The Rev. Dr. Lee Wigert serves the three-church charge of Juniata-Kenesaw-Holstein United Methodist Churches in south-central Nebraska. From his home in Hastings, the circuit to all three churches extends approximately 50 miles. With worship starting at 9 a.m. in Juniata, 10 a.m. in Holstein and 11 a.m. in Kenesaw, it would be virtually impossible for Wigert to lead worship in all three places without a little help.
Make that more than a little help. And that assistance comes from Lay Servant Ministry participants who sometimes start the service prior to Wigert’s arrival, sometimes wrap up after he leaves to tend to the next congregation and sometimes to lead the service from start to finish.
As one of more than 55 charges in the Great Plains Conference with three or more churches grouped into parishes, the logistics of helping lead worship for the small congregations can take some effort. In the case of these three churches, each has a lay servant willing to help with the preaching.
“These are churches that could not afford to pay for a full-time pastor,” said Wigert, who is a half-time pastor and a full-time professor of psychology at nearby Hastings College.
Wigert has research published on such topics as religious orientation, healing and wholeness, and personality factors. He’s a licensed mental health practitioner as well.
While Wigert is adept at helping others with their mental health, it was protecting his own health that was a topic for discussion when this three-church charge was developed in January 2014, the same time the Great Plains Conference was formed from the former Kansas East, Kansas West and Nebraska conferences. It was clear from the beginning that laity would play a key role in the preaching and teaching about Jesus Christ.
The result was a rotation that has Wigert overseeing worship at all three churches the first Sunday of the month so an elder can bless the communion elements. Then, so he can leave and arrive to help with all of the services, Kathy Uldrich in Juniata, Michelle Loeffelholz in Holstein and Bob Aderholt in Kenesaw, among others, pitch in to lead worship.
“When we first got this parish put together and were devising the rotation, we asked ‘How are we going to keep our one ordained clergy from being completely burned out?’” Uldrich said.
The solution was to take one church out of the rotation each week except for the week of communion. Loeffelholz leads the entire worship service in Holstein the second Sunday of the month. Uldrich does likewise in Juniata the third Sunday, followed by Aderholt doing the same the fourth Sunday in Kenesaw.
As a result, Wigert preaches at two churches each Sunday, making the drive and the energy needed to serve the congregations more realistic.
“We’re in the second year of this parish, and everybody is pretty much on the same page,” Loeffelholz said. “We can pull from any of the churches to get things done.”
The churches try to streamline as best they can. Uldrich, for example, prepares the bulletins for all three churches each week. And the three congregations come together as a parish for special occasions to help build a cohesion. This year, the churches will conduct a faith fair together in Holstein, complete with hay rides, a Christian carnival with Bible games and an ice cream social. They also worked together on a single Vacation Bible school, which drew about 50 children. And the churches take turns hosting events, such as Holy Week activities in which they rotate through serving as hosts for events Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
To make this kind of three-church charge work, strong lay servants are needed to provide the message from the pulpit.
The Rev. Lance Clay, Prairie Rivers District superintendent in Nebraska, said lay servants have become essential to the United Methodist Church, particularly in rural areas where distance and financial realities make the appointive process difficult.
“Churches in these settings may be too far apart for a pastor to effectively cover,” Clay said. “Elders and even local pastors may present an expense that cannot be covered where a lay servant may be the more effective person to use.”
Uldrich, Loeffelholz and Aderholt all said they embraced the challenge and the opportunity to share God’s word from the pulpit.
“I really enjoy when I can bring a message to people and look out at the congregation and see an ‘aha’ on their faces,” Uldrich said. “It’s satisfying to see them recognize a new way to have a stronger relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Uldrich, said she spends parts of the entire week leading up to her sermon working on what she intends to say.
“I may start working on my sermon on Monday or Tuesday and then put it away until Friday because sometimes something happens in between that prompts me to change things,” she said.
Aderholt, who said he has been a lay speaker and then lay servant for about 17 years, said he tries to use the tools at his disposal to study the lectionary readings, find definitions and even pronunciations for difficult words in scripture to help him prepare a clear, understandable sermon. The study provides benefits to him as well.
“I get the opportunity to share God’s word,” Aderholt said. “And doing so helps deepen my faith.”
Uldrich said she appreciated Wigert’s willingness to provide coaching along the way. Wigert’s role in that effort fits well with his collegial experience.
“I try to be a mentor by providing feedback and by example,” Wigert said. “I try to be encouraging, ‘Would you consider this?’”
Lay servants may be helping with the delivering of sermons to the congregations, but their impact goes far beyond the pulpit. For example, Aderholt helps with services at a rest home in the area as well as other tasks typically completed by the pastor.
“It’s difficult sometimes because people think the pastor should be doing visitation and a number of other things on top of preparing for Sunday morning,” Aderholt said. “Why can’t I do the visitations? Why can’t others fill in and help out?”
That sense of helping out where needed in ministry is a major component of the Lay Servant Ministry program. They all take a basic course that prepares them for expanded service in the local church, followed by what are known as “advanced” courses that prepare them to lead worship. The Book of Discipline lays out a series of requirements that, once completed, allows for people with enough training to be assigned to serve a local church as a Certified Lay Minister.
Uldrich said the right mixture of lay servants can strengthen ministries within a church or a parish of multiple churches.
“We have the potential for some exceptional leadership because people are willing to step up to the plate to keep these smaller churches going,” Uldrich said. “Equipping lay servants in different capacities for ministry makes the whole church stronger.”
One way lay servants make churches stronger is that it bolsters the numbers of people who are better prepared for a variety of ministries. And the call to help could come at any time.
“We know we could get called at a moment’s notice and need to step up,” Loeffelholz said. “Many of us have other roles we fill. I teach Sunday school and work with the youth and VBS. I’m also the janitor. In a lot of larger churches, people may have only one thing they need to do.”
Clay said having a talented pool of lay servants can provide district superintendents and the bishop with more options when it comes time to appoint pastors to churches.
“It may help put together church-parish alignments that provide great ministry which may not have been possible otherwise,” Clay said.
Wigert – who has been in ministry since 1979 and has served Presbyterian, United Church of Christ and United Methodist congregations – said the three churches he served are stronger because of the lay servants who help make ministry a reality.
“With a part-time pastor, they’re getting full-time service – not from me, but from laity and me working together.”
Learn more about Lay Servant Ministry in the Great Plains Conference.