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The Wesleyan revival in eighteenth-century England was in great part John Wesley's inspired attempt to reform the established Church of England through a reformation of the laity. Wesley knew enough about the theological and practical implications of the doctrine of the church to know that the laity are the church. Any revitalization of the church must proceed from the bottom up. Wesley knew enough about church history to know that any time the church becomes dominated by the self-interest and aspirations of the clergy, the church declines. Although John Wesley was a superbly educated person, a beneficiary of the best classical education Oxford had to offer, his true genius lay in his ability to speak to the laypeople in ways that could be understood and appropriated in everyday life. Wesley's use of lay preachers, the prominent role of women in early Methodist societies, and the mutual discipline all the laity shared within the life of the "classes" are some of the examples of the ways in which Wesley helped to return the church to the laity.

Wesley's scriptural warrant was the Protestant doctrine of the "priesthood of believers" - the belief that each Christian is "ordained" by virtue of his or her baptism to be a priest to his or her neighbor. The First Epistle of Peter addresses all the church, not just the clergy, when it says to newly baptized Christians:

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy. (I Peter 2:9-10)

All Christians, by our baptism, are commissioned to evangelize, to witness, to teach, to heal, and to proclaim the Word of God to one another and to the world. The church exists to provide laity with the equipment they need to fulfill their baptismal commission, to enable us to receive the strengths, wisdom, skills, and insights we need to be faithful as a visible witness to the lordship of Christ.

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Whose Church?

Despite Wesley's desire to return the church to the laity, our present structure, as well as some of our history, mitigate against his good intentions. In the beginning, Wesley had no intention of founding new congregations. He sought to use his lay preachers as a means of revitalizing the parishes of the Church of England through vigorous preaching and the tight, closely knit organization of his class meetings. Wesley organized his lay preachers into conferences, which he presided over at annual meetings to give them directions for their duties for the next year.

When Methodism eventually developed into a new church, first in America and then in England, this annual conference of preachers continued to be a basic organizational structure of Methodism. In other words, Methodism was a new denomination, organized, led, and even dominated by its clergy. This enabled our church to mobilize rapidly and to deploy its clergy on the farthest reaches of the American frontier. The organization of the Methodist Episcopal Church, centered on a highly disciplined and dedicated group of circuit riders, was well suited to the demands of the new frontier. The church grew rapidly; yet, it was a church that had no room for lay guidance and input beyond the local church level. Bishops appointed the traveling preachers to various congregations without lay consultation.

While resulting in efficient deployment and frontier evangelism, this domination of the church by the clergy has caused problems throughout the history of American Methodism. It was a source of a major division among Methodists in 1830. Over the years, the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church took various steps to include the laity within the upper echelons of the denomination's organization. Even though our laity are prohibited from voting on ministerial matters, beyond the Pastor-Staff Relations Committee's approval of candidates for ordination, laity now enjoy equal representation at the annual jurisdictional and general conference levels.

Unfortunately, equal representation and an equal number of votes does not ensure that the laity are equally influential as clergy in the governance of The United Methodist Church. We are still a church in which the clergy give most of the leadership and determine most of the policies. Of course, some of this is quite natural. The laity have a right to expect that their clergy are people who are called by God for the task of leadership within the church. Laity expect their clergy to be particularly knowledgeable about the history, the theology, and the organization of the church. Earlier, in Chapter 5 of this book, it was argued that the church must have leaders instead of managers. But real leaders never forget that their position is a trust they exercise as stewards for the benefit of all the church's members.

Over a decade and a half ago, Jeffery Hadden wrote a book entitled The Gathering Storm in the Churches, in which he argued that a storm was brewing because of the growing gap between the opinions and direction of Protestant clergy when compared to Protestant laity. He states that the clergy had developed a new understanding of the meaning and implications of the Christian faith but, "have not succeeded in communicating this understanding to laity."1 This difference was a sign of troubled times to come. We do not believe that Hadden's predicted storm has occurred in United Methodism. The laity have docilely stood by, not seriously challenging the clergy, while the church has declined. Laypeople have been expected to be loyal, to voice their opinions in church debates, and to pay the bills, but were told that they must accept without question the appointment, promotion, and deployment of the clergy.

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A Guild Mentality

The gap between laity and the clergy was widened with the increased educational requirements for ordination. Over the years, seminary education has become a requirement for virtually all United Methodist clergy. It should be noted that the pressure to increase the educational requirements of clergy has come from the ministers, not from the laity. Thus our clergy have followed many other professions in increasing the complexity and the requirements for certification to practice in the profession. While the pressure to increase the educational requirements for clergy has many desirable consequences, it is also a means of our clergy's assuring themselves that the ministry is a "profession," similar to medicine or law. This implies that the clergy possess special esoteric skills, unusual acquired insights, or other attributes by virtue of their seminary education, ordination, and admission into the annual conference, apart from their function as servants of the church.

The result is a mentality that tends to ensure that only those persons who will fit into the system are encouraged and finally admitted. Students early in their seminary careers discover what the denomination expects of them and adapt to the system. They quickly learn how to be loyal organizationalists. We should all worry that creative and innovative leadership, which the denomination needs, is not likely to come from men and women who have so quickly subscribed to the institutional status quo.

The trend has been for the clergy to bring more persons like themselves into the guild and to exclude other types of pastors. For many years, the local preacher (later known as approved supply pastor, lay pastor, and now local pastor) played a significant role in Methodism. The number of lay pastors has decreased, and the goal seems to be to phase them out altogether. In 1972, the category associate member of the annual conference was created. This enables certain local pastors, for all practical purposes, to be full members of an annual conference. They are excluded from voting on constitutional amendments, delegates to the general and jurisdictional conferences, and matters of ordination, character, and conference relations of ministers. The expectation is that the local pastors will move toward associate or full membership in the annual conference. The Discipline provides that full-time local pastors must complete the educational requirements within eight years and part-time persons within ten years, although a provision for annual extensions is made. Many local pastors feel under considerable pressure to become associate members if they are to be permitted to continue in the ministry.

A guild expects its members to be homogeneous. This is already causing problems in The United Methodist Church. First, it is more difficult for churches of small membership to secure the services of part-time clergy. As an increasingly high proportion of ministers are either full or associate conference members, they will have to be given full-time appointments. The church that is not geographically located so that it can become part of a circuit and is too small to employ a full-time minister can be in serious difficulty. The proportion of United Methodist expenditures needed to support the clergy has been slowly increasing. In 1970, the church spent 28 percent of all money on ministerial support; in 1984 the proportion was 32 percent.

The pressure to have all clergy seminary trained and full members of an annual conference is increasing the difficulty of securing pastors for our ethnic congregations. The denomination has not been successful in its attempt to recruit an adequate number of ethnic ministerial candidates, despite the availability of scholarship assistance. One conference leader lamented, "We need more large black congregations. You can't expect the well-trained seminary graduate to want to serve the small black churches we have in this district." This person was correct. Some seminary graduates, both black and white, resist serving certain types of congregations. This fact, combined with the shortage of ethnic pastors, has created a serious problem.

The only way The United Methodist Church is going to provide ministerial leadership for many small black, Hispanic, and other ethnic congregations is to utilize more full and part-time local pastors. This would also allow indigenous leaders from the ethnic communities to emerge.

Three or four years of seminary education appear not only to make our clergy more sophisticated intellectually, but also to remove them from the cultural and social level of many people who most need the church. Some of the prospects for evangelization are the unchurched who live in government subsidized housing developments, new immigrant communities and even some rural communities. But our newly professionalized clergy may be ill-equipped or too socially aloof to work with these persons. The training of and reliance on indigenous part-time local pastors (in much the same fashion as their use by Wesley) could be the single most significant step we could take toward winning millions of new United Methodists.

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Ministry as Vocation

We believe that the ordained ministry is best described not as a profession, but as a vocation. The church (the laity) is the instrument of God in calling certain baptized Christians to bear the special burden of ordination. Ordination derives its meaning not from the special skills an ordained minister may acquire in seminary, but rather from that person's being set apart by the church for work the church needs done.

The roots of the ordained ministry are hinted at in the New Testament. Jesus tells his disciples, "It shall not be so [as it is among worldly leaders] among you" (Mark 10:43). The clergy, unlike some of the world's other leaders and professionals, are not to lead our people by "domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock" (I Peter 5:3).

After having attended a seminary, too many of our clergy feel that the laypeople do not really understand the Christian faith, even though it is the laity who give meaning and purpose to the pastoral ministry in the first place. Apart from service in equipping and upbuilding the laity, clergy have no real function in the church. The purpose of all our preaching, visiting, teaching, evangelization, and healing ministries is the equipment of the "priests." Yet many ministers feel that there is a gap between what they have learned in seminary and what the laity believe. The pastor is uncomfortable with what goes on in the adult Bible study class. In fact, there is a feeling among the ministers that those who have not had the advantage of a seminary education can't really understand the faith. Perhaps that is a reason United Methodism provides so much local church organization. It keeps the lay members busy with internal, institutional chores, rather than releasing them to be about their ministry in the world.

A deep and empowering faith does not result from higher education. Education may enhance understanding and deepen faith, but most clergy must admit that the springs of faith lie in one's experience of the presence of Christ within the church, not from the ability to use the historical critical method with scripture or to apply theological jargon. Renewal requires that laypeople wrestle with the theological issues. The clergy must trust the laypeople to witness to their experience of the grace of God, not simply to serve on the finance committee.

One reason our recent debates over who should be ordained (e.g., to ordain or not to ordain homosexuals) have been especially bitter is that the laity know, in our church, they have no real voice in the appointment process. There is an increasing feeling that the conference leaders are taking care of the clergy at the expense of the churches. Francis Asburys autocratic style in deploying his traveling preachers may have been an effective system in the early nineteenth century, but one may question whether such methods are appropriate two centuries later. We need to trust the laypeople to have the best interests of their church at heart.

The Pastor-Staff Relations Committee of one church of our acquaintance went through a long process of evaluating the programs and ministry of their church along with their pastor's leadership. They, and their pastor, came to the mutual conclusion that it would probably be best for the future of the congregation if the pastor were moved that year. After all, the pastor had already been at that church for five years and all agreed that a change would be beneficial. Here was an opportunity for our appointment system to function at its best - in helping a church to go through the potentially difficult process of a change in pastoral leadership.

The bishop and the cabinet, after considering the committee's request, told them that, "There are no suitable appointments for this pastor this year. Keep him another year and we shall move him when more suitable appointments become available." The committee regretted that the church had to wait another year, but in view of the pastor's faithful past service, they agreed to wait. The next year, they went through the same process and came to the same conclusion: It would be best for their pastor and the congregation for him to be moved. This time, more negative comments came out about the pastor's leadership. Some in the church did not like the pastor's stand on various social and political issues. They made threats that if the pastor were not moved this time, they would move to another church. Their threats were taken by the bishop as an attack on "the system." In order to flex his muscle, the bishop wrote a long letter to the church and directed that the letter should be read from the pulpit by the Chairperson of the Pastor-Staff Relations Committee. The letter stated that it was the bishop's prerogative to appoint ministers to churches, and he had decided that, "Due to the pastor's courageous social witness," he was determined to have the pastor stay another year and resist the efforts of those who opposed him.

The result of all of this was that a large number of members of the church moved to other congregations, not all of them United Methodist. A clergy-dominated appointment system remained in place, but at great expense to this particular congregation.

"Doesn't the bishop know that the Middle Ages have ended?" asked the Chairperson of the Pastor-Staff Relations Committee. We believe the day is quickly coming to a close when our laity will accept the premise that "Father knows best," particularly when they have often seen the clerical muscle flexed, not out of great concern for the best interest of individual congregations, but for the self-interest of the clergy.

American churches exist in a consumer society. People are demanding and getting a part in decisions affecting their lives. A generation ago, our church could count on our people to be generally loyal to the system, to stick with the system, even when the system did not appear immediately to benefit their personal needs or the needs of their congregation. The increased feeling among laity that the church does not really have their interests at heart is contributing to the growing number of people who feel little loyalty to the denomination per se. If our denomination is unresponsive and closed to the voice of the laity, people will go elsewhere.

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Listen to the Laity

After a most painful period of unemployment, plant closings, and the loss of once lucrative markets to better managed companies, American businesses seem at last to be learning an important principle: Listen to the customer! American consumers have told American automobile producers, for instance, that they want quality and that they are willing to pay for it. Those companies that have listened to the customers and have responded are regaining lost markets. Those companies that doggedly went on producing as they always had, despite consumer complaints, are going out of business. Of course, the laity are much more than "customers." As we have said elsewhere in this book, the local congregation is much more significant than a mere branch office for the national church's programs and crusades. The church is greater than even the clergy or the laity. The laity do not always know the best course for the church, nor do they claim to.

But our laity are worth listening to. They are the Christians who must live the faith within the factories, schools, nursing homes, and offices. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the professional educators who were in charge of our church school curriculum resources decided to produce Sunday school literature that would bring more "respectable theology" to the lowly laity, the laypeople responded by going to non-United Methodist publishing houses for their literature. They complained that many of the people could not read or understand or teach the curricula that their church was busy producing. When the United Methodist Publishing House made earnest attempts to listen to the laity and to ask them what type of resources they needed in their Christian education class rooms, it responded by producing what the "customers" asked for, and sales of official United Methodist curricula increased. Unfortunately, not all church leaders and agencies saw the point, and so they still perceive the laity as troops to be ordered about, instead of as potential customers to be won.

Many laity say that they do not wish to see the biblical names of God changed in worship and educational materials in the interest of allegedly "inclusive language." The response of some of the clergy? "The laity need to have their consciousness raised about this issue." In other words, the laity are ignorant and need to be taught, or else legislatively coerced, through the Discipline into our clericalized opinions. If a clerical elite attempts to dominate the church and arrogantly attempts to force its opinions and programs on the laity, there will be a backlash. This may take the form of dropping out of the church or a reactionary uprising, and possibly some of both.

As highlighted earlier, the clergy have a responsibility to teach in the congregation. However, Christian teachers begin with the assumption that the church belongs to all Christians, particularly to those Christians who must live out the faith in their daily life and work in the world, so the opinions of these Christians must be taken seriously. Down through the ages, there has tended to be little limit to the arrogant assumption, lurking within every church, that the church exists for the clergy.

We deplore how the meetings of our annual and general conferences have become more consumed with ministerial matter - debates over pensions, appointments, and qualifications of clergy. We note how local church expenditures for clergy pensions, for minimum salary funds, and for ministerial education have risen at a geometric rate in the last decade, consuming an ever larger share of the church's budget. All of this is disturbing evidence of the growing clericalization of our church.

The laity must again "own" the church. In our system, clergy are members, not of local churches, but of their annual conference. Therefore, there is a tendency for the clergy to feel that their future lies, and that their ministry will be evaluated, not by their service to the local congregation, but by their loyalty to and compatibility with the annual conference. Many are tempted to view the local congregation as a stepping stone to a better appointment, a temporary way station on the way up the conference ladder. Chapter 11 notes the potentially debilitating effect this mentality has on preaching within our church. It affects many other areas of life within the local church as well.

We believe that our system is basically sound, for there is much to be said for a system of clergy deployment that has a reasonable degree of independence and a vision beyond the concerns of the local church - if the laity also do their part in voicing the concern and insights of their local congregation. The laity must remind themselves that this is "their" church. They will be here in this community and in this church long after the pastor has moved elsewhere. They will be able to see the opportunities for mission within their own community, which the pastor, as a relative newcomer to the community, may miss. They know the history, the traditions, and the style of their congregation. They must assert that tradition, instruct their new pastor in their past, or else be what too many of our United Methodist Churches have become bland, unexciting, undistinguishable clones of one another.

In the past few years, we have talked much of "pluralism" in our church. The term may be useful in signifying our inability to appeal to any common authority to settle our theological fragmentation, but the term is only an empty slogan when it comes to the official attitude about local churches. A plurality of differences among congregations is a threat to the clergy. The clergy have a stake in generalizing their congregations, in making every United Methodist congregation look much like every other, in suppressing differences and distinctive characteristics, in ousting maverick members, and in fostering as much uniformity as possible. Clergy do this because it is easier for our clergy to serve such congregations. Uniformity among congregations requires less adaptation among the clergy who serve them. Uniformity also requires less creativity among the clergy who appoint other clergy. It is easier for bishops and district superintendents to move clergy around among such churches. Our system does not tolerate much deviation from the norm, be it conservative or liberal. Yet, the future belongs to those congregations who know who they are and who assert that identity with boldness. In a town in which every United Methodist church looks like every other United Methodist church, all will lose. Lacking choice, theological alternatives, and differences in style of worship, we shall all decline into a dull shade of gray. This attitude has been a disaster in our meager attempts to reach the ethnic populations and has been a factor in our inability to attract new members within a competitive, voluntaristic American church environment, in which people select churches on the basis of their assessment of that church's ability to meet their needs.

All United Methodists should anticipate the day when the laity will rise up and say to their appointed clergy, "We welcome you here to our congregation and took forward to your leadership among us. But realizing that you will be with us for only a while, we will tell you the story of our church. We will identify for you the aspects of this church that make us love it, the crises we have endured, and our dreams for the future. We will listen to your dreams and your insights about how we might be more faithful, but first you must respect what God has done here among us."

The United Methodist system functions best as a creative balance between an ordained ministry that upholds certain values and commitments and boldly represents them, in word and deed, before the churches to which they are sent and a committed laity that articulates and enacts the gospel within thousands of localities across our nation. A revitalized United Methodist Church requires that we trust the laity to perform their unique ministry and that the laity trust themselves to minister.


  1. Jeffrey K. Hadden, The Gathering Storm in the Churches (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969), p. 230.

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Copyright© 1987 By Abingdon Press

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