Ministry of Laity in Daily Life

By Jean M. Haldane

The hidden ministry of the people needs to be brought into the light.

In practice, the church rewards institutional activities and gives little attention to men’s and women’s daily ministry in their workplaces, in their homes and during times of recreation. Church-related ministries are known, recognized, supported, encouraged. Yet there are many works of ministry in the world that, if known, would spark many more. Already the laity serve in a world of power, but if what they are doing is unknown or assumed or not given attention, how can laity be aware that the church values the servanthood?

Many laity have a deep sense of service, of being servant. One good reason stems from their devotional lives centered in the corporate worship of the church. That ritual of giving and receiving is at the heart of the Eucharist. A second good reason has to do with people’s perception about the life of Jesus. Many understand Jesus as servant. And they have appropriated this image for their own lives. When laity are asked to describe experiences of giving service, they can do so, usually with humility and modesty. But their sense of “real” ministry continues to be for in and for the church.

Yet laity have great opportunity to carry out their Christian commitment “in the world”—for that is where they spend most of their time. Monday to Friday, weekends, too, for many, men and women are working in the fields of industry, agriculture, education, politics, retailing, “helping” professions, etc. at all levels of responsibility. These men and women are also maintaining relationships, responsibility to spouses, parents, children, friends, and many groups in the community and society as a whole. They are members of numerous organizations, social service groups, environmental groups, political associations, peace efforts, associations and task forces of all kinds, as well as sports and health clubs .... Are they ministering “in the world?”

Sadly, the greater scope and appreciation of laity’s in-church ministries (pastoral, Eucharistic and others), has not furthered greater recognition and support of laity’s ministry beyond the walls of the church. Laity themselves seem blind to their daily ministries.

Nevertheless, my research reveals that privately and quietly, generally unknown to the church, laity in their daily lives demonstrate servant ministry as followers of Christ. This is distinct from what they do in church and outreach activities.


If Christ’s ministry of compassion and healing in the world is to be lived out more consistently and effectively, laity need more education to help them perceive, accept and act upon the ministries for which they have been gifted. And both clergy and laity need to find ways to recognize, support and encourage the worldly ministry of laity.

I have many times facilitated this ministry awareness exercise: I ask laity to share two personal experiences when “you feel you were ministered to,” and “when you feel you ministered to someone else.” As they talk it becomes obvious that each has understanding of and experience with “ministry.” When asked what they were doing as they ministered they said things like “I cared,” “I listened,” “I was there,” “I showed some alternatives.” When I asked, “Where did these ministries take place?” the answers revealed they happened with friends, family and strangers, in supermarkets and hospitals, at work and the tennis club, and, of course, at church.

As people share they begin to see themselves and others differently. And they see that ministry happens in all of life.

A layman in San Francisco, a bus driver, calls out clearly the names of the stops, “so people don’t get lost.” Is he ministering? He now believes so. But are these experiences seen as ministry by the church? We may say, “Yes, of course,” but are their ministries commended as outreach along with the Hunger Program? Probably not, for we do not see the laity acting in society; their experience is not part of the input that the church shares. We do not act as though they are our greatest outreach on a daily basis.

Who authenticates a woman’s ministry of caring for an invalid mother over twenty years if she is unaware that such caring is ministry and feels the time given prevents her from doing “real ministry” through the altar society and outreach work? What support can the church give to the executive who is silent about saving 250 jobs for people who otherwise would be unemployed? Is his job-saving action seen as ministry? He has begun to think so. What is it in church norms that prevents the “whistleblower” from talking about risking his job in order to stop the shipment of faulty materials that could cause lives to be lost? Is this not ministry?

In conference settings, when laity are led to share these experiences, they suddenly see one another living their lives by faith, ministering in the community, addressing issues of justice and human need. Then they speak of “renewed hope,” being “encouraged for my work,” discovering “a vision of our ministry.” Why is this not already plain to people in the church? Because this ministry is carried out where other church people do not see it. It is the hidden ministry of the church. There is no planned way for laity to talk to each other about their service in the world. The hidden ministry of the church would be brought out into the light. What stands in the way of this being a central activity? Significant ministry is seen by the church as solely taking place within and under the auspices of the church community.


A woman spoke to me quietly after the Eucharist. “I have spent years work in the church in all kinds of areas. Right now I am sensing different spiritual needs, wondering what’s next in ministry for me. But as soon as you drop out of working full-time for the church, you are ignored. It’s lonely.” The only way, it seems, for laity to relate to each other is through working together in the church. They are still seen more as helping hands for the church, rather than those to be nurtured and strengthened as the church in the world. In some of the most caring congregations, the normative way of belonging is to be involved, support the church, volunteer for more and more. Burnout is not just the clergy’s problem. When laity drop back a little, their names no longer appear in the church bulletin. They feel discarded. Many endure, some leave. (And when I interview people who’ve left, this seemed the pattern: burn-out, dropping out and no one seemed to notice.) If ministry is interpreted as more and more work in the church, for the church, we shall not sustain the true servant ministry in the world.

Clearly there is need for a different approach to “adult education” and “training” for ministry and mission. On almost no church agenda is there a place for reports from the field! Because of this the laity count as trivial their efforts to carry out their Christian commitment in daily life, and the church as a whole misses its opportunity to shape church programs for empowerment of the people.


There is a necessary, dynamic tension between the church’s risky sense of mission and its conserving sense of tradition. For the laity, the tension could be described this way: “How do I belong to a caring faith community and at the same time respond to my calling to minister to the world?” In this highly individualistic society people yearn for community, so it’s tempting for lay people to stay in the faith community, especially when the church norm strongly affirms in-church acts of service and leadership. Most laity have “merged” tradition and mission under one roof—the institutional church; relatively few live creatively with the tension.

Clergy exacerbate this problematic norm by leadinglaity into mission instead of sending them. Clergy usually initiate programs of outreach that are good in themselves; but these lull laity into believing these programs comprise ministry in society and world. Both clergy and laity collude around two things: keeping laity in the church, and continuing to hold clergy primarily responsible for mission.

The church offers warm relationships and common purpose, a “community of memory” that gives us a past, meaning and values, and a chance to care for one another in ways we find difficult in society. In contrast, laity’s ministry in the world is complex, often difficult and unclear. Many experience struggles of conscience, tensions and worry in their work, loneliness in the gray areas of public conduct and practice. So they collude with the clergy to keep themselves focused within church programs. Clergy, for their part, though they may intend to support laity’s ministry in society, are caught with the need for many “hands” if worship, education, and outreach are to be worthy of the name. And “anyway, our Prison Ministry is surely ministry in the world!” So clergy and laity collude around keeping the laity in church.


There is a crucial moment in lay people’s lives - a moment when a good many ideas and values about their identity and vocation get formed. It is that time when they become aware - sometimes for the first time - that they ARE the church. Many have a profound experience - perhaps of conversion or awakening to their call. It is then that they are in a state of readiness for careful nurture, support and education. The Church Gathered needs to be a lifelong catechumenate, providing training for the Christian life so that new and not-so-new- members may become mature - spiritually and in ministry.


Let us see the laity as people who must be nurtured for ministry in society rather than as recruits for tasks in and for the church. In that regard people’s daily work and associations are of particular importance. On the whole the church does not take much account of laity’s work. In one congregation, the visiting preacher’s sermon was on “ministry of the laity being primarily in the world work, jobs, community, family, as well as the church.” A layman, Mike, commented afterwards, “That doesn’t go for my work. I rent houses, and I guess that’s one job everyone labels ‘bad guys’. Seems like I spend my time fighting with tenants. So I was never able to take much church with me on the job.” Parishioners around the table looked at each other knowingly; there were some wry smiles. Then, laughing a little, Mike said, “Anyway, it’s too late now. I’ve just retired.” There was some quiet laughter.

This story was told to two groups. Those at the clergy conference were filled with compassion for Mike. They considered it tragic that this man spent his life at work he felt meant nothing, and that it never had been significant to anyone, let alone the church. The other group was mostly laity. They regarded the situation as nothing unusual. They felt rather critical of Mike, “He should have done something about it!” Their work, for the most part, had never been counted as significant by the church.

In the congregations of one church jurisdiction, there was a strange silence about unemployment. More than one pastor was heard to say, “I haven’t heard anything; I don’t think we have a problem here.” Then, at a symposium on employment another said, “One of my leading laymen has lost his job and they’re selling their house - and he can’t tell me.” The 200 laity gathered there had seemed to feel their employment or unemployment was a private matter, not of much concern to the church.


A central process for the empowerment of the laity has been Identification of Gifts. There are two basic approaches. The first leads to discernment of one or more New Testament gifts of the Spirit, the second to discernment of lifelong gifts and talents, all God-given. The first approach leads more logically to ministry within and to the church. The second is more directly related to ministry in all of life.

Both processes have been life-changing for thousands of lay people. But among the leadership (clergy and lay) there is a lack of awareness about the significance of the two outcomes, and even a tendency for some to speak of “spiritual” gifts as being higher than “market-place talents,” making the use of gifts in worldly ministries of lesser value.


A great deal of support needs to be given to laity if they are to have the courage to sally forth day after day to try to do what is right. And they need a group in which to think aloud about the strategies and the consequences for actions they may or may not take, and should or should not take.

When you ask lay people to think of an experience beyond the walls of the church, in which they felt called upon to act, to do or say something that seemed within themselves to be “right,” you find that people are trying to “stand” in difficult situations, to speak up for what is right, to refuse to go along with the majority . . . but this is not easy. Jobs can be lost, people can be ostracized, there’s a great cost to pay for whistle-blowing and advocacy. Someone has said, “When I feed the hungry, I am called a saint; when I ask why they are hungry, I am called a communist.”

The larger society is the place where people of integrity, honesty, and courage are needed if we are to help build a world. The whole of life is the place for servant ministry. The institutions and structures of society constitute a world of power. Laity’s ministry here must be prophetic as well as pastoral. The church must encourage them to be ministers for the common good in their daily lives.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Applying Jean Haldane’s experience on recognizing ministry: Can you think of a personal experience when you feel you were ministered to? Can you think of a personal experience when you ministered to someone else?
  2. What do you consider to be your ministries “in the world?”
  3. Do you wish there were a time at the church when you could talk with others about some of the situations you encounter “in the world?” Are there any natural times in the parish schedule or in a parish group that this could occur?
  4. Does it help you to think of your work “in the world” as a potential Christian ministry?

Jean Haldane is a consultant on Laity and Ministry Development for the Episcopal Church and other denominations. (Reprinted by permission from ACTION INFORMATION, published by The Alban Institute, Inc., 4125 Nebraska Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20016. Copyright 1989. All rights reserved.)

Jean Haldane is a consultant on Laity and Ministry Development for the Episcopal Church and other denominations. (Reprinted by permission from ACTION INFORMATION, published by The Alban Institute, Inc., 4125 Nebraska Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20016. Copyright 1989. All rights reserved.)