Today, the vision of leadership in the assembly of Christians gathered for the worship of Almighty God in Jesus Christ is a vision of shared leadership. Shared leadership is the goal in many Christian denominations and congregations. It is especially important in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Our constitutions (churchwide, synod, and congregation), as well as our worship books all describe leadership based on gifts and call.
"One feature of contemporary worship is the emphasis on shared leadership to indicate that the service is not something that the pastor does while the people watch but is an action shared by all who assemble to worship and over which one is called to preside" (Manual on the Liturgy: Lutheran Book of Worship, page 9).
Our worship books make a distinction between presiding minister; assisting minister, and leader. Generally, the presiding minister at Holy Communion is an ordained minister (pastor) of the congregation. Such a person has been trained, called and ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the church. The liturgy of Holy Communion, by designating certain leadership responsibilities to the presiding minister, is careful to reflect this church’s commitments to the role of ordained ministry in its life and witness.
The role of the ordained minister is a confessional commitment in the ELCA. It rests on the insight of Article 14 of the Augsburg Confession: "It is taught among us that nobody should publicly teach or preach or administer the sacraments in the church without a regular call." That "regular" call comes to expression in the ordination of people to the pastoral office. In this church others may also be called regularly to service as associates in ministry, diaconal ministers or deaconesses. But these calls are carefully distinguished from the call described in the Augsburg Confession, article 14, to "publicly teach or preach or administer the sacraments in the church."
The vision of shared leadership comes to expression when lay assisting ministers, along with the ordained, exercise leadership in the liturgical assembly. The leadership of an assisting minister who fills a designated role (or other leadership roles not specifically designated) gives witness to this shared leadership. Appropriate training and gifts are required for this ministry, just as they are for ordained ministry, though the gifts and training may be different.
Additional lay assisting ministers are also important to this vision. The ministry of the readers of lessons and those who help with the distribution of Holy Communion or assist at Holy Baptism all build on this vision. Ministers of hospitality, ushers, acolytes and servers, and the altar guild all contribute to this leadership.
The term "presiding minister" makes the best sense in this context of many leaders exercising many gifts in the assembly for worship. The ordained minister does not preside in the sense of "lording it over" the assembly. Rather, the ordained presides (like a good "chairperson" in Robert’s Rules of Order), encouraging and calling forth leadership gifts, and so enriching and enabling the assembly.
What roles traditionally belong to the presiding minister in Holy Communion?
Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness
- Offering the invocation
- Inviting to confession
- Beginning the confession
- Speaking the word in forgiveness
- Offering the apostolic greeting
- Speaking or intoning the prayer of the day (and its salutation)
- Reading the gospel
- Preaching the sermon
- Concluding the prayers with the commendation
- Greeting the assembly in the peace of Christ
- Speaking/intoning the great thanksgiving (whether eucharistic prayer or Words of Institution)
- Participating and overseeing the distribution of Holy Communion
- Speaking the post-communion blessing
- Speaking/intoning the blessing
Perhaps the most striking thing about this list is how few items it contains in terms of quantity. Many other people may be and should be used to lead every aspect of the liturgy that is not limited by our confessional commitments to the role of the ordained office in the life of the church. Assigning multiple clergy in a congregation to take on parts of the liturgy designated for laity misses this important opportunity to model an assembly where the spirit calls many to serve.
The leadership of the daily prayer offices of morning prayer and evening prayer and prayer at the close of day, is not restricted to persons who are ordained. Likewise, responsive prayer needs a leader, but that leader need not be ordained. In congregations where a major celebration of morning prayer is a part of the Sunday schedule, the pastor may preside in his or her capacity as the congregation’s called leader. However, many congregations that use these offices more frequently often rotate the leadership among those who have the gifts and training to be good leaders of prayer. Congregations with called cantors have another type of leader on which they can call for such services.
Holy Baptism and all the services in Occasional Services clearly indicate the leadership roles. Anointing of the sick with oil also traditionally has been associated with the pastoral office and so is appropriately done by ordained ministers. The tradition and the constitution of this church also assign a special role to ordained pastors in the ministry of individual confession. This guarantees someone making a confession that the confidentiality of that confession will be protected by the minister. (See ELCA Constitution, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions, 7.45)
In some services related to call, such as installation of bishops, pastors and other rostered ministers, consecration of diaconal ministers, and commissioning of associates in ministry, a bishop is designated by this church as the appropriate presiding minister. On these occasions, too, the vision at work is one of shared leadership with the appropriate called minister presiding among many leaders and ministries.
Note: The documents of this church make allowance for lay people to preside at Holy Communion in certain circumstances. These circumstances are carefully detailed in the constitutions. (See ELCA Constitution, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions, 7.61.01., and The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament.)