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Laying good foundations

Recently I wrote about the direction that I felt ministry in the Methodist Church was going. I was concentrating on the work of presbyers in particular and now want to say a bit more about lay ministry.

Last week, I decried the way that lay ministry has been over-functionalised in the last twenty years. In CPD, the Methodist 'rule book', the section referring to lay ministry has gone from being titled 'Lay Ministry' to 'Lay Workers' to, now, 'Lay Employment'. As the number of lay employees increases and many posts are open to either lay or ordained, the legal distinctions between different types of ministry will become, in my view, impossible to sustain. In the meantime, it seems that lots of developments are currently underway across the Connexion and I want to add to them with some theological reflections.

Many ways have been used to distinguish between clergy and laity - paid vs voluntary, life-long vs time-limited, now office-holder vs employee - but none really do justice to the differentiation of vocations. In our past, we have failed to recognise that many have a specific calling to lay ministry that is more than we offer through the traditional roles of Local Preacher, Class Leader or Steward. Yes, we have created some paid roles in the Circuits, but these are invariably time-limited and often not supported by a proper formation or continuing development process. If we are to take seriously what the Spirit is doing among us, we must recognise the life-long vocation of all the laity, including those called to specific areas of ministry in and for the Church.

Secondly, we need to talk about formation. I know of a number of Circuits who have struggled to recruit new lay ministers of various kinds. The numbers applying seem to be dropping and even fewer have any formal training for the roles in question. This speaks of a Church that has generally relied on lay people to pay for their own training and come ready and willing to engage in poorly-paid ministry. It seems that people are voting with their feet and so applications are falling.

We need to invest in people and respect the varieties of lay ministry that the Church needs and to which people are called. That means offering high quality formation through courses of study. We hear that there is something in the pipeline, but why has it taken so long to see the problem? And those Circuits that are already developing new forms of lay ministry, is there a proper attention to formation and preparation?

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, those engaged in these ministries need to be connected. Presbyters have their Sessions of Conference and Synod, and Deacons have Convocation as spaces where the sense of 'full connexion' can be nurtured. That reinforces the sense of a shared ministry and reduces the feelings of isolation. Likewise, those in lay ministry need places to connect. Other Methodist Conferences address this through Orders of Lay Ministry where members share a rule of life and discipline of mutual prayer and support. I wonder whether it is the moment for such an Order to be created within British Methodism to offer real support and indeed accountability for those engaged in these ministries?

The future is beginning to unfold and it seems that our structures are struggling to respond with the necessary speed. Whilst Brian Beck was very clear that one of the keys to Connexionalism was the concept of subsidiarity - that decisions were to be made at the most local level possible - we seem to have reverted to a model that seems suspicious of local innovation. The renewal of lay ministry from the bottom up is therefore not something to be feared - or too quickly paralysed by standing orders - but embraced as a way to revitalise the way we do Connexion.

Who knows ...?

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