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.

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