Engaging Laity as Theological Decision Makers

May 1st, 2008
This article is featured in the Thinking Like Disciples (May/June/July 2008) issue of Circuit Rider

Clergy sometimes complain that church members approach congregational issues with the same mindset they bring to their corporate or workplace decisions. How, they ask, can lay leaders be trained to think in more theologically informed ways? While the concern for helping congregations move beyond secular decision making is a serious one, part of the problem may lie in the assumption about lay and clergy roles embedded in the way the question above is framed.

Secular thinking about decision making is not the only cultural baggage that gets carried into church meeting rooms. Engrained deeply in both the culture of the church and our broader culture is the expectation that ministry is the work of the clergy while laity are recipients of ministry. Clergy attend to sacred matters while laity concern themselves with the secular. Clergy are the experts while laity are amateurs.

Despite the tremendous growth in lay activity in recent decades, this dualistic paradigm of ministry still lingers in the collective consciousness of church and society. These attitudes are, I believe, an underlying factor explaining why some church members are reluctant to venture into the realm of theological decision making. A barrage of subliminal messages reinforces the impression that it is not their job, that they are unqualified. Unfortunately, framing the challenge of theological decision making by asking “What can pastors do to train or empower laypersons?” reinforces the basic assumption that clergy are the theological experts. Moreover, it wrongly assumes that clergy do not also fall victim to secular ways to thinking. A more appropriate question would seem to be, “how can congregations--clergy and laity together--approach decision making more theologically?”

Congregations can and should employ a variety of tools to enhance their ability to make decisions theologically. Helping individuals mature spiritually through basic Bible study, spiritual disciplines, and dedication to Christian service are basic building blocks. And engaging group processes, such as appreciative inquiry or spiritual discernment, can reorient corporate processes. But these methods can only succeed to the extent that church members believe themselves to be theological actors and partners in ministry. So, how can we reform our thinking and acting to bridge the cultural divide between clergy and laity? How can church culture affirm the engagement of laity? The answer seems to lie, at least in part, in counteracting the vestiges of the dualistic paradigm of ministry.

Role Reversal


Clergy are often cast in the role of prayer professional and resident theologian. These are, after all, things they are educated and prepared to do. These functions are part of their pastoral identity and authority. But the role of religious professional can become a trap when congregations fall into the habit of relying exclusively on their clergy for spiritual sustenance. How could laity be encouraged to engage in these tasks? It could take some behind-the-scenes encouragement, since many laity are conditioned to defer to the clergy on these matters. It might be as simple as working up a schedule of shared prayer, doing some coaching, or resisting the temptation to function as the theological expert by turning questions back to the group and inviting discussion. Encouraging meaningful participation in activities assumed to be the domain of clergy will build the theological confidence of church members and begin to reshape the culture.

Words, Words, Words


Feminist theology has helped reveal how language affects our theological world view and our self-understanding. Much of the church is now very intentional in using gender-neutral language to signal its openness toward women. Unfortunately, there has been less focus on how language--words, titles, names, and metaphors--frames thinking about clergy and lay roles.

During my formative years as a Christian adult, the lead clergyperson in my church had a wonderful way of referring to himself. “I'm one of the ministers of the church,” he would always say as a group went around the table with introductions. His refusal to assert the title Senior Pastor was a deliberate effort to level the playing field, to elevate the rest of us, and to take our ministries seriously. In my lifetime, I have noticed a shift in the title that clergy use, away from “minister” and toward “pastor.” I have wondered how much of this stems from a desire to maintain clerical distinctiveness, or even status, in an era when the concept of the ministry of all Christians has received renewed emphasis.

But the use of pastoral imagery for clergy leadership is troubling at a more subtle, perhaps deeper, level. Shepherding is a potent biblical image of God's loving care for humankind. But this divine metaphor becomes problematic when it is transferred to the realm of human interaction. If pastors are shepherds, then congregants are sheep--not exactly the most challenging or enlightened image of Christian personhood and discipleship. And yet, this is the way we talk about church members--as a flock of helpless animals. James O'Toole, a contemporary leadership expert, critiques shepherding, the dominant Christian metaphor for leadership, as paternalistic and anachronistic. “How far,” he asks, “would a business get today acting on the assumption that employees are a flock to be herded by the organizational equivalent of the yank of a crook or the nipping of a sheepdog at their heels?”[1] Is it any wonder that some lay persons are reluctant to venture beyond the metaphorical sheepfold?

I recently heard a highly regarded clergy leader refer to a particular individual as “an M.Div. who is just a layperson.” Even worse, I often hear laypersons describe themselves this way. The regrettable tendency to qualify the word layperson with the “J-word” is rooted in the secular definition of a layperson as an amateur, a definition linked to the dualistic paradigm of ministry. We must reclaim the biblically accurate definition of laity (from the Greek laos) as “people of God.” Another linguistic trap is using the term church leader as a synonym for clergy. Clergy are, of course, church leaders. But when the term is used consistently to refer exclusively to ordained ministers, it creates the impression that laypersons are not also church leaders. Great care should be taken to avoid exclusive and exclusionary uses of terminology related to ministry roles. When it is necessary to specify those who have been set apart for a particular order of ministry, the words clergy or ordained are probably more precise and appropriate than minister, pastor, or church leader.

Call, Community, and Christ


Countering the vestiges of dualism in ministry also requires the articulation of a robust and compelling theology of lay involvement. This begins with the clear understanding that ministry is the work of all Christians, that all Christians, not just ordained clergy, are called by God. Taking great care to address the issue of clerical calling within the larger context of God's call to all Christians prevents lay persons from feeling that God's call does not extend to them.

The doctrine of the Trinity, which emphasizes God as an interdependent, dynamic, community of three equal, distinct, inherently interrelated persons, provides a compelling model for collaborative ministry – a model for how laity and clergy can work side-by-side in a relationship that is mutually affirming. Paul's poignant image of the church as the Body of Christ comprising a variety of interdependent, indispensable parts (1 Cor. 12) is another helpful image of collaborative ministry. As with the Trinity, this model has the advantage of allowing for the distinctness of various ministries, while reinforcing mutuality and mutual respect. And it reminds us again and again that Christ is the head of the Body (Col. 1:18) — not a particular category of ecclesial servants.

These theological images and ideas are not new, but they require renewed emphasis in preaching, teaching, and dialogue as congregations strive to engage laity more fully in congregational decision-making and theological reflection. They are key components in the construction of a cultural narrative that fosters greater inclusivity in the service of God.


Ann A. Michel is Associate Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. and co-author of The Crisis of Younger Clergy.

[1] 1 James O'Toole. Leading Change: The Argument for Values-Based Leadership. Ballantine Books. New York. 1996. p. 61

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