Churches Without Pastors

In the September CORE Voice, I reflected on my time as the pastor of a mission congregation.  My question was whether the Lutheran Church is prepared for a time when many, if not most, congregations do not own property.  This month, I want to ask a similar question:  What are we prepared to do to help congregations without pastors?

For at least the last decade, the Lutheran Church has been facing a double crisis.  The first part of that crisis is that there are fewer pastors to fill the needs of congregations.  The second part is that more and more congregations are too small to afford to call a pastor.  What can be done about this crisis?

Two proposals have been discussed in CORE Voice in recent months.  One is to train lay ministers to fill the need.  The other is to change the path to ordination.  Requiring a person to receive a four year master’s degree, as well as acquiring tens of thousands of dollars of debt in the process, is impractical.  Rather than training lay-ministers to serve in congregations, it is argued, we should train people who will be ordained upon receiving a call from a congregation.

That is an important debate, but I don’t want us to be distracted from an option that can be implemented in the meantime.  My proposal is simple, but often overlooked.  That is to encourage lay people in small congregations, or people hoping to form a congregation, to do what lay people are already permitted to do.  Namely, we should encourage them to pray together, gather for Bible study, read the Catechism, visit the sick, care for the hungry, and so forth.

In particular, one question is what to do when there is no pastor to lead corporate worship.  The solution, in my opinion, is found in the hymnal.  Let’s take the venerable Lutheran Book of Worship as an example.  There are at least six services in that hymnal that do not need to be led by an ordained pastor.  They are the Service of the Word, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Compline, Responsive Prayer 1 and Responsive Prayer 2.  All of these may be led by a lay person.  (The Lutheran Service Book has even more options.)

In addition, the three settings for Holy Communion can be altered in such a way that they can be led by one or more lay persons.  First of all, each setting offers an option of omitting the second half of the service, Holy Communion.  The Service of the Word is what remains.  The Greeting and Benediction also need to be altered, but apart from that, the rest of the service remains. 

Since the focus would be on the Word and prayer, full use of the Sunday and the Daily Lectionaries would be ideal.  Congregations would be encouraged to take time to meditate on the lessons, as the hymnal suggests.  Too often, in our rush to finish worship in one hour, we fail to allow enough time for people to do this.  In this case, however, there would be an opportunity to renew that practice.

The next question would have to do with the sermon.  There are so many resources that I cannot name them all.  Instead, I will focus on just two at this time.  The first resource is For All the Saints, published by the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau.  The second is the Treasury of Daily Prayer, published by Concordia Publishing House.  For All the Saints follows the two-year daily lectionary found in the Lutheran Book of Worship.  In four volumes, it contains a prayer of the day, an Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel for each day, plus all 150 Psalms.  In addition, however, there is a Writing for each day that relates to and helps interpret the lessons for the day.  In a prayer service, this Writing could serve as a sermon. 

Finally, what could we do to help?  Imagine a group of de-churched Lutherans wanting to form a congregation.  We could gather used LBWs, or other hymnals, and ship them to the congregation.  Then, through donations, we could purchase a set of For All the Saints, or a copy of Treasury of Daily Prayer, for their use.  Individuals could be encouraged to follow the daily lectionary at home, even purchasing a copy of For All the Saints or Treasury of Daily Prayer if they choose.  (Online and digital resources are also available.)  What would it be like for a group of people to worship together or alone for a year using these wonderful resources?