The Need for More Lay-led Lutheran Congregations

It has, for decades, been an incredibly unfair reality faced by smaller rural and inner-city congregations.  In a denomination that has traditionally insisted that viable, healthy congregations must be led by a resident, ordained pastor, the number of pastors willing to serve in these settings have often been “few and far between.”  Even back when there were an abundant number of seminary graduates, the majority of those graduates often showed little or no interest in serving churches located in such communities.  And this unfortunate attitude was not limited to graduating seminary students looking for a first call; it was also common among already ordained, serving pastors looking for their next call.

So what did these rural and inner-city congregations do when even new seminary grads had little interest in their calls?  They waited.  And they knew that eventually—if they waited long enough—their bishop or district president would find them a new graduate whom they could “take under their wing” and train.  Unfortunately, as soon as these first-call pastors were “trained” they would usually move on, within two or three years, to a larger church in a suburban setting.  Then the congregation’s pastoral search process would begin once more.

It used to be true—decades ago—that there was still an abundant supply of seminary graduates coming through the “pipeline.”  As a result, the national Lutheran church bodies could continue to insist—or at least imply—that healthy and viable congregations were, by definition, led by an ordained pastor.  But here we are in 2023.  And unlike decades back, there are far fewer seminary graduates; Boomer pastors have already or soon will be retiring; and smaller rural congregations are more often than not located in declining communities.  (Communities where the median age of their residents—and the congregation’s members—is in the late 50’s or 60’s.)  As a result, that traditional Lutheran ministry model—that the only viable congregation is one that can find and call an ordained pastor—simply has to change.  Unfortunately many of these congregations have been taught the false dichotomy that unless they can find and call an ordained pastor they might as well close their doors.

And that false dichotomy is not consistent with either the New Testament understanding of the church, nor with Martin Luther’s teaching regarding the priesthood of all believers. 

Tragically most Lutheran church bodies have failed to adequately model or advocate for intentional, long-term lay-led congregational ministries when there is no reasonable expectation that a resident pastor will ever be “called and installed.”  These congregations need a third option; not just the choice between an unending pastoral search process or closing their doors.  That “third option” is to become a truly lay-led congregation; a priesthood of believers not just in theory, but in terms of ministry practice.

Here is the stark truth of what is happening “out there” among many of our smaller congregations: They have been looking for a pastor for years.  In fact, some of them have gone three, four or more years without a resident pastor.  The longer they assume that such a pastor is “their only hope,” the more likely they will not survive as an organized faith community.  And they need to know that at least until the last Boomer pastor retires in the 2030’s, the number of pastoral vacancies will only grow, and grow dramatically.

Finally, these churches need to know that the work of the Holy Spirit in congregational life and ministry is not dependent on the leadership and presence of a resident, ordained seminary graduate.  This was true in the time of the early Apostolic church almost 2,000 years ago, and it is still true today.

“As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” 1st Peter 2:4-5 (NIV).

Is My Pastor About to Quit?

You might say we are beginning to witness the proverbial straw that is about to break the camel’s back.  The camel, in this case, is the Protestant ordained ministry.  (Including, of course, Lutheran pastors.)  The straw is the current pandemic, and all the ways it is contributing to the work-related stress of pastors in this already infamous year of our Lord, 2020.

And yet the “straw” metaphor doesn’t do Covid-19 justice.  This pandemic and its consequences would have been hard to even imagine just ten months ago.  Yet here we are.

 I retired from parish ministry less than two years ago.  Apparently just in time.  And while I am currently coaching numerous not-yet-retired Lutheran pastors, I have been personally insulated from the “new normal” full-time pastors are dealing with in this pandemic era.  So I was surprised to come across Pastor Thom Rainer’s latest article just posted on August 31st.  The title alone gained my complete attention: “Six Reasons Your Pastor Is About to Quit”.

Who is Thom Rainer?  He is the former CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, and currently leads the coaching ministry Church Answers.  And while Thom is Southern Baptist background, I’m convinced his insights apply to mainline Protestant pastors in general—including Lutheran clergy.

 Early in his article Thom writes this: “The vast majority of pastors with whom our (coaching) team communicates are saying they are considering quitting their churches.  It’s a trend I have not seen in my lifetime.”  (Keep in mind Pastor Rainer has been in ministry for almost forty years.)  Here are the six reasons, as described by Thom Rainer, why many pastors are “about to quit.”

  1. “Pastors are weary from the pandemic just like everyone else.”  No surprise here.
  2. “Pastors are greatly discouraged about the fighting taking place among church members about the post-quarantine church.  Gather in person or wait?  Masks or no masks?  Social distancing or not?”  Rainer also mentions the added stress when these conflicts have been politicized.
  3. “Pastors are discouraged about losing members and attendance.”  Pastors I have been coaching are, this summer, seeing in-person attendance that is only 30 to 50% of pre-Covid levels.  And Rainer adds this: “Pastors have already heard directly or indirectly from around one-fourth of the members that they do not plan to return at all.”
  4. “Pastors don’t know if their churches will be able to financially support congregational ministries in the future.”  And while giving might be healthy up to this point there is apparently mounting anxiety about whether this will continue to be the case in 2021.
  5. “Criticisms against pastors have increased significantly.”
  6. “The workload for pastors has increased greatly. … They are trying to serve the congregation the way they have in the past, but now they have the added responsibilities that have come with the digital world.  And as expected, pastoral care needs among members have increased during the pandemic as well.”

This pandemic has, in my view, created something of a “perfect storm” when it comes to the matter of clergy supply.  Even pre-Covid we were seeing the reality of many more pastors retiring than new pastors being ordained.  Now that trend will undoubtedly be accelerating, due in part to many pastors retiring sooner rather than later.

 Lutheran CORE’s Congregations in Transition (CiT) ministry coaches are available to help confessing Lutheran congregations who are or soon will be dealing with a pastoral vacancy in these uncertain and unnerving times.  If you are a congregational lay leader at a church that already has—or soon will have—a vacancy, or you are a pastor who will be retiring in the next one to two years, we can help.  Our coaching assistance, while at a distance, is comprehensive, and is customized to address your congregation’s unique ministry challenges.  If you want to know more, contact me, Don Brandt, either by email ( or phone (503-559-2034).

 And for every lay person reading this, do what you can to thank and encourage your pastor!

Dr. Don Brandt

Director, Congregations in Transition