Just for Presbyterians: You are (Probably) Not a Lay Leader

priesthood of all believersProof that I care about things that nobody else in the world cares about except for an infinitesimal slice of people in my small but rocking denomination:

You will not find the word “laity” in any part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church USA. It’s not in there. As well, the word “lay” as in “lay leader” is only included to explain that we don’t use that word.

Please stop calling yourself “just a lay person” (or any kind of lay person) if you have ever been ordained in the PCUSA. Stop it.

This is not about proper word use. It’s about sound theology.

We Presbyterians ordain teaching elders (aka ministers of the Word and Sacrament), ruling elders (aka those who govern on boards called Sessions) and deacons (aka those who tend to those in need.) Let me repeat this: we are ordained. This means that – by virtue of our ordination – not one of us is any longer a lay person. We are not “laity.” We are not “laywomen” or “laymen.”

The word “laity” was first used in the 15th Century which makes sense in terms of how the clergy were elevated regarding power and authority. The church that the New Testament describes sets people aside for leadership, but “the priesthood of all believers” makes it clear that everyone who follows Jesus is called to serve in Christ’s name. Everyone.

Theologically speaking, as long as we consider the leader with the seminary degree to be The Real Minister, we will be an ineffective church.

To consider church members to be “lay” members assumes and accepts that those without seminary degrees are ill-equipped to serve. The truth however is that God has called all of us to serve. Some – ruling and teaching elders and deacons – are called to be leaders. Others are called to lead in everything from music to administration to education to hospitality.

If you are dorky enough to read this blog, you are probably not a lay leader. I’m looking at you, ordained ruling elders and deacons.

This post is dedicated to CJB.

28 responses to “Just for Presbyterians: You are (Probably) Not a Lay Leader

  1. Landon Whitsitt’s gonna kiss you over this. I think we might also need a new way of validating those congregational leaders who aren’t ordained but who are rocking new projects


  2. Pingback: » Just for Presbyterians: You are (Probably) Not a Lay Leader

  3. Thank you!


  4. To me it’s not the terminology but the attitude. “Lay leader” need not be pejorative. I’d rather spend energy getting rid of the “just” in “just a lay leader” than insist on language that nobody understands but the infinitesimal slice.

    The more time I spend with non-churchy people the less patience I have for linguistic correctness around this issue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mary Ann, I’m afraid I must disagree. Noam Chomsky pointed out many years ago that how we speak shapes how we think. Preserving “‘lay” and “clergy” in our vocabulary allows us to preserve–even without thinking about it–the very clericalism that the Reformers wanted to eliminate with the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The same argument must be applied to language about human beings: speaking of all people as “all men” may not be pejorative, but long experience has shown us that it perpetuates the notion that women are not equal partners in the human endeavor. Would the people with whom you work be patient with such an attitude? Why not make the effort to change our language as a way of calling attention to a change in thinking, a reminder that we are all ministers from the moment we rise dripping from the baptismal waters, and thus that a distinction between “lay” and “clergy” is not only meaningless, but false?


      • I’m all for getting our theological ducks in a row. But these discussions are so much inside baseball. The culture at large DOESN’T CARE.

        I am spending way more time with non-churchy people now that I’m no longer serving a church. Being a member of the clergy, and being identified as such, has opened doors for conversation (and yes, evangelism) I never would have imagined. Apparently God is finding a way to use the terminology that so many of us are clutching their pearls over. She’s pretty awesome that way 😉


  5. Right.On. This is one of the discussion points in my brief “being Presbyterian ” series that ends this Sunday. I am sending the group the link to this post as part of their pre-class reflection/prep. And we might ask to reblog this at some point on Columbia Connections blog. Thanks.


  6. I agree with Mary Ann. And ask: what do we do with the Greek “laos”?


  7. Following on MaryAnn, what do we “call” people who are not ordained pastors, elders, or deacons and are leaders in the church?


  8. Pingback: Looking in the Mirror

  9. Isn’t the gist of ordination for us that it represents the calling that all Christians have: really that all Christians are ordained.


  10. Michael Davenport

    In a small Presbytery (Abingdon) I have know several Certified LAY Minister who serve in Place of Ordained People when needed


    • Hi Michael- For what it’s worth, the BoO specifically mentions changing that terminology to remove the ‘lay.’


      • I was part of the task force that drafted the current Form of Government. When we came to G-2.10 (the section on ruling elders commissioned to pastoral service), we were influenced by Joe Small’s argument that there are no “lay” or ‘clergy” in the Reformed tradition. We were also influenced by the argument that the name “certified lay pastor” actually creates a second class of pastor, one not quite as well trained as the rest of those who serve in pastoral capacities. But the notion of the CLP (now CRE) was never intended to be a “junior preacher” but rather an enhancement of the calling of the ruling elder. The calling of the elder includes the calling to “strengthen and nurture the faith and life” of a congregation–precisely the role originally intended for the “lay preacher.” Just as a ruling elder serving on a session has that responsibility for the congregation that elects her, so the commissioned ruling elder has that responsibility for the congregation to which presbytery commissions her. The commission is an extension of the work of the ruling elder, not a diminution of the work of the teaching elder.


  11. Wonderful! And spot on!


  12. Wonderful! Love it.


  13. While we’re at it, let’s stop using the completely un-Presbyterian term, “clergy.” There isn’t any such thing in the Presbyterian Church. You won’t find that word in the Book of Order, either.


  14. Then what will we call those who are not ordained and who co-lead the worship service with the pastor? At my church we call them “lay leaders” even when they are ruling elders, although we also have a few who are not ordained. Maybe we should call them “worship leaders”? As in “worship leaders today are…” and just list the pastor’s name and the name of the other person-who-is-not-the-pastor.


  15. When we get to ordaining Certified Christian Educators?


  16. Sharon Davison

    Thank you, thank you thank you


  17. Pingback: You Keep Using That Word... - The GA Junkie

  18. Question: What do you call a formerly-but-no-longer commissioned lay pastor/ruling elder who is no longer ruling either but is ministering in the community in a variety of ways outside the church purview? (This may be a conversation we should have by phone/in person, if you would be willing.) Titles don’t matter to me, but every time my name shows up as funeral officiant with Rev. In front of my name, I have this ambiguous conversation with people about what I’m not instead of what I am.


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