Lay people play a prominent role in parishes across the diocese
Sometimes quietly, sometimes reluctantly but most often with great joy, lay leaders are coming to the fore in parishes across the Diocese of Chicago, sharing their gifts for ministry and building the church, not just in times of trouble or transition, but day-in, day-out.
For some—including churches that can’t afford a priest and parishes whose clergy left the Episcopal Church—it is a case of lay leadership or no leadership. In churches searching for a new rector, it is the lay leaders who do the strategic planning to chart the congregation’s course. In churches that are humming along, it is the mutual ministry of laity and clergy that keep the congregation strong.
Lay leaders in the former Diocese of Quincy faced challenging circumstances after their bishop, most of their priests and about 60 percent of the laity left the Episcopal Church in 2008 over issues including the moral legitimacy of same-sex relationships. The nine remaining congregations reunited with the Diocese of Chicago in 2013. In the turmoil’s aftermath, those loyal Episcopalians found strength and courage they didn’t know they had.
“In many ways, going through the Quincy schism experience and eventual reunification with Chicago has been empowering for lay people in our parish,” says Tobyn Leigh, vestry member and treasurer of Grace Episcopal Church in Galesburg.
“In many ways, going through the Quincy schism experience and eventual reunification with Chicago has been empowering for lay people in our parish.”
“Discovering that lay ministry is an actual real thing available to us all, finding that the laity has a recognized voice within the Episcopal Church—not just ‘allowed’ but encouraged—that’s really life-changing. Much of the development, the rising up if you will, of lay leadership in our parish has come out of, first, necessity, and then the fully committed nurturing from the Diocese of Chicago.”
Leigh was attending St. George’s Episcopal Church in Macomb when the schism occurred. When her husband got a job at a college in Galesburg, she felt she was needed at Grace. She was a member of the standing committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Quincy from 2009 until it reunified with the Diocese of Chicago in 2013.
“In talking to people who now make up Grace, several of them have remarked that they never thought of themselves as lay leaders,” Leigh says. “They would go and worship and do their thing and come home and weren’t really active in leadership. Part of that was the powers-that-be wanted people in power who wouldn’t raise any voices of dissent.”
As is the case with many parishes, Grace Episcopal has no full-time clergy. The congregation also has no church building. From the summer of 2009 until this Easter, the congregation met in the Central Congregational Church on the square in Galesburg. In April, the parish signed a lease on a suite at the Bondi Building on Main Street, which is the new church home to the nearly 20 congregants.
Leigh says everyone considers themselves lay leaders at Grace, where members of four families lead all music ministry and lay worship services. They also serve as lay Eucharistic ministers, provide legal, administrative and fiduciary services, head the altar guild and other liturgical planning, and head outreach ministries.
“It’s really just six adults who are consistent,” Leigh says. “We are the church, we are the congregation, and we do it all.”
Grace currently operates as a vestry-of-the-whole, meaning that all parish members have voice and vote at vestry meetings, while four serve as elected officers.
“We learned that lay people could do morning prayer,” Leigh says. “There are a lot of things we can do on our own. It was empowering. The people began, as they learned what they could do, to rise up. In the beginning there was a lot of, ‘We’re afraid we’re going to do something wrong.’ I remember the first time I ever served on the altar guild, there was this woman who would follow me around and move everything I touched a quarter of an inch. When you have a mom and pop church, you get that sort of thing.
“But when that’s all you’ve known, that there’s only one right way, and if you don’t do it, you’re in some kind of spiritual danger, that’s what happens. People had to get over that. When I got to go to General Convention and to CREDO, I saw that there are all kinds of ways to do things in the rubric of the Book of Common Prayer. There are any number of enriching, cool things that you can do.”
Two years ago the people of Grace found the clerical presence they wanted in the Rev. Dr. Joyce Beaulieu, who has family land not far from Galesburg.
“She said she would be supply if we needed her,” Leigh says. “It had become clear to us that, in order to grow, we had to have consistent clergy presence as well as a place to meet. We knew there were things we needed that we couldn’t provide ourselves. We needed some clerical pastoring. We needed someone who was actually licensed to do a Eucharist. We needed a more consistent presence.”
As Grace’s part-time interim rector, Beaulieu travels 50 miles from her farm in Henderson County most Sundays and for special services and occasions.
“She loves small congregational development, which is perfect for us,” Leigh says. “We feel really blessed and fortunate that she is part of our congregational family.”
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Kathleen Leson, a member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Peoria, also has witnessed firsthand the strength and critical importance of lay leadership in her parish following the break with the former Diocese of Quincy.
“While my parish had the skills for lay leadership before the schism, I would say those skills were latent,” Leson says. “The former diocese was top-down, clergy-driven. There were definitely some laity in lead- ership positions, but many, like me, did not lend our skills until it was necessary for survival. People tend to put our energy into endeavors where our voice is heard and we can make an impact, where we are called to challenge ourselves to be shepherds instead of sheep.
“I witnessed many individuals who, like myself, were reluctant leaders, finding their voices and standing up to speak out. This was not an easy thing to do when they were speaking out against their bishop and many priests.”
Leson has learned and grown from the experience.
“I have witnessed people’s amazing commitment to support and work for a cause that speaks to their heart,” she says. “As I look back, I am reminded of something my father told my family at the time of my mother’s death after suffering from cancer. He said; ‘I would not wish the suffering on anyone. But I would not have missed the experience of the outpouring of support from family and friends for anything.’
“If I were to write a list of life accomplishments that I take pride in,” Leson says, “stepping up to leadership during this successful transition is at the top of the list.”
One of the insights gained from her experience as a lay leader is the importance of “the ask.”
“When we voted to merge with the Diocese of Chicago, our bishops—Bishop (John) Buchanan and Bishop (Jeff) Lee—asked several of us who were involved in the transition to get involved in the new diocese. It was an important ‘ask’ to merge us in mind and spirit. The ‘ask’ is something I have learned leaders must not hesitate to do. We all must feel needed. In recent years after the merger, I have observed new outreach projects being started as the parish found new life. I organized one myself and discovered that people with a personal connection to a project readily took leadership roles. Part of their willingness was the personal passion, but I think many also were energized to join in opening our doors to the greater community, which was part of the healing phase after loss and isolation.”
Lay leadership has continued to be a source of strength at St. Paul’s, which called the Revs. Jenny Replogle and Jonathan Thomas, a married couple, as co-rectors in 2015.
“The Chicago diocesan staff offered resources to guide my parish through a new transition two years ago when the priest who led us through the schism and reunification retired,” Leson says. “Lay leadership played an even stronger role during this transition.”
“People tend to put our energy into endeavors where our voice is heard and we can make an impact, where we are called to challenge ourselves to be shepherds instead of sheep.”
Replogle and Thomas are in their 30s. “Both youth in senior clergy and a spousal work team were new paths that our parish had never traveled,” Leson says. “I believe we developed strength for the journey through our traumatic transition that allowed us to take new risks and move forward with more flexibility.
“My parish is growing under our new clergy leadership with a revitalized music program and new members, including younger families, who see a parish that offers them outreach and leadership opportunities that are not evident in other churches they have visited. The new life here is an inspiration for me to continue in church leadership, despite obstacles. I am personally more resilient than I used to be and more willing to take risks with God’s and my community’s help.”
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At Trinity Episcopal Church, Wheaton, senior warden Alison Bettisworth witnessed the empowerment of lay leadership when, dur- ing its search for a new rector, the parish deliberately sought to move from being priest-centric to being ministry-centric with lay leadership in the forefront. The congregation had come to understand itself as priest-centric based on the results of the Church Assessment Tool (CAT) survey done to prepare a parish profile as part of the search process.
“When it’s priest-centric, people don’t think they can come forward with ideas,” Bettisworth says. “There’s always that fear of being rejected. In a lot of places, it’s a perception not a reality. It’s about empowerment. People would come up with ideas and want to do something, but the priest would want to be able to approve what was going on. Not that the priest shouldn’t have oversight, but I think people shied away from taking the initiative. When there is more lay leadership, people feel empowered to move forward and do things that are appropriate.”
The search for a new rector demanded leadership from the laity.
“Going through a transition interim process requires the congregation and lay leaders to change into a mode where they are more self-sufficient,” Bettisworth says. “The interim priest is there to help facilitate the change and to ensure that the interim period goes smoothly, but it is up to the wardens and vestry to be visible and have a united front and a non-anxious presence when it comes to messag- ing to the parish.
“As the search committee was formed and the vestry was consider- ing how we were going to move forward, it was recognized that we were a priest-centric parish, and … we talked about growth and what that would look like. It was evident whether growth was to be in numbers attending services or in the programs and services that we supported, that this could not be accomplished if we continued to be a priest-centric parish. We had to grow lay leaders, and this meant a focused effort on mentoring and coaching.
“We started by putting together a plan where we had vestry members greet at each of the services. It provided them with visibility and allowed them to ask how things were going as people were coming in for the service. They also stayed in the sanctuary after the service in case anyone wanted to talk with them in more detail. It seems like a small thing, but being deliberate about how things were approached and having consistent answers during each phase of the search process showed the parish the strength of the leadership and also that things were changing, but there was still good continuity.”
Two years ago, the Rev. Kevin Caruso was called as Trinity’s rector,
and “he brought with him an energy of youth and excitement,” Bettisworth says. “He had some definite ideas for helping Trinity become a parish that had strong lay leadership.”
Trinity enrolled in the diocesan Thrive program, a congregational development initiative that ran from 2012-2016, which encouraged parishioners to examine what their call may be within the parish.
“The program provided us with some tools and ideas to light some of the dampened fires that were smoldering,” Bettisworth says. “As with many parishes, we had a number of people in leadership roles who were becoming burned out or were just ready to retire from their ministry role. As we embarked on Thrive, people who felt they had nothing more to give found themselves drawn with new energy to work in ministry.”
Parishioners found their passions and vocations, Bettisworth says. Some went to work examining ways to make the church buildings more welcoming and easier to navigate. Others took part in a pilot of the College for Congregational Development, a new diocesan program). One parishioner spearheaded a Kids Club and night out for parents, while another started a prayer group and another a series of presentations opened to the community under the umbrella of Conversations that Matter. One parishioner showed an interest in being more involved in Sunday worship but was not sure what role he could play. After discussions with the deacon and priest, he found himself drawn to giving sermons, so on occasional Sundays he shares his thoughts on the day’s readings.
“With each of these ideas, Rev. Caruso listened, counseled, attended, shared some thoughts, but in his words, he ‘gets out of the way,’ allowing lay leaders to lead with counsel, not direction. He empowers them to take ownership.”
Like Leson, Bettisworth emphasizes the importance of ‘the ask,’ saying one of the first steps to broadening the base of lay leadership is simply asking people to participate. But it is just as important, she says, to allow people to say no but ask if they could be approached again for another opportunity.
“There are people who want to worship, and they want to be there with the congregation family, but they are at a point in their life and faith journey where they’re not ready to step into a leadership role, and that’s okay,” Bettisworth says. “But it is important to invite them to participate. You plant the seed and they can think about it and consider where God may be calling them to serve.”
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If part of lay leadership is acting as God’s partner to increase love and justice in the world, Toni Daniels, a member at St. Paul & the Redeemer in Chicago, has been a lay leader for most of her life.
Born in Mississippi some 63 years ago, she contracted polio at the age of three and spent time in and out of hospitals.
“Health care for African Americans wasn’t that great in Mississippi at the time,” Daniels says. Her father died soon after she was diagnosed, and she, her brother and her mother moved to Los Angeles.
“I spent so much time at the orthopedic hospital that I really got to know the staff,” Daniels recalls. “When there was a new kid coming in or facing surgery, they’d say, ‘Toni, they’re scared. Go down and talk to them.’ And I would. I didn’t think much about it.”
But the people who met her thought a lot about the visits from this little girl. So much so that her visits became the subject of a chapter, “Angels Never Say Hello,” in “A Second Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul,” a book published in 1994.
“It was a natural thing for me to do,” she says of her visits to help other children. “My original plan was to be a doctor. I worked really hard to get to medical school. It just wasn’t working out. I’ve had a lot of big disappointments in my life, but the thing that I’ve learned is that God loves me so much that God always had a better plan for me, and I just have to be open to the plan. I just have to know that it’s not going to be my way, it’s going to be a better way.”
She began volunteering at the hospital when she was 12 and was the recipient of an award for more than 1,000 hours of volunteer service at the UCLA Medical Center. As a teenager, she was a volunteer member of the speakers bureau for the March of Dimes.
Daniels’s work history as a lay leader in the church is long and varied. She has worked as director of youth ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, as diocesan youth coordinator for the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey, as youth coordinator for Province II of the Episcopal Church, and in numerous positions at General Theological Seminary, including director of admissions and executive director of enrollment and management. In New York City she also worked as director of leadership and learning programs for the Episcopal Church Foundation and at the Episcopal Church Center as director of the partnership center and co-director of the mission department.
In Chicago, Daniels has worked as director for operations of the global missions unit of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She is a member of the Diocesan Commission on Ministry, is on the diaconal leadership team and does Bishop Anderson House training for volunteer spiritual visitors.
She is nearing completion of her first semester of a master’s degree program in pastoral care, and she sings in the choir at St. Paul & the Redeemer.
“Wherever your skills lie, compare them with the gifts of the spirit to see where you can best serve God’s community. It will keep being a gift to you and a gift to your community.”
When she moved to Chicago, Daniels found that she knew most of the clergy at the church from her work at General Seminary. It seemed preordained. “I had interviewed the rector (Peter C. Lane) and Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, who was there at the time, and another priest. And the director of music had been in one of my youth groups. I love to sing, and the choir loft was wheelchair accessible. And it was racially mixed and open to various family structures.”
While Daniels says her role at the parish doesn’t have “a name attached to it,” among her many contributions to the congregation, she and another parishioner were instrumental in starting a healing ministry at the church.
“We say to people, you and your talents are what are going to make a difference,” Daniels says. “We pass everything by Peter, but we don’t expect Peter to do everything. What I’ve learned is if I go to Peter with something, he says, ‘Do you have some thoughts about how that will work or what that looks like?’”
Daniels says she has found not all rectors are supportive of a strong laity.
“I think some rectors are afraid of lay leadership,” she says. “If you are a professional finance person, they love you. If you are a profes- sional marketing person, they love you. If you’re on the business end, they are pretty excited. Where they are not excited is if you try to do anything Jesus-related. It makes them a little bit nervous. At our church, that’s not the case at all. We have all kinds of people leading Bible studies and all kinds of things. I think our church is exceptionally open to lay leadership.”
Daniels says St. Paul & the Redeemer has a history of strong lay leadership. When parishioners think about what gifts they might share with the church, Daniels advises, “Go with what sounds crazy. Because one thing I know about being a Christian is that it is all radical and all countercultural. The crazier it sounds to me, the more I think, ‘Oh, that must be from God!’”
And there’s a lot, she says, that every person can do.
“Praying with people is huge, huge, huge,” Daniels says, “or maybe your gift is hospitality. Wherever your skills lie, compare them with the gifts of the spirit to see where you can best serve God’s community. It will keep being a gift to you and a gift to your community. All you have to do is be open to options. Sometimes people come to church wanting to rest and be restored, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You let them rest.”
(photos by Anne Dickison, Rod Sweet, Todd Welvaert; courtesy of Toni Daniels)