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Dare to think differently about lay ministry

30 October 2020

It is about much more than filling the gaps left by stipendiary clergy, argues Martyn Snow. A whole new vision is needed

IN THE midst of all our current pondering about the future of the Church of England, it would be easy to miss the fact that, behind the scenes, quietly, softly, steadily, God continues to call people into ministry.

And all the evidence seems to suggest that ever larger numbers are responding. Some diocesan directors of ordinands and vocations officers are struggling to cope with the numbers of people coming forward to explore their vocation. Foodbanks speak of having to turn away willing volunteers. And many churches have discovered whole new categories of ministry — including the video editor and the risk-register monitor.

Something extraordinary is happening in the world of ministry, and it needs to be celebrated. Yet this wonderfully encouraging by-product of the lockdown presents us with another crossroads: how will we respond? Or, to put it more bluntly, in a future in which we are very likely to have fewer stipendiary clergy (given the current state of most dioceses’ finances), yet, potentially, many more non-stipendiary lay and ordained ministers, how will we adjust to a very different approach to ministry?

Lay ministry has blossomed during the past 70 years. Ever since the World Council of Churches created a division for lay ministry in 1949, and Yves Congar wrote Lay People in the Church, in 1957, a book that influenced the Second Vatican Council, there has been a growing call to value and enhance the work of lay ministry. Last week, a new resource, Kingdom Calling, was published, offering a theological reflection on vocation and ministry (News, 23 October). And, in a few weeks’ time, a report from the Lay Ministry Data Project will highlight the growth in the spread and variety of lay ministry.

Much of this has gone under the radar up to now. While central resources have flowed into ordained vocations and training, lay ministry has flourished in a culture of letting “a thousand flowers bloom”. Even within lay ministry, there has been a divergence. Those ministries that demand long, intensive training courses have struggled to maintain numbers, while those with a flexible approach to “on-the-job” training, with an emphasis on lifelong learning, have found people beating a path to their door.


LAY ministry, too, stands at a crossroads, however. One route, which at first sight looks attractive to diocesan planners, is the path on which lay ministers fill all the gaps left by stipendiary clergy. But this is a dangerous approach, which is wrong on many levels. Most significantly, it fails to grasp that, in our current situation, a whole new vision for ministry is not only possible, but necessary, if only we dare to think differently about lay ministry.

This “new” vision (which is really very old) is one that starts by recognising the ministry of the whole people of God (which is also where the ordination service starts), and then goes on to recognise that most ministry is done by Christians living out their everyday faith in the varied contexts of their everyday life. This is to say that most ministry takes place outside the four walls of the church building, and what we have to do about this ministry is not to organise it, or try to control it, but, rather, to celebrate it and resource people for it.

So, the key question now is not how we maintain ministry as it has been in recent decades, but how we enlarge our vision and release and equip people for ministry in the everyday. And this is where lay ministry comes into its own; for lay ministers are commissioned by the Church principally for the work of equipping others in their everyday witness. They can be particularly skilled at this because they understand from within the world of work, school, college, and social networks, with all the pressures and ethical dilemmas that are particular to these spheres. Increasingly, this must be the focus for our vocations and training work for lay ministry.


DURING the past few years, my own understanding of lay ministry has changed. I now see clearly that an amazing opportunity is opening up for us: an opportunity to reimagine ministry in a way that does not diminish the work of the clergy, but, rather, sees it enhanced through a true recognition of the complementary gift of lay ministers.

This will involve a shift of focus and resources from the institution to the whole of life, from the two per cent of ministers (ordained) to the 98 per cent (lay), and from lay ministers as helpers to equal partners. It will also involve lay ministers themselves’ understanding that their gift to the Church is constantly to remind us that we do not exist for ourselves, but for those who have not yet encountered Christ.


The Rt Revd Martyn Snow is the Bishop of Leicester.

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