Holy Communion (Lay Presidency)

I am going to throw something out there that may be a hot button topic for some (at least it is for some here in the SW MN Synod).  I hope that by me writing this I don’t get myself "in trouble" with the synod, but my guess is that they would want a pastor willing to speak their mind.  So I am going to go with that belief. 

The topic I want to throw out there is the issue of lay presidency.  If you don’t know what this is basically it is the celebration of Holy Communion where a lay person (instead of an ordained clergy person) presides.  In SW MN and other rural synods this is an important practice in some areas because of the lack of pastors (in the Minneapolis, St. Paul synods and other urban areas this is NOT an issue because of the plethora of additional pastors waiting for call or retired).  Sometimes small churches have to rely on lay leaders to lead their congregations in worship (and preside at communion).  Because of this problem in rural areas there are programs such as Faith Builders and SAMs (Synodically Authorized Ministers).  To limit lay presidency would be to limit a congregation’s access to the Lord’s Supper.

Recently, lay presidency has come under scrutiny among many bishops and has been a heated topic of discussion at synod assembly.  When I has on internship lay presidency was an issue.  My supervisor wanted me to preside at communion at least once before I left.  So he was able to get the bishop’s approval for one service (and lucky for me because the bishop before him would not have given the authorization).  I don’t get it.  A person can do a lot more damage preaching than they could presiding at communion.  As I heard a colleague quote someone, "Any idiot can read the words of institution" (not that pastor’s are idiots…you get my point).  As people (as pastors, SAMs or the like) we add nothing to the bread and wine.  Our faith (or knowledge) does not make communion any more effective or ineffective.  As our mantra says its "Word alone".  God’s Word does the work…not us.

Now…I do understand maintaining "good order" (that is the reason the Church requires ordained pastors to preside at communion) but if you have a SAM or some other trained person, why can’t they preside in extreme cases?  Rural ministry has a number of challenges that urban areas do not have (or do not understand).  We have small congregations fighting to stay open.  We have faithful, hungry people longing for the Lord’s Supper.  Why do we have to limit the leadership to a select group of people?

I guess the next question would be…then why go to seminary?  Why have a group of people set apart for the ministry of word and sacrament?  Why not just become a Synodically Authorized Minister…that would be cheaper?  The thing is…pastors do serve a purpose.  We are not any more special than anyone else.  Our calling is not any more important than the calling to be a garbage collector.  And lay presidency is not going to minimize the role of pastors.  All that lay presidency will do is allow flexibility in proclaiming this the gospel…something that is free…something that we have no right to "control".

So…where do you stand on this?  Is it okay for a lay person to preside at communion (in extreme situations)?  Should bishops be free to give this authorization?  Am I missing something in my argument?  I would love to hear from you.

I know there are many various different opinions out there and I am not trying to minimize those…I am simply stating my belief and current frustrations.  I honor other beliefs and encourage healthy dialog.  So leave you comments here…I (and others) would love to hear from you.

God bless!


30 thoughts on “Holy Communion (Lay Presidency)

  1. This became an issue at my internship congregation just this week. Due to an extremely rare scheduling conflict, my pastor considered canceling the weekly Wednesday morning Eucharist we have here at St John’s by the Gas Station. What a shame, I thought. People would be denied the comfort of the sacrament just because the guy with the Holy Hands couldn’t be there.

    I view the local congregation as the steward of the sacraments, and that within the congregation the pastor is called to administer the sacrament. At the end of the day, I have a more congregational polity than does the ELCA. Right now we need the Holy Hands of a Pastor to administer the sacrament, and we can get those Holy Hands only through the Bishop’s office. If a pastor is not available, we still need the Bishop’s permission to allow a non-ordained person to do the sacrament. This non-ordained person is, then, nothing more than an extension of the Bishop’s Holy Hands. Either way, it all goes back to the Bishop. This make me a little queasy.

    I would propose a new polity that allows for the broad cooperation, collegiality and shared order of ordained ministry that we have in the ELCA, but which grants local congregations more flexibility in allowing local, lay presidency at the table. A pastor presiding at the sacraments would be the norm in this new system, but in pastoral absences and extreme situations (your internship experience would not be extreme) a lay leader could preside. This lay leader would be trained locally according to synod guidelines (synod guidelines serve as a minimum requirement – local congregations could augment), yet these leaders would be locally commissioned to preside in that congregation. Presidency at the table would not be a last-minute, grab someone with a pulse thing, as it sometimes is with lay readers or communion assistants. This would still be someone trained to fulfill the duties and responsibilities of the sacramental office. But at the end of the day, that office belongs to the local congregation, not the Bishop, it seems to me.

    The question is this: who has stewardship, responsibility, “ownership” of the sacrament? Is it inherently in the local congregation, or does the sacrament “belong” to the broader church and is “given” to the local congregation only through the authority of the Bishop, acting on behalf of the broader church? I think the denomination can establish “rules” for communion practices of member congregations, but at the end of the day those rules should reflect that the sacrament belongs in and is administered by the local congregation – that is, by the local incarnation of the Body of Christ, gathered around the Word and celebrating His Presence in water, spoken words, bread, wine and gathered community.

    I don’t know . . . so much more to say and reflect and think about this issue. It has huge consequences for the order of the church and our understanding of ministry, ordination, and the importance of training and education for our leaders. Great post. Thanks!

  2. Great points, Chris…thank you.

    I agree…my internship situation was not an “extreme case” but I should be more clear: I believe interns should be allowed to preside at the disgression of thier supervisors.

    Secondly — I like your new polity proposal. It is a more bottom up approach (one that I feel the Church wants to move away from).

    Thank you, again, for your thoughtful comments.

  3. There are several issues here. Among them:

    The fact that lay people can serve communion sometimes shows that it isn’t a “requirement” for a pastor to do it. Is there a rite of ordination or requirements for masters degrees in the Bible? My pastor quoted her seminary prof recently, “Always remember, you are the paid believer in the church.” Stay humble.

    The pastor may be ordained to preside at the sacraments, but we all know that the schooling is for more than that. It includes many studies that few lay people will ever get to have on their own. So the pastor will always have a special role. At least we hope so.

    Yes, the word and the elements are what make communion. That is Lutheran Doctrine. Don’t diminish that by adding that a pastor is needed.

    How often “should” people have communion? What are you depriving some people of if they “can’t” have it because a certain person is absent? Over Christmas vacation, my daughter attended three services without receiving communion just because it wasn’t scheduled. She was disappointed. Remember that some people can’t attend all the time, but when they do attend, they may want/expect communion. I would think that those times when the college students are home would be the best time for the communion service.

    Cancelling communion because the pastor will be absent, especially in an urban area, just reflects poor planning because there would be pastors in the area, most likely. We almost always have retired pastors in our midst in a small church, so maybe I’m not being realistic. But if there is a trained lay person who is authorized by the bishop to preside, that also takes planning. Its not as if they are plucking somebody from the local bar to pour the wine.

    Then a ‘snark’ comment: These days some churches have “canned music.” Why not have a recording of the bishop saying the “words?”

  4. MA

    Note: I am just a lay person..:) (…and not trained in theology)

    I’ve never before heard the term “good order”. However, I must admit, that sounds a lot like “pastor job security” to me. If I understand correctly, as a lay person, I can be trusted to teach the Lord’s Prayer, the 10 Commandments, and the rest of the Small Catechism to my family or confirmation class, but not accurately say the words of institution? This doesn’t make much sense to me. I thought pastor’s didn’t have “special powers”?

    As I said…I’m not a theologian or clergy, so I could be totally off-base here. 🙂


  5. PS — I do remember our discussion back in May. I just got fired up again when this came up at a conference pastor’s meeting where we were told that the bishop is going to be clapping down on lay presidency. And later learned it is because of some pressure from neighboring bishops. Thank you though, for including the link to add to our discussion.

  6. Matt — You are not off base. “Good order” is about maintaining the integrity of Holy Communion, but I don’t equate it to a pastor’s job security. We exist within a priesthood of all believers where a pastor has no “special power”. Pastor’s do have training in theology that lay people don’t have or may never have, but I am no better than anyone else.

    Personally I believe there are those that want to maintain that pastors are indeed “special”.

    Thank you, Matt, for you comments.

  7. Tink70

    Pastors are special people… by virtue of their theological and relational training, approval through the candidacy process, and by perception of most Lutheran congregations, at least because a leader is a leader. And depending on how close your Lutheran acorn falls from the Roman Catholic tree, the pastor is still the center of worship and the person that makes Eucharist “happen.” I attended a nondenominational church where the pastor was a construction contractor in his real life. Is that closer to the “Acts church” as nondenoms attempt to attest? Only if you wipe away the Jewish heritage implicit in Christianity. I’ve provided homilies at lay led services, but I would never dream of being responsible for the elements, and that sense increases the more I learn sound theology.

  8. Kara

    Okay, here comes the feisty one. You asked for it. 😉

    Well, like I’ve said before….we all know in the bible Jesus says no one but ELCA ordained pastors are to give communion. Riiiiiight.
    Actually, Jesus just says that when we take bread and wine (and in my opinion, pretty much anything), we should remember Him. Everything else is rules that men made up at some point in history. People studying at one of 8 particular schools for four years, being approved by committees, having a bishop blessed ordination service, installation….yeah, all made up by us. All church tradition. (I’m not forgetting the Levites here, I understand that certain people are called out by God to do particular work for him. But this is very different.) Mostly, this set of rules by the church was likely for good order. And that makes some sense, perhaps. Perhaps not.
    I’ve been taught that Lutherans believe that communion is a means of Grace. God’s grace is offered through it.
    So when it comes to the bishop/synod not “letting” lay people (by the way, aka CHRISTIANS) preside over communion, you are basically withholding grace from God’s people. So if those people happen to live in a place such as rural Minnesota…what? too bad for them? No grace for you! Move to the Twin Cities if you want some of God’s grace.
    It’s disgraceful for any bishop or synod or anyone to tell people following Jesus Christ that only certain ones of them are to “remember Him” and only a very few certain approved, schooled ones are to remind/lead/help others to “remember Him.”
    I say let every Christ lover, every doubter, every denier, every betrayer, every leader, every child remember Him and his sacrifice and grace any time, any place, with any one present (or not present). Can you imagine God would want it any other way?

  9. Wow! I’ve been on both sides of this. As a seminarian and newly ordained person, I was a huge advocate of lay presidency. I think it was mid-way through my first call where I really started to rethink that, and by 10 years into the ministry was pretty firmly set against it. For me it is a matter of ecclesiology, not as some might suggest “job security”. (Look, presiding at communion is actually one of the easier tasks I have as pastor. You are right, a lay person can do it … but that’s not the question … it is *should* a lay person do it.) We have a tendency to think that each congregation is the full expression of the church. Cooperation is still pretty rare in the church. Reservation and transportation from one congregation to another has more historical and ecclesial support than does lay presidency. I think the question gets cast in the wrong way.

  10. sorry. I read Luther Punk, and I still think there is a place for lay presidency in the church. When I served in rural south dakota I noticed something: a lot of those little towns used to have episcopal congregations, too. They’re gone. Lutheran churches: still there. And I would much rather have a Lutheran Layperson administer the sacrament, especially one who has been teaching the catechism to his/her children, than an ordained clergyperson of a denomination that didn’t have a sacramental understanding of the Holy Communion. Although I know that this doesn’t affect the efficacy of the sacrament. see “Donatist controvery.” –the efficacy of the sacrament does not depend on the good moral standing of the priest.
    Also, the way I undestand it, in the system where there are 7 sacraments (and ordination is one) only priests can administer the sacraments. We have 2 sacraments. Ordination is not a sacrament.

  11. phil

    I know that there is denomintation heritage and doctrine but I must ask this, “Where does the Bible say about this?” As I have read throughout the Bible I have not seen God’s commands for the limitation of only ordained pastors serving communion. HE DIDNT! Yes, I do believe that the one serving needs tohave an understanding of what is going on and the importance of the Meal. I know many lay people,that I believe have a better understanding of that than pastors. Paul says all need to examine themselves before partaking of the body and blood-1Cor 11. If the bishop wants to focus on something why dont we begin to do a better job about preparing those who are about to enter into that communion. That is where God is concerned.
    When we begin to put the focus on the means we forget about End. Many of these rules and regulations that MEN make up are so focused on the means that we forget the end. Communion is a gift of God in which we can enter into that Grace and remember what was done for US! Are we going to restrict that from others because there is not the right “ordained” people around? As a seminary student and worker in the church, I shudder at that thought. Who are we to dictate our laws about God’s HOly and Awesome Gift! If this is where the church is going no wonder people are very quick to jump ship. Let’s stop focusing on the “rules and regulations” of humans and open ourselves to see God’s Will. I will resonate what JEsus said to the pharisees, that they were so focused on the rules that they set up, and forgotten that God wants and focuses on the heart. God said in Isaiah (I paraphrase) Get away from ME with all your sacrifices and rituals they mean nothing because your heart is not near. In this case of Lay presidency, the bishop should not make those restrictions. It is a manner of power and who is man that they will dictate over the Holy Communion the gift from God!

  12. Kara

    Well said, Phil.
    Also, I would like to add to my above comment. I’m going to correct myself on the whole letting anyone partake in communion, wherever they’re at with God. In reading instructions in Corinthians, it is clear that those who come in an “unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord”. So there is a restriction here, I see. But I still haven’t figured out how to come in a worthy manner. We’re never worthy. And if we’re ever at the point where we are worthy to receive it, then what do we need it for? Grace is for the unworthy. I don’t know…that’s a confusing one for me.

  13. As a lay person/seminarian, I too have been caught on both sides of the lay presidency issue. There are arguments to me made in favor of such, but the one that keeps coming up is the unavailability of communion for those who desire to celebrate the sacrament often or with regularity. Question is, when does “not too often” become seldom, and seldom become not at all? In the early church most Christians received the sacrament once a year on Easter. If one receives communion on Easter Sunday every year, is that regular communion? By today’s standards it wouldn’t be, but today there are no actual standards for frequency. Some congregations see often as meaning weekly communion, while others celebrate monthly or bi-weekly. Often can have many definitions; it all depends on context. All of the aforementioned circumstances could be perceived as being often. The important thing to remember is that the sacrament isn’t like milk; it doesn’t have an expiration date. For this reason, I don’t see the argument of weekly communion as one that would support lay presidency, nor do I see the infrequency of monthly (or perhaps longer) communion as an extreme circumstance.

    One argument against lay presidency that often gets overlooked is the withholding of communion, which does occur in Lutheran and other denominational circles, although not very often. I don’t quite agree with the statement “if you know you aren’t worthy — then you are worthy.” To me, one’s “worthiness” is a matter of repentance. True, we are all sinners and fall short of God’s glory, but unless we are repentant, we are not worthy to take our place at the table. Repentance is more than asking forgiveness; repentance is self examination, a struggle with one’s sinful condition and a faithful response in turning away from the powers that cause us to stumble. Not all people are repentant, and in most cases only the pastor and parishioner would be privy to such information. Withholding of communion is not punishment; it is a faithful response to a situation for the benefit of the individual. In such a case it is the pastor’s responsibility to faithfully withhold the sacrament until such time said parishioner is able to come to repentance and resume his/her place at the table. In my estimation, we place an extreme burden on lay folk when we ask them to preside at the altar. These sorts of issues, and many others, are not their responsibility, for they cannot acknowledge one’s repentance and in Christ’s stead pronounce one’s absolution.

  14. david, I don’t mean to be glib about it, but I believe that repentance is about being aware of our unworthiness. of course there is a struggle there, a self-examination, but I also know that back in the “good old days” people who would hear the words “eat worthily” and not come to communion because they felt acutely their sinfulness.
    as far as withholding communion, yes, it is rare, but as you say, once in awhile necessary.
    I think of repentance as “turning toward forgiveness and life” rather than judgment and death. A very wise person once told me that repentance was realizing that you cannot save yourself by your own efforts.
    receiving the sacrament worthily is also about receiving in trust, trusting that God’s word does what it says it does, that is, kills and makes alive.
    When once of my congregations had its 100th birthday, we did the exhortation from one of the old service books.
    I was surprised at what the exhortation said — there were three things, and one of them was that to eat and drink worthily is to TRUST that the bread and wine are what God says they are.
    I understand about taking repentance seriously, but I also don’t want to make God’s grace into a new law, a way that we put ourselves right rather than letting God make us righteous.

  15. This has been a fascinating discussion and I know that what I say is certainly not as articulate, and as a student of Dr. Oldenburg, and a newbie second-career seminarian, I hope he does not see these rambling and not-so lofty thoughts and rethink my grade. What about lay presiders? I know that I have seen that this is a “no-no” here in my part of the world among more than a few.
    Is it about being more that an “element dispenser”? About also being a shepherd and a leader responsible for a congregation? Does this happen with lay leaders? When I was lay President of a congregation in transition after the end of a 40 year pastorate in a congregation with 338 members, with “regular office hours”, you could have fooled me that I was not a responsible shepherd. Although never the presider.
    I have however distributed home bound communion elements “consecrated” by the Holy Hands, and at a youth retreat where we participated in a liturgy and the kids communed each other without a pastor there ( again “pre-consecrated” by Holy Hands). At least I was told the elements were “consecrated” – not actually sure.
    Is it about distinctions between the “ministry of all believers” and the office of the ordained? About speaking God in the pulpit, at the altar and the font, proclaiming forgiveness on behalf of God? Lay people can preach. If the sacraments are about God’s action, which is what distinguishes these acts, what does this mean for who can speak God to the people? Is it about being responsible to the sanctity of sacramental practice? About not just engaging in random acts? Can this be taught to non-ordained?
    Is it about the church as an institution, or about leaders of “the Church”? Is it about the fact we are all “the Church”? All in need of the message and acts that demonstrate grace, mercy and forgiveness? I am troubled by the notion that those who have communion whenever they want it can say to others, “ well how often do you need it anyway?” This is counterintuitive to the move of the broader Church, and our understanding of what happens at the table. Are we not then saying, if you don’t have enough money or power to get a pastor, find somewhere else to be? Are we not suggesting that Mission development is a waste of time too, because these congregations will not have regular pastors? How does TEEM fit in to this?
    Are we “giving up” on people who seek out the Lutheran church in certain places? I think that if we mean to spread the message of Christ far and wide, and we mean to show the full expression of this, we need to explore the balance of how this can happen. This is not a job security issue, there are simply not enough pastors to go around. And the truth is , as I have seen it, some places would never be satisfied with less than a pastor, while others would just be glad to fully experience worship. If that is the case, we need to explore how to encourage vocation and care for the collective flock in meaningful ways, ways that honor the service of others and ways that encourage growth in the faith for all. I’m just sayin’..

  16. Interesting direction…especially as it regards the Biblical witness. The Bible doesn’t speak of ordination in the strictest sense: it speaks of charisms. People are called to different roles. In this case, I am trying advocate for the fact that some are called to be sacramental ministers, and some are not. It is not a question of value or of clericalism or of me as ordained person thinking I am so how better than a lay person. Far from it. There are lay people far holier than I. My opposition to lay presidency has more to do with understanding how God calls and gifts people, and what is entailed in the giving of those gifts. This is far more than simple man-made rules. It is about discerning the order with which God wants the church to live. As Earl said, this is about ecclesiology, not about who has the RIGHT to do what in the church. Truth is, not a one of us is worthy or has the right to anything God has given us.

    If the church as a whole were concerned about access to communion and about the sense of clericalism that is so present, then we need to rethink ordination and the process that accompanies it. Let’s actually do some spiritual formation of our pastors-to-be rather than telling them to go get an MDiv and take CPE and calling it a day. Trust me, I am all for abolishing the MDiv as a normative requirement.

    In the end, I guess, it doesn’t really matter what I think. I am just mission developer, and will probably not be consulted by bishops any time soon when they are considering this topic. Still, I would never ask a lay person to preside at the altar in my absence.

  17. I just felt that Biblical witness is also a factor that not does not trump other issues, but should not be overlooked. In fact everyone here is bringing facets of this issue to bear. I think that the level of interest and dialogue here shows that there is a lot of genuine and deep thinking about what it means to be the church. This is a multivalent issue. “If the church as a whole were concerned about access to communion and about the sense of clericalism that is so present, then we need to rethink ordination and the process that accompanies it. Let’s actually do some spiritual formation of our pastors-to-be rather than telling them to go get an MDiv and take CPE and calling it a day.” LP, I think this is well-spoken, as is Earl’s point about ecclesiology. I too will not be consulted by bishops. One thing I have noticed at seminary is that for all of the valuable academic learning, spiritual direction is not an overt consideration. One of my classmates is Presbyterian. She must spend a year in inquiry status, before she is then a “candidate” in the way we view candidacy. Thanks to Eric for generating this wonderful energy and for all of the great insights of everyone.

  18. LAG – the one thing that encourages me in this whole thing is seeing how deeply vested we all are in the church and her practices. Everybody contributing to this discussion here and on other blogs are doing so because we care so deeply. That is a very good thing!

  19. BrianH

    The authority to preside at communion derives from God. Seminary graduation is fine, but that is not the call. God calls. The local congregation confirms that call. God uses the local congregation to “expose” who He has called, not the bishops.

  20. Brian — so what I am hearing is that you agree with a previous comment where the authority to preside at the Table resides with the local congregation…right?

    What if a person is called to help small, local, rural congregations by getting theology training through a program such as faith builders and serve congregations in that compacity. Maybe they can not or are not called to go to seminary but can serve in another way. Should these people (theologically trained lay leaders) be allowed to preside the Table.

  21. phil

    Brian: Thatis an excellent note to make. And as we enter into this discussion and think of the Church we must always remember whose it is. Gods. He annoints the pastors and HE annoints those in HIS ministry. What would happen if we as the Body were to fall upon our knees in prayer and passionately seek after HIS hand and will instead of us asking HIM to bless our will and our ways?

  22. What ever you told is absolutely right, I totally agree with you on this post that bishops should be free to give this authorization weather it is in good or extrema situations, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  23. This subject came up in real life in a phone conversation I just had with DD. DD is awaiting a call to an ELCA church. DD is a ELCA seminary graduate. During internship, DD wasn’t allowed to preside at communion, meaning “saying the words” but did distribute the elements because the pastor had physical limitations that presented doing so. DD may be assigned, unordained, to serve a church as an interim. They would either not have communion for awhile or someone else would come on certain Sundays, who would, obviously, not be the “shepard of that flock.” But DD could take communion to shut-ins if the elements were blessed ahead of time. (Our church also does this, but using lay people to distribute to shut-ins immediately after the Sunday service.)

    It seems to me that there is something here about following the letter of the rules but not the spirit of the rules.

  24. PS — I am totally with you here. I arrived at Salem on June 1, 2004 but was not ordained until July 2. I needed to get permission from my bishop to preside at communion (which he did without question). I was fortunate that I got to preside at communion a number of times on internship.

    But I agree with you…what about the spirit of the “rule”. In this situation the congregation should have the authority to allow the called (but not yet ordained) pastor lead them in Holy Communion.

    Thank you for your contribution here.

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