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The Shared Ministry of Clergy and Laity

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By Very Reverend Sebastian Skordallos

The Ministry of the Church belongs to all her members. Being the Body of Christ, Clergy and Laity together have the responsibility to minister/serve the people of God. In an attempt to analyze the concept of ministry in our Church, I will begin this presentation with a brief Biblical and theological view of Orthodox Ministry. Then I will examine how both clergy and laity share the Ministry of the Church, and will reflect on some of the misconceptions and difficulties in practice. Finally, I will offer some ideas on how we can improve our Ministry.

Orthodoxy/Orthopraxia: Orthodox Ministry

We call ourselves Orthodox because we believe that our Church has ‘ὀρθή δόξα’ (correct belief-doctrine) about God. We rely for our faith not only on the Bible, but also on the Holy Tradition of the Church, on how the saints of the Church lived their faith and expressed it in the Ecumenical Councils. Therefore, faith (Orthodoxy) and practice (Orthopraxia) in the Orthodox Church are seen as one and the same thing, and one cannot exist without the other. St. James in his letter says,

But someone will say, ‘one person has faith, another has actions.’ My answer is, ‘show me how anyone can have faith without actions.’ I will show you my faith by my actions. Do you believe that there is only one God? Good! The demons also believe- and tremble with fear. You fool! Do you want to be shown that faith without actions is useless? How was our ancestor Abraham put right with God? It was through his actions, when he offered his son Isaac on the altar. Can’t you see? His faith and his actions worked together; his faith was made perfect through his actions.[1]

Since faith and practice are inseparable, then ministry (Diakonia) is the witness and validation of our faith. The responsibility to serve others is not a responsibility of the clergy only, but of all Christians. St. John Chrysostom says: “I cannot myself believe it possible for anyone to be saved who never works for the salvation of his neighbor.”[2] Our salvation therefore depends on whether we serve others. Christ also tells his chosen people in the story of the last judgment: “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.”[3] If then the responsibility to serve others belongs to all Christians, what is the role of the Church community?

The role of the Church community is to facilitate in an organized fashion the service to others. Speaking about the Church leader, St. John Chrysostom says: “The most basic task of the Church leader is to discern the spiritual gifts of all those under his authority, and to encourage those gifts to be used for the full for the benefit of all.”[4] St. Paul adds that every member of the Church has a specific ministry that he/she is called by God to fulfill. He says:

All of you, then, are Christ’s body, and each one is a part of it. In the Church, then God has appointed first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administra-tors, speakers in various kinds of tongues.[5]

Our faith in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity implies that same message of diversity of gifts and unity of mission. The Father plans our salvation; the Son carries out that plan with His Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection; the Holy Spirit fulfills that plan on the day of Pentecost and continues to bring people to the Ark of Salvation, sanctifying them. Jesus, praying to His Father so that the unity of the Holy Trinity will become a reality for the believers, says, “Holy Father! Keep them safe by the power of Your Name, the Name You gave Me, so they may be one just as We are One.”[6] Therefore, whatever gifts we have, they need to be contributed for the “unity of the faith” and the building of the “body of Christ.”

Every spiritual gift that we have, as well as the Sacraments we receive from the Church, are a gift from God. When God blesses us with them, we have a responsibility to share those blessings with others. For instance, when the priest is ordained, he is asked to serve the sacraments and take care of his flock. When someone is baptized he/she is asked to live a Christian life, “walk in newness of life,”[7] and become a light that shines upon people’s lives.[8] When the union of a couple is blessed by God, we ask God to bless them with every blessing which, in turn, they need to share with others. The priest prays to God at the Marriage Sacrament: “give them of the dew from the heavens above, and of the fatness of the earth. Fill their houses with bountiful food, and with every good thing, that they may have to give to them that are in need,” and that “having a sufficiency of all things for themselves, they may abound in every good work.”[9] Furthermore, when we are united with the Holy Body and Precious Blood of our Lord we are asked to live holy lives and go out to the world and bear fruit. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes:

“Let us go forth in peace” is the last commandment of the Liturgy. What does it mean? It means, surely, that the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy is not an end but a beginning. Those words, “Let us go forth in peace,” are not a comforting epilogue, they are a call to serve and bear witness. In effect, those words, “Let us go forth in peace,” mean the Liturgy is over, the liturgy after the Liturgy is about to begin.[10]

If we fail to share the blessings that God is bestowing on us, then our Orthodoxy does not amount to Orthopraxia.

While in recent years we have seen a greater willingness in laity to become involved in the matters of the Church, they still struggle to figure out their role. More often, laity see their own role as ‘secular,’ taking care of the business side of the Church, while they see the priest’s role as ‘spiritual,’ taking care of the spiritual needs of the people. According to this notion, the laity is responsible for the money and the housekeeping business of the church, and the priest is responsible for the spiritual matters (the sacraments, the visitation of the sick and the faithful, etc.). The fallacy in this notion is that it denies the spiritual responsibility of every Christian, including the Parish Council Members, to serve one another. If we accept this notion it will mean that only clergy are called to care and that laity do not have that responsibility. But this is not the case, according to what we have seen previously in the words of St. Paul and St. John Chrysostom. Both, clergy and laity, need to realize that they have a spiritual role to fulfill, and that they need to assist in “building up the Body of Christ.”

Sharing the Ministry of the Church (Improving our Syndiakonia)

As Christians who serve our Holy Church we need to be carefully not to deal from non-negotiable positions, but rather respond to the needs of the people as the situation requires, without sacrificing our conscience. St. John Chrysostom wisely tells us that the leadership of the priest:

...must be many-sided. I say many-sided not as a charlatan, as a flatterer, or a hypocrite; but absolutely open and frank of speech, able to condescend to good purpose, when the situation requires and to be alike kindly or severe...Great condescension and great strictness are both needed. And all these different methods look to one object: the glory of God and the edification of the Church.[11]

We need to realize that our Ministry in the Church is not to control every single aspect of the parish life but rather to demonstrate leadership that is grounded in our Orthodox Christian Faith and on the needs of our people. In order to do that, clergy and laity need to be open to influence and be influenced. In that effort, the first and foremost priority should be the fulfillment of the Mission of the Church and not our personal wishes or likes and dislikes. Having established that rule, then we need to be able to dialogue and reach consensus. Only in this manner the Church community can move forward as a unified body.

John Harris, describing that process of clergy and laity working together, says:

Integrative influence is power in which the key parties are accessible to each other [when] pastors and the key laity leaders treat each other as partners, informing (presenting facts, ideas, experiences, judgments, using each other’s resources) together until a decision is worked out.[12]

When we find indifference and apathy in our Church, we should ask ourselves if we have built an environment of trust in our community, with the avenues of communication open. Have we been listening to our parishioners and have we been allowing them to contribute with their time and talents to the life of the Church? As servant leaders who model our lives after the life of Jesus Christ we should be loving, caring, and ready to give our life for others. Christ gave us the best example when He said: “I did not come to be served but to serve and give My life as ransom for many.”[13] Sometimes our interests and ideas may differ but when one goes to church he/she wants a caring community. The contribution of clergy and laity in this respect is to demonstrate that the Church community cares as a whole, not only the priest, that one can find in our Church a culture of love, unity and gratitude, that our Orthodoxia is also Orthopraxia, that we are a living organism of the body of Christ.

Very Rev. Fr. Sebastian Skordallos is the Chief Secretary of the Holy Eparchial Synod of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. This article is a modified version of an original presentation given at the Clergy Laity Conference of the Diocese of Atlanta in Birmingham Alabama on May 30th 1991.



[1] James 2:18-22

[2] St. John Chrysostom: On the Priesthood, Translated by Graham Neville, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984, p. 150

[3] Matthew 25:34-36

[4] Robert Van de Weyer, On Living Simply: The Golden Voice of John Chrysostom: A Book of Ancient Christian Wisdom, Liguori Publications, 1996, page 46.

[5] 1 Corinthians 12:27-28

[6] John 17:11

[7] Romans 6:4

[8] See Matthew 5:16

[9] Fr. N. M. Vaporis, An Orthodox Prayer Book, “Service of Marriage,” N&T Publications, 1985, pages 84 & 86.

[10] Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, “Let Us Go Forth in Peace,” Accessed June 22, 2010, http://www.incommunion.org/2004/10/18/let-us-go-forth-in-peace/

[11] St. John Chrysostom: On the Priesthood, Translated by Graham Neville, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984, page 142.

[12] John C.Harris, Stress, Power, and Ministry, Washington, D.C.: Alban Institute, 1977, pages 80-81

[13] Matthew 20:28