News and Views

Laity: From Volunteer to Disciple

Posted by Melissa Lauber on

By Melissa Lauber

Lay people throughout the Baltimore-Washington Conference’s 631 churches volunteer countless hours to ministry. Or do they? Words matter, and the word “volunteer” may need to be stricken from the church’s lexicon in favor of “disciple,” many church leaders are claiming.

Linda Flanagan
Linda Flanagan

“They are disciples,” said Bishop LaTrelle Easterling. “Disciples do not volunteer their time; rather, disciples are living out the commitment affirmed during their baptism.”

Linda Flanagan, the new conference director of Certified Lay Servant Ministries, appreciates this distinction.

“It all comes down to call,” she said. “What is God calling you to do? What’s your passion? Where do you see God has led you? Sometimes we can feel God saying, ‘I gave you these gifts, use them.’”

Flanagan refers to these holy leadings as “God’s bread crumbs,” and she’s pretty sure God doesn’t call God’s people just to provide “volunteer opportunities.” By virtue of their baptism, she said, quoting the Book of Discipline, “all Christians are called to minister wherever Christ would have them serve and witness in deeds and words that heal and free.”

The laity, she said, are called to leadership, caring and communications. Each baptized person is a minister, Flanagan stressed, called to be light and salt to the world.

In her first few months on the job, she is focusing on helping to interpret the different types of certified ministry available to the laity. Changes at the denominational level, which began in 2012, have created a level of complexity that is just now beginning to be fully understood and lived out among the grassroots.

In a nutshell, she explained, certification does not mean anyone is better or more advanced than anyone else. Rather, it is an opportunity for lay people to be trained and held accountable to a set of defined standards.

“When you get to the point where you want to be the best you can be, learn all you can and use your call to the best of your ability, you might want to be certified,” she said.

For those who seek certification, there are three levels.

Certified Lay Servant

These people take one “basic” course in leadership, caring and communicating, and one advanced course. These courses are offered on the district level, although in the BWC, they can be taken in any district a person chooses, or online at Lay Servants are approved by their local church and district committee on ministry and must take another advanced course every three years to be recertified.

Certified Lay Speaker

Requires the basic course and six additional courses. This track is for people with a more narrowly focused gift. They tend to provide pulpit supply, preaching when pastors are away. Those seeking to be certified must be approved at the local, district, and conference levels. They are also required to be recertified every three years.

(Some of the confusion, Flanagan notes, is that before 2012, all the certified lay people were called “Certified Lay Speakers.” Today, some people have not noted this change and still self-identify as lay speakers, whether they have had the training or not.)

Certified Lay Minister

This is not “the next step” in the certification process, Flanagan explained; it is in no way hierarchical. Rather CLMs, as they are called, undergo a two-year training track to serve as leaders of small churches, as assistants to clergy, parish nurses, Christian educators, in parish ministry or in many other specialized forms of ministry. They are approved by the local church, the district superintendent and the District Committee on Ministry, and the Conference Committee on the Ministry of the Laity. Certified Lay Ministers require a different level of commitment, training and accountability, Flanagan said. Currently, the BWC has 120 CLMs, more than almost any other annual conference. 

Flanagan, and Conference Lay Leader, Delores Martin, are working with district chair people to help them understand and better document the certification process and to shepherd the laity who are enthusiastic about pursuing opportunities for learning and growth.

Martin is excited when the laity seek to serve God in any significant way, certified or not. The first converts to Methodism in the New World were made by a laywoman, Elizabeth Strawbridge, in her kitchen in New Windsor, she noted. This tradition of laity expressing their faith in their daily lives and in their churches is a strong one in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, she said.

Flanagan said she believes she received her call when she was a child and “felt drawn to God.”

She remembers a Communion service at Camp Pecometh in Centreville on the Eastern Shore, and being told, “If you feel God calling you, we invite you to float your candle on the river.” She did.

Her adult life led her to work as a reporter and later, for 40 years, as a teacher and educator.

Her husband, Michael, was Roman Catholic and active in his church. She was active in lay ministry at Good Shepherd UMC in Waldorf and the two learned from one another and grew in faith together.

When he died in 2000, his death and other family events led her to “really rely on God fully and listen more carefully.”

In 2013, she took a pilgrimage to England with Discipleship Ministries in Nashville to follow in the footsteps of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. In 2017, she became a certified lay minister and now works with Good Shepherd as a “minister of connection.”

“Every day since I’ve retired, I feel drawn to serve in whatever God puts in front of me,” she said. “I’m energized by the work. It just feels right, it feels right,” she said.

To those people who are searching for their call and wondering how God might be leaving breadcrumbs for them, Flanagan advises “pray, pray, pray, pray, pray, and then you gotta listen.”

She also invites the laity to put their candles upon the water and see how their light is reflected in their congregations and the world. 

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