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Conference of Lay Ministers 1.0

Bonnie Anderson

Bonnie Anderson, president of the House of Deputies, is the top layperson in The Episcopal Church

Over the past few weeks, as I’ve gotten into the first stages of contemplative prayer, I’ve wondered if lay ministers in the Church would benefit from forming an association for mutual recognition and support.

I belonged to a great one in the past, but it was destroyed by an anti-Gay purge within and without. I still regret the loss of it.

But it had other problems too: chronic underfunding, caused mostly by the poverty of its members, and a membership model that dated from Victorian England. Transposed to ’60s and ’70s America, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. The ministers performed brilliantly, but it was difficult to attract new members; the criteria were too narrow. People had to pay to enroll in a nine-month residential training course, and then go out and work among the poor. (They also got something very valuable for their trouble, a national preaching license, which even bishops and priests weren’t entitled to.)

Meanwhile tens of thousands of other laypeople were doing other kinds of ministries in parishes, dioceses, schools and other settings. But no one saw a way to put these folks together.

I may have come up with one, but I’m still in the discernment process. Hence this is version 1.0.

Inside the walls of the Church, clergy are set aside (ordained) to preside over the sacraments; that is their principal function. All the rest of the Church’s work is or ought to be or can be or must be performed by laypeople. Our principal task is praying.

When I consider these throngs of dedicated volunteers, without much support or recognition, I look for ways to enhance what they do. One way would certainly be to encourage more helping hands! Perhaps a method for doing that would be to increase their status or visibility within a congregation and across congregations.

Another would be to promote the dignity and importance of the work they do, by advocating for the empowerment of more (all) laypeople. Still another would be to enhance their training, so that they gain knowledge and skills they can apply in new ways.

The biggest benefit, I think, would be to help them enhance their prayer lives, because our relationship with the Lord is the most important thing. And one way to do this would be to enable them to take certain limited vows within the worshiping community: to provide a method for receiving the vows which each one has privately made.

I’m thinking of calling this organization the Conference of Lay Ministers in The Episcopal Church, composed of two equal orders: for women, the Sisters of Martha and Mary of Bethany; and for men, the Order of the Centurions of Christ.

(See Luke 7:1-17 and 10:38-42 for the Gospel accounts of Christ’s encounters with these folks.)

I’ve written a first draft of Constitution, Rule and Vows, without knowing whether there is any interest whatsoever among the laity. I am only in the discernment stage; I’ll probably talk about this tomorrow with my spiritual adviser Tom (not an Episcopalian), and if he doesn’t laugh in my face, it may be time to start speaking with some others for guidance; some parochial clergy, and maybe my bishop when she recovers from illness and returns to work.

Today I simply know these things: I’m glad I’m not ordained. Being a layperson allows me to exercise freedom both in following and leading, where clergy often feel constrained. They have jobs and bishops, donors and vestries to worry about, while I can say and do whatever I want. Laypeople form the “priesthood of all believers,” but being a lay minister is as much a calling as ordination is. We do the lion’s share of the work—which is only right and our bounden duty. And we should have ways to get better at it, and to bring more people into our calling to serve.

Most clergy would love to have more dynamic lay leadership, but they don’t have time to make that happen fully. So it’s something we have to create.

How? Set some goals and get organized. Say a prayer for this if you will.++

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