Zero Sum Game?

Lay Ministry and Ordained Ministry.

Would training more lay ministers to perform some of the functions of ministry drive down the economic prospects of ordained ministers? 

Would small and struggling congregations choose to hire a trained lay minister rather than an ordained minister? Would a larger congregation choose to supplement their ordained parish minister with a few trained lay ministers, some of whom might even be volunteer, rather than add an ordained associate, or assistant, minister? 

You could argue that more trained lay ministers would inevitably have that effect.  

You could also argue that deploying more ministers, of whatever level of training, is essential to the growth of Unitarian Universalism. And that’s where our economic sustainability ultimately lies. 

The economic sustainability of Unitarian Universalism is a wickedly complex problem. There are a lot of moving parts: Ministerial indebtedness, the high cost of preparation, tight congregational budgers, soaring real estate prices in many areas, the income stagnation of the middle and working class people. A lot of proposed fixes just shift the problem to somewhere else in the system.

If there was an obvious answer somebody would have done it already. 

Does training lay ministers just shift the burden to the already ordained ministers as a group, if not individually?

Your thoughts, please?


  1. I feel like there are many questions that need to be answered for me to even begin to form a response.

    - Are lay ministers are volunteer or paid?
    - What credentialing they will go through?
    - What activities in a congregation would they take on, and would that be with the supervision of an ordained minister?

    I believe that lay ministers can be powerful and important contributors to a congregation, and I'm not sure that I want my call to my church when my parent died answered by a lay minister. At my home congregation we have a group of lay ministers that provide pastoral care for ongoing pastoral needs (not emergencies), but they aren't providing emergency care, ministerial level leadership to the congregation, nor are they considered more qualified than any lay person to do a service.

    I do think that small and struggling congregations might choose to have a trained lay minister rather than an ordained parish minister for reasons of cost, for reasons of fellowship culture (might a lay minister be seen as more controllable), money or others I can't think of.

    I also worry that we've got seminarians who will be graduating with a ton of debt, and will this idea provide an alternative to gainful employment to them.

    I'm not sure what you mean by this Tom: Does training lay ministers just shift the burden to the already ordained ministers as a group, if not individually?

    As you say Tom, many more questions than answers here.

  2. Welcome, Alexa, to the complexity (perplexity?) of the problem.

    There is one system in place in the Ohio Meadville District, now expanding to the Central East Regional Group. There "Commissioned Lay Ministers" are trained and certified by the committee that supervises their training. They are volunteer and work under the supervision of a ordained minister. System has been around for decades.

    The Canadians commission lay chaplains for rites of passage. Program dates from time when only 3 ordained U/U ministers were in Canada. I am not sure, but I imagine that they are paid for each ceremony they do.

    But one could imagine lots of different ways that a lay minister could be deployed in the service of people in UUism's name.

    As to the question you ask: some might think that training lay ministers will provide less costly ministerial leadership to some congregations -- solving the problem that congregations are finding hard to support ministers at the income level that many need to lives and pay off their educational debts. Congregations problem is solved, but the situation is now worse for the ordained minister cohort who have fewer job opportunities, even though they took on the debt to get the credential and opportunity.

  3. Within Unitarian Universalism, we have three different levels of credentialing professional religious educators:

    This allows for flexibility for religious educators who are entering the profession and for different sizes of congregations.

    In contrast, we have a one-size-fits-all model for ordained ministry.

    Has anyone looked at this?


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