Strengthening the Ministry of Lay Staff

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Tens of thousands of lay staff workers provide Christian nurture to our children; counsel our youth; lead the ministries that engage others in Christian formation, education, and outreach; enable worship; and support and order the life of the church in a myriad of vital ways. I recently surveyed hundreds of individuals serving in staff roles as well as the pastors of their churches.

Survey results suggest that church members increasingly look to lay staff for the type of leadership, counsel, instruction, and spiritual direction once provided exclusively by clergy. But many lay staff felt ambiguities and tensions related to their spiritual authority and identity in ministry. Structures often exist to provide clergy with supervision, accountability, and various kinds of support, but similar structures do not exist for most lay persons with ministry responsibilities.

Church members increasingly look to lay staff for the type of leadership, counsel, instruction, and spiritual direction once provided exclusively by clergy. But many lay staff felt ambiguities and tensions related to their spiritual authority and identity in ministry.

Based on the results of this research, there are several areas in which congregations that employ lay staff, as well as the lay ministry practitioners themselves, would do well to give attention.

Spiritual formation. Many lay staff enter into ministry responsibilities without the benefit of the period of formation clergy generally receive in their education and ordination processes. Many lay staff report feeling spiritually unprepared for the expectations placed on them. Others, especially those without roots in the denomination of the church they are serving, expressed a need for a clearer understanding of the beliefs of the denomination. Congregations, particularly those with large lay staffs, should strive to integrate prayer, Bible study, and spiritual formation into the ongoing work of their staff team or teams and encourage spiritual mentoring of lay staff by clergy, other lay staffers, or spiritual directors.

Continuing education. A common theme among lay staff is their felt need for more training of various kinds. Pastors, supervisors, and personnel committees can help lay staff identify appropriate workshops, seminars, and learning resources; chart a course of appropriate and accessible professional growth; and provide funds for professional development.

Theological education. Most lay staff do not have seminary degrees. Nor are many likely to interrupt their careers to pursue a theological degree through the traditional channels. However, most could benefit from specialized theological instruction tailored to their circumstances and needs and made available in accessible formats — such as distance learning options or intensive study programs.

Peer learning and support networks. Lay staff can benefit greatly from establishing professional relationships with other ministry practitioners beyond their congregations. In some areas of specialization, such as church administration, church music, and Christian education, professional associations and guilds can provide enrichment and support. Additionally, informal networks with staff working in similar specialties in other churches in the region should be encouraged as a way to share ideas, resources, and best practices.

Training on confidentiality and boundaries. Lay staff generally have not received the same level of training as clergy on handling pastoral concerns, sexual ethics, or other boundary issues. Therefore, congregations must assure that their lay staff members are adequately prepared for this challenging aspect of ministry.

Accountability. For most lay staff, the legitimization of their ministry authority flows from the fact of their being hired. And supervision and evaluation generally follow a workplace model. At minimum, clearly stated job descriptions and review procedures should be in place. But congregations must ask if standard workplace mechanisms alone are sufficient for accountability in ministry. Staff covenants can clarify expectations, foster accountability, and promote communication within church staffs.

Expectations regarding staff who are church members. It behooves a congregation with church members on the payroll to think through some of the questions that might arise. For example, will a member/employee have voice and vote in church decision making? Are they eligible to be nominated to lay leadership positions? What will be the fallout if a member/employee must be disciplined or let go? Clear policies can help avoid confusion, conflict, and inconsistency.

The number of lay staff employed by congregations continues to increase each year. My hope is that some of these suggestions will permit them to flourish in their important ministries.

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About Author

Ann A. Michel is associate director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary and teaches in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.


The Premier Doctor of Ministry in Church Leadership Excellence from Wesley Theological Seminary and the Lewis Center