Senior lay leaders

Every church has one or more senior lay leaders.   In Anglican churches there tend to be two church-wardens. According to the official church wardens’ site: “In co-operation with the priest in charge (or, in cases of vacancy, the bishop), churchwardens are generally responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the parish. These responsibilities include various aspects of administration, plant operations, and personnel. Their work is not just the maintenance of the church building, but helping the smooth running of the church. In this capacity, wardens are considered the leading lay member of the congregation, and, during the incumbency of a priest, may have varying duties and responsibilities according to the customs of the parish, the canons of the diocese to which the parish belongs, the desires of the priest, and the direction of the parish board and/or the congregation as a whole.”

Baptist churches have traditionally called their senior officer ‘the church secretary’. Some time ago I defined the role as follows:

The responsibilities of a church secretary include maintaining a broad overview of the life of the church, using opportunities to present the vision and the aims of the church, troubleshooting whenever necessary, listening to the concerns of the church members, consulting regularly with the pastor, together with the pastor drawing up the agenda of the leadership team meeting and the church meeting, keeping abreast of Baptist Union issues, keeping abreast of legislation which affects the church (e.g. data protection, health and safety), and corresponding with outside organisations and persons on behalf of the church on official matters. (Radical Leaders)

On reflection, both statements are inadequate. The church warden or church secretary has a particular responsibility for the well-being of the minister (or ministers, where there is more than one). When a new minister is called, the senior lay leader has an important role in overseeing the terms of appointment and ensuring that they are fair. From then on the senior lay leader is responsible for the pastoral care of the minister – and indeed the minister’s family. This responsibility will include ensuring that the minister is taking adequate time off and that church members are not abusing the minister’s free day. Another responsibility is ensuring that the minister is freed from major administrative duties so that he or she can fulfil their calling (see Acts 6.1-6). Another responsibility is overseeing the arrangements for a minister’s annual review, providing encouragement and also challenge where needed. When difficulties arise, the senior lay leader is responsible to represent the minister to the church – and the church to the minister.

Over the years I have had the privilege of working with a number of church secretaries – or senior deacons as we came to call them. Each of them has been very different – and not surprisingly so. Just as ministers vary in the gifts and strengths that they bring to their role, so too senior lay leaders will vary according to their gifts, skills and experience. However, John Durrant, a former senior deacon at Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford, helpfully identified the following generic competencies of a senior deacon:

  1. A person of integrity whose values and actions accord with biblical principles
  2. An adviser, bringing personal experience to advice other members of the leadership team and the church staff
  3. An encourager and provider of pastoral support to the senior minister
  4. An analyst, identifying good systems, practice and processes which should be implemented to prevent difficulties arising or escalating within the church
  5. A trouble-shooter, dealing with queries and responding to questions from members of the church and congregation
  6. A mediator, working to resolve difficult interpersonal relationships
  7. An ambassador, making contacts and linking the church to outside people and bodies who can assist the church to develop
  8. An advocate, acting as a voice for the church, having a clear vision and helping enthuse others to enable them to achieve the purposes of the church
  9. A person with some knowledge of church history and of Baptist organisation…

I thank God for past church secretaries and senior deacons – for their commitment to God, and to his church, and to their pastor. Without exception, they have given of themselves unstintingly. What a difference a good senior lay leader can make to a pastor’s ministry.

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