The Licensed Lay Deacon issue is not something that sprang up overnight, so it certainly cannot be solved overnight, either.  The concept of a layman being licensed to serve in Word and Sacrament was first adopted by The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod at the 1989 Synod Convention in Wichita, Kansas.  At that Convention it was decided to permit men who had been trained and licensed by districts as “Licensed Lay Deacons” to preach, teach, and administer the Sacraments.  Since then most of our districts have created their own LLD training program (according to the Task Force report, all but eight districts employ LLDs (Convention Workbook (CW) p. 251)).

However, the conditions which led to this decision go back to before the LCMS was even founded.

Not having enough pastors to go around was a major concern for the earliest German immigrants.  Even before the American Revolution, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (a German Lutheran pastor who came to America as a missionary in 1742) discovered that the number of unchurched German (Lutheran) immigrants in America far outnumbered the clergy who served them, and furthermore that the majority of those pastors had little or no training or were “self-proclaimed” pastors who lacked any seminary training.  He worked his entire life to rectify this situation through both ministerial conferences and the training of new pastors.

When the forebears of the LCMS immigrated to America in 1839, the situation was little better, and there was still a very pressing need for more pastors to serve the massive numbers of German Lutheran immigrants pouring into the country.  In 1841, Pastor Wilhelm Loehe, pastor of a church in Neuendettelsau, Bavaria, began training and sending pastors who could serve in North America (many of whom helped to form the LCMS in 1847).  These men were given basic theological training before being sent as missionaries throughout the American Midwest.  As an interesting side note, one of my own ancestors was a graduate of Loehe’s Neuendettelsau training program who immigrated to America in 1857.  Loehe also helped to found Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne (CTS), where men in America could receive basic seminary training in order to enter the North American mission field.

For the first 70+ years of the Synod, it was common for LCMS pastors to serve multiple congregations and preaching stations as “circuit riders”:  they would travel from station to station and preach at all of them over the course of a 1-3-month period.  When they were there they would celebrate the Lord’s Supper, baptize, and instruct.  When they could not be there, the congregation’s elders would lead worship and read a pre-written sermon.  This was one way that the LCMS dealt with its lack of trained pastors (among other concerns).

For the majority of its history (up until Robert Preus became its President in 1974), CTS served as a “practical seminary” which had relatively loose entrance requirements (at first there were no educational requirements, but over time they established a requirement of an eighth-grade education, followed by a high school education), allowing a large number of students to enter the program and become pastors.  CTS would train pastors in a program concluding with a certificate or (eventually) Bachelors of Divinity and ordination.  This stood in contrast to the program offered at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis (CSL), which was founded by C.F.W. Walther in 1839 as an “academic seminary” which could train “pastoral theologians.”

The two seminaries were both absolutely necessary, as both trained students for slightly different purposes.  The graduates of CTS became wonderful pastors; the graduates of CSL were also wonderful pastors, but also became theological professors to train new church workers.  By admitting much larger numbers of students (many of them “second-career”), CTS was able to meet much of the Synod’s clergy need (their graduating classes numbered up to a maximum of about 600/year—compare that to the 141 candidates from both seminaries in all programs who received calls this May!).

Following the 1973 controversy at CSL, Robert Preus left the faculty of CSL to become President of CTS.  As CTS President, he realized that part of the reason the controversy progressed to the level it did was because all of the Synod’s theologians were being trained first at a single seminary (CSL), and that seminary’s faculty members were considered to be the “top theologians” in the Synod.  Consequently, one way to avoid this in the future would be to elevate CTS to be CSL’s equal academically.  In so doing, the two seminaries could serve as “checks and balances” to each other theologically.

Since 1974, however, there has not been a “practical seminary” in the LCMS, and there have also been a greater number of unfilled pastoral calls.  The Synod and seminaries have experimented with various programs to allow men to become pastors, including the Distance Education Leading to Ordination (DELTO) Program and its successor the Specific Ministry Pastor (SMP) Program, as well as programs for non-English speaking pastors (Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology (EIIT), Deaf Institute of Theology (DIT), Center for Hispanic Studies (CHS), and Cross Cultural Ministry Center (CCMC)).  Through all of these different programs, the Synod has attempted to address a lot of different ministry needs.

In addition to these programs, as noted at the beginning, the 1989 Synod Convention opened the door for districts to train and license laymen to serve in Word and Sacrament ministry as “Licensed Lay Deacons.”  This was done as a way to meet the needs of congregations which, for whatever reason, could not support a seminary-trained pastor.  However, was this the right decision?  The answer to this question requires a deeper study of both Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, which is the next article in this series.

But first, let us pray:

Lord of the Church, throughout the ages You have called men and women into Your service in the Church.  We thank You for those men You have called as pastors, missionaries, and deacons, who have been so instrumental in the formation of Your Church, particularly the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.  Continue to call pastors and other church workers, that Your Church may be built up and many may come to faith.  We ask it in Jesus’ Name.  Amen.