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May 3, 2000            GC-006

Laity Address: Clergy, lay members must be true partners

CLEVELAND (UMNS) — Tradition is impeding the ability of congregations to engage in active ministry, according to the Laity Address given at the United Methodist Church's top legislative meeting May 3.

Tradition also creates separate tasks for clergy and lay members instead of bringing them together as partners in making disciples, said Jim Nibbelink of Milford, Ohio, who was chosen to give the Laity Address at the church's 2000 General Conference.

Nibbelink, representing the church's 9.6 million lay members worldwide, focused on "Partners with a Purpose" and offered a prescription for overcoming the barriers preventing lay and clergy from working together to advance the cause of Jesus Christ.

The denomination's top legislative body, which gathers every four years, is meeting May 2-12 in Cleveland. The gathering has drawn 992 delegates from around the world.

Calling tradition the great killer of change, Nibbelink said it also provides two agendas – one for the laity, one for the clergy. "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," he said.

In the traditional Laity Address, given on the first full day of the conference, Nibbelink said two inhibitors prevent lay members and clergy from becoming partners in ministry.

The first inhibitor is fear, which usually is found in a pastor's perceived loss of power and control, he said. This characteristic is often attributed to pastors concerned about status or position. Lay members, he said, are also guilty. "Congregations can hold a pastor hostage by inaction, distraction or salary action," Nibbelink said. "Power and control, wherever found and however expressed, are twin barriers to progressive, alive ministry."

Lack of vision is a gigantic inhibitor to vital ministry, he continued. "Many congregations are perishing because there's not even one soul among them who dares to dream."

Nibbelink's address is the sixth state of the laity message presented to General Conference. Three women and three men, chosen to represent the denomination's diversity, delivered the first laity address at the 1980 gathering. A competition has been held every four years since then for a layperson to make the speech. In 1996, the competition was restricted to members of the National Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders. In the same way that the Council of Bishops handles the Episcopal Address, the association wanted the focus to be on the laity's message and not on the speaker. The competition for the 2000 General Conference was expanded to include lay leaders from the central conferences.

As Nibbelink emphasized the importance of lay and clergy partnership, he noted that a team approach is essential in forming a motivating, vital vision for the ministry of the congregation and for effectively performing the work of the Gospel.

"The time has long passed, if it was truly ever here, when one leader could chart the course, make decisions, call the tune and carry the load," he said. "Dictates from the pulpit or pew must pass away, and a renewed, cooperative spirit must be encouraged to take root." 

For too long, autocratic pastors have hampered congregations, and unwilling, contentious congregations have stifled willing and committed pastors, he said. "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."

The key word in a partnership is "shares," he said. Partners support and draw energy from each other. "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."

A partnership between the pastor and the lay leader can provide each with a perspective of the congregation, its needs and strengths, and of the surrounding community, he said. Different viewpoints are necessary and essential to forming ministry of the congregation that is vital and motivational. While one person cannot adequately assess needs, leaders of the laity and pastors have access to a network of ideas, training, support services, resources and people. A partnership provides both with the opportunity to do what they do best in a mutually supportive way and not in isolation, he stated.

A partnership is deliberate and intentional, not accidental, Nibbelink said. "It won't happen by accident, and just declaring a partnership does not make it so." Partnerships take prayer, planning, tentative experimentation, uncomfortable moments and false starts.

Nibbelink provided three characteristics of a successful partnership, which he called "the building blocks laid on the cornerstone of God's grace that is Jesus Christ, forming the basis for ministry through pairs of committed people."

Respect is the first. Each partner should acknowledge the other for the gifts brought to the ministry, he said. Respect means each person provides input and advice, differences are clarified, and common ground is sought. "Trust is the key factor in respect," he said. "Respect is foremost in a thriving partnership."

The next characteristic of a successful partnership is responsibility. Each person shares an appropriate portion of the task. Nibbelink said the leader will sometimes be the follower and the follower will be the leader, depending on what is required to complete a project.

Partners take responsibility to seek new skills, new insights and new methods, he said. Each new tool brought to the partnership strengthens the team and makes it more effective 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," he said. 

Risk is the third characteristic. "Successful partnerships require risk-taking," he said. "Both pastors and leaders within the laity are willing to rock the boat if the situation calls for it."

When the needs of a congregation change, he suggested that creativity is essential to nurture it effectively. Leaders must be willing to try new methods, allow new ideas to creep into worship and involve new people.

"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," Nibbelink noted. The lay leader and pastor must unite to create a vision that stretches the congregation, he said. 

"Risk means being willing to fail," he said. "Good risk-takers know that failure is only permanent if we let it be." Failure is temporary if one learns from it and becomes knowledgeable about the situation before trying again, he said. 

"Those who do not risk are those who do not dream!" he said. "Partners in God's work do not sit by waiting for answers; they step put in faith."

As he concluded the Laity Address, he challenged clergy and lay listeners to walk forward together and make disciples.

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-- Linda Green

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