Lay Deacons: Kicking the Can Down the Road? (by Pr. Charles Henrickson)

(This post follows up on my previous one, about Committee 4, as it deals in more depth with Resolution 4-06. This article appears in the July 2013 edition of The Lutheran Clarion, CH)

Lay Deacons: Kicking the Can Down the Road?

“Therefore an overseer must be . . . able to teach. . .” (1 Timothy 3:2).

“He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).

“Our churches teach that no one should publicly teach in the Church, or administer the Sacraments, without a rightly ordered call” (Augsburg Confession, Article XIV).

In spite of Scripture and Confessions, the 1989 convention at Wichita authorized the licensure of lay ministers to do Word and Sacrament ministry in place of pastors (1989 Res. 3-05B). In the years following, measures were adopted to try to alleviate this problem (DELTO, Distance Education Leading To Ordination; SMP, Specific Ministry Pastor). So you would think that by now we would have seen the end of Wichita-style lay ministers.

Wrong. The Wichita laymen are still on the line. How so? In the form of district “lay deacon” programs. When SMP was passed in 2007, what was left undone was the “sunsetting” of those district programs. So some districts are still using their own programs to license their own “lay deacons” (now more than 600) to do pastoral ministry in place of pastors. This ought to stop.

Many overtures were submitted by congregations, circuits, and districts to the 2013 Convention Workbook to deal with this issue. Most of them include a “Resolved” that calls for the discontinuation or phasing out of district lay deacon programs (e.g., 4-29, 4-30. 4-31, 4-32, 4-33, 4-34, 4-37, 4-38, 4-41, 4-45, L4-74). A few of them are in favor of the district programs (e.g., 4-36, 4-39, 4-40). And a couple of overtures (e.g., 4-22, 4-35) call for further study before possible action at the 2016 convention.

Floor Committee 4, Theology and Church Relations, has taken this last approach, proposing a resolution that some would say only “kicks the can down the road.” Resolution 4-06, “To Address Questions re Service Apart from AC XIV” (Today’s Business, pp. 90-92), calls for the Synod President to develop resources for study and discussion and to establish a task force to develop a plan to resolve this issue and to bring a report to the 2016 convention.

As one who authored an overture to bring an end to the district lay deacon programs (Overture 4-45), I am a bit disappointed that the committee did not go further than that. Of course, if this summer’s convention delegates decide we’re ready to take action now and thus vote to phase out (or at least limit) the district lay deacon programs, they may do so. Picking up on President Harrison’s thought (TB, p. 22, lines 25-27), and simply to put things “on hold,” Resolution 4-06 could be amended by adding a final “Resolved” such as this: “Resolved, That no new persons be admitted into district lay deacon programs between now and the 2016 convention.”

I understand the floor committee’s desire to try to bring more people along in a unified way before acting on the matter. That approach may work, and we may indeed finally be ready to “sunset” Wichita in 2016. But kicking the same can down the road for so many years can get a little tiresome.

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