Lay Ministry - A Shared Responsibility
By Larry Jenney
(A keynote address given by Larry Jenney, Chairman of the Department of Lay Ministries, at the assembly of the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania on September 10, 1988)
I would like to share some thoughts with you about a fundamental, but sometimes overlooked, aspect of our lives as Orthodox Christians. By Holy Scripture, by tradition, and by the example of the saints through nearly 2,000 years of history, we are called to minister to one another. In the title of my address today I have characterized this ministry as a shared responsibility. Let me begin by explaining why I have chosen this title.
Historically, the Church has understood that the practice of Christianity is not something pursued by individuals acting alone. True, we must make an individual and personal commitment to God, and we must cultivate within ourselves a oneness with Him in every part of our being. But the Church has never perceived personal faith as simply a one-to-one relation with God. If we truly believe in God and fully absorb His message of love and redemption through Jesus Christ, we see that our faith and submission to His will takes place in a social context. We are of the family of God - and as in our earthly families - we are bound to each other by a web of love and mutual commitment.
Forms Of Cooperation In The Church
Christianity is communal and cooperative. The people of God (the laos, or laity) and those chosen for special responsibility (the clergy) work together to fulfill the mission of the Church. Broadly speaking, this cooperation takes three forms.
First, there is worship itself. The root meaning of the word “liturgy” in Greek is the “work of the people.” The Divine Liturgy is not celebrated by a priest alone, nor is it a spectacle to be passively witnessed. The Divine Liturgy requires the active participation of the laity. Together, the people of God assemble for worship, celebrate God’s presence, invoke His blessing, and partake of the Eucharist. The Divine Liturgy is what it is because it is a shared, cooperative endeavor.
The second area of cooperation is in the administration of the Church. Each of us shares in the tasks and activities that enable the Church to function as an institution. We work together to assure the good order and well being of God’s earthly house - contributing talent, time, and treasure as stewards of the Church to sustain it as a social institution.
The third form of cooperation - and a necessary consequence of the other two - is service to others. Christ commands us to love one another as we love ourselves, not only in our hearts but also in our conduct. From the very beginning of the Church, as told in the Book of Acts (and the name itself is significant), the early Christians understood that ministry to others was an essential part of their lives. Following the example of Christ’s ministry and inspired by the Holy Spirit, the early Christian community devoted itself to serving those in need. To administer this work, they created a special group known as deacons (in Greek meaning is “servants”) to distribute food, clothing, and other necessities. Equally important, they also gave spiritual comfort to those in need. It is clear, however, that the deacons were not the only persons involved in charitable work; they were coordinators and managers of a community-wide activity involving everyone in the Church.
Thus, the earliest, fundamental, and correct understanding of the Church is that it involves cooperative effort by the whole people in worship, stewardship, and ministry - a shared endeavor of clergy and laity, young and old, men and women, rich and poor, all of us who call ourselves Christians.
More Than A Desirable Practice
This is more than a desirable practice or “a good thing to do,” like supporting the scouts, mulching your garden, or flossing regularly and seeing your dentist twice a year. Christ did not “suggest” that we do this, nor did He “recommend” it for our consideration as “good Christians.” He commanded us to minister to one another, and we must accept it for what it is: a duty to be fulfilled as a member of the body of Christ. We are to give because we have been given. We really have no choice if we are to be Christians - not “good Christians,” just Christians.
Saint Peter clearly saw it thus. In I Peter 4:8-10 he tells us:
“And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves; for charity shall cover a multitude of sins. Use hospitality one to another without grudging. As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.”
The linkage between stewardship and lay ministry is not accidental. They are twin duties, two sides of the same coin. As stewards we are dedicated to good housekeeping and shared responsibility for the internal order and well being of God’s house. As ministers we are to see to the needs of the community - the neighborhood, the city, the country, the world - in which the Church resides.
Parenthetically, the name of the department of which I am chairman was originally the Department of Stewardship and Lay Ministry, a title given in recognition that internal and external responsibilities go hand in hand. While the two functions have since been separated for administrative reasons, the connection between the two spheres of Christian service remains a strong feature of the policy of the Orthodox Church in America.
Serving Others - A Shared Responsibility
What I want to emphasize today, and the reason for entitling my talk as I have, is that lay ministry, like worship and stewardship, is a shared responsibility. Some might construe this as a “good-news-bad-news” message, and in a way it is. The “bad news” is that it is not enough to call ourselves Christians. We must be Christians, and that means we must act as Christians. We must really and wholeheartedly commit ourselves to serving others and ministering to their physical and spiritual needs. It is a duty commanded by Christ Himself. The good news is that His command falls on all of us alike. You are not expected to do it alone. We are all in this together, and - best of all - Christ is with us.
To put what I have just said more simply and positively, we serve Christ by serving one another. In personal terms, we serve Him not only in our hearts but also in the way we live and interact with those we encounter in our daily life: our family, our friends, our neighbors and co-workers, our casual daily contacts, the strangers we meet, and those whom we never meet but whose needs we come to know.
Everything we do in service to others can be a ministry, from simple spontaneous acts of kindness to the most grandiose and far-reaching acts of charity. To be a Christian is to act as a Christian and to follow Christ’s example of love and selfless giving to all who have need.
When I say giving, I do not want you to interpret this as a plea for funds. I am speaking of charity in the true sense of the word, not the trivialized meaning we have given this concept in modern times. Today, if someone makes an appeal for charity, the first thing most of us do is reach for our wallet or checkbook. (Better the checkbook because the contribution is likely to be tax-deductible, and we will need a record.) Charity really means “love” or, by extension, an act prompted by love. The original meaning survives in the phrase “Christian charity,” an act of loving kindness.
This is the charity that Christ practiced in His ministry and the example He bids us to follow in the parable of the sheep and the goats. He tells us that it is the duty of the righteous to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to take in the stranger, to clothe the naked, to comfort the sick, to visit those in prison.
“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:40)
The sternness of this command becomes evident at the end of the parable, where Christ tells us that those who practice this charity are to be counted among the righteous sheep and those who do not are the goats who shall go away to everlasting punishment.
Feeding The Soul
Christ’s message is clear and unequivocal. We are to minister to others. We must deal with their physical human needs: food, clothing, shelter, medicine. We must also deal with their psychological needs: comfort, encouragement, solace, love. But these ministrations are intermediary to satisfying the most fundamental need of all: the spiritual hunger for the word of God and, through it, salvation. This is what distinguishes our ministry from that of the many social welfare organizations operated by government and private institutions. We feed the body, and we feed the soul. In fact, we feed the body in order to feed the soul.
Thus, lay ministry and evangelization are parts of the same process. Through our service to others and to our Christian charity we make manifest our faith in, and commitment to, Christ. This is summed up in the formula: teach, preach, heal.
We teach not by explanation and exhortation. No, we teach by what we show of ourselves and what we do. We teach by the example we set as Christian servants of God. We preach not by sermons or any words that we say to others, but by the reflection in our conduct that we have received and embraced Christ’s message of salvation. We heal not only in the physical sense but above all in the spiritual sense of helping to make our brothers and sisters whole and one with God. To teach, to preach, and to heal mean - in the fullest sense—to be icons of Christ in what we are and in what we do.
To summarize, let me repeat a few key points about what lay ministry is and is not. Lay ministry is not a new concept, nor is it alien to Orthodoxy. Lay ministry is as old as the Church itself and fundamental to the practice of Christianity. Lay ministry is not something difficult or mysterious. It is a natural and inevitable expression of our belief in Christ and being a part of His Church. Lay ministry is not synonymous with social welfare. It is service to others, born of simple Christian love for all God’s creatures. Unlike the social programs administered by government or private charitable agencies, lay ministry deals with more than material need. It also seeks to meet spiritual need and thus to minister to the whole person - body, mind, and soul.
The Role Of The Department Of Lay Ministries
Finally, and here I refer to the role of the Department of Lay Ministries within the Orthodox Church in America, lay ministry is not a centrally organized and operated national program. Lay ministry as an organized activity consists primarily of efforts at the parish level, or by small groups within a parish. The purpose of the OCA Department of Lay Ministries is to study and to promote the involvement of lay men and women in Christian witness and service to the teachings and Tradition of the Orthodox Church. The Department serves as a clearinghouse for information about lay ministry and as a mechanism for encouraging and supporting initiatives at the parish and diocesan levels. Through its publications (chiefly The Resource Handbook For Lay Ministries), through task forces focused on special needs or problems, and through special activities (conferences, workshops, seminars) the Department seeks to foster the practice of lay ministry by individuals and parishes. In other words, I am not the Department of Lay Ministries; you are - you and your fellow parishioners at home.
When you return to your parish after this assembly and report what you heard today, I would like to suggest that you say we talked about service to others. By service I mean simply giving of ourselves - our talent, our time, our treasure - to those in need. It is for you to determine what the need is and how you can minister to it, but let me suggest that you not think of what you might do solely in monetary terms.
Think instead of what you might give of yourself. Think of the use that can be made of your talents, your experience, your education, your God-given abilities in service to others. None of us is devoid of talent; we all have some gift that we can share with others. Think also of how you can use your time - something we never seem to have enough of and can never seem to find more. Think of the use that can be made of your treasure - the monetary resources that you and your parish may need to translate your talent and time into practical results. But of the three, I would ask you to focus on your time, perhaps the most precious gift we have to offer.
All of you are familiar with the concept of tithing, pledging some share of your income to the Church. When we tithe, we give back to God, through the Church, some part of the material wealth that we have been given. It is our thankful response to God, who has given us all we have.
My appeal to you today is to extend the concept of tithing to include time. Time, too is a gift from God, and we should budget some part of this gift to fulfilling our shared responsibility of ministering to those in need. Commit some of your time, and hence part of yourself, to reach out to those who want and who are hungering to hear the message of Christ from us… and in us.