Questioning our lay/ordained divide

Apr 30, 2018 by

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While most of us agree that healthy congregations need to use all of the varied and multiple gifts of its members, Mennonites have generally adopted the Protestant practice of elevating pastors to a special place set apart from other ordinary folks. It is a chosen few who are honored with ministerial ordination, given special titles, offered salaries and benefits, provided with office space and support staff, and given a major share of time and attention in the weekly service.

Meanwhile, most members do not receive financial support for their ministries in the church and are referred to as “lay” persons, a designation ordained persons no longer claim. In some denominations, in fact, clergy may not even be members of their own congregations, but hold their membership in some separate category with other clergy.

But if the word “lay” come from the Greek “laos,” meaning the people, do we really want those we appoint to offices of oversight, teaching and leadership to no longer be one of us?

Perhaps our baptismal “commissioning” should be thought of as an ordination to full-time service for everyone, howbeit in many different settings and with the exercise of many different gifts. And among the baptized there will often be appointments to special tasks, accompanied by congregational prayers and the laying on of many hands, and as needed, adequate financial support as well. But to have only a small percent of our members blessed and commissioned in this way, to me, may create an unhealthy dichotomy that is foreign to New Testament faith and to Anabaptist practice.

In my own 20 years of serving as a partially salaried pastor in a medium-size congregation, I came to realize that some of the greater honor that went with being the called, ordained and professional “minister” set me up for a problematic set of stresses and temptations. The very design of our church’s “auditorium” enhanced this sense of elevation and potential isolation, with my having a weekly audience seated in orderly rows all facing a central pulpit which, yes, was also used by other members, but mostly for secondary and introductory parts of a service that led up to the main feature — the pastor’s sermon. And whom was I to go to when I needed to acknowledge my own need of pastoral care?

I may be wrong, but some of this seems like a far cry from the church described in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, in which all are to bring their psalms, teachings and other revelations; all are to be fellow members of the laos, the people; and all are commissioned to a lifetime of service.

Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation. He blogs at Harvspot, where this post first appeared.


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