Transforming Congregations by Igniting the Spiritual Lives, Gifts
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Laity Empowerment Reading



The following copyrighted article is taken from the UNWRAPPING OUR GIFTS curriculum. It may NOT be photocopied or used without the authorís permission. This article, used as a discussion catalyst in the curriculum, explores the vision and practice of laity empowerment.

by Ron Farr
Laity Empowerment Project
Telephone (315) 583-5821


We couldn't wait to see what would happen! My wife and I, as co-pastors of our church, along with a few friends, were starting up our first high-commitment, study group on empowering the ministries of the laity.

We were excited about finding ways to break out of the devastating but commonly held view that the church community is comprised of THE MINISTER (pastor) assisted by a group of volunteers (the laity, the rest of the congregation). We wanted to explore the more Biblically correct and empowering vision of our congregation as a "community of ministers," a "royal priesthood" (I Peter 2:9-11) in which each person is understood to be a "minister" with unique gifts and ministries as valuable as any pastor.

What would a "community of ministers" feel and look like? What would it take for us to become such a community? How would our relationships with God, ourselves, and each other change? We wanted to find ways to build a church environment where the people would be nurtured and set free to discover and claim their own ministries in their workplaces, homes, relationships, church and world.

All twenty members who had joined up were active Christians within our small church community. They committed themselves to meet for ten sessions on Saturday afternoons throughout the fall. They all agreed to make it a top priority to attend all the sessions, do homework exercises, do some reading, meet with a spiritual partner, and engage in "ministry experiments." They had never done anything like this before but were clearly in the mood for an adventure. During the fall, they studied Bible passages concerning ministry, shared their faith journeys, discussed the readings, and helped discern each other's gifts and possible ministries.

It turned out to be a wonderful experience! Only one thing was wrong. With the exception of two or three people, no one seemed motivated to go past the talking stage! Many seemed afraid to go any further. Why were they hesitating? Here we had all the group support and love we could possibly need! Here were dynamic, growing Christians, enthusiastic about the whole idea of the ministry of all Christians, who were being helped to discern their unique gifts and were being given the tools to do their own ministry, and still they were beached on the pews!

One thing that helped the group members better understand their feelings was the "Rev. Exercise." They wrote their names on a piece of paper and placed before their signatures the title "Rev." Then, they contemplated their reactions, pro and con, as they imagined themselves walking through their daily life and workplace activities with this new sense of self and new public image.

After silently pondering themselves as "Reverends" (being careful to affirm that "Reverend" in their case didn't necessarily mean "preacher" or "pastor"), the group members shared these reactions: "Scary!," "Awful responsibility," "It doesn't seem believable," "It's overwhelming," "My faith is now on the line," "You share the burdens of everyone!," "I'm not up to it," "You've got to be holy," "You're taken more seriously," "I like the sound of it," "I feel UN-comfortable with it," "You're always 'on call.'"

Our group clearly had strong feelings about what it would mean for them to take on the identity of "minister." Some experienced the prospect with excitement and a sense of affirmation. However, most members of our group felt a wall of ambivalence or outright fear. We quickly found a companion in Moses.

"Who am I," Moses exclaimed to God, "that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt? What if they do not believe me or listen to me? I am slow of speech and tongue. Please send someone else to do it" (Ex 3 & 4, excerpts). When Moses, as a layperson, heard his call to ministry, he was gripped by fear and self-doubt.

It wasn't that his ministry, in this case, was being impeded from the outside by an entrenched church institution refusing to validate fully the spiritual gifts of ordinary, unordained folks which is the experience of many Spirit-led laity. Rather, a much more fundamental block lay deep within Moses himself. And we, like Moses, were getting in touch with similar blocks that lay deep within us.

We, in the group, began to see how the term "minister" was for us a very deep, almost archetypal symbol for the radically "faithful one," and therefore represented some rather formidable aspects of Christian discipleship. One thing it represents is commitment. We often think of ministers as people who have given their lives to God, who have put their faith "on the line," and who serve God not in isolated outbursts but as a way of life.

As one very honest woman humorously reflected, "I feel uncomfortable thinking of myself as a 'Rev.' Without the title, I have the luxury of taking or leaving my Christianity. When I'm tired I can drop it. When I feel inspired I can pick it up. But with the title of 'Rev.' always around my neck, I have no choice! It's a full-time affair!" Each of us in the group, whether we were pastors or laity, saw various ways we timidly play it "safe" in our Christian life. Like the rich young ruler we wondered, "If I give myself completely to God, what will happen to me? What will God ask me to do?"

A second formidable element we found in the symbol of "minister" was the call to be holy. The term "minister" symbolizes one who has deep faith, one who is close to God. "It doesn't seem believable," as one woman put it, "to think of myself as a minister, because I do not feel holy or worthy enough." Like Jeremiah who objected to his call from God by saying, "I'm too young!" (Jer 1:6), so we also may feel "too young" in our faith lives, still too unformed in the Spirit to stick out our necks and fully embrace the purposes God is laying at our feet each day.

The youthful Jeremiah was told to plow ahead in his new ministry whether or not he felt ready, and we are told the same. But we began to see that it is not possible for us to claim the identity of minister in our workplace, world, or home without confronting head-on our oftentimes shaky faith, erratic prayer life, and on-again-off-again relationship with God. Who wants to face such things, and be so nakedly intimate and accountable to God? Many of us in the group admitted that sometimes we would just prefer to maintain our spiritually half-baked status quo and, like Adam and Eve, hide ourselves in the bushes.

A third formidable thing that we identified about the term "minister" is that it represents for us openness to the world's suffering. "Ministers" symbolize the ones who deliberately let down their guards and let the sorrowful flood of life flow into them. We see the minister as receiving the flood, dwelling in the flood, ministering in the flood. We are not always up to that.

As one person in our group said, "The minister shares the burdens of everyone," and this is precisely what makes us all eventually feel overwhelmed. When we talk, therefore, about empowering ourselves or anyone else for more radically faithful Christian action and ministry, we cannot underestimate the emotional and personal upheaval that occurs within most of us, laity and clergy alike.

Trying to take on and fully live out the identity of minister in the world means facing the intimidating issues of commitment, intimate accountability to God, and deliberate openness to human suffering. It is small wonder that the invitation to become a minister of God in the world inspires such Moses-like barriers of fear within.

There were a few people in our group who DID plow ahead and started to claim a more focused ministry. One woman started a weekly evening Bible study group at the church. Another woman, a widow living in a large home by herself, felt a call to offer hospitality to people in need of temporary housing. A third woman began to re-assess her job and proceeded to marshal her inner forces first to confront her boss in order to redefine her present job, and if that failed, to find a new job where her gifts as a medical lab technician would be better utilized.

These three people were afraid like the rest of the group. They felt they were stepping into new territory, "a land of giants" where they could easily be overwhelmed or fail or burn themselves out. But each of these people had an active inner life and relationship with God. They each spoke of an inner "tug" and divine reassurance that felt stronger than their fears.

At the same time these individuals were taking their first steps, a few people from our group were trying to start a hunger mission group in the church. I'll never forget the last meeting we had. Two devastating films about world poverty and hunger where shown. The small group of people attending were visibly shaken. Yet, in the course of the meeting, not once did we remember to mention God, not once did we think to pray, not once did we share our burden openly with God. Sadly, the group collapsed shortly thereafter. Who could handle such a painful and overwhelming ministry without a radical reliance upon God?

Again we remembered Moses. The task of ministry to which he was called completely overshadowed his gifts. The more he assessed his gifts in light of what God wanted him to do, the more paralyzed he became. It is interesting to note that God never tries to cure Moses of his hesitation and self-doubt by saying, "Don't worry. You've got the gifts!" In fact, God shows very little concern about the strength of Moses' gifts. All God said to Moses was, "I will be with you. I will speak, and will teach you what to do" (Ex 3:12; 4:15).

Here is where we in the ministry empowerment group found perhaps our most important lesson. Moses may not have been a great public speaker, he may not have had a great deal of charisma or self-confidence, but the one thing he DID have was the ability to rely radically upon God. This allowed God to take whatever gifts Moses had and infuse them with power. It permitted God to open up in Moses a wellspring of inner strength and inspiration that drove his fear away as surely as it drove Moses to the front step of Pharaoh.

The more whole-heartedly we try to serve God in our workplaces and world, the more we find ourselves entering "a land of giants" and feeling, like Moses, called to tasks and decisions that far exceed our limits and capabilities. And we find ourselves at these times, like Moses, not very impressed with our own gifts. We feel called to speak when we have no words, to act when we'd rather not raise a commotion, to deal with dilemmas where there are no clear answers, to love when we're afraid we'll be hurt.

Yet, Moses' story encourages us. For we can see that our little gifts and humble ministry efforts, when placed in God's hands, have an uncanny way of being fruitful. They are filled with a quiet power that we, by ourselves, could not supply.

The more the people in our ministry empowerment group sought to discern and be faithful to their unique ministries in the world, the more they felt the need for a deeper inner life to undergird and guide their efforts. And so at the conclusion of our ministry group, two members boldly stepped forward to organize and lead a new, spiritual growth group for the coming semester that would help us deepen our relationships with God through an exploration of various spiritual disciplines: prayer, silence, devotional Bible study, journaling, dreamwork, and spiritual partnerships.

From both our failures and our successes, we learned in our first group that ministry is not something we do for God, but rather something we do with God. It is a process of co-creating. And we found that to co-create with God, either as mission groups or as individuals, we had to learn, as Moses had to learn, to rely more heavily upon the power, nourishment, and guidance of the Spirit.

We cannot realistically expect ourselves to have an assertive outward journey of ministry and outreach without an equally assertive inward journey of prayer and spiritual disciplines. Otherwise, there is no real way through the fear barrier, no real empowerment, and eventually our attempts at ministry will burn out, because our work will not truly be a sensitive co-creation with the living God.

God wants every person's unique gifts and ministries to be set free. The experience of our group is that this doesn't really happen until we learn to keep our eyes, ears and heart more passionately and consistently fixed on the One who says, "I will be with you, I will help you...speak, and will teach you what to do" (Ex 3:12; 4:15).

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