July 2013
Vision & Planning

Equal Partners

The growing trend of part time rectors or priests-in-charge presents unique challenges and opportunities for lay leadership. Over the ages, the institutional church has elevated if not inflated the original roles and responsibilities of the early followers of Jesus, including the apostles themselves. During the first three centuries, the Gospel was spread, the Good News proclaimed, and the Church grew, due to the work of lay men and women who responded to Jesus’ call to “come follow me.”

Do these stories from our past, hold the key to our future?

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a Celebration of a New Ministry at Christ Church in Exeter, New Hampshire. I’ve attended many of these services before and, no matter what nomenclature is used or how hard the organizers try, these events inevitably become celebrations of the new priest (usually a rector) and the formal institution of his/her new ordained ministry. They are, in essence, ordinations redux. Not too long ago, I was even told that the reason why a particular service of this nature was so spectacular was because the focal point of the entire liturgy was on the new rector especially as he or she knelt in the middle of the church during his/her dedication prayer.

The service in Exeter, NH was very different. It was truly a celebration of a new ministry of the entire community of faith during a significant transition time of the arrival of a new rector. The words of the service were rich, inspiring, and appropriate. The bishop instructed members of the congregation that together with their rector they were called to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. Significantly, he reminded us that through our baptism we were fully empowered and authorized “to exercise ministry in Christ’s name, with mutual affection and respect, within the parish, in the Diocese of New Hampshire, and in the wider community.” He also invited the community to join their rector in prayer, in discerning a vision for the parish, and in calling forth the leadership, resources, and talents to carry out that vision. And this was just the beginning of the service. The entire liturgy, including the bishop’s sermon, continued this theme of the ministry of all the baptized and the role of the entire faith community, in partnership with the rector, to help bring about the kingdom of God in a place called Exeter.

Not that the new rector was ignored, nor should he have been. Bishop Hirschfeld appropriately recognized the skills, talents and important role of Mark Pendleton and officially welcomed Mark and his family to the diocese. After all, it was a special day for Mark as it was for the entire parish community. But it wasn’t just all about the priest.

The Diocese of New Hampshire clearly gets it and not only in their liturgy and words. Starting with the bishop, the entire diocese practices what it preaches and helps foster, nurture, and develop healthy and effective lay/clergy partnerships which are so essential to build up the Body of Christ in a changing world.

I know that some people will say that this nonclergy centric model may work well in a small diocese like New Hampshire but may not be appropriate in larger, more urbanized, and diverse dioceses in the church. Some Episcopalians even say that clergy need to lead and lay people need to follow. Nonsense! The only way we can revitalize and grow the Episcopal Church in dioceses and congregation both large and small is to develop and implement ministry models that focus on lay/clergy partnerships. And this partnership model is not just about institutional survival; it’s about the Gospel. Empowered and inspired lay and clergy leadership teams are absolutely critical to bringing the Good News of Jesus to a divided, confused, and broken world.

While ECF has always been involved in lay leadership development, we have made a deliberate, mission-based decision to focus our energy and resources on helping the church develop, nurture, and implement effective lay/clergy partnerships. Stay tuned as we begin to develop resources, tools, and programs to help make this model of ministry more normative throughout the entire Church. Remember, it’s not just about the priest, as important as he/she may be. It’s really about the entire faith community as it discerns what God is calling us to do in a particular time and place.

Donald V. Romanik is president of the Episcopal Church Foundation. He is a strong advocate and proponent of lay leadership and the ministry of all the baptized and frequently writes and speaks on topics relating to leadership and resource development for Episcopal communities of faith.


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This article is part of the July 2013 Vestry Papers issue on Vision & Planning