Which way forward?

Posted by brianmaas in Uncategorized | 13 Comments


This weekend brought the opportunity to be at the Nebraska Synod PMA (Parish Ministry Associate) Convocation. PMAs are trained and authorized lay leaders who serve several roles in congregations across the state, though their most common role is to provide pastoral leadership in congregations that are not served by ordained pastors.

The PMA program developed as a response to a growing number of congregations that simply couldn’t afford to call rostered leaders–usually small congregations in shrinking communities. PMAs continue to meet that need, but I’m wondering how we make this program one part of the conversation we need to have going forward, as rapidly changing dynamics affect congregations’ abilities and needs in ministry and mission.

On one end, we continue to face declining rural populations. On the other end, cultural shifts mean even where there are plenty of people, fewer of them have any interest in the Church. Both ends are complicated by an anticipated clergy shortage. Providing leadership in an increasing number of settings with decreasing resources for fewer available full-time pastors is a primary challenge.

One of the gifts of this challenge is the renewed awareness–sometimes out of sheer necessity–of the role of all the baptized in carrying out the mission of the Body of Christ. One of the burdens of this challenge is articulating the need and purpose of ordained clergy. We have for too long reserved too many facets of ministry exclusively for rostered leaders–though this has changed significantly in the last two generations. Yet there are those who suggest we do not need rostered/ordained leaders at all.

Most of us are caught somewhere between these two extremes–right where Lutheran Christians usually tend to find themselves. But what middle ground should we occupy? Should there be new emphases on raising up new pastors? Should there be more training for bivocational pastors (those who will hold a part-time or full-time job while serving as a pastor)? Should there be more training and authorization/certification opportunities for lay leaders?

What are YOUR thoughts, concerns, questions and ideas?

13 Responses to Which way forward?

  1. Jan Anderson says:

    I am a PMA who would like to be part of congregational education and assis in worship. I am not unfamiliar with visiting with those who are ill and/or dying. I was acceted into the AiM program, but I understand that I am to choose one area to do “clinical” work. I see many congregations in need of assistance for one reason or another. Pastors are often extremely busy serving more than one parish. Is it a requirement to “specialize” in training, or can one experience serving where needed in the congregations who need assistance?

    • Brian Maas says:

      Jan: there are a number of options. The encouragement of an area focus for AIMs is intended to help congregations have true “specialists” on staff, but the program is flexible and most of our AIMs have broad preparation and skills (and job descriptions!). Conversation with the Candidacy Committee is the best way to learn more–or talk with Pastor Steve Meysing, PMA Coordinator, who can tell you more about what you might already be able to do as a PMA. Thanks for your desire to serve!

  2. Owen Kinnan says:

    Bishop Maas,
    Thank you for opening up this topic for feedback and discussion. I am semi retired and am a graduate of Concordia University. I have always hoped that the ELCA would look seriously at more training and authorization or certification opportunities for lay people such as myself. I have assisted in worship services in the past at Salem Lutheran in Stromsburg (Our Church Home) and have occasionally led services when our Pastor, Brenda Pfiefly, has found it difficult to obtain pulpit supply. I always marvel at the power of God as he can use me to convey his word to my Brothers and Sisters in Christ. I seldom use a script when I give a sermon or homily, and it always amazes me how God puts the words that he wants spoken in my mouth. It proves that God can use even me with all my flaws and faults as the conduit for his spoken word. I thank God every time I conclude a service for putting his word in my mouth. In addition, I teach an adult Sunday School class. It would be beneficial for me to obtain some leadership training for this role as well. Thank you for reaching out to lay people such as myself for feedback.

    Yours in Christ, Owen Kinnan

    • Brian Maas says:

      Owen: thanks for serving where you do, in the ways you do. Your encouragement to offer more training possibilities for laity is helpful feedback. The synod’s primary role is to assist in resourcing ministry–this may be a great way to do that. I’d encourage you to keep an eye on the synod website (or sign up for synod e-news) for announcements about our annual Lay Leadership Academy–it’s been a great experience for its participants!

  3. Harvey Johnson says:

    I still think our goal ought to be having an ordained minister in every congregation. This means that when a small congregation can’t afford a full-time pastor, the best alternative is a part-time or bi-vocational ordained pastor. But, this means the ELCA must reduce the school debt for pastors taking part-time or bi-vocational calls. The ELCA must also revisit the issue of how many hours a week constitutes enough of a call to remain on the roster as opposed to being on-leave from call.

  4. Sarah Cordray says:

    Thank you Bishop Brian for your thoughtful reflection about PMAs. As you know, we are a sight that depends on PMA service. This ministry of 4 congregations could not afford a two pastor staff and at times I worry about it being able to afford a 1 pastor, 1 Aim, 1 PMA, and 2 part-time staff. What I am struck by in the service of our PMA and PMA-in-training is the deep compassionate love they have for this area that we serve. Knowing pastors cannot usually serve in their hometowns or home areas, I cannot express enough the great gift it is to have had a PMA who is also a farmer and understands our farmers. I cannot express enough the great gift it is to have 2 part time staff who grew up here and can bring such a depth of history and understanding to understanding our congregations and our people. One of my greatest joys is equipping this staff so that they feel empowered to lead shifting moves as our understanding of living as the church is changing. There is such an authenticity that they can bring in their leadership that we pastors cannot. I have definitely thought much about Paul in the “house churches” with Lydia and the other leaders who were the “home connection.” I believe our PMAs give us that home connection that is priceless!!

    • brianmaas says:

      Sarah: in many ways, the parish you serve is a great proving ground for a model I think could serve us well–cooperative ministry among several congregations utilizing strong lay leadership and incorporating both authorized lay leaders and rostered leaders. I’m not surprised that it works as well as it does. I don’t think the challenge is getting the setting you’re in to work; it’s getting people to be willing to cooperate across congregational “boundaries.”
      How would you articulate to members in multiple congregations the benefits (and drawbacks) of your parish? How do the members of that parish find themselves able to sustain congregational identity and culture? What do they lose of their individuality? What do they gain by way of parish identity? I think those are the deeper questions/concerns we need to address. Once people are willing to take the chance, the model can work–and well, as you and the folks of TCP are showing.

  5. Pastor Donald E. Olson says:

    Having served a number of small congregations [rural and urban] and several of them multi-congregation
    alignments, I would be very happy to be involved in any brainstorming associated with dealing with small and declining
    congregations, and how they can best be served.

  6. Vera Hummel says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful reflection. I’ve read it several times, and have especially pondered the questions you ask in the last paragraph.

    My initial response to bi-vocational pastors was “Oh no.” Not because the church can’t be served well that way, but because bi-vocational means to me “part time” and that can easily become part-time pay with full time expectations. Is there some other option?

    During the past year, I did some deeper reading on the spiritual gift of pastoring. One of the authors I read said that every congregation has all the pastors it needs to do the ministry within the congregation. The author wasn’t talking about the office of pastor, but about the people with gifts of compassion, care, hospitality, and prayer who can take more intentional roles. This makes sense to me, and doesn’t require “certification.” God gave the gifts. How is it we can help people own their gifts, unwrap them, and use them for ministry? Perhaps many are already using their gifts, and we just miss affirming the ministry they do day-to-day.

    These are wonderful questions that we should honor. How could we have conversation circles where it was safe to have these conversation with one another and trust that the Holy Spirit will participate — oh, yes, perhaps lead– the dialogue?


  7. Sara Pahl-Ramirez says:

    I’m grateful that you’ve asked us all to think and pray and communicate on this. At one point, I though I was called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. Turned out not. Then I thought about PMA, but was advised that was not a good long-term option. I heard that it might be phased out in favor of AIM and other lay leader training. I did attend Lay Leader Academy last fall, and it was great! So, what is the plan for the PMA program? Are new people still starting that prep for ministry? I think we will need more of us prepared to lead worship in small settings – homes?- because the big church buildings are money burners many congregations can no longer afford. Also, some folks who need God’s love are just NOT going to step inside one of those big buildings, but might be willing to read Scripture, pray, sing… in a setting that feels safer to them. But that raises many questions about preaching, teaching, and sharing Jesus in the Breaking of the Bread – communion. There were ways to do church at home when the church was very young… how do we do it now? I don’t know, and I trust that the Spirit will lead, but I also suspect that the institution of church is gonna get real nervous about it! Prayers for your family, in God’s good love, Sara Pahl-Ramirez PS.. Come try the Cinco de Mayo parade! 10-12 Saturday the 4th – South 24th Street, Omaha

    • brianmaas says:

      Sara: just about everything is “on the table,” including PMA and similar programs. Most of us ask the question about what’s going to happen to all of our roster designations and our lay-authorization programs, but the first question is, “What does the Church need in the 21st century to equip the saints for the work of God?” That answer needs to drive our responses to the various roster/authorization matters.
      That said, I simply don’t see the PMA program–or something very much like it–going away. It may be modified, but the core principle–providing training, authorization, support and accountability for lay leaders to serve alongside or occasionally in lieu of ordained leaders–is here to stay.
      I will be in Omaha (First Lutheran) for Cinco de Mayo, but I don’t think I can make the parade on Saturday–bummer! But I could use someone to practice Spanish with.

  8. Jonathan Jensen says:

    One dynamic of my call to ordained ministry of Word and sacrament that connects me to the historic priesthood is “set-apart-ness.” For me this is as significant as the training and structure of my role. I even feel that it sometimes “covers a multitude of sins” in its own way. I hope there would always be appropriate consideration to this aspect of ministry, which would not necessarily be lost in part-time and shared situations, but would need special validation to prevent the representation that “having church stuff on your to-do list” is the priesthood of all believers. Rather something of this “set-apart-ness” is in the priesthood of all believers in my understanding.

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