When delegates were apportioned for the 2020 General Conference, the professing membership of The United Methodist Church worldwide was reported as 12,557,214. Clergy membership for the same purpose was reported as 56,055. There will be 862 delegates when General Conference 2020 meets in Minneapolis, Minnesota from May 5-15. One-half of those delegates will be clergy and the other half will be laity.
The UM Church emphasizes that clergy and laity are partners in ministry. Theoretically, persons in each category are equally important in the life and ministry of the church. Practically, the clergy exercise power and influence in the church far in excess of their relative numbers.
Some would argue that such disproportionate power and influence is warranted. Clergy have received specialized training. Many hold a Masters of Divinity degree. Some have pursued further studies and hold other advanced degrees which equip them for ministry. Most clergy serve full time in their positions, generally serving as the pastor of one or more churches. Because serving as clergy is their vocation, they are compensated. As a consequence, they have a high level of interest in the workings of the church and decisions made which shape its life. It is their calling and livelihood.
Before I was called to the ordained ministry on February 4, 1991, I was a very invested lay person. I served as lay leader of the church I attended along with other leadership positions, taught a young adult Sunday School class, and was a certified lay speaker and director of lay speaking for the district. And for several years, I was the lay delegate from the church to the annual conference. I was also privileged to be elected as a lay delegate from my annual conference to the jurisdictional conference.
One of the first things I noticed when I began attending annual conference was that an inordinate amount of time was spent on business around clergy compensation and benefits. The implicit message seemed to be that the church existed to provide economic benefits for its clergy. In an annual conference with more than 2,000 delegates, it was difficult to change the priorities of the agenda to focus on making disciples, planting churches, and empowering laity to fulfill their role in the life of the church. I suspect that my experience was not unique.
I fear we have ceded the church to a professionalized caste. In many churches, those involved in lay ministry are referred to as “volunteers,” further trivializing the ministry to which our laity have been called. In some churches, virtually all aspects of the leadership of ministries have been ceded to the paid staff of the church. This was never God’s design for the church. The growth of the church in the Congo and West Africa central conferences underscore what can happen when the gifts and abilities of laity are called forth, equipped and deployed. With proportionally significantly fewer clergy, the church is exploding in these areas largely because the laity are fulfilling their role in the church.
The laity have skills that have been honed in the crucible of life. They are called to ministry as well. And that calling is not to occupy a seat for an hour on Sunday morning and to contribute to the local church budget. Laity spend the bulk of their time in the presence of people who rarely attend church and who may not have a relationship with Jesus; they are truly on the frontlines of ministry.
In one of my favorite chapters in the Bible, Peter describes Jesus’ followers as living stones who are being built into a spiritual house with Jesus as the cornerstone. He then writes, “You are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). Peter is not referring to clergy only in this passage. He is addressing the role of all of Jesus’ followers – the priesthood of all believers!
Presently, many UM Church laity are underutilized and ill-equipped for the church’s great mission. As the Wesleyan Covenant Association moves forward we will intentionally focus on rectifying this situation. We are determined to create a more laity driven church where people’s gifts are honored and utilized so clergy and laity can serve as one.
Our vision is of a church that meaningfully engages every member in vital ministry. We foresee a church that entrusts significant ministry decisions to laity called to key leadership roles. We envision the role of the clergy to be one of equipping “God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12).
Rather than giving lip service to the ministry of the laity, in the Methodism we envision, laity’s untapped potential will be unleashed so God’s power will flow through them as they share the Gospel with neighbors and with strangers. Achieving such a vision will require our clergy to release much more of the ministry to a laity equipped with sound teaching, immersed in Scripture, and led by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. The church will not become the force God intends until it takes seriously its mission to raise up fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ who have been transformed by their encounter with God.
By Keith Boyette
June 7, 2019
Rev. Keith Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.