Ministry of People

By Fr Sergei Glagolev

An Interview With Fr. Sergei Glagolev On The Understanding of Lay Ministries

How do we in the Orthodox Church define Lay Ministries?

The difficulty with words like “lay ministries” is that the original intent of the words, that is, understood scripturally and theologically, does not necessarily follow what we understand the words to mean in our culture. We say “lay ministries” in our American society and we usually think of something that has to do with the Protestant Church. If we look at what the words actually mean as they are used theologically, I think we come to a better understanding of what the Church means.

When we talk about “laity”, we should not mean something less than clergy or something different than clergy. This is the first difficulty. The word, itself, “laity” comes from the Greek word “laos” which speaks of the people, or “laos tou Theou”, which speaks of the people of God. We are all baptized in Christ into this “people”. God has made a covenant with people. St. Peter talks of this extensively, particularly in the second chapter of First Peter: “You were no people, but now you are God’s own People. You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, special people….” And so our baptism is into this life of Christ as the people of God.

First of all, we have to see lay ministries as the ministry of the people, and that priests are themselves people. Otherwise they couldn’t even be priests. Among the people there are those who are set aside for holy orders, who function as bishops, priests, and deacons. That doesn’t mean that they’re the only ones who have the ministry.

We understand this particularly with an in-depth look at worship. The prayer books are deceiving when we think of the celebrant as being the priest and the respondent as being the choir. It’s the assembly that worships. In the worshipping assembly there are priests and bishops and deacons and choirs - all kinds of people with special roles. But it doesn’t mean that they function instead of the people. Once we clarify this I think we can begin to see what the broad aspect of lay ministries is. It’s not a different ministry than that which we are called to do - priests and laity together as the “laos”, as the people.

But then are you saying that in worship, besides the specific functions of the clergy and choir, there should be an active role for the rest of the people?

This is precisely the problem. I am not saying that we should create a separate role for the people. It should be the people who are doing the worshipping. To give you an example, when the priest turns around and says, “Peace be with you!” he’s speaking to the people. Well then, why does the choir sing, “And with your spirit.”? If the priest says, “Let us lift up our hearts…” why does the choir sing, “We lift them up unto the Lord”, especially in some kind of fancy concert. He’s addressing the people. As one of the people, he’s talking to the people, you see, as the priest. And it’s the people who should be responding. It’s the assembly that’s celebrating. It’s the people who minister. We are called to be that one voice in worship. This is what has to be restored. And when people participate, they then feel responsible. They come. They wouldn’t miss. This is the kind of feeling we have to generate.

The parish as a ministering community has something to minister. The priest doesn’t minister to them. They minister to one another. He supervises. That’s his particular sacramental function, to keep order, to assign, etc. but it’s the community that’s ministering. And ultimately the sign of growth is to minister not just to each other, but to our neighborhood, to our city, to our country, to the world. This is what the ministry is all about. It finally changes that whole inversion - that we take care of ourselves, or that we pay someone to take care of us, that we pay someone to pray for us or to minister to us. It simply isn’t true according to Scripture and the theological understanding of these words.

When the priest says, “Peace be with you,” was there a time when all the people responded?

Of course there was. It isn’t until the development of “Imperial Rites” - between the 4th and 7th centuries - this period of time when everything became much more formal - that the people’s role was so eroded by specific ministries such as choirs and cantors. Once the Imperial Church took shape, the people no longer had a ministry.

In areas, though, like Carpatho Russia and Galicia where there was not that imperial formality and where the Orthodox were under the oppression of Uniatism, the people played an active role in keeping their Orthodoxy alive. We see this in the way they celebrated, the way they participated in the worship. Their parishes were much more active than those churches which were officially supported. As a matter of fact, brotherhoods even kept the churches alive in many places.

What were “brotherhoods”?

In the beginning they were groups of laity that would resist the Latin take-over in their parishes.

When you say “laity” here, does that include the priest?

It includes the priest because he was part of the people. And precisely the Uniate priest would not be part of the people. He would be imposed, either by the Jesuits or somebody else, or by a government that was making some kind of deal with Rome. God made a covenant with a people.

Lay ministries then, has always been a part of our church life though not labeled as such. Within the past 10 years, more focus and attention has been given to this concept in our church, to the point of creating a Department of Lay Ministries. Why?

I think it was the development of a new feeling of responsibility that we call “stewardship”: stewardship for the church, for the faith, for the witness. It’s not just a question of money. It’s a question of everyone’s responsibility as the baptized people, as the Orthodox, as those who are called to give true glory to God. Stewardship is a ministry. Everybody’s ministry. Stewardship of time, talents, resources, energies, all this is everybody’s function. Someone isn’t going to do it for us. God doesn’t want someone to do it for us. He expects us to do it. I think it was natural then, once we developed the stewardship theme, that we make a responsible stewardship commitment - that God would bless us and make our ministry possible, the Church’s ministry - and that is the ministry of us all. This would logically lead into the growth of what we call “Lay Ministries”.

In a sense the term “stewardship” encompasses lay ministries, in that both involve our time, talents, money commitment. Do you see a difference between stewardship and lay ministries as we are currently using these terms in our Church?

I think the difficulty that we’re having, even in discussing this, when you talk about the confusion of those terms, is that we are putting a label on something that exists as self-evident. If you’re baptized into the community, chrismated to participate in that community, then you’re an active part of its worship, in contributing your usefulness, your talents - and that is the ministry. In order to have to label it “lay ministries” now causes the confusion. It is the same thing with stewardship. This is exactly what a Christian is. Is a person really a Christian if he’s not a steward?

There is a need, though, to make people realize this. During the years when Orthodox people were just becoming established here, their main task was to build the churches to provide for their worship in this country. And now, the Church wants people to understand what all the facets of stewardship can mean. So that’s why, I think, Stewardship and Lay Ministries as church departments were created.

I think you’re right.

Many people have felt that all of ministry is what the priest should be doing, taking care of everything himself.

Exactly. I don’t think we can do that anymore. It doesn’t make sense. I ‘m very hopeful about the response of the people in assuming the joy of their ministry as stewards, as ministers in life - because of the restoration within the last 30 years of the Eucharist. Eucharist is something celebrated by all - something in which we all participate together. And it follows that we have a common mutual ministry.

In the sense that by all of us partaking in Communion, this fortifies us to go out and minister?

Exactly. Eucharist is not meant to be a self-serving thing. It’s to nurture us in order to be ministering Christians.

Since you travel a great deal and have been to many parishes in this country, do you see evidence among people who are receiving the Eucharist regularly, that it follows that they are becoming more conscious of being witnesses and ministering in other ways?

I don’t think it’s automatic. I think we have to preach and teach and organize not as ends in themselves, but in order to bring people to the experience. In the same way I keep telling my class: “No one in the parish is automatically going to start singing litanies unless it’s organized, unless it’s taught. You can invite them from now until doomsday. It’s not going to change anything. A choir still is going to sing. People are still going to sit and listen until something happens, until the teaching is provided for. I think it’s the same thing with the consciousness of ministry as a function of our Christian life.

You asked before whether people in the past had a consciousness of ministry. I would say, yes, but they didn’t call it “lay ministry”. One realizes that to be married is a ministry, to be a Christian husband, a Christian wife, a Christian mother is a ministry! Think of the priest’s responsibilities! Think of a mother’s! It’s a fantastic vocation as a ministry when she does it to the glory of God and the upbuilding of His Holy Church. Our people didn’t feel that they had to be called “lay ministers” or anything special. Caring for the community, caring for one another, just listening, being a good and faithful friend, someone to hear someone out and help the person with the burden of loneliness and frustration - each is a ministry. And it’s important for us to be conscious of that again, perhaps even to receive some training to shape skills in these areas. One thing we don’t need now is another category of “lay ministers” in the Church. I think that’s the problem. We keep categorizing and compartmentalizing.

Who is responsible for helping people to become conscious of this vision of Christian ministry?

To answer this, let’s take the family, as an analogy. Everyone has responsibility for the ministry of the family; the husband, the wife, the children, even relatives, and friends. The father has the responsibility for the order of it. But that doesn’t mean he has to dominate, that he would look upon anything his child wants to do with great suspicion, that the child is trying to become the father. This is ridiculous. In love, how could this be misinterpreted? If they love and trust each other, how could the daughter become the father? It doesn’t fit somehow in the Christian understanding. Or if the mother or wife exercises her ministry, is this a threat to the husband? If he’s that threatened he’d better go to counseling—which is one of the areas of development that we need. Or even to be challenged within the loving community. I would expect my children to challenge me from time to time. That doesn’t mean they’re going to ride slipshod over me. I’d say, “O.K., we disagree. Let’s talk about it. Let’s see if we can’t come to some common understanding”. Sometimes they’ll be right. I’ll have to bend a little or change. At other times, my decision will have to prevail. But I think they will respect me more because I’ve given them a chance to talk and express their point of view.

In other words, I’m saying that in the family, in the parish, in the Church, the leadership capabilities of each according to his talents and function need to be nurtured and utilized for the benefit of all, without the fear that in so doing it will diminish the unique role of any of the others. We must continually remember that Christ was the servant of all.

What do you see then, as the role of Lay Ministries in our present day church life?

Rather than always again compartmentalizing in choosing certain people to do certain things, we have to somehow uncover the special talents that every parish has. Can you imagine the explosion of talents we’d discover if we searched for them, made people aware of the unique talents they possess and then use them to minister in the many different ways, ministering first of all one to another, and then letting this joyously spill into the community. Part of the difficulty in Orthodoxy now is that you find in a typical parish that the neighbors are in no way touched or even approached by the ministering parish. We just simply come to church, we are ministered to because we pay our dues, and then we travel back home again. But the neighborhood remains unaffected by any kind of caring outreach. And this is the ministry of everybody. It’s not just for the priest to knock on doors and leave pamphlets.

I think we’re very slowly beginning to reach out.

I think we are. And I’m quite pleased with what is developing. But it begins in worship itself. None of this can be done in isolation from worship. Once we understand that we are called together to assemble, to be that worshipping community, then we also understand that we are called to be that ministering community in the neighborhood.

To come to that understanding does take time and education and experience. The key, I think, is who you feel you are, what you feel your role to be in the worshipping community.

That’s it. Why is it a sin, for example, to absent one’s self from the services? Because God counts on your ministry, your function. If you’re just going to church to get something, well then, you can absent yourself. “No thanks, I don’t need it this time.” I would never feel that I could. All right, you’ll say, but that’s because you’re a priest. But I would imagine that every person would feel like this - as the “laos” -all of us people together. I don’t absent myself, because I have a ministry to perform - as a friend, as a co-worshipper, as a co-celebrant; not just simply as a priest because I’m paid to do it or because I’m canonically responsible for doing it. And everyone should share this feeling, this intense joy of being called to serve.

Everything we do in life is an extension of this. You can see again in terms of the sacraments - there is the ministry of marriage, the ministry of healing, the ministry of extending care, the ministry of teaching. These all flow from worship.

Our church has begun to focus our attention on outreach through the concepts of stewardship, lay ministries, church growth, evangelization. Would you say, then, that each of these words, though it has a slightly different focus, is calling us to the same thing?

I certainly see it that way. I would go so far as to say that it is all worship, an extension of worship. If it isn’t, it’s kind of pointless, isn’t it? St. John Chrysostom says some startling things. He said, “My altar is also on the street corner. The bread which Christ calls me to give is the bread to the beggar, to heal a man, or to show kindness to a child on the streets.” So you see, he could make that extension. And for him that was worship. That was an extension of his worshipping life. In the face of a child or a man in trouble, he could see Christ. He was worshipping Christ. It was just the extension of Eucharist.

Is there a fear that those who feel they are called to minister “on the street corner,” may not feel the need to worship in church as much?

That kind of fright exists only if one misunderstands the intent of St. John Chrysostom. Would he ever substitute the celebration of Eucharist for his ministry on the street? Of course not. And this is the whole point. If we all feel the way St. John Chrysostom does, we have an active ministry in our community. It’s not a substitute for worship, it’s an extension of it.

Would you say that the converse would be true? If you had the call to minister to one another, that there would be a call or need to have the Eucharist?

I would say so from this standpoint: Do you notice that those who are most active in the parish are those who worship and take Communion. And vice versa. Once people get involved, it leads to worship. And once people are involved in worship, this leads to getting involved. When one is alive and responding to the love that they’ve received from Christ, one is looking for an opportunity to share this love.

When someone takes a bag of food to a hungry person or visits in a nursing home, the experience can bring you closer to God than being in church. But it draws you back to church.

One is not a substitute for the other. Most of the time we are frightened that our activity - the social gospel activity will lead us away and make us too busy to worship. I’m equally frightened if worship becomes a thing in itself and doesn’t lead to active social responsibility.

Is there a need for direction, even perhaps some trained personnel to guide and encourage people in lay ministry?

Surely. You have to develop the skill first of all to help people discover their talents, discover their resources. And then you often need skills to train the people in using them. Their use, however, should be in response to a real community need. You can have opera singers in your parish and can say, “Oh, isn’t it wonderful, we have talented mezzos and tenors” but in fact the parish doesn’t need some super duper choir. And so we have to direct those talents in some other channel. For instance, an Orthodox couple I know, an opera singer and a professional pianist, give concerts to raise money for the church, for the starving people in Ethiopia, for missions, etc.

To what extent do you think Lay Ministries should be organized?

Ministries can take many, many faces. Some can be very simple and some can be more complex, requiring training. If there is a need for direction or training, then there is a need from some organization. An example of the latter is alcoholism. I know myself, all the years I’ve been a priest and only recently have I been “sensitized” to the problem of alcoholism. We always think it happens someplace else, not among the people we know.

But I think this is changing.

Yes, and now, you see, you have a ministry. You have some kind of responsibility to care when others suffer like this. Not just the alcoholic, but his family, his neighbors, his job, even the parish. If you can find people within the parish, within the Church to help deal with such problems, this will take some organization, some education, some searching out of helpful resources.

Father, would you like to offer any concluding remarks?

I think I would just like to recap a few points. First, I hope it’s understood that when we talk about “lay ministries,” we talk about the “laos” - the people ministering. We’re not talking about something anti-clerical. Secondly, I hope it’s understood that ministering is not something that the people can impose upon the priest as his duty. We must become conscious that all of us have a responsible ministry in our lives, in our parish. If we get those two ideas across I think we’ll be all right.

People are scared by the words, the labeling. People have all along been stewards, ministers. We give them these names now to focus attention on them and on their development. People shouldn’t be afraid of them. They should look into them and develop them as most naturally suits each person. Simply being a member of the “laos”, the people of God, as a baptized Christian, is a great and special gift. It is itself a full ministry.

Fr. Sergei Glagolev is Director Of the OCA Fellowship of Orthodox Stewards and teaches Liturgical Music at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.