Equipping and Empowering the Laity for the Mission of the Church

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

No greater gift could ever be given at Christmas or any other time, than that which God the Father gave the world that very first Christmas – the gift of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.  With the exception of Mary and Joseph who were visited by an Angel and told the identity of the child in Mary’s womb; and Elizabeth who (filled with the Holy Spirit) exclaimed to Mary: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored that the mother of my Lord should come to me” (Luke 1:42-43); and the shepherds who were greeted by a heavenly host announcing the birth of the Christ Child; and perhaps the Magi who saw a mysterious star in the sky and came bearing gifts for the “child born King of the Jews” — no one else had any clue of the priceless gift God gave the world that first Christmas.  Life went on for the people in and around Bethlehem as if nothing happened.  Little did they know that the child born humbly in the manger world change the world forever.

Tragically, some 2000 years after His birth, billions of people alive in the world today (to include many in our own communities and perhaps our own homes) still have no clue who Jesus is, and the gift of eternal life He offers to ALL who believe in Him.

God is calling all Christians (clergy and laity alike) to go forth in His Name, and share the “Good News” – the Gospel of Jesus Christ with family and friends, acquaintances, strangers, whoever the Lord brings into our lives or sends us to.  While we can’t, nor should we try to force our Christian faith on others, we are not only called, but commanded by Christ in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) to share the gift of faith which we have received in order that others may be strengthened in their faith.   And, for those who do not yet believe in Christ, may our Christian witness help them come to believe in  Jesus, accepting Him as Lord and Savior of their life.

No doubt, there are many reading this letter who are thinking – “That’s the job of the clergy.  They are the ones who are called and payed to preach and teach and offer the sacraments. “ I would agree, it is the job and ministry of the clergy, however, it is also the ministry of the laity to help share the Gospel and make Christ known throughout the world.

In “The Examination” of the ordinand, during the liturgy for the “Ordination of a Priest,” we hear the following:

All baptized people are called to make Christ known as Savior and Lord, and to share in the renewing of His world.” (BCP 531)

Similarly, in the Catechism, found in the Book of Common Prayer, the Church teaches:

“The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ…The

      Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice,

      peace, and love…The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.” (BCP 855)

The Episcopal Church is part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.  It is a liturgical and sacramental Church, and as such, the ordained clergy have a very special and vital role in the life and ministry of the Church, particularly sacramentally.  The bishops and priests are the ones who are called to serve as the celebrant at Holy Communion; anoint the newly baptized with holy chrism; grant absolution during confession; and offer the nuptial blessing during the sacrament of Holy Matrimony.

While they also play an important leadership role in preaching and teaching and providing pastoral care, apart from the sacramental ministry, much of what clergy do in the day to day life of the parish can be done by anyone – lay or ordained.  I believe for far too long, we as the Church have depended too much solely on the clergy to carry out the mission of the Church, while failing to fully appreciate the importance and necessity of the laity’s participation in the mission of the Church.  Given the current clergy shortage and the fact that it is only going to get worse in the near future for a variety of reasons, we need to rethink how we are doing things.

As with many aspects of our life, for better or worse, finances controls much of what we do and how we do it.  The escalating expense of a traditional three year residential seminary education is causing the Church to rethink how we train and educate our clergy.  Similarly, the ever growing struggle of many parishes to afford full-time clergy is forcing us to rethink how we carry out the mission and ministry of the Church in the parish.  Even if it were possible (which it’s not) for every congregation (regardless of size or location) to have its own priest every Sunday, there is far too much ministry that needs to be done for the building up of God’s Kingdom, to be carried out solely by the clergy.

Jesus initially called and trained the 12 apostles to share and carry on His ministry.  However, we are told in Luke’s Gospel that as Jesus continued moving toward Jerusalem, He appointed seventy-two others and sent them ahead in groups of two to all the towns and villages where he planned to go.  Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into His harvest field.” (Luke 10:2)

The “seventy-two others” weren’t the apostles, but they had an important role to play in preparing the people for Christ to come into their lives.  Similarly, not all Christians are called to the ordained ministry, but all Christians are called by Christ to be ministers and to go into “the harvest field” to proclaim the Gospel and help prepare people for the coming of Christ.  The “harvest” is indeed plentiful.   As mentioned above, there are currently over five billion men, women and children alive in the world today who have not yet come to know and believe in Jesus Christ.

When Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14: 6), He wasn’t kidding.  The salvation of billions of lives is at stake.  Throughout the Gospels, Jesus commands us to love God first and foremost, but also to love one another – even our enemies.  If we are to truly love others, it is imperative that we share God’s love with them.  The Lord is sending us into the world to do just that.  During their final night together, before He was arrested, Jesus prayed for the Apostles and for each of us.  He said, “Father…As you sent Me into the world, I have sent them into the world…My prayer is not for them alone.  I pray also for those who will believe in Me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in Me, and I am in You.  May they also be in Us so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.” (John 17:18, 20-21)

The Apostle Paul heard and obeyed the Lord’s command to go into the world and share the Good News of Jesus Christ.  He knew the importance and necessity of preaching the Gospel in order that others might come to know and believe in Christ.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.  How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in?  And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?  And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?  As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.’” (Romans 10:13-15).      

Dear Friends in Christ, the “Harvest” is plentiful, so much so that it is going to take far more than just the clergy to go out into the “Harvest Field.”  As I have been praying about how we as the Diocese of Albany can better minister to the needs of our congregations, and also go out more effectively into the world to share the Gospel, I believe the Lord is calling us to focus more on building up and equipping the laity to become even more involved in carrying out the mission of the Church – “To restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (BCP 855).

As I have traveled around the world, visiting different provinces of the Anglican Communion, I have noticed that lay leaders/ministers have played a key role in those areas where the Church is exploding in growth, particularly in Africa.  Unlike the United States where a parish church normally refers to one congregation, in the Anglican Provinces in Africa, a single parish is usually made up of 10 or more separate congregations.  The parish priest travels to the different congregations providing for the sacramental needs of the people while the laity carries out much of the rest of the ministry.  I realize the American and African cultures are vastly different, however, I believe there is much we can learn from the way our African brothers and sisters carry out the various ministries of the Church.  They have raised up, trained and empowered the laity to serve as: lay administrators, lay catechists, lay Eucharistic ministers and visitors, lay evangelists/church planters, lay preachers, lay readers, and lay worship leaders, just to name a few.

I am very appreciative of all the laity in the Diocese of Albany and the many ministries they are already involved in such as: wardens and vestry members, choir members, acolytes, altar guild members, Daughters of the King,  lay Eucharistic ministers, lectionary readers, parish secretaries,  treasurers, Bible Study and Sunday School teachers, healing prayer team members, etc… These are all important ministries and need to continue.  In many instances, however, we need to do a better job as a Church, training and preparing people for these ministries.  Often times we plug people into ministries without giving them adequate training or explanation about the importance of these ministries.

This year’s Parish Leadership Conference will focus on lay ministry.  We will be taking a look at existing lay ministries and how we might improve them or empower them to do even more.  We will also be exploring new lay ministries, or bringing back past ministries such as officially licensed and trained Lay Readers who can lead congregations in Morning or Evening Prayer Services.  I also believe we need to have trained and licensed lay preachers.  There is a growing need for lay vicars and lay administrators, especially in some of our smaller rural parishes.  We need trained and licensed lay evangelists and church planters to help us reach out more effectively into world sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.

I invite and encourage everyone in the Diocese (clergy and laity) to join me for this year’s Parish Leadership Conferences as we celebrate the lay ministries of the Diocese and explore ways to improve and expand them to better meet the growing needs of the Church and its mission “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”  May God Bless us and use us mightily as we go forth boldly into the world in the name of His Son our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, offering ourselves as an instrument of His love and mercy and healing grace.