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In the coming decade, retiring pastors will outnumber people entering the ministry. Is the church developing enough lay leaders to keep its ministries alive?

Have you ever sung this song?
I am the church! You are the church!
We are the church together.
All who follow Jesus, all around the world,
yes, we’re the church together.
The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple,
the church is not a resting place;
the church is a people!

“We Are the Church.” Words and Music: Richard Avery and Donald Marsh; © 1972, Hope Publishing Co.

This song describes the church as a community of people—and rightly so. The Bible encourages us to work together as we spread the gospel, worship God, and mature as the body of Christ.

In many churches, it falls to the pastoral staff to encourage people in these tasks. But in the decade ahead, retiring pastors in the Christian Reformed Church (and in many other denominations) will outnumber those entering ordained ministry. By necessity we’ll rely on lay leaders—nonordained folk—to fill ministry roles.

In the face of the coming pastor shortages, the CRC will need to thoughtfully select, train, recognize, and evaluate lay volunteers if we are to flourish.

So it’s worth asking this question: How effective is the church, particularly the Christian Reformed Church, in developing its lay members?

Surveying Volunteers

In 2004 and 2005 we researched the experience of laypeople by reviewing recent books, investigating lay training websites, and conducting surveys of non-ordained church members. Because we had access to the alumni database of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., we conducted a telephone survey of 64 Calvin alumni.

Respondents were equally distributed by gender and age group. Half were from the upper Midwest of the United States and half were from other regions of North America. Half were members of the CRC, while the other half were active in other denominations or church associations.

After the surveys were in, we used standard statistical methods to analyze the results. Here are four important things we discovered about the selection, training, recognition, and evaluation of lay church members.

First, we found that people’s gifts were not always well matched to their service roles. In selecting volunteers, many churches, particularly in the CRC, conducted spiritual gifts inventories to help members discover where they were best suited to serve. We were surprised, however, by the disconnect between these inventories and the actual volunteer tasks people performed. Only 33 percent of the respondents said a spiritual gifts inventory had any influence on their participation. The result is that only a very small percentage of spiritual gift inventories affected respondents’ actual service.

Second, our survey showed that training, when it’s offered, focuses primarily on programs, not on people. Only 49 percent of respondents received training for their service. When training did occur, 92 percent of it focused on the content area of service, not on the development of the person providing the service. For example, if a church school teacher were given training, it was usually about the specific curriculum he or she would be teaching, not about how to be an effective teacher or church school team member.

Third, we discovered that most churches understand their lay members’ need for appreciation. According to our survey results, 77 percent of respondents received recognition for their service. Of course there is room for improvement since 23 percent did not sense any recognition from their church. However, it is encouraging that CRC volunteers perceived more support from their church councils than did non-CRC respondents. We should be grateful for the encouragement that CRC church councils are providing.

Fourth, we found that feedback and evaluation is sadly lacking in many churches. Of the survey respondents, we found that only 29 percent received any kind of feedback on their work. Within that small percentage, most of the feedback was about the program offered; very little of it was about individual contributions. Among CRC respondents no one received feedback on his or her individual effectiveness. Thus, while the church realizes that it should recognize its volunteers, actual feedback to improve their effectiveness is spotty and ill-defined. This is an area that CRC churches must develop.

Looking Deeper

In more detailed analyses of the survey data we also found interesting variations by age, gender, and church characteristics. Thirty-five- to 44-year-olds received the majority of their training through formal seminars while all the other age groups primarily attended meetings for their training. All of the age groups concentrated training on their very specific church tasks, except the 55- to 64-year-olds. This group’s training was more varied. It included looking at theological and biblical foundations, how to work as a team, and how their service connected to the local church’s mission. Thus, one’s age was a factor in the training venue and its content.

We were surprised by the numerous and complicated differences between the sexes. Men were more likely to be appointed, but more women volunteered than men (74 percent versus 45 percent). More men received formal training than did women (96 percent versus 61 percent respectively). Among those who were recognized for their service, 60 percent of the males’ recognition was characterized by publicly standing in a church service while only 29 percent of the females were recognized that way. By contrast, receiving personal thanks was the greatest means of recognizing women’s contributions.

Yet these gender-related differences may not have resulted from intentional discrimination. For example, among church school teachers there are no significant differences in training, recognition, and feedback among the men and women who serve in this role. Still, this may indicate that some areas of church service are getting less formal training, recognition, and feedback than others; and these are the areas where women are more likely to serve.

Finally, we also found the age, size, and geography of a church create differences in the lay experience. In younger churches (those existing for fewer than 10 years), significantly more people volunteered than in older churches (especially those that had been around for 10 to 50 years). Lay participants in churches with 250 to 500 members felt much less support from the church staff (only 58 percent), while more than 90 percent of the people in churches with fewer than 250 or more than 500 members felt support from the staff. Also, in the five upper-Midwest states only 5 percent of the respondents had a pastor provide them with training. However, in the rest of the United States, 36 percent had a pastor doing the training. Thus, a church’s age, size, and geography curiously and somewhat mysteriously affect how it approaches equipping the laity.

What Can We Learn?

In light of our research results, we’ve developed a few recommendations for CRC churches trying to develop effective lay leaders:

  • Equip and use lay church members effectively, or they may turn their attention elsewhere. Demand for volunteer time exceeds the supply.
  • Develop more specific links between spiritual gift inventories and actual church needs through a church
    database. v
  • Insure that all volunteers receive sound orientation and training; rebalance your church’s training to focus on the volunteer as a person in need of development as well as the content of the program.
  • Recognize all your lay servants. If lay members do not feel valued, they may not serve.
  • Give personal feedback to each lay volunteer. For their contributions to grow, individuals must know how they can improve.
  • Work toward a more equitable balance in training, recognition, and feedback for men and women.
  • Recognize your church’s unique needs due to its age, size, and geography. To avoid confusion, discuss expectations for the pastor’s role in training the laity.
  • Designate a church coordinator, whether paid or unpaid, to direct your church volunteers. This is an important task that needs its own champion.

Since it’s true that “the church is a people,” we must effectively encourage people as they work to build their church community. We must show church volunteers that we respect their desire to contribute, and we must more fully treat them as God’s reflections.

The church should be one of the best places in which to spend volunteer time. By committing ourselves to thoughtful volunteer selection, thorough training, thankful recognition, and constructive evaluation, we can make that vision a reality.

web connections for lay leadership training

A review of 25 denominational websites revealed considerable variation in lay leadership development opportunities. Some denominations, through centralized denominational support, seminaries, or extensive regional training conferences, are working hard to develop lay leaders. In addition to denominational resources, several networks are focused on the same challenge. Check out the websites for the Leadership Training Network (, Sonlife Ministries (, and the Willow Creek Association (

“lifer” volunteers

“When I ask long-term volunteers when they became “lifers”—people who decide to serve in God’s mission for as long as he gives them breath—they almost always point back to a specific serving moment that sealed their commitment. ‘In that moment,’ they say, ‘I felt the God of heaven and earth use me, and I discovered that there’s nothing in the world like that! . . .’ Whether they taught a child to pray, guided someone toward faith, helped a husband and wife reconcile, served a meal to a homeless person, or produced an audio tape that put the Christian message in somebody’s hand, they knew their lives would never be the same.”

Bill Hybels in The Volunteer Revolution (Zondervan 2004)

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