Lay-Led, Clergy-Supported: A Walk in the Woods

The Rev. Anna Doherty

Lay-Led, Clergy-Supported: A Walk in the Woods

I’ll be honest with you. When I hear  the phrase“lay led/clergy supported” I almost immediately think two things: “Oh my gosh, we’re asking people who already do most of the work of the church to do even more?” and then I think to myself, “Wait, what am I going to do then, as a clergy person?”

Like so many of us as clergy, I am the kind of person who loves to help people, and I’m also very responsible. I value my own capacity and training, and I know that there are many things I can do well on behalf of the church: preach an excellent sermon, facilitate an effective meeting, lead a meaningful adult formation, to name only a few. Not only can I do those these things well, I actually enjoy doing them. There are pieces of me that struggles sometimes, even now, to let those things go.

It’s not even that I’m worried that others can’t or won’t also do these things well. To be honest, it’s more about me, and my need to feel, to see my own effectiveness as a clergy person. Sometimes I wonder to myself, “well, where’s my value, how am I living out my vocation, if I don’t just do these things on behalf of the church?” It’s very easy to justify this by saying to myself, “well, this is what I’m paid to do”, or “others don’t have time to take this on”, or “this is how I can really make a difference in the life of the community I’m called to serve.”

And yet none of these self-justifications is actually true. After fifteen years of ordained ministry, every innovative new ministry, every wonderful worship service, every engaging bible study, every effective meeting, has always stemmed from the inspiration, courage, and combined efforts of the people in the congregation I serve, and never, ever solely from me. Time and time again, it is the gathered community who collectively manifests God among us; it is never one person alone.

And just in the same way that I want my capacity and skills to be lifted up in community, so do also the many, many, gifted, faithful people in the congregation. Sometimes the most affirming and supportive thing to do, is to invite another to do it. And yes, people are busy, and there are always limitations on people’s time. But when we pay close attention to where God is calling us, then we realize that we not called to everything. Instead we’re called to some things in a given moment, and again and again, I’ve seen it happen, that suddenly people’s gifts, attention, energy, and time appears. That’s how I know the call comes from God, and not from needing to prove ourselves as God’s people.

Just as an example, coming out of COVID, we struggled to build up a Eucharistic Visiting program. There were limited volunteers, and I, by myself, didn’t have the capacity and time to visit everyone who needed visiting. I struggled to invite people to participate in the ministry, partly because I felt like it was my job to do the visiting, and also because I was concerned that people would be unfamiliar or nervous about visiting folks in healthcare facilities. etc. When I left for a ten-week sabbatical this summer, I was unsure how prepared and able our volunteers were. And, when I returned, not only did I discovered that our volunteers found ways of visiting everyone, every week, but when I started going on visits with them, I saw how incredibly gifted our Eucharistic volunteers really are. They are engaging, pastoral, warm, and kind, gently and tenderly reminding people that our faith community loves them and cares about them. They are so good at what they do. And truthfully, I just needed to invite us all a little outside our comfort zones— theirs and mine—and they responded to the Spirit.

So what then, do I do, how do I support the people I serve as a clergy person? To be honest, sometimes I still have to sit on my hands, and intentionally not step up to do something that I know can, and oftentimes should, be done just as well by someone else. This is an ongoing part of my spiritual growth, to trust and know that I am enough just as I am, and that I don’t have to take on more responsibilities just to prove that I’m busy, effective and gifted. I also want this for the people I serve, the ability to know that their own worth is not measured sole by what we can accomplish, but by who we are as God’s people. If no one steps up to do a project or ministry, because they don’t have the time and the energy, then I usually take that to mean that it’s not work that God is calling us to at this time.

I do spend a lot of time being with people in the midst of sacred, sometimes difficult, conversations around discernment and where God is calling us. I hold the space for these conversations to happen, framing them in prayer and the study of Scripture, and then letting the conversation happen. If we get off track or things get heated, I can help guide people back, but I am rarely the one who generates the next good idea, or new initiative. That always comes from the holy Spirit dwelling among us together.

I can also hold forth the vision, or remind us when we need reminding, of what God’s kingdom looks like in this world. I can do this through worship, preaching and teaching, but I also do this in pastoral care and presence. I can be with people in those difficult or anxious moments, when we feel like God has left us, and remind us that we are not alone. I can and absolutely love to celebrate with people our successes, the ways that we have lived more fully into our lives as people of God.

The best metaphor I’ve come up with for understanding what “lay led/clergy supported” ministry looks like, is to imagine that we’re all going on a hike in the woods. How I function as clergy, is as a trail guide. I can’t walk the path for other people; we all need to make this journey through our own efforts. We actually collectively get stronger and build endurance the more we do our own walking along the way. But, when we see something compelling or unusual along the path, sometimes I need to call attention to what’s there, so we can talk about it and learn more. Sometimes when the road is bumpy or rough, I can help people over some of the hurdles in our way. When we get tired, or when we achieve a milestone, I can lead a cheer. And sometimes when we get lost, I can pull out a compass so we can reorient ourselves to where we are and where we need to go. No one walks the path alone. We walk it together. Sometimes we get muddy and tired, but we get ever closer to becoming the beloved community God calls us to be.