How Do You Cultivate Lay Leadership?

May 23rd, 2014
A great group of lay leaders who are also members of a volunteer church choir.

You might often hear the term "lay leadership" every once and awhile in church and ministry areas of thought. Many people describe this differently. The description that I prefer is one meaning the non-congregational staff or non-clergy who are serving in some form of volunteer leadership within a congregation or faith community. Admittedly, it is an insider term and "leaders" or "non-staff leaders" might be more helpful.

I wanted to note that, because I was asked recently "how do you cultivate lay leadership?" For many leading in ministry, this is a question they reflect on often. It is a great and important question. The fact that it is pondered so frequently suggests that there is no easy answer or perfect approach though.

In some ways, lay leadership is volunteer management. Not only is the lay leader volunteering, they may be leading a team of volunteers. In a congregation this might be most easily seen in worship through leading a church choir. In other areas of a faith community, perhaps this is the stewardship team, planning and thinking creatively about what it means to be a steward.

My tips and ideas that I offer here about this question of cultivating lay leadership are not a strategic plan in themselves for lay leadership development. But I have seen these all at work, in some way or another, in congregations where lay leadership is strong, effective, and treated as a value and major point of emphasis. As you reflect on these ideas, what ideas come to mind for you?

Matching to the mission and story

People are more apt to serve and lead if they see themselves as part of something bigger than themselves. For a congregation, this means not only understanding what the mission or vision guiding the congregation is, it's being able to see themselves as part of that and be a part of the larger congregation's story which is part of God's story. Lay leaders that are particularly strong, are even able to articulate or share their story with others. This story tells of how they see what they are doing in the congregation as part of their role as a leader, servant and/or steward.

Recognizing gifts

Some people are naturally outgoing and will volunteer to lead. Often times in a congregation though, to cultivate lay leadership requires another person to notice and draw attention to another's gifts and potential gifts. This takes some discernment—both on the part of the other person noticing the gifts, as well as the individual who may have the gifts. The challenge with this point is that many people have figured out that if such a recognition comes from a leader or clergy in a congregation, they may have a right to be suspect. One might be wondering, do they just need someone to do something?

Not just asking people to lead because you need people

If you have experience in congregations, you might be able to picture the old method of how many congregations recruited Sunday school teachers and would be committee members. Someone might simply nominate them. Others might say, "Hey, you have a gift. Would you be willing to help?" Usually these points or approaches of asking and recruiting seem disingenuous. These approaches have much more to do with a need of someone, rather than first discerning and seeing what that person's gifts, passions and strengths are. Understandably, this sort of recruiting has never really been helpful for long-term and effective congregational leadership. Therefore, this approach is thankfully going away in most congregations. If you or your congregation are still using this, please consider moving towards at least incorporating some strengths and discernment as part of the leadership development process.

To be fair, this is easier said than done. So, with the first two points in mind, the next two offer approaches to build off of them and to cultivate and grow leadership effectively over time.


One way to show commitment to developing leaders is to provide them the opportunities to grow. This can be through providing them materials—reading, research, conversation partners to help them in their roles or growing sense of leadership in a congregation. This can also be through helping train them through dedicated workshops or leadership retreats. This can also be through sending them to workshops being sponsored by partner congregations, synods, diocese, or denominations, or ministry groups which may provide helpful ideas that have worked or been discovered in other contexts.

In order to equip lay leadership though, the lay leader needs to be willing to make the investment to grow. Chances are, if they have invested as much as time already to be a lay leader they would like to have the chance to grow into that more and would appreciate these opportunities. However, its important for those providing these opportunities and encouraging lay leaders to take advantage of them to be aware and mindful of their time. Remember, these are volunteers with families (and all the time commitments that rightfully means) as well as the likelihood that they are working full-time and then some, plus allowing time for whatever other passions they might enjoy.


To really cultivate lay leadership, there has to be a willingness to be in relationship. Lay leaders need to have someone they can trust to give them feedback and to help them process their experiences. These people might even serve as mentors to them. They might be staff members in a congregation or they might be other lay leaders. Ministry is often a thankless thing to do, sadly, and those who aren't compensated for their work (i.e. volunteers) bare often an unfair burden without seeming to have much support. If someone knows that they have a cheerleader, and someone who will be there to help in the tough times and be in relationship with them not only are they more likely to be more vulnerable, they are also more likely to give more of themselves in these leadership roles.

These points do not make a comprehensive plan or approach to lay leadership. But hopefully they are helpful starting places to think about approaches to lay leadership which might work in your faith communities.  Now its your turn. 

How do you cultivate lay leadership? What points and perspectives might you add?

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