Mississippi lay people taking over key leadership roles


By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

“Laity holds the church together. Laity drives the church,” said Tim Howard.


Howard was talking specifically about Anderson United Methodist Church in Jackson, but he could have been talking about the Christian church in general.


Anderson has been a laity-driven church under Dr. (Joe) May (Anderson’s pastor),” said Howard, an attorney. “I’m used to being involved in many decisions. We’ve had a lot of freedom.”


Gloria Fitzpatrick teaches at her church. A member of Usher Valley UMC on the Pontotoc Parish, Fitzpatrick started a Bible study with 20 members on Wednesday nights. Attendance has grown to more than 100. “I really believe if people are fed a little on Wednesday night, they will want to come back Sunday and finish the whole meal,” she said.


Cheryl Denley serves as program staff in the Senatobia District. A member of Independence UMC, Denley teaches Sunday school (25 years) and is active in United Methodist Women on the local and district level.


Denley says she doesn’t feel overwhelmed by the many ways she serves the church. “’Inadequate’ is a better word,” she said. “There’s so much I want to do, and I have to look at God’s vision for what he wants me to do at this particular time. I see other ministries going on and want to be part of them so bad.”


Howard, Fitzpatrick and Denley serve as examples of what committed laity can do. In fact, commitment is the key to lay leadership in the church, says Fitzpatrick. “The reason some (laity) don’t get involved is they are just afraid. They were not as committed and as motivated as they should be,” she said.


Howard’s commitment is illustrated in the unique role he has taken on for Anderson. In the spring he began the Saturday Sunset service. Under his leadership and topical teaching, the service grew. Not long afterward, Anderson was approached about helping start a new church in South Jackson, and Howard was asked to be involved.


“I believe God had already given me a call to start churches,” Howard said.


Anderson South will be an “out-of-the-box experience,” he said. Howard will continue his topical teaching with emphasis on small groups and Bible study. He said he relies on Galatians 6:9 to guide him as he prepares for the start of services in January. The verse encourages those following God not to be discouraged in doing good.


Fitzgerald is active in Lay Speaking Ministries. A certified lay speaker, she does much more than speak on Sundays, as do most lay speakers. She teachers Sunday school, visits the sick, serves as a lay member of Annual Conference and is an adult leader for the youth.


Fitzgerald said motivation and trusting God’s leadership are vital to an active laity.


“You’ve got to take some initiative. Read the Bible and pray without ceasing,” she said. “Don’t go into it lightly. Don’t become a lay speaker just because your friend’s one. If you are led by the Lord, you will do the right thing.”


While it might be unusual for a layperson to start a new church, Howard is doing a number of things to prepare for the experience. He has participated in a church planting school and a school for church leaders. In addition, he has started the process of becoming a local pastor. He said he hopes using laity in other new church endeavors will become a trend.


“At Anderson, in 12 years I’ve been involved in many ministries,” he said. “Someone outside the ordained ministry can bring a different perspective.”


Denley is also active in Lay Speaking, including teaching courses at Lay Speaking Ministries Leadership Schools. As district program staff, she’s become involved in the A2 and A29 church assessments. She said through A2 and A29, she has seen churches of all sizes making a difference.


“For example, we have a lot of churches that have no children,” she said. “Some say they can’t do any thing because they don’t have children, but the others say ‘We’ll find some.’”


Denley said she believes the church is moving back toward more laity-oriented ministry. “I think sometimes the best thing for a group of laity is to have a lazy pastor who won’t do anything,” she said. “John Wesley wanted a lay-run church. The preacher had to ride a horse from church to church, but laity had to stay in the community and be the church.”