Magazine article The Christian Century

Lay Pastors Here to Stay

Magazine article The Christian Century

Lay Pastors Here to Stay

Article excerpt

EIGHTEEN PRESBYTERIAN laypersons were recently authorized by the West Virginia Presbytery to conduct services and deliver sermons. They had completed a two-year course of study to become authorized lay preachers. Earlier, a smaller group of women and men were commissioned by the same body as lay pastors, having received an additional half-year of preparation and invitations to serve churches. They may be eligible to celebrate the Lord's Supper and administer baptism. They are also able to sit as voice-and-vote members of governing bodies. Most will be able to perform marriage, services for church members. All had previously been elected as lay elders in their home congregations.

Presbyterians have traditionally depended upon seminary-educated persons ordained as ministers of word and sacrament to provide pastoral services. But a declining number of persons seeking ordination or a lack of people willing to serve in rural areas where churches are often very small, far apart, and limited in financial and Social resources is forcing the church to look at other models of ministry.

Officially sanctioned lay pastors are a relatively new phenomenon for Presbyterians (which is not the ease for Baptists or Methodists). Commissioned lay preachers (an older term) served for many years in areas where there were few ordained ministers. Presbyterians also have a rich tradition of preacing by elders. In fact, in the Presbyterian Church in the United States, a predecessor denomination of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the duties of the elder included "cultivating ... aptness to teach the Bible and [improving] every opportunity of doing so, to the end that destitute places, mission points, and churches without pastors may be supplied with religions services."

The need for lay pastors is evident and urgent. Presbyterians and other mainline denominations are seeing ministerial ranks thinning, and ministers are getting older. Not only is the average age of ordained persons rising, but the newly ordained minister may be a second-career person, and possibly in a more complex family situation. Very small congregations have difficulty paying adequate salaries to ordained ministers, even when congregations share pastors.

Some may believe that this new model of lay ministry dilutes the qulity of ministry. My experience with commissioned lay pastors is otherwise. I've found them to be deeply dedicated people. All of them have been elders in local congregations, which serves as a foundation for more extensive formation. Many have complementary secular work experience, with advanced degrees in such fields as social work, industrial management and college administration. They have experience as schoolteachers, engineers, physicians, investment counselors, counselors, administrators and governmental officials. Many have reared families. Some have dealt with difficult personal situations that prepare them to empathize with others going through difficulties.

Recently I read a number of their statements describing their sense of "call," and their reflections compare favorably to those I have read by candidates for ordination. These women and men have a freshness about them and a sense of eagerness lacking in some older servants of the church.

A second strength of the lay pastoral ministry program is the faculty mad staff of the presbytery's program of preparation. …

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