Ready at a Moment's Call
A Story of Lay Servant Ministries
Maurice Hawthorne knows a thing or two about Methodist service. The retired physics and chemistry teacher was an active leader in his district council by his junior year of high school, and his love for the church has only grown in the decades since.
Hawthorne was born and raised in Nebraska. He started teaching immediately after earning his bachelor of science and physics from the University of Nebraska in 1964. That same year he married his wife Judy, with whom he had two sons, and they were happily married until her death in February 2011. In 1978, he moved to Oklahoma to teach at Eastern Oklahoma State College. He taught physics, math, chemistry and physical sciences at the college until he retired in 2010.
A man whose interests spanned from the Masons to musical theatre, one constant throughout his life was his service in the United Methodist Church. Though he had volunteered and spoken in churches since his teens, it wasn’t until he moved to Oklahoma that Hawthorne learned about lay servant ministries.
Today, Hawthorne is a certified lay servant and is involved in several areas of the Oklahoma Conference, including the Board of Higher Education and Campus Ministry, the Committee on Nominations and the Board of Laity. Additionally, he serves the Lake Country District’s Committee on Nominations, Committee on Ordained Ministry, Missional Strategy Team and EOSC Wesley Foundation Board. It’s no wonder he was asked to serve as his district’s lay leader.
Say So interviewed Hawthorne at Wilburton First United Methodist Church to ask him about his life of service and his experience in lay servant ministries. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get started in lay servant ministries?
In the fall of ‘78 or the spring of ‘79, we had a brush arbor (revival gathering) out here in the courtyard, and we were going to have it for two weeks. The first Sunday went fine. Then Friday night or Saturday night, I don't remember which, the pastor calls me and he says, "Can you fill in for me tomorrow? I'm in the hospital." So, I went up there visit him in the hospital, and we looked at where he had planned to go with his sermon series. He said you can do whatever you want, so I went ahead and completed his sermon series. About a year later, we had a lay servant training. I took that first basic course and then started taking advanced courses every time I got the opportunity.
By the time you took your first lay servant course, you had been volunteering as a lay person for nearly 20 years. What made you want to take the training?
It really was a matter of getting the certification. As a teacher, I didn't have any trouble getting up in front of the group and filling a pulpit, but it was more a matter of trying to organize and actually get into the certification program. In the Nebraska conference I had never heard about it. From the whole time I lived there, I never heard about the formal training program. The first training I went to was actually in the basement here. We had a husband and wife team come who were trainers. That was the first time I really had been involved as far as training because of lack of availability.
In general, what would you say being a lay servant or lay speaker means?
In general, lay servant ministries develops leaders for the church. It’s not necessarily just for individuals that need to step in at a pulpit, though those that have the desire to do so are surely given the opportunity. It also trains leaders for any aspect of working in the church—or any volunteer organization for that matter—as far as how to lead, how to be a leader, how to develop leaders, how to lead a discussion without monopolizing it, how to deal with persons who are suffering loss. There's a number of things.
The basic training develops leaders. It doesn't necessarily have to be a speaker in a pulpit; it is good basic leadership training for any setting. When you go to the advanced courses, you get into specifics about how to preach, how to prepare a sermon, how to deliver it, and emphasis areas like grief counseling and hospital visitation.
I've been to the one on preaching and, when another one came up a couple years later, I asked the district superintendent at that time, do you want me to enroll for that class? And he said no, you could teach it. So, I have taught a number of courses, nearly all of them through the years.
What does being a lay servant mean for you personally?
To step in on a moment's call. I have received calls on Friday night or Saturday night about needing pulpit supply the next Sunday. Sometimes that's been on single occasions, and sometimes it's been on an extended case. A couple instances there were family emergencies, and the pastor had to leave to deal with critical situations that were extended for three or four weeks. In some instances, I’ve served as interim supply between pastors. When a pastor's reassigned, it may take a while to re-fill a pulpit. So, to me, it means being ready to do whatever is requested.
When I was asked to be a district lay leader, it was something that I am trained to do, but it was still something that required a lot of thought, a lot prayer. It's a big responsibility. I think my background in lay servant ministry really prepared me for that. There have been instances where I've had more than one request for a single weekend and I’ve had to turn somebody down because of it.
If someone’s interested in speaking from the pulpit, there are many opportunities that are presented through certified lay servant training because your name goes on a list that district superintendents maintain. We can contact persons who are available, that made themselves available, and it gives the district superintendent a chance to fill a pulpit for some particular church in the district. They've had a number of lay speakers who have grown into the pastorate and are now full-time pastors. It's a good source of pulpit supply on temporary basis but in some instances, it's turned into a longer-term full-time ministry.
Why does the church need lay servants?
One thing our district superintendent Larry Bowman says is every church should have this as a Sunday school class and train many folks for leadership roles in the church. The basic course is a good leadership training course. I had a couple of folks in one of my training sessions who are now strong leaders in AA. In that respect, the leadership training portion is extremely beneficial for any venue, not just the church.
But the church definitely needs leaders. In many cases, we do need people that are trained enough to be able to step in and fill a pulpit on a moment's notice because emergencies come about. Not everybody is so motivated or equipped, or so inclined, but those that are, it gives them an opportunity to be available.
You’re a teacher with a variety of interests and abilities. Is there an aspect of loving learning or valuing education that makes you more likely to engage in this kind of ministry?
That’s one of those questions of which came first, the cart or the horse, the chicken or the egg?
When I was in college, I was in Alpha Phi Omega, which is a national fraternity that was a service organization essentially for Boy Scouts. I was working with that group, and we had a convention on a Friday and Saturday. We got home late Saturday night, and I was asked to fill a pulpit Sunday morning. When I was standing up there in that tiny little church, it struck me that I need to be available to do this. I always felt it was my duty, my responsibility to be available to do what I could, when I could, wherever I could.
That’s very Wesleyan of you.
When I was in a leadership training conference for district leaders, we were going to have communion in the center of a big meeting hall in the camp. When it was time to serve the elements, one pastor said, “I do not want any of you coming to the altar rail until you are completely, absolutely, 100 percent convinced that Christ died for you and for your sin. It's not an intellectual knowledge; I want this to be a full knowledge.”
People immediately were packing to leave, and they had their cars loaded and were on their way out. There were about six of us still sitting there, and all at once, I had this Wesleyan experience: I felt my heart strangely warmed. I mean, the truly literal Wesley experience. That was back in late October ’58, and from that point on, I knew that I needed to be available for whenever, wherever I was called. I guess if you were to say when did or how did that decision come about, I think that would probably be it.
The UMC is approaching a time of potential disruption and change. How do you see the role of the lay servant in a time like this?
I can't speak for others, but I think for me at least it's to encourage people to pray for the will of God and hope that we don't get into name calling. I think the last conference was disruptive more than healing. I don't know what this next conference will be, but I think as far as the lay servant goes, our role is to maintain people's focus on God and the church as a whole, not issues. Issues divide us, but Christ should center us.
A lot of folks feel somewhat caught in the middle.
People in the pulpit, many of them are in the same situation. Many of them have family members who are gay or lesbian and may have acquaintances that are. You can't come down and condemn all of them. I really don't know where we're going on that; I just hope that the church doesn't split as a result, and I'm afraid it might.
What is one time when, as a lay servant, you were able to impact someone else?
It was after I'd lost my wife and had been through the grief process. I should say I was going through the grief process; it is something you don't get out of. It was several months later, and I ran into one of the faculty members of the college. It was a friend of mine. She had just lost her father, and I did not know. I just asked her how she was doing, and she told me that she was really down. Now this is a psychology professor, and we were talking about grief. Here's a woman that knew about grief, dealing with grief, and taught it probably every year if not every semester, and yet she was having a hard time dealing with it. And I think sometimes those interactions which have nothing to do with the church stand out.
I think there's one thing I've learned: you can prepare, and you can plan, but once you get into a setting, the Lord may have something different in mind. I was speaking over here at the Presbyterian church one Sunday morning a number of years ago, and I had a sermon prepared. About three minutes into it I could see that I'd lost them, and they weren't following. My immediate response is, what do I do now? And the passage had to do with harvest, the fruitful harvest. So, I just reverted back to my childhood.
“That reminds me that I was born and raised on a farm. The passage said the grain may produce tenfold, thirtyfold or 100-fold, but it was a dry year in ‘55 or ‘56, I don't remember which. I was running a combine all day long, and we didn't get a truck full. I mean, it was hard times.” And it was then that I got them back. They were with me. Afterwards, one of the guys told me, “that was the best thing I've ever heard.” It wasn't that way when I started.
Do you think that there needs to be a call for more people to be involved as lay servants or for more people to consider having that kind of leadership training?
In a period of uncertainty, I think leaders are valuable, open-minded leaders especially. Somebody that's able to see beyond the immediate problem, maybe, and look toward a resolution. You need people who can moderate the discussion without it getting out of hand.
How has being a lay servant affected the way you live out your faith?
It’s definitely deepened my faith. It gives me an avenue to express my faith and hopefully try to influence others.
At our district charge conferences, we had nine sub-districts and missional areas, and I went with our district superintendent to each one of those. I was talking in particular terms about campus ministry, because that's one of my big highlights. I've been actively involved in campus ministry since 1980, and with the monies coming in the way they are at the present time, I was encouraging everybody to support all of them.
I went on to talk about campus ministry and how it's the training ground for leaders outside of college. It's a transition between youth groups in church to the campus setting to try to prevent them from going astray, to keep them connected to the church, to training our future leaders, both pastoral and lay leaders in the future. I said that's where the rubber meets the road, and that's kind of where I see lay servant ministries. That's where our faith meets action. It may be cliché but it’s true. Putting your faith into action, I mean, that's the reality of it, whether it's a speaking role, whether it's leading a group, whether it's just being a more active, or a more dedicated individual in the pews.§
Learn more about lay servant ministries at www.okumc.org/layservantministries.