As we think about equipping our church to equip the saints for ministry, here is a small suggestion. Eliminate as much licensing as possible in our canons. By licensing, I am not referring to the wide assortment of “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” merchandise available by your finer purveyors of ecclesiastical goods. I’m referring to the licenses given by bishops to lay people for certain ministries, a list made significantly longer in 2009. I think reducing these licenses is important for at least two reasons.
First, licenses are primarily used to curtail activities, not promote them. Does anyone think that drivers’ licenses are there to get more people to drive? If we think that we need more evangelists, a licensing system is not the right solution to that problem. Trainings may help. Exposing people to effective evangelists might help. Networks like the Episcopal Evangelism Network would almost certainly help. Prayer for laborers into the harvest is a definite must. Licenses — not so much. Are we really so worried about spreading the good news the wrong way that we need to regulate who does it and how?
Second, a licensing process is not nearly as helpful in most situations as a mentoring process, especially for adults in ministry. The best way to develop effective ministers in any sphere is to give them a little bit of ministry to do, have a mentor or coach reflect with them and provide the next piece of instruction, then send them out again. If we want to develop lay preachers, we need to let people preach, give them feedback, and schedule the next time in the pulpit. At some point, some folks will rise to the level that a bishop may send their name to the parishes in the diocese as a potential supply preacher. This would achieve the same positives as a license, without hindering folks in a parish who might have something useful to say once or twice a year but really don’t need to take four semesters of a Bible class.
The fewer requirements for lay ministry coming from outside the parish, the easier it is for pastors to unleash people’s spiritual gifts in fruitful ministry. In an Acts 8 moment where the Spirit is leading us into very interesting new opportunities, we can either provide lay leaders with requirements to be met, or ask how we can help them do what God is calling them to do. I prefer the latter.