I like it or not, Jesus calls every believer to share the ministry of the kingdom. No one is called to be a spectator or to just pay the bills of those who do the work.
This takes ministry to a far deeper level than recruiting volunteers to stuff envelopes or refurbish the facility. Those things need to happen, of course, but they don't fulfill the biblical call for all believers to touch people with the power of the gospel.
Most of the ministries of discipleship, teaching, and counseling that we traditionally ascribe to the pastor, Scripture assigns to the people, to do for each other. "One anothering" is a vital part of the church, and I can't ignore it just because I don't like the cost.
The second reality that nags me is pragmatic. Simply, we can't pay everyone who's needed for ministry. Churches that try flirt with bankruptcy.
The public ministries of gifted teachers and worship leaders are simply not enough to lead people to the fullness of life in Christ. A volunteer counselor and I have spent at least one hour a week over the last five months helping a young mother fighting anorexia. I don't know how this case could have gone any faster. We are seeing healing, but at a tremendous cost of time. I can give that to a few people at any one time, but not to everyone in our fellowship.
I need others, lots of others, leading people to fullness of life in Christ. When I see how people can love, encourage, and admonish others, and how many people really need that, I know why God said it must be so. There's fruit in multiplied ministry. Such ministry benefits not only the person being helped, but also the one helping. Any person involved in significant ministry becomes a more motivated disciple.
Biblically, my task is clear. Whether it causes problems or not, I am called to equip people to touch others with the life of the gospel. And seeing how effectively they can be used in ministry to others, my five reasons not to equip people for ministry become five good reasons to do so.
1. They may not be as competent, but they're perceived as more credible. How many times have you heard, "That's easy for you; you're a pastor" or "You have to love me; you get paid for it"?
All the excuses people use not to regard pastors as models for their lives are negated by those who lack professional training and do not receive a salary. Their example of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus is far more significant than mine. They can say the same thing I might say, but with greater impact.
We have a high school coach in our church who lives as if he's in full-time ministry. He coaches just to pay the bills. He teaches a Bible study in his home and spends hours discipling young singles. His ministry is effective, and his example is infectious. I don't know how many times I've heard others say, "If Tim can live that way and still work full time, I guess I can, too."
I've seen the same thing when I team counsel with a lay volunteer. I can give advice, only to see that glazed look in the counselee's eyes. But when my teammate tells how the principle helped him work something out in his own life, the counselee's eyes brighten. Someone he considers more like himself has tested it in "real life," and that makes a crucial difference.
Volunteers usually know the people they minister to better than I know many of the counselees who walk into my office. That knowledge alone gives them a great advantage that experience or training can't offer. I tell the same thing to parents when the expertise of a child psychologist intimidates them: "You know your children better than anyone else, and that knowledge alone makes you the best parents they could have."
What of the mistakes lay people will make? Haven't we made mistakes, too? And hasn't God used those mistakes to accomplish his work with others? I still remember the terror of my first counseling appointment. The woman came to me only because a church had put me on its staff. I had no experience in counseling, and the training I had been given seemed irrelevant to her need. I had no idea what to do. But somehow I got through it, and God used my meager efforts to help bring healing to her life.
I also remember numerous sermons that touched no one, including me, as well as extensive planning that crumbled into a fiasco. But I learned in the doing. It may be difficult to let others make those same mistakes, but if we do, they'll learn, and we'll multiply the ministry available for people.
Experience and training are both things we can give people. When we take that risk, we're also investing our confidence in the Holy Spirit, who is ultimately responsible to touch people's lives, both through our best efforts and in spite of our worst.
2. They aren't as committed to the program, but their motives can be purer. Sure they won't kill themselves for the program, and they can serve as a reminder that we shouldn't, either.
I'm fascinated with procedures and like to see things run smoothly and with enough polish so as not to embarrass anyone-especially me. My responsibility to duty and salary, my sense of success, and my ego get tangled up in ministry. I find it easier to get excited over a smooth operation with limited success than one with ragged edges that may touch people more effectively.
Not having the same vested interest in technique, nonprofessionals often will cast aside standard procedures to make God's love real for someone who needs it. That doesn't mean we shouldn't expect people to act responsibly, but what should separate the church from every other institution is that we put people ahead of procedures.
We probably had no more than thirty adults coming on Sunday mornings when Sonya first started attending. Her emotional struggles were fierce. She wanted to find life in Christ, but something in her would drive her out of the sanctuary right at the peak of every service.
Immediately, three or four leaders in the church would follow, and they would miss the rest of the service to counsel and pray with Sonya. I knew they were doing the right thing, but I cringed every time it happened. What will our precious-few visitors think to see so many people leaving worship? I thought. And how will our leaders know what God is saying to us if they're missing the morning message?
Nonprofessionals don't think in such terms. In the case of Sonya, they simply saw someone hurting and moved to help. And help her they did; she's now doing much better and is teaching in our children's program. Examples like that help purify my motives and have become a major reason why I now champion sharing ministry with lay people.
3. They aren't as efficient, but they can be more flexible. I'm not sure ministry was ever meant to be efficient. Love isn't, and isn't love the heart of ministry?
A meeting of elders and home-church leaders was set to begin at 1:15 on a Sunday afternoon. The time had been scheduled months before. As we prepared to begin, however, two key leaders sent word that they wouldn't make it. A single parent in the church had just been burned out of her apartment, and they were going to help her move to her new apartment before she had to be back at work on Monday morning.
In the middle of the meeting, we got a call saying more help was needed. The decisions we needed to make that day had to be tabled for lack of time and people, and another meeting was scheduled for later in the month. That's not an efficient way to run a church, but not all problems accommodate themselves to the church calendar. And the upshot in this case was that two of the woman's neighbors started coming to church as a result of seeing God's love demonstrated by the helpers.
No doubt inefficiencies will occur among lay workers, but those are not unique to nonprofessionals. Just a couple of minutes prior to writing this, it came to my attention that I had scheduled a nursery coordinators' lunch meeting on the same day we had already set aside for prayer and fasting!
4. They aren't as available, but they are better distributed. It's tough to get people together. But when I look at ministry as touching people instead of attending meetings, I realize what makes them unavailable for my schedule makes them readily accessible to others. I can be at only one place at a time, dealing with a limited number of people, but my parishioners are spread out all over the city. And whereas I may need to schedule an appointment weeks in advance, some lay person will be free to go over tonight and spend hours helping someone. One farmer and his wife found fifteen hours in single week to help a person through a major crisis.
5. They may be inconsistent, but God is bigger than their failures. Even Paul didn't feel he could implement enough checks and balances to save the Ephesian people from being led astray by some of their elders. But the fact that the system would break down on occasion wasn't reason enough for Paul to abandon it. God is bigger than anyone's failures. I decided a long time ago that if God isn't able to take care of the body I pastor, there's little I can do.
When Bill and Nancy, our young couple with the financial problems, filed for bankruptcy, we offered them a leave of absence from ministry so they could get their lives in order. They were glad to accept, and as they went through that difficult time, people responded not with judgment, but with mercy and help.
Today, Bill and Nancy have put their finances in order. They were a marvelous example to the church of how to admit a problem, face it boldly, and overcome it. God has also used their failure as a warning to many not to buy what they can't afford. And now Bill and Nancy are leading one of our most effective home groups and working with our high school young people, providing an example of God's ability to restore. God overrides the mistakes of lay people just as well as he's been able to override mine.
"Where there are no oxen, the manger is empty, but from the strength of an ox comes an abundant harvest" (Prov. 14:4). If we want a tidy manger, let's shoot the oxen. A manger can't be kept clean and used to feed oxen at the same time. Oxen are just too messy, and if we have them, we're going to have to clean the barn occasionally.
But before we shoot the oxen, we'd better consider how much grain we're going to harvest without them. A clean manger also means an empty silo.
The challenge to use every person in ministry presents us with the same alternatives. If a tidy church is our objective, we'd better make sure every important task is put in the hands of full-time professionals.
But if our eyes are on the harvest, we'd better involve everyone, and cleaning up messes occasionally is just part of the price. As a young father said recently, "It took me a lot longer to make breakfast this morning; my kids helped me."
That won't always be so as believers mature. And in the meantime, as we risk the problems in equipping the laity, they'll reap a harvest no team of professionals can match.
Copyright © 1988 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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