Repeat After Me: I Am Not a Layperson

Ordination to the ministry of teaching elder, ruling elder, or deacon is a unique order of ministry.  The Book of Order of The Presbyterian Church USA, Part 2 G-2.0102

Repeat after me – if you are an elder, deacon, or educator in the PCUSA:

I am not a layperson.

At almost every meeting I attend, someone says something like:

  • “I’m just a layperson.”
  • “I’m only a layperson.”
  • “We are just laypeople.”
  • “You mean us? The laity?”

And then, there’s the ever popular:

  • I am not a minister. I’m only an elder/deacon.”

What Bible are we reading?  For us Presbyterians, what polity are we reading?  The words “laity,” “lay”, and “layperson” cannot be found anywhere in our church constitution, if  Word Search is to be trusted.

If we are ordained to serve a particular order of ministry (teaching elder, ruling elder, or deacon) we are 1) ministers and 2) not lay people.

We have long called organists, pianists, and choir directors “Ministers of Music” so why is it so hard to call our elders and deacons ministers?  My hunches:

  • Most ruling elders and deacons don’t feel equipped to call themselves ministers.  They are Biblically illiterate, theologically untrained, and not quite sure how to pray with people much less offer pastoral care.
  • Many pastors enjoy being “the minister” as if there is only one and a seminary degree is required.
  • The world calls the pastor/priest/vicar “the minister.”  The world is wrong.

Our congregations are full of called leaders who 1) must be equipped to pray with people, visit them in hospitals, offer hospitality, serve the Lord’s Supper, assist in baptisms, preach, teach, and lead the people of God.  If your officers are not doing this, they are not fulfilling their call.

Someone said, yesterday, as we were discussing all this in a meeting, “Then this means our whole culture needs to change.”

Yes, it does.


PS You can purchase a stole like the one posted here.  Yes, you get to wear one too.


19 responses to “Repeat After Me: I Am Not a Layperson

  1. Well done! Gotta remember and probably should gird my loins and wear a stole on occasions.

  2. Susan Quinn Bryan

    Years ago, when I was wondering why the Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC had so many powerful missions (and weren’t wrapped up in divisive conversations about the ordination of GLBTQ members) I finally realized what was going on: They were practicing what we Presbyterians say we believe: the priesthood of all believers. Everyone was ordained (at their baptisms.) Everyone was a minister. Of course, there, like in the early church, it takes a long time and great committment to become a member and a short time to become a minister. We have that part backward, too!

  3. Great words of wisdom! Many ordained persons in all faith traditions have a gift of ministry equal or more important than being a “minister” and the ability to “preach” and quite frankly are much less devisive than the “clergy” because they offer the awesome inclusive love of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

  4. Shouting “Amen” from up here in God’s Left Elbow!

  5. Just adding my two cents… what if none of us wore stoles and we fully embraced the priesthood of all believers? Wouldn’t that be something!?

    • Totally agree. I like the idea of everybody wearing stoles as a visual reminder. We once had simple stoles made for the whole congregation for Pentecost and nobody was into it. Most people left theirs behind or considered it something for the kids.

  6. I love my stoles – colorful and symbolic. It’s the robe I’d like to ditch permanently!

  7. As I experience it this lack of self-acknowledgement is part of the problem; another part is clergy-centrism.

    For example, in my presbytery every “major” committee (eg regular presentations during presbytery meetings) is chaired by a teaching elder. The current moderator along with the past three have all been teaching elders. The EP is a teaching elder. And most of the people who stand to make statements at the microphones about this-or-that are ruling elders (IMO, often to hear the sound of their own voices). I sense a kind of … smugness among clergyfolk, but whether that’s true or not, there isn’t a sense of inclusiveness toward and/or encouragement of ruling elders in this presbytery. Do you think that has something to do with why ruling elder attendance is down and keeps dropping?

    (When I’ve lifted this up before others have told me that their presbyteries are similar to this.)

    • I agree that we teaching elders are seen to be all that. It takes some intentional recruiting and training (and cheerleading) to move ruling elders into positions of leadership. We do have several Ruling Elders in Presbytery Staff positions, but we are overwhelmingly Teaching Elders in those slots. Nevertheless, our volunteer coordinators for COM (who do at least as much as I do to staff that Commission) are ruling elders – although everyone assumes they are teaching elders because they have great authority.

  8. juliaschaeffer

    Ruling elders out there who are inspired and challenged by this posting, please speak up. Have been pondering the clergy/lay dichotomy for some time. Want to see change. Let’s talk.

  9. One reason why the idea of the priesthood of all believers may be so difficult to inculcate in presbyteries has to do with the way we incorporate youth/young adults in leadership. Those with theological interests between ages 18-35 are often encouraged to seek a seminary degree thus they figure that it is necessary to be taken seriously in congregational or presbytery ministry and decision making. What if we recruited and formed with equal vigor those same young adults to be excellent deacons, ruling elders or mission practitioners in their 9-5 jobs?

  10. Thank you so much for featuring my stole in your thought provoking article! I enjoy making unique stoles to enhance worship. blessings on your ministries, Sue Peterson, The Stolemaker

  11. Query: I have always called myself a deacon for life since my ordination in a distant huge PCUSA church. I am now in a small PCUSA church close to Canada where deacon duties are not expansive. Have I been misrepresenting myself?

  12. Jan (or should I say, Madam Co-Moderator);

    Thanks for this. let me simply reinforce your statement that neither “lay” nor “clergy” are terms used anywhere in our polity. “Clergy” has never been used, and the last use of “lay” was removed with the change from “commissioned lay pastor” to “commissioned ruling elder” in 2011. We really should excise these terms altogether from our internal ecclesiastical discussion.

    The reason goes all the way back to the Reformation’s insistence on the priesthood of all believers, and the corollary commitment that ministry is the work of all members of the body of Christ. To preserve the Roman Catholic distinction (as Episcopal and Methodist polities do) between “lay” and “clergy” is to preserve a medieval caste system that implies that some ministries are more important–and therefore “graced”–than others. We understand ordination as a functional distinction, and hence the names of the three orders of ministry (Compassion and Service, Discernment and Government, Word and Sacrament) refer to functions carried out by those elected by God’s people to the execution of those functions. We do not see ordination as creating a new reality for either the person or the church or changing in some way the status or essence of a person called to that order.

    This is the core of my objection to the proposed change to G-2.0501–the substitution of “minister of the Word and Sacrament” for “teaching elder.” Teaching elder preserves the essential parity with ruling elders, a hallmark of Reformed polities and of the PC(USA). It points to the vital function of teaching the faith and equipping the saints for the ministry of the whole people of God that is fulfilled by those called to the Ministry of the Word and Sacrament. It avoids funding the already-too–prominent clericalist heresy that “ministry” is what “ministers” do, and only those ordained as MOWS are “ministers.” Those who need in ecumenical or legal settings to use the title “minister of the Word and Sacrament” are–and have been–free to use the title (it IS in the Constitution–see G-2,0501 and G-4.0301). But let us not give away one of the distinctives of our polity and encourage the societal tendency to see ministry as a spectator sport by making this change.

  13. And then there are the educators—those of us not ordained as elders, deacons or teaching elder. It is difficult to be one of the primary leaders in the church (especially of children and youth) but have no voice or vote; in a decade I’ve been invited to a couple of session meetings. Commonly referred to as lay staff.

  14. Thank you for this great reminder. I’m sad that the proposed amendment to the BoO that will go out from GA222 to the presbyteries has “commissioned lay pastor” in it. I hope this amendment fails.

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