Empowering Lay Leaders

Lessons from the edges of the Church


When the Rev. Clara King walked into a small, rural congregation, in Alberta, Canada, she could immediately sense that something was different. The church had been led by a half-time priest for over 20 years, but the laity were not sitting back and letting her do all the work. Instead, they were engaged, empowered, and actively shaping their community’s life and mission. 

“To visit that congregation,” Clara recalled on a recent episode of the Pivot Podcast, “was to really experience a congregation that owned their stuff.”

Clara, an Anglican priest and researcher who has worked extensively with small, rural churches in Canada, sees this story as a powerful example of the transformation that can happen when clergy empower lay people.

As Clara spent time with the congregation, she saw the fruit of a two-decade partnership between priest and people. 

“[The priest] created extremely healthy boundaries with her community,” Clara explained. “She was extremely clear about what their responsibilities were, and then what the consequences of their decisions were. She did not rescue them from the consequences of their decisions.” 

At the same time, the priest had worked collaboratively with the laity to figure out a model of shared leadership that balanced well-defined roles with genuine mutuality and respect. “That was a product of their relationship,” Clara noted. “The two sides really coming together.”

The result was a congregation that truly embodied what it means to be the people of God. “They really understood how to organize themselves, how to come together around a difficult ambiguous decision, how to surface the challenges that they faced,” Clara observed. 

They didn’t expect the priest to have all the answers or rescue them when things got tough. Instead, they embraced their identity as a community called and equipped to steward their church’s future. 

While it hadn’t always been easy, their deep sense of agency and resilience was palpable. As Clara spent time in their midst, she couldn’t help but wonder: What might be possible if more congregations were empowered to lead like this?

Theological, Spiritual, and Structural Shifts

This requires a deep theological shift, from relying on professional clergy to fix problems and manage church life, to seeing God’s agency at work within the whole people of God. “For clergy who want to do this work,” Clara advises, “start by asking: What holds you back from creating space for God to work? Why do you feel anxious or afraid about this? What is the work the Holy Spirit would like to do in you, before you’re ready to invite the congregation into that question?”

Another key insight from Clara’s research and experience is that empowering lay leadership is messy, vulnerable work that doesn’t fit neatly into existing structures and mindsets. She shared stories of conflicts over everything from teaspoons to paint colors when congregations step into greater ownership. 

“In the middle of all our beautiful, horrible human mess, how could we have a theological imagination for God at work that could change our understanding of how God works?” Clara asks. While it might be tempting for clergy to seize back control when things go sideways, Clara sees these painful spaces as fertile ground for transformation.

Scriptural Precedent: We’re Not the First Ones to Face This

Clara points to scriptural examples like Peter’s story in Acts as a model for the profound shift both clergy and lay leaders must undergo. Between denying Jesus and his early ministry in Acts 3, Peter’s understanding of leadership is radically transformed—from seeking power and position to deep humility and creating space for God to work. 

“Peter doesn’t yet really know what that means, but he’s starting to see what the Holy Spirit is going to do through him, and that God’s action is much bigger than Peter’s action,” Clara reflects.

Ultimately, Clara suggests, the invitation for clergy is to become missionaries in their own communities. Rather than imposing predetermined shapes on the church, they must learn to trust and follow the Holy Spirit’s lead. 

She points to God’s words in Deuteronomy: “It is not in heaven…or beyond the sea…No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” Clara believes this is God’s word for the church today: “The new life we aspire for is actually so close to us that sometimes we can’t even recognize it.” 

As the edges of the church model new ways forward, the Spirit is inviting the whole body to rediscover a more expansive, shared vision of ministry. While the journey is not without struggle, the hope of empowered lay leaders partnering with God to transform their communities is truly good news.

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