Education is step #1 on the road to discipleship at Olive Branch UMC in Shelbyville, Ky.
The Rev. Wallace Votaw, pastor of the church for the past five years, is intentional about growing the leadership of the church by encouraging leaders to attend LACE (Lay Academy of Christian Excellence). LACE is program of classes and workshops offered by the Kentucky Conference Board of Laity to provide an integrated program to educate, energize, and empower lay people in each United Methodist local church to become faithful disciples and effective leaders who create vital congregations for the transformation of the world.
“When a pastor goes to a new church, there is a lot to learn and a lot of consider,” Votaw said. “You get a lot of information, and you have to be able to discern what is true and what may be more perception.”
He said he believes developing relationships is crucial. These relationships are what Voltaw said allows him to know the hearts of his people.
Deborah Hitt is one of those people in the church who felt God’s call to minister. At first, she wasn’t exactly sure what that meant.
Voltaw encouraged Hitt to take the first step toward lay certification. She began her training in LACE studying to become a Certified Lay Servant. She learned what it means to be United Methodist, polity, and other foundations.
After that, she studied to earn her Certified Lay Speaker certification. In this class, Hitt built on what she had learned in the first level. She strengthened her leadership skills and learned how to teach and lead groups.
She followed that by getting her Certified Lay Minister certification. With this certification, Hitt can fill in for the pastor when she is needed.
“I believe God has gifted Deborah and others in the church to be leaders,” Votaw said. “I have seen Deborah’s relationship with God grow and develop. The discipline and growth I saw in her was clear. I have seen her interest and understanding in communion and baptism grow. She has gone from witnessing to actually preaching. She does everything extremely well.”
Votaw sees it as confirmation of Hitt’s calling that others in church leadership position also recognize her calling. She now works as assistant pastor of the church. Votaw said it is a joy to him to continue to watch her skills grow as he watches her call unfold.
“I believe that God calls people not only to do his work, but to also have the eyes to see his call upon other people,” Votaw said. “This is discipleship in its pure form – one teaches another, then that person teaches another and so on.”
Votaw believes his job is more than just preaching and serving communion.
“I see the job of a pastor to come in, preach, offer communion, then lead the people to take care of themselves ... it’s the difference in a pastor-driven church and a laity-driven church."
“I see the job of a pastor to come in, preach, offer communion, then lead the people to take care of themselves,” he said. “It’s the difference in a pastor-driven church and a laity-driven church. If the church is led by the pastor’s personality, what happens when he or she leaves? If the lay leadership is strong, the church is strong. That is why I so strongly encourage our people to work toward these certifications.”
Votaw saw that the church’s Sunday night attendance was declining. He began a class he calls DS1. This is a discipleship class where the people learn what it means to be a disciple and how to live out discipleship as a lifestyle.
“We had Jim Fant, pastor of Maysville Trinity in Maysville, Ky., come in and talk to us about making disciples,” Votaw said. “We looked at how Jesus did it. We have built a base core of people from that group. Each person invites another person to go along with him or her. They do discipleship together. The mentor/mentee relationship has been very effective for us.”
When Votaw went to Olive Branch five years ago, he found a church of mostly senior adults who had decided they were too old to start anything new. Now, they know as long as they live, Christ can use them to carry on his mission.
“One of our older members, Jerry Norton, has become a real prayer warrior,” Votaw said. “He sees it as his mission. One of our teenagers has recognized this in him and has asked him to teach her to pray. It’s amazing to see how the older people are embracing teaching the younger ones. It seems very scriptural, don’t you think?”