While the pool of men — the church ordains only men — answering the call to enter seminary and serve as pastors has shrunk in recent decades, some want to enforce higher standards on ministers who aren’t ordained and strip away the so-called “Licensed Lay Deacon” credentials.
Half a millennium since a Catholic priest named Martin Luther railed against Rome for being out of step with Christ, sparking the Protestant Reformation, discord continues within the ranks of his devout followers over the role of Lutheran clergy and the laity.
“We are fighting a 500-year battle,” the Rev. Heath Curtis said last week at a conference at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Hamel, a tiny farming town in southern Illinois.
The words “Holy, Holy, Holy” were painted high on one side of the wall, the German translation on the other: “Heilig, Heilig, Heilig.”
This is the heart of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a conservative-leaning network of 6,000 churches whose roots are in northern Europe. Though the headquarters is in Kirkwood, more than 2 million members are spread across the country.
Like other mainline churches, the synod struggles to find new blood in the U.S. — both in the pews and at the pulpit. The decline helped motivate some men often in remote and inner-city areas, to bypass four years of seminary training to serve a congregation in need.
Lutheranism has always been built on a tension between ordained clergy and what is called the priesthood of the believer, or the laity, and over who can do what. While the pool of men — the church ordains only men — answering the call to enter seminary and serve as pastors has shrunk in recent decades, some want to enforce higher standards on ministers who aren’t ordained and strip away the so-called “Licensed Lay Deacon” credentials.
Since the synod made efforts in 1989 to officially allow trained deacons to serve as pastors in exceptional situations, the grass-roots practice of elevating a parishioner from within a congregation to ministry has exploded to include more than 500 people.
Gottesdienst, a journal on Lutheran worship, put on the recent conference in Hamel for traditionalists to plan how to curtail the practice, which some presenters attacked as a threat.
“I for one am not surprised by the entire lay ministry fiasco we have had to endure for nearly 30 years,” said the Rev. Burnell Eckardt, reading from a paper he prepared. “Confusion, division, and unrealistic expectations have ensued.”
That kind of fiery rhetoric is expected at the synod’s July convention in Milwaukee.
There, the licensed lay deacon issue is expected to be a contested topic called to the floor for debate with the synod’s current top leader joining the call for reform.
In a speech at the recent conference, the Rev. Matthew Harrison, president of the synod, said the Lutheran church has “gone far beyond” the “controversial action” taken in 1989 at a convention in Wichita, Kan., that created the deacon program. He put his stamp of approval on a special task force that essentially seeks to strike and rebuild.
Among the recommendations, licensed deacons who preach and administer communion would apply to be examined by the synod and, in some cases, receive more theological training before being approved for ordination. Their new status would be “specific ministry pastor.”
The task force says districts also should explore other means to address pastoral challenges, such as “multipoint parishes, technological aids, and greater use of inactive pastors.”
“We believe that through the mild suggestions of the task force we shouldn’t have to close a single congregation,” Harrison said. “In fact, we want more people trained to assist their pastors in the appropriate way.”
Harrison, whose bushy mustache resembles that of Theodore Roosevelt, has as president of the synod the past two terms publicly held a hard line against homosexuality and interfaith worship. He’s called on intensive theological training for clergy and expansion of international missions.
Writing recently about the “brutal facts” of the synod’s 40-year decline in membership, Harrison said 95 percent of the members are of European descent and they are not having nearly as many children. He said the birth rate is down about 70 percent since 1959, the year the synod had its largest number of births and baptisms.
“Society has changed,” Harrison wrote. “Marriage is delayed. Education comes first. Debt affects marriage and families. Delaying marriage and child rearing means far fewer children. Children are very expensive.”
Realizing the highest growth potential is abroad, the synod is in fellowship with more than 30 church bodies worldwide, particularly in Latin American and Africa. Harrison says Lutheranism “sputters and fails” anywhere clergy don’t have extensive seminary training. For that reason, he said, church leaders in Ethiopia and other areas have asked the Missouri synod for theological support.