Lessons in Lay Leadership- in memory of Sheryl Jacobson

In the work and ministry I do, cultivating volunteer or lay leadership is a must. This is a reality for working in congregations, community groups, faith communities, nonprofits, and I suspect schools too, to name a few. In the past I have written and shared some lessons about lay leadership. Today, however, I want to share some lessons in lay leadership that I learned from Sheryl Jacobson.


I am sharing this post today in memory of Sheryl who passed away last week after a valiant battle with cancer. I had the great pleasure of meeting, learning from, and serving alongside Sheryl at Cross of Hope Lutheran Church, the first church I served on staff at. Sheryl was in charge of the church’s altar guild, and as my role was coordinator of worship and music, that meant that we did a lot of work together. From Sheryl’s heart, passion, dedication, and faithfulness I learned or relearned about what it takes to be an effective lay leader, as well as ways to effectively engage and equip volunteer and lay leaders within the church. Sheryl was also one of the true matriarchs of that church, and one whom I found was always willing to try new things and make things happen as long as she could see how they would help he congregation she loved so dearly.

From Sheryl, I learned at least seven lay leadership lessons:

Dedication, and a Faithful Heart Matter

In serving congregations I have met a number of big and warm-hearted people who are dedicated. Sheryl helped me come to understand just how important this is for leadership. Being a leader is about being invested- especially with your time, energy, expertise, and resources. Sheryl was always willing to put in the time needed to make sure the church looked good, and that people had what they needed.

Invitation and Hospitality Matter

I haven’t always been invited out for a meal or into a lay leader’s home, but Allison and I were invited into Sheryl’s home. I remember that we had Sloppy Jo’s on homemade buns that reminded me of my Grandma’s buns. Whether it was in her home, at the church, or in some other community setting, Sheryl was a beacon of hospitality. For me, that says a lot about her leadership. She cared, and wanted to make sure people had what they needed. She viewed that as part of her role as a leader and vocation as a Child of God.

Don’t Be Afraid of a Little Potential Conflict

Working with others is great, except for perhaps when opinions and the idea of “doing things the way they have always been done” gets in the way. Sheryl was the head of Altar Guild, a group in the church responsible for making sure things were ready for the sacraments of communion and baptism, as well as that all banners, paraments, candles, etc. were all properly prepared and appropriate for the church season. As you might guess because of the nature of their work, there might have been times of some disagreement when any change was proposed. We were always able to work through any potential issues, because of clear communication.

The Ability to Question Lovingly

I was taught from early on that there are two groups of people in the church you want to have on your side- the church custodian and the Altar Guild. I admit that I like to try new things, and occasionally change up the pace. Sheryl was more than willing to make this happen, as long as she felt included. Whenever she sensed a possible problem or challenge, she had the uncanny ability to lovingly ask an important question. That’s a leadership gift. Questions are important, but so is the tone in which they are asked. When asked lovingly, and not with a sense of judgement or like one’s mind is made up, they can make things so much better and build trust and collaboration.

It is Crucial to be Willing to Adapt in Leadership

Like the observation above, one needs to be able to adapt as a leader. This is true no matter the kind of leader you are. The lay leaders and volunteers who I have found most helpful are those who are willing to try new things, to reflect afterward on how things went, and to adjust as needed to make things better. To build up the capacity to do this, I built in reflection time into every worship and music meeting I ran. I wanted to create a safe learning, doing, and growing environment. Sheryl was a big part of this because she modeled it in the way she led and served.

A Great Leader Brings People Around the Table

Good leaders invite others to be leaders, and help give them opportunities to grow in their leadership. Sheryl did this by the way she invited others to serve alongside her in areas around the Altar Guild, quilting, worship, cooking, and more. When she sensed that it was time to give up some of her responsibilities, she extended an opportunity for another member of the Altar Guild to lead and brought that person to the table and helped mentor them.

Affirmation Matters

Whether it is a thank you card full of gratitude, a hug, comment, or compliment, affirmation matters for leaders. It’s important to share it with others, as we help each other grow, lead, and serve. Sheryl, along with so many other great leaders at Cross of Hope, did all of this for me as I grew into my role on staff in a congregation for the first time. Sheryl also helped support others create opportunities to serve in ways they felt passionate in, by being a great encourager and the ultimate cheerleader.

I know I learned much more about working and serving alongside volunteers and lay leaders from Sheryl than this. These were particular insights that came to mind as I remember and give thanks for Sheryl today. To Dave and the whole Jacobson family, please know that I give thanks for your wife, mom, and grandma. You are all in my prayers, as is the whole Cross of Hope congregation.

In thinking more broadly about lay leadership, I will be sharing more thoughts on it throughout this month as I prepare to give some workshops related to the topic at the 2016 ELCA Youth Ministry Extravaganza. If you are attending in Anaheim next month, I hope to see you there.

In the meantime, what questions are you wondering, or lessons do you have to share about lay leadership and cultivating volunteer leadership? 

3 thoughts on “Lessons in Lay Leadership- in memory of Sheryl Jacobson

  1. You’re coming to Anaheim? On weekdays I’m just down the road! Let me know if you have any time between or after sessions and want to catch up! 🙂

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