'Best of both worlds': Lay pastors fill a need in local congregations

·8 min read

Apr. 25—In the course of nearly 30 years of preaching, teaching and visiting at Grace Lutheran Church in Fremont, Maureen Pump has been asked the question often: Did she want to be a pastor?

"I can honestly say, no, I have never felt the call to ordained ministry," Ms. Pump said recently, repeating her long-pondered answer. "I have never felt the call to be a pastor."

She's felt called to something different, albeit something that looks a lot like ordained ministry from the perspective of the congregation that she's served for decades; most often that's been alongside a senior pastor but in recent months it's been just her in the office and the sanctuary.

"I have been blessed to be an example of how lay people can have a fruitful, fulfilling life in ministry," she said. "And pave the way for other lay people to see that you can be in ministry, you can serve the church in a multitude of ways without being ordained."

It's a path with potential for significant growth in some mainline denominations like Ms. Pump's Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, where it marries individuals who for myriad reasons aren't inclined toward seminary with congregations that for myriad reasons cannot support or don't require the services of a full-time ordained pastor. Cheryl Sondergeld said they're "using more and more [synodically authorized ministers], training more and more SAMs, as we recognize the needs" in the ECLA's Northwest Ohio Synod.

Ms. Sondergeld is the synod's coordinator of programs and candidacy.

While she's long been in ministry at her home church, Ms. Pump, for example, stepped up as the full-time head of her congregation in November, following their senior pastor's retirement. She'll serve in this capacity as a SAM as they begin the process to call a new senior pastor.

Mike Kelley and Lora Manon lead their respective congregations as part-time lay pastors in Tontogany, in Wood County, where a relatively modest number of worshippers make such an arrangement work well. They each balance their ministry, coincidentally, with a legal career.

"These smaller churches, they don't have the money of a large church, they can't pay the salary that a large church can," Mr. Kelley said. "So it's good that I have something else I can do part-time, and I can kind of control my schedule while I can also pastor."

CHURCH SEEKS PASTOR

American membership in houses of worship is on the decline, dropping below 50 percent last year for the first time in eight decades of analysis by Gallup, the polling giant reported in late March. It's a trend that in some cases factors into conversations on church staffing, as Mr. Kelley observed: As congregations and their coffers shrink, their ability to financially support a full-time ordained pastor tends to diminish, too.

The availability of full-time ordained pastors to call at all is also often affected.

"Lay pastors fill a need," said the Rev. Jeanne Gay, the ordained pastor of Collingwood Presbyterian Church in Toledo. She's co-leading a two-session preaching workshop within her denomination in May, which she described as a "getting your toes wet sort of experience" for those who might be interested in some level of lay ministry.

"There are churches who can't afford to pay a pastor who has gone through the whole ordination process, and the seminary education, and so on," Rev. Gay continued. "Lay pastors are generally paid maybe three-quarters of what an ordained pastor would be paid, and they tend to work in part-time situations, so it's a lot less money for a congregation to come up with a lay pastor than it is to come up with an ordained pastor."

Lay ministry looks a little different in each congregation and denomination, and of course does not preclude the slew of opportunities for which little to no formal credentials are required. Ms. Pump, in Fremont, is an advocate for the full range of opportunities for lay ministry. For those lay men and women who feel called to take on some or all of the more expansive roles of a pastor, though, several mainline denominations offer a path to do so.

In the United Methodist Church, Mr. Kelley serves as a licensed local pastor; Ms. Manon is formally known as a commissioned ruling elder in her Presbyterian Church (USA), and to be a synodically authorized minister, or SAM, is one way to serve within the ELCA.

Across denominations the process to become a lay pastor shares a fairly rigorous education requirement, albeit not at the pace or necessarily even under the umbrella of a traditional seminary. And it generally involves in-depth conversations within the local leadership, first to identify and approve candidates and then to determine when and where they should serve.

Lay pastors are "incredibly necessary" to the work of the United Methodist Church, said Scot Ocke, district superintendent of the Maumee Watershed District. He's quick to counter any perception that a lack of a traditional seminary education or ordination diminishes his licensed local pastors as second-tier ministers. His district counts on 35 of them.

Likewise in the ELCA, where Ms. Sondergeld said 16 SAMs are currently serving in the Northwest Ohio Synod, and three more are awaiting approval from the synod council. Nine of the current SAMs are moving toward ordination.

"There are a lot of smaller congregations that can't afford to call a full-time ordained pastor, and so the SAMs fit that context really well in a variety of different situations," Ms. Sondergeld said. "Also, [there are] a lot of second career folks that maybe are looking for a way to serve but aren't interested in becoming ordained."

PASTOR SEEKING CHURCH

Count the United Methodist Church's Andrea Thurston among the latter.

A minister who came to her call somewhat later in life, Ms. Thurston said she's never been particularly inclined to the classroom; she also wasn't enthused about the prospect of completing a bachelor's degree even before she could enroll in a master's seminary program. (She already holds an associate's degree, she said.)

It's part of the reason she felt drawn to the licensed local pastor path, specifically, once she began to discern her call and discuss her options with her pastor, who had been influential in her reconnection to her faith as an adult at Fremont's Trinity UMC.

Since she became a licensed local pastor in 2015, she's served as the sole part-time pastor of a small country church, Shiloh UMC in Tiffin, and an associate part-time pastor of a large church, Perrysburg First Church. And in a full-circle moment for Ms. Thurston, she's set to assume the full-time senior pastor position at Trinity UMC in Fremont on May 1.

"It's like going home for me," she said. "I am super excited about that."

For Mr. Kelley at Calvary United Methodist Church and Ms. Manon at Tontogany Presbyterian Church, ordination also wasn't in the cards when they began to consider their paths in ministry. To be a lay pastor is attractive to them in large part because it allows them to continue the legal careers they began before hearing or heeding their calls, they said in separate interviews.

For Mr. Kelley, it was a trusted pastor who set him on a path toward his ministry license about a decade ago. When the pastor proposed that he train Mr. Kelley to fill in for him during a planned medical leave, Mr. Kelley recalled seizing on the opportunity to explore a question he'd long wondered — Should he have gone into ministry? — as well as to explore what ministry opportunities might still be open to him.

When the same pastor shared his plans to retire shortly afterward, and suggested Mr. Kelley would be well suited to step into his shoes, Mr. Kelley saw the answers begin to crystalize.

Ms. Manon said she was drawn to lay ministry after she enrolled in a preaching course through the Maumee Valley Presbytery. She had been stepping into the pulpit occasionally at that point at congregations in need of someone to fill in.

That preaching course "really gave me the entry into: I think I can do this, I think this is something I really want to pursue," she recalled. She continued with her certification, and, on March 1, 2020, stepped up as the pastor of Tontogany Presbyterian Church.

Ms. Manon said that she appreciates the way her arrangement allows her to continue a career she continues to prioritize, while simultaneously allowing her an opportunity to serve her faith community. It suits her well, she said, echoing others who for a variety of reasons see lay ministry opportunities, as Ms. Pump describes it, as "the best of both worlds."

"Now I can serve the communities in a couple of different ways," Ms. Manon said.

First Published April 25, 2021, 10:30am

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