Lifeblood of the church

Where did they all come from?  What motivated them to offer their time and gifts?  And why were they so good at what they did?   3,000 people volunteered to take care of 2,600 competitors at the Ford Ironman triathlon inLouisville,Kentucky, 3 weeks ago.  Volunteers pushed me into the water, snapped on my bike helmet, slathered on sunscreen, offered bananas, power bars, and energy drinks, helped me change into my running clothes, and poured water over my head at every aid station.

The most unforgettable volunteer, however, was Donna, a nurse in the medical tent.  I called her my angel.  Like hundreds of other racers, I was dehydrated after almost 13 hours of intense physical exertion in 93 degree heat.  Donna met the volunteer who wheeled me into the MASH unit, had a doctor examine me, then gave me 2 bags of IV fluids and anti-nausea medication.  She helped me to the bathroom when I had to throw up, offered hot chicken broth, put warm blankets over me, and made me feel as if I was the only person she had to care for.  Donna did all that after working a full shift in the emergency room of the University of Louisville Hospital.

Donna’s excellent care and kindness to a total stranger was humbling, especially since one could easily claim that I brought this craziness upon myself!  But it also set me to thinking about how volunteers are the lifeblood of any organization, including the church.  Just as this race would not have happened without volunteers, so no church can function without children, youth, and adults who freely give of their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

The Call to Action Steering Team of TheUnited Methodist Church recently completed a study of data from 32,000 UM churches.  According to the study, the four main drivers of church vitality are:

  • A mix of both traditional and contemporary worship services
  • Small groups, including programs for children and youth
  • Inspirational preaching and length of pastoral appointment
  • Lay leadership

The genius of the Methodist movement was the way John Wesley used lay persons in ministry.  While Methodist circuit riders traveled from place to place preaching the gospel and making converts, lay persons served as leaders of class meetings, where Methodists gathered every week to talk about their spiritual lives.  It was in these small groups that lives were transformed, men and women learned to live like Jesus, and personal and social holiness was cultivated.  Lay persons also performed pastoral functions in the absence of ordained clergy.

In order for The United Methodist Church to regain its vitality, we must recover the role of lay leaders, and I am not simply referring to the official “lay leader” of each local church.  Lay leaders include committee chairs as well as small group and Disciple Bible Study leaders, Sunday school teachers and youth leaders, and leaders of major congregational ministries.

In churches where pastors are either expected to do everything or see their role as the one who does everything, lay leadership often lies dormant.  In fact, the most effective pastors are those who spend most of their time identifying, training, equipping, empowering, coaching, and mentoring lay persons to be leaders.  No matter what the size of your church, your leaders can make or break effective ministry.

Churches rise and fall by the quality of their lay leaders, not their pastor (sorry, colleagues!).  That’s why the Committee on Nominations and Leadership Development, which is chaired by the pastor, may be the most important committee in the church and should consist of your most active and spiritually mature members.  The responsibility of the Committee on Nominations and Leadership Development (formerly called Lay Leadership Committee) is “to identify, develop, deploy, evaluate, and monitor Christian spiritual leadership for the local congregation.  Members of this committee shall engage in and be attentive to developing and enhancing their own Christian spiritual life in light of the mission of the Church.”  (¶258.1, The Book of Discipline 2008)

The 3 questions that I asked about theLouisvillevolunteers are the same questions that should guide the work of the Committee on Nominations and Leadership Development.  However, they are questions that each one us should also ask as we seek to strengthen our congregation’s ministries.

Where do effective church leaders come from? 

Church leaders don’t just magically appear.  We cannot discern potential leaders unless we take the time to build relationships, observe the gifts of others, and cultivate them for greater responsibilities.

  • Do discuss the qualities you need in lay leaders: someone who is trusted, has excellent relational skills, is spiritually healthy, and can lead a good meeting
  • Do pray for discernment to know God’s will
  • Do think outside the box – your greatest leaders may not be the obvious ones
  • Don’t be tempted to take the easy way out and ask Ed to continue as chair of the Trustees for the 22nd consecutive year, even though Ed is not an effective leader; there’s a good reason why The Book of Discipline requires 3 year terms for administrative committees
  • Don’t rely on the same leaders and simply rotate them to new committees.  Cultivate a large leadership pool.
  • Don’t make new members “pay their dues” by waiting 20 years before they can assume a leadership position

What motivates effective church leaders to offer their gifts?

Church leaders volunteer their time and energy because they believe in the ministries of their local church, feel called to serve, and want to make a positive difference in the world.

  • Do offer an ongoing gifts-based program to help congregation members, especially new members, discover their gifts and passions for ministry
  • Do share leadership with your church leaders and build an effective team
  • Do give them the freedom to risk and unleash their creativity
  • Don’t guilt trip leaders into serving out of duty; allow them to say no, not now
  • Don’t train, equip, empower, and encourage church members to lead, then do the work for them
  • Don’t forget to stay in regular contact with your leaders; if you can’t attend their meetings, work with your leaders on agenda items ahead of time

Why do churches with effective church leaders flourish?

Churches are most healthy and vital when pastors, staff, and lay leaders are a cohesive unit.

  • Do make sure that each committee or ministry develops its own mission statement and ministry plan that aligns with the church’s overall mission and vision statement
  • Do provide annual training in how to lead an exciting and productive meeting, promote relationship-building, and facilitate effective follow-through
  • Do encourage, pray for, affirm, support, and continually thank your leaders
  • Don’t take your leaders for granted
  • Don’t ignore signs of burnout; when leaders need a time of rest, others will fill in
  • Don’t neglect your responsibility as a pastor “to be the administrative officer of the local church and to assure that the organizational concerns of the congregation are adequately cared for”  (¶340.2.c.1 The Book of Discipline 2008)

Every church has leaders like Donna.  They are disciples of Jesus Christ who feel a call to transform our world.  They are people who freely respond to God’s grace in their life by offering their unique gifts in service.  They are servants who are willing to get their hands dirty in order to bring healing and wholeness to others.  They are bearers of hope who lead others to connect with God and reach their potential.  They are the lifeblood of the church.

Thank you, Donna.  You were my angel in Louisville.  Not only did your gentle care revive my weary body, but in the midst of your own weariness, your gracious spirit strengthened my spirit.  Thank you for leading from your heart.

Blessings, Laurie

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