By John Oberdeck
“I personally had no idea how far or in what direction my training as a lay minister would take me. I simply know that it would not have all happened without my training and experience at Concordia.”
So writes Rev. Gary Jacobson. His service as a “Commissioned Minister of Religion–Lay Minister” in The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod eventually led him to further seminary training and ordination. He now serves as pastor of Bethesda Lutheran Church, Hot Springs, S.D.
“No idea how far or in what direction” offers an appropriate commentary on the 50-year record of lay ministry in the Synod. It contains within it a wide variety of possible avenues of service and has undergone many transitions.
The Lutheran Witness of Nov. 1, 1960, carried an article describing the program slated to begin the following fall, to be known as the “Lutheran Lay Training Institute,” or as those on the campus of Concordia College, Milwaukee, called it, the “LLTI.”
The following is from that Witness article:
“Purpose of the training school, authorized by the San Francisco convention, is to provide a two-year terminal training course for men and women who will serve either full time or part time in such work of the church as laymen can perform. The program will not be geared in any way to prepare pastors, Christian day school teachers, or deaconesses, since Synod has other schools to prepare men and women for these callings.”
And so the program began with 16 men and six women comprising the first student body. In the 50 years since the beginning, more than 750 dedicated men and women have graduated and been certified as lay ministers. Certified lay ministers have always had a unity in purpose — humble, faithful service to the Lord Jesus Christ in His Church — but that service has been expressed in many diverse forms.
A 50th Anniversary Celebration will be held on the campus of Concordia University Wisconsin June 17-19. The celebration will be one of thanksgiving to God for giving so many years of faithful service to His church through service rendered by lay persons. Graduates of the program are especially encouraged to attend.
Options for service
“As a parish nurse I provide Christ-centered care for the whole person: body, mind and soul,” says Certified Lay Minister–Parish Nurse Marcia Schnorr, RN, Ed.D., who serves at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Rochelle, Ill. Her personal Bible study, along with her parish-nurse training, provided her with a basic knowledge for Christian care, but she wanted more. She enrolled in the lay ministry program. “I found the experience enriching,” she said. “The additional studies enabled me to feel more confident in responding to the needs of people in sickness and in crisis.”
Service as a parish nurse is just one way in which lay ministers use their God-given gifts. Lay ministers also serve as parish administrators, youth directors and overseas missionaries, and often are called to help pastors with parish visitation, confirmation and Sunday school. As one might expect, a training program this broad must be flexible. To achieve that degree of flexibility, the program has gone through several transitions.
During the 1960s, the curriculum was modeled on that of a Bible college with an emphasis on the practical. Two years of on-campus studies were required. In 1970, the LLTI was incorporated into the Concordia, Milwaukee, curriculum, an Associate of Arts degree was offered, and the LLTI became known as the “Lay Ministry Program.” In 1990, the university adopted a four-year B.A. program for lay ministry, but provisions were made for certification if a student already had an A.A. and took the lay ministry courses.
Dr. Albert Garcia followed Royal Natzke as director of the program in 1992. Not only did he bring cross-cultural awareness to lay ministry, he also initiated the Theological Education by Extension (TEE) program that moved certification for older adults to off-campus extension sites for clusters of students meeting on Saturdays. Clusters have been held in Maryland, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and elsewhere.
At the same time, the on-campus B.A. in lay ministry reflects a more traditional undergraduate program. The on-campus program requires students to choose two areas of specialization out of evangelism, mission, parish teaching, pre-deaconess studies, social ministry and visitation and youth ministry.
“I chose to emphasize youth ministry and missions,” Deanna Pelley explains. “Since missions was one of my areas of emphasis, I had the opportunity to travel to India and Africa. … Those trips grew my faith in ways that I cannot count.” Pelley, director of youth and music at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Young America, Minn., transferred to CUW to study in the B.A. program.
“I just want to thank you for a great course. I learned a lot and the blessing is that I can immediately put my new skills to good use. I have much more confidence in my spiritual care giving abilities.” This from Erin Boomer, a member of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Addison, Ill., and a member of the first e-learning cohort of lay ministry students. Needs of the church are so varied they require training adjustments, and the most recent adjustment is making the TEE lay ministry program accessible online.
The third e-learning cohort of students begins this June, just after the 50th Anniversary Celebration. And what a celebration it will be!
Yes, there is unity in purpose and diversity in service — service that ranges from a bedside served by a parish nurse, to a mission station in southeast Asia, to the basement youth room of an urban congregation, all done by lay people trained to support the outreach and ministry of their congregation and church body. We may not have an idea how far or in what direction the service of lay people in the church will take. Praise God, however, for He knows the direction, and He knows how far!
Dr. John W. Oberdeck is professor of theology and coordinator for lay studies at Concordia University Wisconsin, in Mequon.
Posted June 1, 2011