Equipping Saints for Ministry
By Fr. John M. Reeves
LAY MINISTRY AND PARISH TURN AROUND
Over time some churches experience significant decline in attendance and membership. This can be very disheartening to parishioners who have labored long and hard to establish a church community, only to see it become a shadow of its former self.
Sometimes the cause of decline is beyond the control of the parish. Factories close; job opportunities are lost. The parish “grays” as a result, becoming older in its membership as young members relocate to seek employment.
Other times, the cause of decline can be closer at hand. A parish, once robust and vibrant as a center for community life and activity, fails to reach out in ministry as newcomers move in. A self-sufficient approach becomes self-serving. As opportunities to serve others in the Name of Christ are overlooked, so is the opportunity lost to bring those individuals, their families, their dreams and aspirations into the life of the parish.
A Ministry Of Seeking and Serving
The Church, as we see it described in the Scriptures, is one where the ministry of seeking and serving is paramount. Not without its problems, it is, nevertheless, a growing Church where men and women, clergy and laity, are all involved in the various aspects of ministry. Some seek others, as apostles and evangelists; some care for widows as deacons; others serve with the gift of hospitality. The Lord blesses their collaboration and the Church grows: The number of disciples is multiplied. (Cf. Acts 6:1-7)
In the Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul speaks of the Church being given gifts by God which enable the Church to grow. He names some of these gifts, that some should be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, gifts specifically given to equip saints for the work of ministry. The results of equipping the saints is the edifying, the building up, of the Church. (Eph. 4:11,12) It is when the Church is truly edified that growth, both spiritual and numerical, can take place.
Writing to the Church in Rome, St. Paul expresses it this way:
“For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given us, let us use them:
If prophecy, in proportion to our faith;
If service, in our serving;
He who teaches, in his teaching;
He who exhorts, in his exhortation;
He who contributes (money), in liberality;
He who gives aid, with zeal;
He who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” (Rm 12:4-8)
Many times, churches which have declined over the years have failed to equip members for ministry. Consequently, when ministry opportunities present themselves, the parish finds itself ill-equipped to serve. Not infrequently, the parish has come to see itself as a place to minister unto itself rather than to others. Collaterally, the ministry of laity is under-utilized and the work of that parish becomes one of merely maintaining what it has, in the way it has always done things before.
Of course, in parishes which are declining, to continue to do things in the same manner as in the past only avoids the obvious. It denies the decline and delays any remediation of the situation. There are teaching and prophetic gifts which equip us to minister, instructing us that we have gifts and how we are to use the gifts we have. Serving, contributing generously (above tithes), giving aid, doing acts of mercy with cheerfulness, are all part of the life of the Church which build up the Church. Relying only on clergy, as an ordained, special class within the Church to minister, means that most ministry really does not get gone. Saints go unequipped, and the Body, the Church, is not edified. All too often the parish will decline. If the reason for that decline is left unchecked, that parish will ultimately close its doors.
The Turn-Around Ministry Project
By initiation of the Turn-Around Ministry Project, the Office of Church Growth and Evangelism of the Orthodox Church in America, seeks to help churches address the causes of decline and through training and teaching, to equip the saints in a given parish in order for the Church to be edified, to be built up once more.
To do this, training is being provided not only for clergy, many of whom have not been trained to utilize laity in effective ministry, but for the laity of the Church as well. There are other gifts besides pastoral gifts. A well equipped laity, exercising its gifts, knits the life of the Church together. While one key to ministry turn-around is certainly a competent priest desirous of change, it is impossible for a parish’s life to be radically altered without the effective, trained involvement of the laity in the whole process.
Of course, reasons for decline have not developed over night and neither will they be overcome overnight. For this reason, the Office of Church Growth enters into a minimum three-year agreement with a parish, its council, its priest and its hierarch to begin to effect a “turn-around.” Just as priests are sometimes “used” to doing everything or at least “expected” to do everything, so too, are laity accustomed to priests doing everything. What this means is that a priest can only work to the point of his incapacity, and the life of the parish suffers as a result. Yet clergy and laity have to be equipped for a more dynamic ministry wherein all work, not to the point of incapacity, but for the good and building up of the Church.
Willing To Admit The Need
The Turn-Around Ministry Project desires to reorient parish ministry in those churches which need the help and are willing to admit their need. The first step in this process is the most difficult, to admit the problem of decline, coupled with an openness to learn another way to do ministry, both on the part of the priest and laity. Excuses have to be put aside and the future faced with courage, rather than resignation, or denial, and defeat.
The second step is to contact the Office of Church Growth and Evangelism and request to be surveyed for Turn-Around Ministry. A comprehensive assessment is thereby made of the relational and functional characteristics of parish ministry. Once this is done, a member of the Office visits the parish to share the results of the survey and to recommend a course of action.
The third step is to enter into an agreement with the Office of Church Growth and Evangelism. When the agreement is signed, emphasis is first placed on equipping the priest to lead his parish into a new, turned-around phase of life. At the same time, the Church Growth team systematically begins instruction of the lay leadership in the concepts outlined above. Its modelling of church growth dynamics becomes an opportunity for the pastor to observe the process in action. As his skills are sharpened, the priest will move into the leadership role. The Church Growth team will then serve as coaches as the priest equips saints for ministry and those plans for ministry are acted upon by the laity in his parish.
During the whole process, the Office of Church Growth serves as consultant, coach, mentor and resource for the priest and for his parishioners. At every step of the way, mutual accountability is expected and reinforced by what we learn to do together, using the various gifts with which God has gifted his Church.
Equipping (lay) saints for ministry is God’s plan for his Church to grow. Equipping saints for ministry is the responsibility of every parish priest. Equipping saints for ministry can be especially challenging in churches which have experienced significant decline over the years. Yet equipped saints can turn their churches around towards a new and more vibrant life in Christ.
Give the Office of Church Growth and Evangelism a call at its toll-free number, 1-888-539-GROW, to find out more about equipping saints for the work of ministry in your parish. Roll up your sleeves: We would love to work along side you to build up the Body of Christ. We can start by turning your church around.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION:
What are some chief inhibitors of effective lay ministry in the Church today?
How does St. Paul use the analogy of the human body to speak of the effective working of the Body of Christ? (See Romans 12:14ff, Ephesians 4:15,16)
Give examples of gifts of service and the appropriate analogy from the body.
Give examples of gifts of administration, ...of teaching gifts, etc.
Make a complete list of the various gifts St. Paul outlines in Romans 12, I Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4. (St. Paul does not list every gift in each epistle.)
Do any of these gifts require ordination in order to be exercised in the Church?
How many of these gifts are being exercised in your parish at present?
Which of these gifts do you believe to be sorely lacking in your parish?
Is your parish top-heavy, or bottom-heavy in your assessment?
Discuss the difference between a gift as St. Paul uses the term and a talent.