It is high time that the Book of Order has a unified, single chapter on the Commissioned Lay Pastor.
I say this because there is presently no such unified chapter and issues may arise that require constitutional guidance. Some say that the Book of Order is already too big, and it may be. That being said, since the use by the denomination of lay pastors seems to be on the increase, we could well have a better sense of direction about several matters.
At present, in the Book of Order, there is one brief section about these important church employees, (G-14.08000 and following.) The section on the minister of Word and Sacrament is familiar and extensive. It deals with the whole process of preparation from inquiry to ordination (G-6.0100 and G-14.0300 and following.) Educational requirements for the minister of Word and Sacrament are well laid out. Presbyteries have a Committee on Preparation for Ministry which, if well led and staffed, can guide the potential minister through the hoops, sometimes blazing, which lead to the final destination of readiness for a call.
From that point on, the Committee on Ministry takes over.
A study of Internet sites shows that presbyteries have a wide range of requirements for education and training of Commissioned Lay Pastors. In my own Presbytery of West Virginia, each candidate for commissioning spends two years in preparation. At the end of the training period, each candidate is examined and either approved, not approved, or required to take additional study.
Is this enough?
There is no uniform set of examinations of prospective Commissioned Lay Pastors, nor is there a comprehensive, graded Bible content examination. In fact, in my experience, there was little testing and grading of knowledge and skill in the program of preparation with which I was long associated. Part of this lack stems from the fact that in its early days the two year course was developed in order to prepare Commissioned Lay Preachers who were set apart to lead worship in churches on a temporary basis when a pastor was either absent, or not available.
They were not expected to be involved with administrative and pastoral situations, nor were they expected to administer the Sacraments (with some exceptions in the case of elders who administered Holy Communion,) nor moderate sessions.
When the Book of Order changed the title of the calling to Commissioned Lay Pastor, there was no coordinated effort to bring all our polity into a unified whole.
Some reading this will point to the fact that the section on Commissioned Lay Pastors is enough. Requirements for mentoring and supervision are stated. I must say at this point that the issue of supervision is not clear. In one place in the section regarding CLPs, the presbytery is clearly the supervisory body for the employee. In part of the same section, it is mandated that a minister of Word and Sacrament shall be assigned as mentor and supervisor. In any revisions made, the lines of accountability need to be made clear. As a mentor for several years, I did not wish to supervise the person assigned to me. Mentoring is one thing; supervision is another.
Where should this effort begin?
This work is best done at the Assembly level, with competent and capable people working to develop a chapter for the Book of Order that will cover with suitable completeness the process of becoming a lay pastor. In fact, I understand that a process of revision of the Book of Order may have already begun at the Assembly level.
As our churches are increasingly being served by elders who have not had seminary education, though often having considerable secular education, it is my hope that persons committed to the task of preaching, teaching, governance, and pastoral care should be given the best opportunities possible to discern and develop their gifts.
As time goes on, and present trends continue, it may be that a majority of small congregations in some presbyteries may be served by Commissioned Lay Pastors. A congregation may need a million dollar annual budget to afford a solo ordained pastor these days. Or, the pastor may work as “tentmaker,” working at a second job in order to give attention to a congregation. With the Commissioned Lay Pastor, this is more than likely the usual practice.
Other questions remain. Would the need for Commissioned Lay Pastors be lessened if some churches were closed or merged? Could creative ecumenical relationships be pursued so that the need for several pastors in a community was lessened?
At present, it may seem to be more important for presbyteries to maintain a specifically Presbyterian ministry in certain places. If this is so, then those who serve should be prepared in the best way, with guidance from a revision of the Book of Order.
Lawton W. Posey is a retired minister living in Charleston, W.V.