Recently I’ve become bothered by a common theme I’ve encountered among many program-sized and smaller corporate-sized churches (whose average Sunday attendance is between 150-600 people). These are churches that are typically well staffed, with at least one full-time clergyperson and many times two or more. They have either completed a successful capital campaign in the last few years, despite the downturn of the economy, or they are endeavoring upon a new capital campaign. These congregations typically value children’s and youth ministry, they employ veteran clergy, and many church members are well-educated folks who have enjoyed professional success in the secular world.

What We’re Seeing

Many churches across the country, no matter the size, denomination, geographical area, etc., are experiencing a decline in attendance. I’m sure this is nothing new to you; the rise of the “nones” is something of which many are keenly aware. Ironically, some medium-sized churches are being celebrated for enjoying a surge in membership. Numbers are actually up in places—though not all for the right reasons.

Whether the medium-sized church is in decline or enjoying some growth, something many of these churches have in common is a high level of staff dependency. Sadly, it’s the staff-dependent church that will soon, if they haven’t already, begin to see a rapid decline in worship attendance and will begin to see the offering plate reap less and less. Stewardship will be down. Those capital campaigns that were successful just a few years back? They may not be nearly as successful this go-round.

Why This Matters

Consider the story of when Jesus cursed the fruitless fig tree in Mark 11:12-26. Jesus didn’t just have a temper tantrum because he was hungry and there wasn’t any fruit to eat. He probably cursed the tree because it was a waste of space and wasn’t serving its purpose. The variety of fig tree that Jesus approached produces two crops during a harvest cycle: the main crop in August and the breba crop in March/April. Which means, Jesus should’ve have expected to see fruit! Sometimes I wonder how many of our churches might look great on the outside, but aren’t necessarily reaping much fruit.

What I’m saying may be unpopular. If you’re reading this, you probably love your church deeply and may not want to admit that your church community isn’t as engaged in God’s mission as God would have it be. But I’m going to say it: in churches where I see an unhealthy level of staff dependency, the hands and feet of Christ are often bound.

Warning Signs

Do any of the following sound familiar? If so, it may be time for you to pray for the strength and the endurance to lead the charge to change, to find ways to live into your baptismal covenant and once again become the hands and feet of Christ:

  • “We can’t do that before we get permission from the pastor.”

Okay my clergy buddies, this one might hurt a little, but the deal is this: Christ didn’t die to make you the boss. To my lay leader friends, we are the church, together. Your pastor is ordained, not to do ministry for you, but to preach and teach the Gospel. He or she was probably called to sacramental ministry, thus the reason he or she got ordained in the first place.

  • “Our job is to help the pastor or the program staff do ministry.”

We are all called as ministers (1 Peter 2:5). Your pastor(s) and staff should have specific skills and expertise in empowering and equipping YOU, the Church, to help you serve in ways that make your heart sing. They can pave the way, but then they should get out of the way.

  • “We should hire someone to do that,” or “That’s why we hired so-and-so…”

Consider your youth minister. Do you pay him or her to care about youth? Or did you hire someone because he or she is experienced and has the skills to train and equip others to build relationships with youth? Hopefully it’s the latter because the former would be like saying, “Oh, sorry, we have to pay someone to care about you because we can’t be bothered, and you’re just not that important to us.” Harsh? Think about it. All the latest research shows that adult volunteers have the second-highest influence on a youth’s faith, superseded only by parents.

Our purpose, as the body of Christ, isn’t to check our gifts and talents at the door when we go to church. We are to live incarnational lives, acting as Christ’s hands and feet in the world, living sacrificially, supporting one another in our faith journey, reflecting God’s light and love to everyone.


We are all ministers—some are laity, others are clergy. Laity need not wait for instruction from pastors on how to minister to others; Jesus already provided that.

Mobilizing laity who have been disengaged isn’t going to happen overnight. It will take initiative, strategy, and time, in addition to humble clergy and bold lay ministers. It can be done, and it must be done in order for our beloved communities to be more than fruitless fig trees, but churches filled with an abundance of disciples, committed to living out the Gospel.

Try This

Here are four steps to get you started on increasing opportunities for lay ministry in your congregation.

  1. Evaluate where clergy are spending their time and consider ways laity may be able to serve instead.
  2. Begin a ministry needs list for your congregation that includes every lay ministry position within your church.
  3. Create a ministry (job) description for every position outlining the description and responsibilities, team composition, time commitment, special skills required, and what training is provided and required.
  4. Need help? Try reading The 30-Day Change Project—Building Your Volunteer Team by Mark DeVries and Nate Stratman, ISBN: 9781483528236