As you read this, I am in Chicago with representatives of other synod,s sharing our experiences with lay ministry. The Montana Synod’s Lay Pastoral Associate (LPA) program is one of the gems of our Synod, and is much admired across the ELCA.
So what is it all about? First of all, lay people have been serving the church since it began. Jesus and the twelve disciples were lay people. Paul was a lay person. All of the earliest leaders in the Jesus movement—men and women—were lay people. Philip Melanchthon, theologian and interpreter of the Reformation and right hand man to Martin Luther, was a lay person. One of the strands of Lutheranism that was influential in the “Lutheranization” of the territory we call the Montana Synod promoted the ministry of the laity. And of course, our relatively spread-out population necessitated lay people taking over the pulpits in the absence of an ordained pastor. So lay ministry is in our history, it is in our bones.
About 25 years ago, following the lead of the Western North Dakota Synod, the Montana Synod began the LPA program as a way to support and train lay people who were already being called upon by their congregations to preach and lead in the absence of a pastor. The program began in eastern Montana, where there was greatest need.
Soon people from other parts of the state expressed interest in the LPA program, and now we have trained LPAs in every cluster of the Synod. Currently we have 3 LPA classes going—one in Great Falls, one in Glendive, and an advanced class for people who have already finished the program and want more training.
Pastor Jason Asselstine currently coordinates the program. Faculty for the 4 workshops over the 2 years come from the Montana Synod, teaching prayer and spirituality, worship leadership, preaching and pastoral care. Students are mentored by local pastors, and engage in additional academic work in theological disciplines.
The LPA program has grown and changed over the years, but it has remained a home-grown program, designed for the needs of the Montana Synod. LPAs do pulpit supply, serve on councils, lead Bible studies, serve as Synodically Authorized Ministers, visit shut-ins, and assist congregations in a variety of ways, according to their gifts. They also serve in Synod roles.
Our companion synod in Bolivia is also working with lay ministry, and requested that we bring LPAs to Bolivia—which we did in September. The Bolivians were particularly interested in hearing how our program works, and hearing the experiences of the 3 LPAs who were present (Cynthia Thomas—who serves 3 congregations as a Synodically Authorized Minister; Dave Scholten—who does pulpit supply; and Alex Tooley—a high school student who also serves on the Synod Council.)
In Chicago we are rubbing shoulders with representatives of a whole variety of lay ministry programs—each designed for their particular context. Some are urban, some are rural. Some are in Spanish. Each has a place.
It is true that our seminaries are producing fewer candidates for pastoral ministry than are retiring. (And it is not the seminaries’ fault—it is up to all of us to find and encourage candidates of any age.) But it is also true that although there is plenty of work to go around, it doesn’t all have to be done by ordained pastors. Deacons (called ministers of word and service) also do God’s work, and so do all the baptized people of God. LPAs are part of the Montana Synod strategy not only to fill pulpits, but to equip and train and educate lay people in service to God and neighbor.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA