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).