More and more church members are seeking a role in their congregations' religious activities, a trend that is seen by some ministers as a threat and by others as a blessing.

That was the consensus of a panel of religious leaders who discussed "Laity in Ministry Threat or Goal?" at the monthly meeting of the Salt Lake Ministerial Association this week.The Rev. Randall A. Sawyer, minister of Central Christian Church, Salt Lake City, said congregations live or die on how well the laity does its job. "There are clergy who feel defensive, who want to keep many of their church's jobs for themselves and who have difficulty delegating authority, but the lay members of any congregation can be of great help to their minister.

"A minister needs to get the structure of his church right, needs to know what roles people should play in his congregation and where authority resides." Rather than being threatened, ministers should welcome the help their lay members can give them, he said.

"We have to realize that this is a new world. In the old days, the preacher preached and the laity listened. In World War II, sergeants and captains barked orders and soldiers obeyed. In this day and age, privates wonder about their leaders' orders and are apt to ponder whether or not they should obey."

On the other hand, professional religious leaders can be upset by lay members who want to do some of the jobs traditionally done by the minister. While this is a new factor in present day religion, it is an old story, the Rev. Sawyer said.

"Just look at the way the religious leaders of Israel reacted to Jesus, who was, to them, a lay member of the Jewish congregation."

Pastor John Eagan of Wasatch Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church, Salt Lake City, said pastors will always be needed, and professional religious leaders should not feel threatened by members of their congregation who want to be active in the church's ministry.

"But, it is easy sometimes to feel you are not needed. I have taken over churches that have had their minister leave and that have done without a minister for some time and that have been doing great without a minister. It can be a humbling experience."

Pastor Eagan said many professors at religious colleges and universities have in the past created a ministerial image and painted a picture of what a pastor is, but this image is not necessarily accurate today.

"I think it is tremendously rewarding to find resources in a congregation. I've found it exciting to have the laity take active roles, giving me freedom to do more things I think I am better able to handle.

"This is a new day for churches. Many members of congregations want to be involved. A minister who does not feel threatened will be rewarded. For a minister who feels threatened and who can't cope with this new trend, it can be the end of his days."

The Rev. Pat Edwards, minister of Grace Baptist Church in Bountiful, said ministers have broadly defined roles and are often asked to function in capacities where they may not be experts.

"All of us run into areas of insecurity where we know we aren't competent, and we may be asked to do something we know others in our congregation are better at. If I get too many competent people doing too many things, I might begin to wonder, `Where am I in the scheme of things?' "

The Rev. Edwards said it is important for modern ministers to keep their roles in perspective, to be facilitators and to learn how to organize. "I believe in letting laymen preach, in exercising people's gifts, especially when I'm out of town. But when I come back, I wonder, `How did he do?'

"People in my congregation say `wonderful.' Sometimes I feel as if they are looking for a new minister."

It is human nature, he said, for ministers to respond emotionally to the threat they may feel from laity, even though they are committed to letting their congregation have active roles in the church.

Marcia Stroup, director of counseling at Mount Olympus Christian Counseling Center, said she grew up feeling the need to help her ministers. "God used me, in a youth ministry, in a Christian mission in Japan and in establishing Bible study groups in neighborhoods.

"God uses lay people in many ways and I am always amazed how he uses me."

She said it is important for a church's laity not to diminish the identity of its pastor. "You have to have balance, a team concept with the laity and professional laity and the pastor working together to help people.

"I think ministers should look at their laity as their team, and not as a threat."

The Rev. Carol West, minister of Mount Tabor Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City, said she doesn't believe ordained clergy should feel threatened by laity.

"Martin Luther spoke of a priesthood of all believers, but I think he meant a priesthood on behalf of all believers. There is a need for ordained clergy."

The Rev. Jean McCreery, Lutheran campus minister at the Campus Christian Center at the University of Utah, said she feels there is still the "magic zap of ordination" that sets apart an ordained minister from his or her congregation.

She said there is a hierarchy in a church and while it may be humbling for some ministers to see laity doing a better job at some things than they can do, the pastor is still on a pedestal "at the top of the pyramid."