Lay servants fill the pulpits of many Great Plains Conference churches each week, sharing their thoughts on the scriptures and attempting to link the Word of God to the issues people face in today’s world.
Lay servants do preach as one of their primary roles, but they also take on many more tasks in their local churches – from leading youth groups to assisting with school programs to leading Bible studies and more. Indeed, the area of service once known as lay speaking has evolved, with the current Book of Discipline laying out training and providing for a broad range of activities in which people can serve God in ¶266-268.
While all laity are encouraged to serve their local churches and their communities, Lay Servant Ministries requires a higher level of commitment. To receive the classification as a local church lay servant, participants must take what is known as the “basic” course and receive approval from their pastors, church councils or charge conferences. They then must submit a report and reapply annually, as well as complete a refresher course every three years.
Further coursework is required to receive the designations of certified lay servant, which equips participants to serve the local congregation and beyond. And even more is required to receive the designation as a lay speaker, including the completion of what are known as “advanced” courses.
Kathy Uldrich, a lay servant from Juniata United Methodist Church in the Prairie Rivers District, said the educational opportunities involved with the lay servant program are invaluable.
“Let’s say you are serving on a committee,” she said. “If you have a more informed committee person, you will have a more informed committee. And if you have a more informed committee, you have a more informed congregation.”
Uldrich said she has taken classes focused on leading worship and prayer, speaking and aspects of the church’s history and polity. Some of the courses were available online, and they involved chat functions that allowed her to discuss what she was learning with people in small, rural churches as well as large churches in metropolitan areas.
“I really like the online courses because you can do those at any time of the day,” she said. “I’m on the go a lot, but I could take those courses whenever I had the time I met people throughout the U.S., including Hawaii.”
Uldrich said she enjoys preaching as part of her lay servant duties. Her home church is part of a three-church charge that includes Kenesaw and Holstein United Methodist churches. Under the direction of the Rev. Lee Wigert, she and a lay servant in each of the other churches assist with the logistics of conducting worship. In Uldrich’s case, she helps close the service some weeks so Wigert can travel to another of his churches. In other weeks she assists with worship. The third Sunday of each month, Uldrich leads the entire service and delivers the message.
“(This model) has probably kept the two smaller churches from closing their doors,” Uldrich said.
Larry Jess, a lay servant from First United Methodist Church in Kearney, Nebraska, in the Gateway District, urged people interested in serving their churches not to be intimidated by the classes and instead to be excited about the opportunity to serve others.
“At first I thought, ‘Man, what am I getting myself into?’ Then I realized there was a lot more that I needed to know about the church,” he said. “It was so enjoyable.”
Jess’ activities as a lay servant have focused on preaching. As a former superintendent of David City Public Schools, talking in front of a crowd was not a challenge for him, but he said the courses helped prepare him for service in the church. He has spoken at community Lenten services, and after a pastor in his area passed away unexpectedly, he served three Nebraska churches for about six months. It was during that latter scenario that he crossed paths with some of his former students.
“I think they saw a different side of me,” he said with a chuckle.
He said he has found that people in congregations are receptive to lay servants speaking from the pulpit, and he enjoys getting to meet new people.
“I encourage people to take part because it is so enlightening to tell people about your life experiences with God and come away with a new fervor for serving God,” he said.
Not all lay servants focus primarily on speaking from the pulpit. Cheryl Anderson, a lay servant from the Prairie Rivers District, has helped with a number of things involving the ministry of her husband, the Rev. Mike Anderson, whom she married seven years ago.
“We totally believe God brought us together,” she said. “And if I believe that, then I have to believe that God chose me to help with his ministry.”
That ministry includes assisting in many ways at Davenport and Bruning United Methodist churches. That help at times comes in the persona of “Aunt Edna,” who hails from the fictional hamlet of Muskrat Crossing in Nebraska. As Aunt Edna, Anderson shares humorous stories about the fictional small town. Each of her more than 35 skits involves clean humor, a spiritual message, scripture and prayer.
It all started with a Bible study.
“We would have potluck dinners and then sat around,” she said. “I tried to think of something we could do.”
Aunt Edna has made appearances at United Methodist Women events, churches of various denominations and even community-wide events. Anderson said not every lay servant is comfortable speaking from the pulpit.
“People don’t realize how many ways they can serve,” she said. “They could read to children. They can help a single mom buy some groceries. There are a million degrees between that and filling a pulpit. It’s exciting to see how God can use you.”
Dave Wasserfallen, a lay servant from Wellsville United Methodist Church in the Five Rivers District, said one of his goals is to motivate the laity to get more involved in their churches and in their communities. His journey as a lay servant started in 1990, when his former pastor, the Rev. Dennis Ackerman, urged him to attend a training session in Ottawa, Kansas. Wasserfallen said he thought he could handle that kind of educational opportunity and, in fact, has enjoyed it so much that he has even taken courses for certified lay minister.
“As far as I’m concerned, if you aren’t reaching beyond the local church, you don’t have the scope or effect you need to have,” he said. “The training triggered me to thinking about what the local church needed to do.”
He enjoys preaching, but he said he also values the opportunity to make a difference in his community. He said in 2007, word got to the church that kids were having trouble receiving enough money for school lunch. The local UMW went to work helping the kids. He eventually helped lead a program that raises funds via twice-annual bake sales, with the money managed by a liaison with the schools that knows when kids and their families need such items as eye glasses, propane, coats and gloves.
“Lay servants can develop a vision to find these opportunities to go out and help people,” Wesserfallen said. Read a question-and-answer document Wasserfallen has crafted about Lay Servant Ministries.
Pam Savery, Blue River District administrative assistant and a lay servant, said sometimes the training can prepare people for service in roles they would never have imagined.
She shared a story about a relative whose mother died unexpectedly. The family struggled financially and couldn’t afford a traditional funeral. To add to the family’s grief, an uncle died just two weeks after the other relative. A member of the family recalled that Savery preaches from time to time as a lay servant and asked her if she would be willing to assist with a small, family service in a park.
As a result, Savery led the family in a service with a brief message, scripture and remembrances of the loved ones who had passed away. She said she was pleased to be able to help the family during a difficult time.
“If you have a desire to serve the church and are wanting to share the knowledge of Christ in worship and in other personal settings, this is a great way to do it,” she said of taking part in lay servant ministries.
They key word for lay servants is “action.” Jess, Uldrich, Anderson, Wesserfallen and Savery all stressed the importance of serving God by serving others in the local church and beyond.
Wesserfallen said the opportunities are nearly endless – helping at a homeless shelter, stocking shelves at a food pantry, donating materials or labor to fix up properties. All of those examples and more can be ministries that help others via lay servants.
“You have to be doing something,” he said. “We’ve gone too far in the direction of intellectualizing our faith. We need action.”