Presbyterians Have Second-Thoughts About Second-Class Pastors

When Lutherans face controversy or difficult decisions, they can turn to several resources.  First in line are the Scriptures and Confessions.  Second are the writings of their orthodox teachers, such as Luther, Gerhard, and Pieper.  Third is the experience of previous generations in the same synod, or the experience of other Lutheran synods.  But what does a Lutheran do when none of these resources speak directly to a new phenomenon?  Often Lutherans look at church-bodies that are analogous to theirs.

Today the liberal Presbyterians, of the Presbyterian Church in the USA (hereafter PCUSA), might teach us a thing or two about second-class pastors.  Until 1997 the PCUSA required a post-baccalaureate M.Div. for all of its “Word and Sacrament ministry” pastors, just like the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (hereafter LCMS) once did.  The PCUSA now has fifteen years of experience with the office of “commissioned lay pastor,” a.k.a., CLP.  CLPs are congregational elders who have been trained and approved by their regional presbytery (similar in function to the LCMS districts) to carry out all the functions of clergy for the length of their commission in a “particular ministry.”  The “particular ministry” aspect is strikingly similar to the “specific ministry” aspect of the LCMS “Specific Ministry Pastor” (hereafter SMP).

Other aspects of the CLP programs are similar to the SMP program.  Few of the regional programs have educational prerequisites such as a college degree. Almost all of the programs require eight courses, whose total classroom hours (online or in person) are equivalent to three college courses–TOTAL.  Most programs require some sort of mentoring, but no supervised practice or field education.  Most often, all who choose to complete the requirements get passing grades.  When non-seminary educational “providers” give instruction, they are often prohibited from giving “failing grades,” due to pressure from the presbyteries.  Only half of the programs require psychological screening before commissioning.

The CLP program was “sold” to the PCUSA with the understanding that it would primarily be used for:  1) small churches in remote-rural locations (like Alaska), and 2) immigrant or ethnic congregations.  But this is very different from the reality that has developed in fifteen years.  10% of the presbyteries report that CLPs are commissioned to serve as associate pastors in large churches that don’t want to pay the minimum salary and benefits required for a normal M.Div. pastor.  Most CLPs are solo pastors of small churches in big cities or towns that can’t–or don’t want–to pay the minimum salary and benefits for an M.Div. pastor.  CLPs are also found as institutional chaplains, where funding is not available for an M.Div. pastor.  The smallest number of CLPs is found in remote-rural, immigrant, or ethnic congregations.  Thus the actual use of CLPs is quite different from the original intentions of the CLP program, as people in the LCMS are finding out with the SMP program.

How did I found about the CLP program?  Barbara Wheeler published an article in the Christian Century in vol. 127 #14 (July 13, 2010) titled “Ready to lead?  The problems with lay pastors” (pages 28-33).  If you don’t have access to the Christian Century, you can read the opening paragraph for free, and pay for the rest of the article here.

Barbara Wheeler is a highly respected voice in mainline Protestantism, and she definitely knows what she is talking about.  I was privileged to meet her a couple of times during my residential studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  She was at that time the President of Auburn Theological Seminary, which is located on the Union Theological Seminary campus.  She is presently the Director of Auburn Theological Seminary’s Center for the Study of Theological Education.  Seminary administrators will recognize this organization as the source of the authoritative “Auburn Studies” providing research on modern theological and seminary education.

If you are concerned about SMP, you really need to read Wheeler’s entire article, and consider its import for the LCMS.  I am just going to quote a few of her observations in that article.

With regard to the reason for in-depth seminary training, she writes: “Learning is important because the two functions that actually constitute a church in a Reformed understanding are the proclamation of the word and the administration of the sacraments.  The best insurance that the gospel will be rightly preached and the sacraments properly administered is to require that the person who performs these acts be well educated and personally formed by an intensive program of interlocking study and practice” (p. 29).  Sounds Lutheran to me!

Regarding the experience of churches in her hometown with lay pastors, she writes: “The lay pastors (none of them at the moment Presbyterians) who serve congregations in the area are local residents who have limited educational background and training. . . . their sermons are typically a mixture of folksy, informal comments and tightly constructed sections that may have originated on the Internet.  These lay pastors do not have the self-confidence to do much teaching.  Their congregations tend to be insular and dwindle in size” (p. 31).  Sounds like an early warning of what LCMS can expect from SMP!

Regarding what needs to be done, to ensure that lay pastors are prepared for ministry, she writes:  “Lay ministers must be examined carefully before they are deployed, with attention to character formation as well as knowledge, insightfulness, and judgment.  Especially today, with confidence in the integrity of ministry severely undermined, training programs must be long and intense enough for students’ personality strengths and weaknesses to become evident.  As in other fields, para-professional ministers must work under the close and ongoing supervision of experienced professionals, a condition that rarely pertains when lay pastors are assigned to be the sole ministerial leader of a remote congregation” (p. 33).  Sounds like a good prescription for reform of the SMP program.

Reading this article, it appears to me that the PCUSA has accepted “commissioned lay pastors” because in many places “needs are greater than the financial resources available to meet them” (p. 32).  So the bottom line is the bottom line.  But Wheeler asks the key question: “one wonders why denominations are covering the congregational landscape with lay pastors and other palliative measures rather than promoting alternatives more likely to create a durable presence” (p. 32).

Download your own copy of Wheeler article, from the link above, study it carefully, then pass it on to your district president, circuit counselor, and the people in our synod involved in pastoral training.  Maybe this will help the LCMS move toward forms of pastoral training and ministry that respect both the requirements of the office and the need we see in the world today.


Presbyterians Have Second-Thoughts About Second-Class Pastors — 14 Comments

  1. Thank you, good Pr Noland, for pointing this out. We seem intent in Missouri to invent the wheel and forgo the learning curve. Here it sounds like what began as an accommodation has taken on a life of its own with unintended consequences. Now how to put the genie back in the bottle?!? In Missouri’s case, we find ourselves equally adept at pointing out needs that seem to compel us to betray our beliefs and then directing an exceptional means to resolve it only to find out that it is being used in ways different from the intention. The only difference is that we are early enough in this process to make some changes before a generation of practice makes those course corrections impossible. The only issue for us is will — do we have the will and courage to fix what we did?

    We began by closing down a system of seminary education which offered us the benefit of long term familiarity with the candidate and an education directed completely by the outcome, then we moved to a convention resolution allowing the exceptional case of the non-ordained serving in Word and Sacrament ministry, when we decided that there must be ways to by-pass the resident seminary program entirely, until now we shorten it so that “life experience” and “local place” combine to justify cutting out about 75% of the course coverage and internship experience required by the MDiv program. At every stage there were warning signals but instead of repair we seemed only to legitimize the cracks and weaknesses.

  2. It sounds like the LCMS just copied the CLP from the liberal presbyterians and renamed it SMP… same program, same low view of the office, same results.

  3. As Dan Gard said in his 2007 critique of SMP (“Will There Still Be a Lutheran Ministry?”):

    “What is at stake here is the people of God. Simply put, they deserve a truly Lutheran pastor, formed and shaped by the riches of the Church’s theology and life. This is not about Seminaries, ecclesiastical power, or money. It is about the sheep for whom Christ has died and risen.”


  4. @Todd Wilken #3
    It sounds like the LCMS just copied the CLP from the liberal presbyterians and renamed it SMP… same program, same low view of the office, same results.

    No surprise! In the 60’s when I was new to LCMS and unaware, my Orthodox Presbyterian friends asked, “Can’t you learn something from us!? The liberals took over our denomination [20-30 years] ago. They are taking over your St Louis seminary now. [We woke up to that in the 70’s but we didn’t fix the problem.]

    So 40 years after that, we are NOT learning from the Orthodox Presbyterians, but aping the liberal majority! At the time, I told them the hard headed Germans would have to learn for themselves.
    Apparently that’s not possible!

    One day, perhaps, we will have to spin off an Orthodox Lutheran Church,
    finally admitting we’ve lost the LCMS.

  5. Helen, don’t be so quick to splinter. We’ve got a ways to go before jumping ship. There is still much good to be done by the LCMS as a denomination. You’ll never find a church group immune to idiots, and the one we create by splintering will eventually get infected. I mean, look at the OPC. I love those guys (almost went that direction), but they’re not even a denomination. They’re a micro-denomination. Presbyterians generally splinter into smaller and smaller groups as they get more conservative. Just look at the OPC, ARPC, RPCNA, URCNA, etc… They’re not even really that different from one another. There’s something to be said of the value of tolerance for unity, up to a certain point. At this point, I believe the LCMS is still bound by the Lutheran confessions. But I’m a bit new to the group I could be wrong.

  6. I get the frustration over the SMP. It’s not just the PCUSA. We’re trying to copy the Baptists with their quick routes into pastoral ministry and entrepreneurial view of ordination. There’s too much online theology training that doesn’t count for an MDiv, but the churches are willing to hire you in leu of one anyways. There’s the Theology Program, (which is, imo, at least directed at lay non-ministers), and some program based out of Golden Gate that Saddleback was promoting. We’re trying to address the problem of a hard economy and meet the needs of churches for practical, hands on training without the accumulation of massive debt and relocation for school. But the cure is clearly worse than the disease.

    Here’s my question for y’all. I’m somewhat new to the LCMS, and I’m considering the colloquy program out of Concordia St. Paul. I’m a music minister and their I think Director of Parish Music program could be helpful in making me better at what I do. How does this compare to the SMP? Is it a viable alternative, or does it suffer from many of the same shortcomings? Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. Miguel: I know very little about music ministers, but if you are considering becoming a pastor, please, please, please make the sacrifice of spending 4 years transient and poor (as the world measures wealth), being formed into a Lutheran pastor. You — and your future flock — will be far richer for it than you can imagine. (And if you personally don’t really need the formation, then there are plenty of others you can help form.)

  8. No, I’m talking about the online program for Lutheran music directors. You got full agreement here: Ordination needs a seminary experience, and I currently have no intention of becoming a pastor. Are you familiar with the colloquy programs through Concordia St. Paul?@Ted Crandall #10

  9. @Miguel #8
    At this point, I believe the LCMS is still bound by the Lutheran confessions. But I’m a bit new to the group I could be wrong.

    Officially. [And some of us, whether “officialdom” was on board or not.]

    But we get a contributor here who mocks the official hymnal as “too full of archaic language”, so do you think he is reading the Confessions, or teaching them to his congregation?
    [He hasn’t read the LSB; those “foreign languages” he complains of, (which the Pastor should have learned in seminary), are all translated for him and his.]

  10. for your consideration

    internet/mail order pastors

    objection by right…all that have been stated on this site…too many to discuss

    objection by left to defend this program:

    you have seen most…. but the objection they can not overcome is 70% of the people in the program are participating outside the original intent.

    they will defend this program to the death… too much embarrassment to admit the error

    and the revenue generated for the synod is 1.25-1.5 million per year and expected to grow… with very low over head

    they do recognize that the program is weak and it should include a couple years of seminary training…

    making win/win for all

    steal the concept catholics used. they had a ‘Brother’ program. brothers assisted the priests but are not priests

    so lcms mail order program would be used to create ‘brothers’ and after completing this program if the ‘brother’ wanted to become a pastor then he would have to go through 2 years of seminary with all the vetting that occurs during a typical seminary entrance and completion.

    this solution saves face for the left, keeps dollars coming in that the synod needs and does justice to the entire church body


  11. Miguel,

    We are a confessional Lutheran church. We have a large day school. All of our teachers are LCMS certified. One of them got her certification via the colloquy route from Concordia Chicago. It required that her pastor serve as her mentor. I was very impressed with the program. I oppose the SMP program and prefer teachers to take the full four year route but in this case it worked out well.

    I do not know much about the theology and music faculty at St. Paul. That could be a problem but my limited experience with a colloquy approach was very positive. Lutheran school teachers and parish musicians do not require the same strict training as pastors so I say if the theology and music faculty check out then go for it.

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