Laity and the Problem of Professionalism in our Churches

(This blog first appeared as an article in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, Sept. 12, 2003, and is here slightly revised.)

Let me begin boldly. I believe that there has been a colossal disenfranchisement of the laity in our churches.   Parallel to this phenomenon is the professionalization of the pastoral ministry.  I want to illustrate these phenomena and show why they are problematic.  

Hierarchy of Gifts

First, there is little place for the involvement of the laity in the “important” tasks in our churches.  Oh yes, lay people are needed to do the “smaller” tasks – help along with the children’s ministry, teach Sunday school, play in a worship band.  But, the overriding assumption is that each of these areas needs to be headed by a full-time professional pastor who acts as an administrator over the volunteer laity who do the hands-on work – under supervision, of course.  Thus we have worship pastors, children’s ministry pastors, evangelism pastors, administrative pastors, and always a lead pastor who generally does most of the preaching.  

There is surely something rather odd about this arrangement.  It assumes that laypersons are not capable (or willing) to serve in administrative roles in the church. Oddly, these same lay-persons are perfectly capable of serving as foremen of their construction companies, they might be heads of a department at their places of work, they may even be CEO’s of a business, or they might be gifted teachers.  But, somehow, they are not allowed to use these abilities and gifts in the church.  (I am assuming here some connection between natural abilities and gifts.)

I’m sure that some of my readers will object to my distinguishing between important and smaller tasks in the church.  There is a strange ambivalence in our churches concerning the idea of a hierarchy of gifts.  Clearly one thrust of I Corinthians 12 is to encourage us to see that all gifts are important in the functioning of a healthy church.  But this does not negate the fact that some gifts are more important than others, as Paul in fact suggests in this same chapter.  Elsewhere he identifies the “gifts of administration” (I Cor. 12:28), and the gift of leadership, which are surely very important in a church (Rom. 12:7).  Then in Ephesians he talks about the sovereign God having appointed some in the church to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers “to prepare God’s people for works of service”  (4:11).  Healthy churches require leaders and administrators and teachers and pastors to equip others for works of service.

The problem in today’s churches is that we assume that only paid professional pastors have these more important gifts.  Indeed, in many churches there is an entire team of such pastors each having one or more of these important gifts, with the senior pastor functioning as the CEO of the church corporation.   But there is nothing in these passages about these gifts being restricted to paid professionals.   It is further rather presumptuous for the professional and paid pastors to assume that it is only they who are gifted to equip the laity.  Most often there are laity in our churches who are quite capable of equipping the other laity for gifts of service.

Training of professionals

Further, there is strangely nothing said in these Pauline passages about training people with these gifts.  It is simply assumed that they have them, and that they will use them in the church. “God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” (I Cor. 12:18).  No talk of  seminaries training pastors.  Instead, “God appoints.” 

Of course, I am describing the alternatives too starkly.  The choice is not necessarily between gifting or training.  I am quite aware of the fact that gifts can be fine-tuned with some additional training.  And of course, we live in a very different time period than that of the early church.  In a world of specialization, we need expertise in our churches.  But – and this is a big but –  we must careful not to assume that our world is completely different from that of the New Testament church.   We need to make sure that we let the Bible critique present attitudes and practices in the church. Is it not a little presumptuous to assume that a seminary is the only way in which gifts can be fine-tuned?  What of the person who has had years of experience in administration at an auto repair shop, or a hospital, or a university?   Why not use this person’s fine-tuned gifts in the church?  Do we really need a full time pastor of administration?   And what of the person who obviously has abilities and gifts in the area of teaching?  Would it not be possible for this person, (or perhaps several persons) to serve in the pulpit on a regular basis?  We might even find that we don’t need a professional teaching pastor who is supported with a salary.


It might be argued that in this busy world of ours, people just don’t have time for such heavy involvement in the church.  I really do not think this response is entirely honest.  Even with our professional multiple pastoral staff in churches, it is still expected that lay people have the time to do the “grunge work” – well, perhaps that word is a little too demeaning.  Better perhaps to say that lay people are still expected to use their gifts of serving (Rom. 12:7).  Why then not the other gifts?  Why not let a lay-person with the obvious gift of administration use that gift in the church, instead of hiring an administrative pastor?  Why not let a lay-person with the obvious gift of teaching/preaching/prophesying use that gift on a Sunday morning instead of hiring a lead teaching pastor?  Further, lay-persons do have time for the church.   There are many lay-persons who are very committed to the church, and would love to use their gifts in the church if only they had the opportunity.  You have not because you ask not!

Just recently I visited a church where they were hiring an associate pastor.  I found this puzzling because I know that in this same church there were several retired pastors and Bible school teachers who could very comfortably have filled the supposed needs of this church, if only they were asked.  I know of several churches that have very gifted lay teachers/preachers in their midst, but who are seldom, if ever, called on to preach.  Why?  Because the senior pastor is expected to preach most of the time.  And, of course, each of the subordinate pastors, it is felt, should be given a turn on the pulpit, at least once in a while, by virtue of their “status.”  There simply are not enough Sundays to give lay-teachers/preachers a turn on the pulpit. And as a result, we are missing the contributions of people whom God has gifted and given to the church.  This is wrong.


I recently attended an academic conference of Catholic educational administrators and clergy.  I was again reminded of how very sharp the distinction between clergy and laity is within the Catholic church.  This is precisely what our early Anabaptist/Mennonite forebears were reacting against.  And quite rightly so.  We are all equally brothers and sisters in the Lord.  Jesus specifically taught us that we are not to call anyone “Rabbi” or “father” or “teacher” because you only have one Teacher, the Christ (Matt.23:8-11).   And yet today we keep referring to our pastors as Pastor Friesen or Pastor David.  This is another expression of the professionalization of the pastoral ministry and it is a departure from Jesus’ teaching.  We have forgotten our Anabaptist heritage.  We are, today, more Catholic than Mennonite in our church practice, and it is getting worse, what with the increasing levels of hierarchy in church and conference structures. Our forebears died in vain!

Lest this essay be interpreted as being primarily an attack on the practice of paying our pastors, let me be very explicit in denying this possible misinterpretation.  I believe that sometimes it is quite appropriate to have a paid pastor.  But, when the practice of hiring professional pastors has, as its consequence, a failure to use willing lay-people whom God has gifted and appointed to each church, then we are being unbiblical.


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