For more than three decades, the Rev. Dr. Carl Ellis has seen rural churches increasingly struggle to find effective leadership and adapt to changing times.
Twenty years ago, preceding The United Methodist Church’s development of a certified lay minister program, Ellis began the Lay Academy for Rural Church Ministries, which trains laypersons to serve in the local church.
“It’s kind of evolved through the years,” Ellis said. “I got to the point where I have two courses that match the BeADisciple courses” offered through the Richard and Julie Wilke Institute for Discipleship at Southwestern College.
With more than 300 laypersons who have completed his program, Ellis is ready for a new year with a Foundations for Ministry class beginning in late August and continuing through May.
The other lay training program is Discovering Your Call to Ministry, a four-week class that includes a spiritual gifts inventory.
The Foundations class covers every aspect of what it means to be the pastor of a local church, Ellis said.
“The laity have been really super,” said the retired pastor, who serves a church in Hiattville, in southeast Kansas. “The joy I have is that I get to watch laity grow into that position with their gifts and graces.”
Ideas for the program began in 1988, he said, when he was part of a six-church cooperative parish in the former Kansas East Conference.
Two of the churches, he said, had a student pastor who “wasn’t very effective.”
“I began to work on models on how to train people,” Ellis recalled. “I finally came up with a model where people meet once a month, look at scripture, do some discussion on church issues — whether it’s a problem with the choir director or someone doesn’t like what you said during a sermon or you have a ‘situation’ you need to handle, and ping-pong around the room.
“Then we’d have a didactic session, where we dealt with one aspect, such as baptism or communion, worship, theology, history, evangelism, nine different areas,” he added.
The program is endorsed by the Great Plains Conference committee on lay servant ministries.
The Lay Academy for Rural Church Ministries has benefitted from technology, Ellis said. Through hybrid online learning platforms such as Adobe Connect, participants can stay in their own homes and exchange ideas with their fellow students.
“When I think about the Great Plains Conference and beyond, the travel is just too great” to meet in person, he said. “A lot of people have families and fulltime jobs and they have their church. When you ask them to travel, now that we’re Great Plains, to one place, it could take them eight hours.”
A San Francisco native, Ellis served as pastor for 36 years, including five years as director of the Center for Small Membership Churches in the Kansas East Conference.
Local churches in county-seat towns in the Great Plains, he said, need leadership beyond someone giving a sermon on Sundays.
“The need is just tremendous,” he said. “The problem is that if we don’t build leadership, there’s just not enough people to go around. We talk about the fact that we just keep closing churches.
“There’s other small churches that need to continue,” he added. “We just don’t have enough leadership, and we need leaders trained in small churches.”
The online classes, Ellis said, give laypersons a chance to “test drive” possibilities of assuming leadership roles in the church.
“There are always laity who felt like they had a call, but never really felt like they could do it,” he said. “This gives them their sea legs, their chance to do it.”
Among those who have completed the program is Connie Blanke from Russell, Kansas, who took classes 10 years ago, shortly after being hired as education director at Russell Trinity UMC.
“It was a good overview of all the things it takes to go into ministry, areas you need to be prepared for,” said Blanke, who also works as a Realtor. “It helps in terms of when you lay-speak, which was what I was interested in, and what all it takes to pursue that in a fulltime capacity.”
The Lay Academy is open to those besides United Methodists, he said, and has expanded geographically — laypeople in the West Ohio Conference have begun taking the classes, and he hopes to go nationwide.
“I think in the next month, we will be sharing that with other conferences and other folks to teach,” said Ellis, who wrote a workbook in teaching church leadership.
Ellis said he benefits from the exchanges he’s had with his students through the years.
“Over the years I think I’ve learned more from the laity than they have from me,” he said. “It’s really kind of cool.”
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