Note: “This is a ministry resource article for churches that might be interested in the new upcoming CORE ministry called the Congregational Lay-leadership Initiative (CLI). The article below offers a preview of this new ministry.”
The current shortage of available pastors in the LCMC and NALC presents a difficult challenge for a great many call committees. This is especially true for smaller churches when their search process has extended beyond 18 to 24 months without success. In fact, such a scenario can result in nothing less than an existential crisis for their congregations. In these situations we are looking not only at burned out and disheartened call committees; we are talking about congregations where their members are beginning to lose hope for their future as a faith community.
Thirty years ago call committees of smaller churches could reasonably take comfort in the conviction that it would “only be a matter of time” before they would be able to “call and install” their next pastor. However, in 2023 this is not a reasonable expectation. Why? Because with retiring Boomer pastors—and far fewer seminary graduates—our clergy supply crisis is only growing more dire.
Here is the stark, unvarnished truth: A great many of our smaller vacant churches will never, until the last Boomer pastor retires in 2029 (or shortly thereafter), have much hope of finding a pastor. For these churches there needs to be a “reality check”: As long as they assume their only hope to survive as a congregation is to find that new pastor, it’s only a matter of time before they will have given up on their search process. At that point discussions will probably begin regarding the possibility of having to close their doors and disband as a faith community.
However, there is an alternative to this scenario; a way to continue ministering to their members and their surrounding community without a resident, full-time pastor to lead them. This alternative is to intentionally transition to a long-term lay-led ministry. And this transition would not just be a temporary “stop-gap” plan until they find a pastor to call, but a ministry strategy to continue, as long as necessary, as a vibrant and thriving lay-led congregation.
There is now outside assistance available for smaller churches willing to transition from a clergy-dependent ministry model to one built on a foundation of lay leadership. But first, a disclaimer: If your congregation’s in-person worship attendance averages less than 25, and/or you no longer have members who are active retired or younger, this assistance might be “too little too late”. Why? Because this ministry model depends on one, two or three members willing and able to step forward and serve your congregation as part-time lay ministers.
However, if you still have congregational leaders who are active retirees or younger, I encourage you to consider the Congregational Lay-leadership Initiative as a way of preparing for an immediate future where your congregation will not only survive, but thrive.
Below are the steps involved if you decide to transition to a lay-led congregational ministry model. And keep in mind that your “outside” assistance in this process would be a retired Lutheran pastor mentoring and encouraging your part-time lay ministers—at a distance—as they serve your congregation.
1. Identifying the right member (or members) to ask to become a part-time lay minister.
The conversation regarding the “right” person will most often begin within your church council. (And note: The right person might already be serving on your council.) The ideal candidate for this new ministry role should already be recognized, by your members, as a congregational leader; and as a person characterized by both a strong faith and personal integrity. He or she should be someone who comes to mind in the context of your council’s prayers for guidance, and also when considering biblical texts such as Romans 12:1-8. And this needs to be someone whom the Council ultimately chooses unanimously, not just based on a majority vote.
2. Enlisting your lay minister (or lay ministers). This step needs to be done with great care, and while Council members are praying for this person to accept this ministry opportunity. Also, recruitment needs to happen face to face, not over the phone. Ideally, two Council members should present “the ask”, rather than just one. In addition, this individual should be asked to pray about this opportunity over the next few days rather than give an immediate “yes” or “no”. (Of course if you receive an immediate and enthusiastic “Yes!”, don’t argue!) Do not, at this point, get into such details as the average number of hours expected per week, or compensation, or the specific start date. Instead, make clear that if she/he agrees to say yes to this ministry, the Council will simply “make it work” for your new lay minister. In other words, the details of this position will be negotiated based on what is workable for this person. This includes the details of the final “job description”; which will be based on this person’s gifts, abilities and preferences. The overall theme in this enlistment conversation is: “Why we consider you to be uniquely qualified for this important ministry role in the life of our congregation.”
3. Hiring your part-time lay minister(s). To impress upon your lay minister the importance of this position I suggest a formal job contract. This contract will be worked out with your new employee’s input. Some suggestions for your contract: Either this person or the Council can end this agreement with a 30-day notice; and the “average” number of hours per week would be flexible and again determined with your lay minister’s input. (I suggest somewhere between 10 and 20 hours per week.) Make clear that this person will be supervised by and answer to the Council. Your written job description, then, will be written in collaboration with your new employee. When determining the overall structure of this job contract you can find resources online; resources that you will obviously adapt to your specific situation.
4. Commissioning/Installing your lay minister(s). It is extremely important your members participate—during a worship service—in this commissioning. Make a “big deal” out of this occasion. Celebrate this event as a congregation. Have a potluck immediately following the service. And have a laying on of hands as part of the commissioning.
5. Training your lay minister(s). The good news here is that your lay minister probably already has the gifts to perform most of the responsibilities you negotiated in determining the job description. However, there will undoubtedly be some ministry responsibilities he/she might not feel entirely comfortable with. For example, what if one of the responsibilities is preaching? There are resources available to become more confident in this aspect of ministry. (For example, an online 6-week preaching course.) Contact me or an LCMC staff person for information regarding such resources.
Any costs involved in such resources should be covered by your congregation.
6. Mentoring for your lay minister(s). The Congregational Lay-leadership Initiative is designed with the goal of every congregation having a retired Lutheran pastor to mentor its lay minister(s). This mentor would be volunteering for this role and would provide encouragement and counsel for your lay minister(s) by means of a monthly online meeting and/or by phone. In rare cases this mentor might be within driving distance of your church; in which case the monthly meeting could be in-person. If needed, I can assist you in recruiting a mentor who is on the LCMC or NALC rosters.
7. The matter of pulpit supply. This is of course a huge issue in the worship life of your congregation. Because of this fact it would be ideal if one or more of your lay ministers was comfortable in a preaching (or teaching) role. This is especially important if you do not have local (most likely retired) pastors available for pulpit supply. Here is my rule of thumb: You want to avoid, when possible, having lay ministers and other members reading someone else’s sermons. This might be okay on an occasional basis, but should not be a regular, most-Sundays practice. Why? It’s not easy to be invested and engaged emotionally while reading something that you did not write. Again, I suggest one of your lay leaders take an online seminary preaching course as one way to address this matter.
8. Maintaining your eucharistic ministry. If you will not typically have an ordained visiting pastor participating in your worship service, be aware that the LCMC allows for designated congregational lay members to preside over the celebration of communion.
Finally, I believe two or three lay ministers, if available, would be preferable to just one; for four reasons:
First, a team of lay ministers means each person is able to offer encouragement and support to the others on the team.
Second, there is the Biblical concept of “different people, different gifts”. In other words, with more than one you are more likely to have a lay minister with the appropriate gift for each major ministry responsibility.
Third, I think mentoring sessions can be even more helpful when the mentor is having online sessions (e.g., via Zoom) with a group of two or three lay ministers as opposed to an extended phone conversation with just one.
Fourth, a team of lay ministers provides a level of accountability that comes with fellow co-workers.
If you have any questions, you may contact me directly. My email is… email@example.com