General Conference 2000 - May 2 - 12

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Laity Address


May 3, 2000
Jim Nibbelink, Lay Leader – West Ohio Conference


The little boy jumped up on the pew and looked around with excitement. Just three years old, this was his first time in church and there were so many new things to see and to hear. He just couldn’t contain himself! While he was enjoying his vantage point, the boy’s mother wasn’t so enthusiastic. "Sit down," she whispered, and motioned the boy to his seat. Now, those of you familiar with the habits of three-year-old boys will recall that a little boy’s tolerance for sitting still lasts about … thirty-seven seconds! So there he was, back on his feet, back up on the pew, back to discovering all sorts of new and wonderful things! There was funny-colored glass and strange music and all kinds of interesting people – what a joy for a little boy! Well, Mom didn’t take her little explorer’s antics quite as calmly this time. She took hold of his belt and firmly guided him to his seat, saying, "We don’t do that in church!" Another thirty-seven seconds … and another jump up on the pew! There was singing now, and lots of people in flowing robes! Mom acted quickly and decisively. She grabbed the little boy’s belt with both hands, jerked him down to his place and hissed, "SIT DOWN!" in a tone violent enough to startle worshippers three pews away! Quiet at last, the little boy sat for a few moments, and then looked up at his mother with a tear in his eye, saying, "I may be sitting down on the outside, … but I’m standing up on the inside!"

The little boy certainly had a lively spirit inside him, a spirit that circumstances (and his zealous mother) were seeking to KEEP bottled up! I think of that little boy and his desire to break from the norm when I meet many of the laypersons in our churches. They tell me that they want to be in ministry; that they want to serve, but that so many things are holding them back. I remember the little boy, too, when I talk to pastors who want to try something new; pastors who have an idea for expanding the ministry of their congregations. They also tell me of being restrained; of not being able to engage people with new ideas. I think that both lay and clergy in these situations are being constrained by some of the same issues. There’s a lot of vital, active ministry happening in the United Methodist Church around the world, but there’s also a lot of frustration and inaction in local congregations, in Districts and at the Conference level. Making disciples and caring for persons in our congregations and beyond both require hard work. Many lay people and pastors alike seem to feel that they just don’t have the means to break free, to take action, to be IN action! These feelings may seem a bit remote to some of us here, because we’re most often in the middle of the action. As leaders, we must look around carefully and honestly though, and when we look, we see many individuals and congregations that aren’t involved. The joy of belonging to an active outpost of God’s love is missing, and much of the activity is directed at survival.

What’s going on in our congregations and institutional structure that people feel is keeping them from active ministry? Is it a lack of motivation? … Sometimes, perhaps, but not always. The little boy was certainly motivated! Something else was in the way! Our motivation comes right from our roots, right from the Scripture and right from Jesus. There’s the Great Commission, … "Go ye, into all the world." … There’s the joy of sharing the Good News with others. There’s the wonderful sense of God’s Spirit at work while we’re caring for the needs of hurting people. There are dreams of what things could be like with a little hard work. There might be some insightful folks who remind us what will happen if we sit back and do nothing. Sometimes, even our frustration at a lack of action can be a motivator. Simply being around folks with a positive outlook, those who would be willing to trust God to be with us in a new effort, is often a motivating force. Yet with all these motivators and more, many of us just sit and stew, wishing things could be different. Whether in pulpit or pew, we maintain the status quo despite that little voice inside that’s telling us to jump up on the pew, find out what’s going on, and get in on the action!

Just what’s holding us back, anyway? There might be a slightly different list for pastors and lay folk, but for most of us, the factors are pretty much the same. Remember Tevye, the proud father in "Fiddler on the Roof?" TRADITION ! Of course! That great killer of change. It’s tradition that says that pastors do one set of tasks and that lay people do another set of tasks. It’s tradition that says that the pastor must have all of the ideas and lead all of the major activities. And it’s tradition that says that lay people wait to be asked to serve. Lay people are fond of claiming a lack of training or experience, while pastors complain that no one will do the work. We all are risk averse. We try so hard to keep from failing that we sometimes fail to do anything that might move God’s work ahead! We must be happy with the status quo, because we work extra hard to keep new ideas from creeping into our worship and new methods from altering our approach to service. Comfort for the current attendees and sometimes, comfort for the current pastor, are the major, and often only, goals of our ministry. A significant inhibitor, found far and wide in the church is fear. It’s usually found in fear of loss of power or loss of control. This characteristic is often attributed to members of our clergy who may be too conscious of status or of position, and that certainly can be true. But it’s a circumstance that should be recognized among laity, as well. Congregations can hold a pastor hostage by inaction, distraction or salary action! We’re good at stifling ideas, then complaining that things aren’t what they used to be! Power and control, wherever found and however expressed, are twin barriers to progressive, alive ministry. Finally, a gigantic inhibitor to vital ministry is a lack of vision. Many congregations are perishing, because there’s not even one soul among them who dares to dream.

So here we are. There’s a spirit inside us that tells us to stand up … and a set of traditions and fears that tells us we can’t do that in church! There are many good and sound ideas afoot that are helping the church out of this dilemma. I want to lift up just one. I think it’s imperative that teams of leaders, lay and clergy, learn to work together as partners to advance the cause of Jesus Christ! The time has long passed, if it was truly ever here, when one leader could chart the course, make the decisions, call the tune and carry the load. Lay and pastor partnerships must be in place to most effectively carry on the work of the Gospel, the work of God. Dictates from the pulpit or from the pew must pass away and a renewed, cooperative spirit must be encouraged to take root. Too long have too many congregations suffered at the hands of autocratic pastors. Too long have willing, committed pastors been held back by unwilling, contentious congregations. Partnerships between lay and clergy, perhaps exemplified by a partnership between a pastor and the congregation’s Lay Leader, offer us a significant opportunity to overcome most of the barriers I’ve mentioned. Partners work together, and together, with the help of God’s Spirit, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts and barriers seen as insurmountable are reduced or eliminated.

Partnership … a word that inspires a vision of fear – if you’re the one afraid of losing power, or a word that inspires a vision of joint achievement – if you know that the gifts and graces of both lay and clergy are necessary for dynamic ministry in these complex times. A dictionary definition of a partner speaks of one who shares with another in a joint enterprise. The key word is SHARES. In a well-oiled partnership, neither partner is forced to lead all of the time. Neither has all of the ideas, all of the responsibility or is expected to do all of the work. In fact, the best partnerships leverage the special talents of both members of the team, while helping to overcome any gaps that may exist in either member’s skill base. Partners take turns coaching, inspiring and supporting each other. Together, they challenge each other to be the best that they can be. Partners gain energy from each other and often are willing to try greater challenges than either may have attempted on their own. The synergy resulting from a thriving partnership makes more room for the Spirit of God to enter the partnership, because each person is committed to find and fulfill the dreams and visions that come from God’s Spirit, rather than to chasing personal rainbows. Partners cover more ground than leaders working separately. Two heads really are better than one, and four hands and feet can travel farther and accomplish more than lone wolf leaders. Pastor and Lay Leader together can have a broader perspective of the congregation, its needs and strengths, and on the community in which it’s planted. The different viewpoints of the pastor and key lay persons are essential in forming a motivating, vital vision for the ministry of the congregation. By himself or herself, no one person has the complete background or training to effectively assess the community or the congregation. Together, leaders of the laity and pastors have access to a significant network of ideas, training, support services, resources and people. Joint visioning and goal-setting virtually eliminates the possibility of the pastor and Lay Leader working at conflicting goals or of the congregation wasting its energy in endless discussions of diverging ideas, wishful thinking and lost opportunities. A significant aspect of a Lay Leader – pastor partnership is the fact that their joint efforts serve as a symbol to all in the congregation and community. It’s a symbol saying that although we’re gifted differently and have different formal roles, we agree on the primary mission of the church and on our local strategy to make disciples. We’re working together to make things happen and we offer you the opportunity to work together as well. The example of partnership and what it symbolizes is necessary in a congregation, and it’s absolutely vital at the District and Conference levels, where we often seem to have one agenda for clergy and a separate one for laity.

Formation of a partnership, in a local congregation or at the District or Conference level, is a deliberate act undertaken by both of the partners. It won’t happen by accident and just declaring a partnership doesn’t make it so. There will be prayer, planning, tentative experimentation, perhaps some uncomfortable moments or false starts. There will be visioning and seeking God’s direction for the organization and for the partners. There will be commitment to be faithful and a covenant between the partners. There will be agreement on the roles and responsibilities of each partner, building on the unique talents and perspectives that each one brings to the partnership. Traditional and Disciplinary roles will be acknowledged and honored, but only to advance the ministry, not to inhibit the full participation of either partner. There will be recognition of what the partnership will mean to the faith community and efforts planned to exhibit the mutual trust and support the partners have for each other.

Does all of this mean that the individuals and their formal roles are submerged or forgotten? Not at all! Rather, the partnership frees both pastor and lay person to do the things they do best or have the unique responsibility to perform. It’s just that they do these things in a planned, mutually supportive way, not in isolation. Each action is jointly planned to advance the mission of the congregation. There will be many opportunities to take on non-traditional tasks. Some pastors will find it liberating to be simply a committee member, rather than always being at center stage. Some may even discover that they don’t have to attend every meeting that happens in the life of the congregation, trusting that congregational leaders can handle the tasks at hand! Some laypersons may do a fine job of preaching on occasion and we’re already seeing the benefits of laypersons carrying consecrated communion elements to shut-ins or to nursing homes after worship services. We remain individuals, uniquely called, lay and clergy, but we choose to serve together in a planned way that goes beyond our usual experiences in the church.

There are three characteristics that help to define a successful partnership for me. They’re building blocks laid on the cornerstone of God’s grace that is Jesus Christ, forming the basis for ministry through pairs of committed persons. The first characteristic is Respect. It’s essential that each partner credit the other for his or her official position, training, abilities, perspective and commitment to service. Respect means that each regularly seeks the other’s input and advice. Differences are clarified and common ground is sought. Trust is a key factor in Respect. Decisions made have the unflagging support of both pastor and Lay Leader. Each partner believes that the other will perform as agreed and to the very best of his or her ability. Roles in each ministry effort are chosen with regard to the person best suited for the situation at hand and authority delegated to the people who need it to get the job done. Jesus respected his disciples’ capabilities and sent them out into the villages without him to teach and to heal. Respect says that the partners stand up for each other and honor the gifts that the other brings to the ministry. Do partners need to agree on everything? Must they have a common theology? No, … but partners can live out the principle that we can walk hand in hand in God’s service without seeing eye to eye in all matters. Respect is foremost in a thriving partnership.

The next characteristic defining partnership success is Responsibility. Each partner carries an appropriate share of the load. Sometimes, it’s as a leader, sometimes it’s as a willing worker. Sometimes, it’s as a cheerleader, because another person is best suited for the project. Always, it’s with the understanding that commitments will be kept. There are status reports and accountability, to be sure, but accountability going both ways, pastor to lay person and lay person to pastor. Responsible leaders don’t always need to be in the limelight. They recognize that God can use anyone and are always on the lookout for people who may at first seem unlikely, but who are willing to serve. Empowering new disciples and training new leaders are important aspects of a current leader’s role. Each and every one of us got our first opportunity to be a leader, because a person with Responsibility expected that we could do the job. We cannot expect people to do a good job without first giving them a good job to do! Responsibility means that partners ask each other for help when the going gets tough. One strength of a partnership is that there’s more than one individual to share the burden of leadership. Once committed, partners stand up for the vision, the goals, the ministries and the projects selected. There’s a united team at work, not individuals working at cross-purposes, unaware of the other person’s dreams, needs and priorities. The importance of mutual support in a congregation, District or Conference cannot be overstated. Partners take the Responsibility to seek new skills, new insights and new methods. Each new tool brought to the partnership makes the team stronger and better able to meet the challenges of ministry. Responsibility means being willing to hold others in the congregation responsible in their own right for some aspect of ministry. Each disciple is called to active service and effective leaders often have the gift of matching people with service opportunities within the congregation. Most of the time, these are not committee assignments with monthly meetings, but caring ministries that weave a fine web of love and concern and support among the people of the faith community.

The third characteristic I’ll mention is Risk. Successful partnerships require risk-taking. Both pastors and leaders within the laity are willing to rock the boat if the situation calls for it. Making new disciples is not always a simple task. Nurturing the flock inside the church calls for caring creativity as needs change. Reaching and serving the surrounding community is a daunting challenge these days, requiring ingenuity and new methods to tell the old, old story. Leaders must often try new methods, involve new people, seek new ideas. The message of salvation hasn’t changed, but the world has changed considerably and reaching potential disciples takes more than just opening up the doors on Sunday morning and expecting folks to show up! Lay Leader and pastor must unite to create a vision that stretches the congregation. The vision must be out of easy reach, but not out of sight! Vital partnerships often tug at the status quo … and often upset some of the folks who the partners would like to involve in the ministry. Determined partners can lead congregations which are more concerned with being comfortable to becoming renewed ambassadors for God if they are willing to risk. Lay Leader – pastor partners can share the role of reassuring and seeking input from comfortable people who may be fearful of change. These people, too, are important, and sharing the responsibility to both comfort and challenge them will help to overcome congregational inertia. Faithful partners know that disciple-making requires tending to the lost as well as caring for the flock. Partners always remember, that if the shepherd doesn’t risk going out to seek the one who’s lost, the ninety-nine left in the fold are not really as safe as they believe themselves to be! Risk means being willing to fail. Good risk-takers know that failure is only permanent if we let it be. Failure is temporary if we view it as a learning opportunity and a chance to grow in our knowledge of the situation before we try again. Recall that Jesus acted twice to heal the blind man at the pool of Bethsaida. Edison’s light bulb didn’t work until after many hundreds of failed attempts. Those who do not risk are those who do not dream! Jesus’ parable of the talents tells us bluntly that the gift of grace is not to be buried in the ground. The servant who did not risk is harshly condemned. It is clear that a faithful response to God is an active, risk-taking response. The faithful servants took the initiative, despite a lack of detailed instructions. Partners in God’s work do not sit by waiting for answers, they step out in faith! It’s not easy to take risk, but think of what’s at stake, and be assured that if no one ever took a chance with you, … you wouldn’t be sitting here right now!

You’ll recall the old story of a group of children walking down a country road that had an abandoned railroad track running alongside it. The children tried to see who could walk on a rail the farthest without falling off. One by one, they tried to keep balanced long enough to outdistance the others, but each failed to get very far. Suddenly, one of them had an idea and quickly whispered to one of the others. The two offered to bet that they could walk the entire length of the track without falling off. To jeers and teasing, they jumped up on opposite rails and extended a hand across the space between them. Acting as partners, they walked confidently down the tracks. Partnership. You may think you can … or you may think you can’t. Either way, you’ll be right! It’s up to the leaders of the church to set the example and to see that a successful model of partnership ministry is made available to every congregation, every District and every Conference. It’s time to get going, to move out and to move on! Inaction is often our biggest problem, because even God cannot steer a parked car! And Someday, … Someday, is not a day of the week!

And so we have Respect, Responsibility and Risk, these three … and the greatest of these is Respect! Resolve now to create a partnership with your counterpart in ministry. Resolve now to become an example of partnering to others in your sphere of influence. Resolve now to make disciples through partnering; doing God’s work, moving out into ministry. God’s Spirit will go with you, strengthen you and sustain you, for as you honor your partner, you are honoring God. Stand up on the outside, not just on the inside! Go into the world as lay and clergy partners, carrying the best of both traditions, for God’s church needs both of us to prosper! Stand up – together! Reach out – together! Walk forward – together! Make disciples – together! And may God bless us all – together!

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