Church Leadership and Lay Member Involvement (part 1)

This is a four part series on Church leadership and the importance of laymen for a healthy church organization.

Part One: Current Church leadership and the importance of lay members

 At the General Conference Annual Council last fall, when the Church Compliance agenda item was being discussed, it became very clear how most of the North American Church administrators felt about following previously voted actions of the General Conference. If my memory serves me correctly only one Church administrator out of many, from any of the conferences, unions, or the division in North America, spoke in favor of following the voted actions of the General Conference.

That is very significant, basically with an entire division of Church administrators rebelling against the General Conference. I’m not saying that every single Church administrator in North America is rebellious. Some may have chosen just not to speak against their fellow administrators, but those kind of leaders aren’t doing the Church much good by not standing up and being counted, and they may even be doing harm. 

We know we are living at the end of time, and knowing what the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy tells us will happen with some/many of our Church leaders, these circumstances shouldn’t be a surprise to us. Some may not want to admit that the Church is facing very serious challenges to its’ authority, but denial isn’t going to change the fact that the Church is in potentially serious trouble.  In some instances it is very difficult for our lay members to know which leaders are “true and trusted”, and who is not. Sometimes it is very obvious, but usually it isn’t.  It’s sad that our lay members need to be suspicious of our Church leaders, but I’m afraid in the times we live in, we have to accept that grim reality.  We also need to recognize that things are not going to get any better, only worse.

So where does that leave our lay membership? We have to continue to support the Church wherever and whenever possible. Our “faithful’ leaders need our support more than ever, but when it is clear that we as lay members are living in a geographical area of the Church where leadership is not faithful to the Church at large, I think we are going to have to join with other like minded “faithful“ members, and be dependent on each other, leading the Church in our areas wherever and however possible. I don’t think any of us are sure how this is all going to work out, but we need to be willing to be lead by the Lord in ways that we might not normally think of doing things. 

Let’s look at our Church laity instead of Church leaders. What is the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Is it roughly 21 million lay members worldwide — with their practices and fundamental beliefs, or is it the organized Adventist structure of conferences, unions, divisions and general conference, with their complex system of constitution, bylaws, policies, Church Manual and its’ resulting Governance system? Is it both? 

Optimally, we need each other, but are they of equal importance? The organized Church could not possibly function without the lay membership. It wouldn’t be a Church.  It’s interesting to note that local Adventist congregations had no organized Church structure at the beginning of its’ history and Mrs. White tells us that there won’t be one at the end of time. I think there is no question that the body of Christ is the lay members. They are the core of the Church, but their mission is enhanced by being organized. Members and organization are both important, but they play different roles. Ultimately, it’s the members that will go to heaven, not the organization.  

What is a lay member?

According to the dictionary, it is a non cleric member of a church, not being employed by the church. Lay preachers are considered laymen, not clergy. When you look down through history, there was no organized system of clergy for thousands of years. It didn’t exist until God began the priesthood/sanctuary service, after the Exodus, and it was only necessary then because His people had forgotten about Him and needed to be taught the plan of salvation all over again. If Gods’ people had been faithful, there might not have been the need for this organized system of priests. 

The Christian church didn’t have an organized clergy for the first few centuries, until the emerging Catholic Church merged with paganism and developed its’ priesthood, keeping their layman suppressed for many centuries. The reformers rebelled against this corrupt system of clergy but eventually ended up with their own organized clerics that has ultimately apostatized. The early Adventist Church initially was not a formally organized Church with a paid clergy. It only had lay preachers for decades, and it initially resisted having any type of organized Church structure at all.   

If you think about Bible history, it seems that Gods’ people were better off when they were led directly by God, and, that there was a tendency for more problems when they were led by an organized group of religious leaders. Maybe when there is no organization to go to, lay members depend more on God. The Devil seems to have been able to eventually corrupt every system of Church clerics, down through history. He knows if he controls the leaders, he is able to control the lay members. 

I believe our Church organization was divinely inspired and is important to the mission of our Church. We wouldn’t have been able to develop the world wide mission program, education and healthcare systems, or the publishing work that we have today, without it. Organization is important, necessary and part of Gods’ plan. God is a God of order and heaven is organized. Make no mistake though, our organized Church is under attack, and it needs the support and prayers of our faithful lay members now, more than ever. 

The Adventist Organization

Today, the Adventist Church has a sophisticated organized system of clergy, with a governance process that they themselves dominate. The system does have some minor lay representation, fortunately. What role do lay members play in helping the organizational aspects of the Church?  Not a major direct role, but they are of fundamental importance to the overall survival of the Church.  

First, let’s look at a few examples of the importance of lay members in the Bible and Church history. All of the Old Testament patriarchs were laymen. Most, if not all, of the prophets were laymen. In the New Testament, it continues. You may not agree with me, but Jesus was a layman. He was not educated by the organized Jewish religious leaders nor did He work for their organization.  He was a carpenter/handyman.

After he started His mission work, He was an itinerant lay religious leader that did far more teaching and healing, than preaching.  He was not only a layman, He was considered the enemy by the organized religious leaders of the day. All of Jesus disciples were laymen. After Jesus death and resurrection, they formed a council of lay leaders to guide the young evolving Church. The apostle Paul is the only person of that era you might argue was a minister/evangelist by virtue of his formal religious education and training. However that was not necessarily always an asset. He had a trade to support himself, so he was really more of an itinerant self-supporting lay pastor with an independent ministry. The Waldenses and Huguenots were laymen. The Adventist Church was started by laymen. 

By contrast, today in the US, our SDA churches are led by employed Church pastors who have become very educated “professional” clergy, who view their primary responsibility as preaching on Sabbath, particularly in larger churches. Some smaller churches don’t even have a full time pastor, but share a pastor with one or two other churches. Consequently many times the pastoral duties in some churches fall to the lay members to carry out. The financial support of the Church is entirely from the laity. Most of the Church's’ personal ministries, Bible studies, community outreach, etc., is carried out by lay members.

These activities lead directly or indirectly to most of the baptisms. There would be no Church without our laymen. Yet, oddly, above the local church level, laymen play only a minor role in the organized Church. Their voice is greatly limited.

We don’t seem to be coworkers with the organized Church, but rather there seems to be an us and them situation, with the “them” being in charge. Laymen seem to be second class citizens in the organized structure of the Church. Above the local church level, laymen play only a minor role in the decision-making process of the organized Church.  

As a result of recent unusual activities by Church leadership in the Church, our lay members are calling for action. One side is wanting their Church entities to split off from the General Conference, while others say rebellious Church administrators need to be removed from office. Recent voted actions and the existing governance process outlined in current Church policies will ultimately deal with these issues. Our laymen need to pray for our “faithful” Church leaders and support their efforts to uphold the traditional beliefs of our Church that are under attack. 

How the Church governs itself isn’t a very interesting topic for many people, but because of the way Church authority is being challenged these days, and the accompanying noncompliance to Church policies and doctrines, Church governance is becoming far more relevant. With several rebellious Church leaders being in key governance positions, our “faithful few” lay representatives on these governing committees, are more important than ever. In fact, I would submit, we need more of them.

I think it’s important to understand how Church governance works. Part two will deal with this subject. Stay tuned for Part Two: Local Church and Conference Governance


Harold Butler has worn many hats over the years. Some of those hats include:

U.S. Army 1969-71
Missionary former Far Eastern Division 1975-88. Hong Kong and Singapore.
Johns Hopkins University/Hospital full time 1988-91, part time 1991-2008.
General Conference Global Mission 1991-96
Private practice 1996-2017.

Harold retired in 2017 and lives with his wife in Maryland and spends the winters in Florida.