The Call to Action Steering Team that studied the state of United Methodism identified lay leadership as one of four main drivers of congregational vitality. This may seem obvious, and yet it has not been so in practice for much of the twentieth century.
By the time of the merger that created The United Methodist Church in 1968, the dominant image of the pastor was of a highly educated professional, analogous to a doctor, lawyer, or social worker. Having received specialized training, the pastor was the one with the knowledge and skills to lead. The laity, lacking that education, became more passive. Indeed, many congregations understood the pastor as a specialist hired primarily to minister to them, and saw themselves as primarily the recipients of that ministry. This was hardly a recipe for vibrant outreach into their communities.
The last two or three decades have seen a shift away from the professional model to the pastor as a leader who, along with other lay and clergy leaders, orchestrates the various gifts of people in the congregation for a range of ministries, from worship to mission. This is a reclamation of something deeply characteristic of Wesley’s Methodism.
Eighteenth century Methodism was a lay movement. Although there were always clergy exercising some overall guidance—John and Charles Wesley, and John Fletcher most notably—the movement depended on laity who would take the lead and make decisions in a wide variety of contexts.
There were first of all the itinerating lay preachers, assigned in pairs to circuits throughout the British Isles, and eventually sent in pairs to America. There were also the non-itinerating local ministers and the stewards who oversaw the various societies. Most important were the leaders of classes, who provided spiritual oversight for those under their care.
What Wesley did is open the door for hundreds of men and women to become leaders in the vast missionary endeavor of spreading scriptural holiness across the nation. Since most of these were not from the upper classes, British society did not provide avenues of leadership. Indeed some evangelical pastors criticized Wesley for disrespecting the class distinctions they believed God had established. But Wesley recognized their gifts and commitment, and enlisted them into God’s service.
The mission they joined was grounded in God and God’s promises. Their focus was outward, where they sought to share God’s love in Christ to the world. Because sanctification and Christian perfection were the culmination of God’s promise of salvation, these lay leaders linked witness and proclamation strongly to Christian nurture through class meetings and spiritual discipline.
Their witness was not only a sharing of the way of salvation, but an evidencing of salvation through caring and compassion for others. Love of God and neighbor led them to innovate to meet human needs in their various communities. The Strangers Friends Societies were one example. Organized and led by Methodists, these societies sought to minister to the dispossessed poor who came to the disease-ridden slums of the cities seeking work.
Women as well as men were empowered to witness, nurture, mentor, serve, and eventually preach. Wesley encouraged his preachers and other leaders to write down testimonies, keep journals, and engage in correspondence, so that through publication they might reach a larger audience. For men and women who had never even considered whether anyone apart from family or friends would care about their thoughts and experiences, this was a radical change in perspective (see V.T. Burton, Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism [Baylor University Press, 2008]).
This practice of lay leadership was crucial in the beginnings of Methodism in America. Robert and Elizabeth Strawbridge in Maryland, and Barbara Heck and Philip Embury in New York took the initiative to begin Methodist work without knowledge or support from Wesley. Robert Strawbridge and Philip Embury had been preachers for Wesley before immigrating to America. Likewise German-speaking lay preachers Martin Boehm (in partnership with William Otterbein, who was ordained) and Jacob Albright were instrumental in forming new connections that soon became denominations. Lay leadership in the Wesleyan tradition lies at the origin of all the groups that would eventually merge to become United Methodism.