Concern for the Growing Issue of Laity Sweeps the Lutheran Church

Nov 14, 2002 03:00 AM EST

The issue of laity within the church has swept church boards throughout the country with growing concern and debate. In particular, the (ELCA) Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) recently requested from the ministry and worship staff, a formal meeting to address all issues concerning authorized lay ministry and ordained ministry.

During the meeting, the church's Southwestern Synod and Allegheny Synod, raised the issue of allowing 'lay presidency" at Holy Communion, pointing to the heightened need for alternative leadership in worship. At present, the church's constitution permits laity to take part in official church functions overseen by a bishop, but is implemented differently among the 65 synods. According to ELCA Secretary Lowell Almen, there are 575 synodically authorized lay ministers.

The issue is of even more growing concern and importance for churches with small membership and few finances for ordained clergy. The number of congregations in the ELCA with fewer than 50 at worship each week rose from 1,935 in 1988 to 2,339 in 2001, Settlage said. Similar numbers were reported for congregations without a called pastor. In 1988, when the ELCA was formed, there were 1,153 congregations without a pastor, compared with 2,456 in 2001.

Bishop Donald McCoid of Pittsburgh, chairman of the Conference of Bishops, said that the bishops needed time to reevaluate the church'spractices and ask themselves on how best to address the issue's overall effect on the church as a whole. "The matter before us is not only who presides at the table, but who stands in the pulpit and who stands at the front," added the Rev. Craig Settlage, associate executive director of the church's Division for Ministry.

The adoption of lay presidency throughout all churches, has ecumenical implications, says Bishop Philip Hougen of the Southeastern Iowa Synod. 'The Episcopal Church is looking for us to be an ally in limiting the presidency. It is problematic for the Episcopal Church." Bishop Steven Ullestead of the Northeastern Iowa Synod said that the church needs to harness guidelines that will support lay ministers that uphold the policies of the church. 'This is not a Congregational issue, it's a church issue. The office of ministry is given to the church, not to an individual."

By Daniel K.