Lay Participation and Leadership
From The Encyclopedia of Mormonism
Author: Thompson, Paul H.
One of the important defining characteristics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is lay participation and leadership. The scope of volunteer service in the Church is extensive, both in the number of people involved and in the amount of their service.
In practice, the building up of the kingdom of God on earth is accomplished by individuals serving in numerous lay assignments, or callings. They speak in Church meetings and serve as athletic directors, teachers, family history specialists, financial secretaries, children's music directors, and women's and men's organization presidents. The goal of many leaders is to make sure that each member has a calling, reflecting the belief that personal growth comes through service. Millions of people serve in the Church, and that service represents a significant time commitment. In one study, researchers found that on average a bishop, the leader of a local ward (congregation), spends approximately twenty-seven hours weekly in his duties; the president of the Relief Society, or women's organization, thirteen hours; the ward clerk, eight hours; and so on. As of 1990, there were nearly 50,000 full-time missionaries contributing one and a half to two years of service. Lay members and leaders are organized and assisted through an extensive Church organization, including a substantial staff of employees located primarily at Church headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The scriptures indicate that to serve in a priesthood office, a man must be called of God (Heb. 5:4; A of F 5). Likewise, men and women are called, by prophecy and by the laying on of hands, to serve one another in a variety of settings. No Church calling requires extensive formal training. The Lord outlined the requirements of service when speaking about missionary work: "Faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God, qualify [members] for the work" (D&C 4:5).
Though not formal in nature, training for leadership is provided in a variety of ways. First, and very important, members are given early and repeated opportunities to serve, thereby learning from experience. Beginning at age twelve, young men and women can serve as teachers for children or as members of class presidencies or of youth activities committees. In addition, teacher development courses and in-service lessons assist teachers, and leadership training meetings instruct leaders of various organizations. Manuals and handbooks outline the responsibilities of individuals serving in different organizations at both ward and stake levels.
Lay participation and leadership have several implications for the Church and its members. Part of the mission of the Church is to perfect the Saints (Eph. 4:12), to sponsor growth in individual members. Utilizing volunteer members at all levels of the organization may not ensure peak efficiency, but it does provide the experiences and interactions that will help members progress. Volunteer staffing also means that in most of the callings members work part-time and that this service is in addition to regular employment and other responsibilities. This provides the opportunity for learning to sacrifice and to balance commitments. In general, members who serve maintain a high level of commitment to the Church, in part because of their awareness that they are responsible for making a contribution and because they take satisfaction from doing so. Because professional training is not required, lay leadership lessens the sense of hierarchy and increases feelings of unity. The children's music leader may have more formal education than the bishop. After being released in a few years, that bishop may serve as children's music leader. Opportunities to serve in a variety of callings and to be served by people in different capacities can increase the sense of brotherhood and sisterhood shared by Church members.
Many callings require men and women to serve as administrators, doing practical tasks to enable the organization to run smoothly. While the role of administrator is a necessary one, it is not the most vital aspect of leadership, which is to minister. Christ's admonition "Feed my sheep" (John 21:15-17) applies to latter-day discipleship. The characteristics of effective spiritual leadership are those that enable individuals to minister to their brothers and sisters in the gospel, including a willingness to seek and follow the counsel of the Lord as manifested through the Holy Ghost, on one's own behalf and on behalf of those in need of direction. In addition, leaders are to understand the nature of their stewardships and seek to fulfill their responsibilities in meekness and humility. Good leaders understand their roles as servants to others (Matt. 20:27). Thus, doubly benefited, persons gain from leadership experiences through unselfishly serving in a Christlike way and, through such service, come to know the Lord (Mosiah 5:13).
The gospel teaches that this life is a preparatory state for the life to come and that all people are on a course of eternal progression. Lay participation plays an important role in that progression by providing opportunities for service and learning. Church callings offer many opportunities to develop practical skills and spiritual qualities that contribute to continued service and fulfillment throughout life. Individuals may hold many different callings over a period of time and sometimes those callings increase in complexity or scope of influence. However, Latter-day Saints are encouraged not to view such changes as promotions. Callings of greater visibility or apparent influence are of no greater importance than humble and unseen service. The progression that is important, to the individual and to the Lord, is not evidenced by the different callings held by a person, but by the increase in Christlike characteristics developed through years of prayerful and thoughtful service. The potential for personal growth and righteous influence is as great for a nursery leader as for a stake president.
Latter-day scriptures encourage widespread participation, declaring that men and women "should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, [doing] many things of their own free will" (D&C 58:27). King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon taught that "when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God" (Mosiah 2:17). Though he was the Master in all things, Christ stressed his role as servant, setting an example for others to follow (John 13:15). The emphasis on service as a mode of worship, as a requirement for becoming like Christ, and as a means of establishing the unity that distinguishes the people of God is a major reason for the commitment of the Church and its members to lay participation and leadership. PAUL H. THOMPSON