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Save the Assisting Ministers

According to Webster’s online dictionary, a rubric is:

1a: an authoritative rule, especially : a rule for conduct of a liturgical service[1]

The liturgies at the front of our hymnals have included rubrics for as long as I’ve been Lutheran. The rubrics describe how to conduct the various parts of the service. They are in red, like the words of Jesus in old-timey Bibles, so we will surely notice them. Most of us have seen them . . .

. . . and learned to look past them for the stuff in black. If you’ve been a worshiping Lutheran for a while, you’ve probably internalized most of the rubrics. For example, you already know that the presiding minister and the assembly greet each other as the service begins.

You probably also know that the rubrics specify (or suggest) certain actors for certain parts of the service. It is the Presiding Minister who greets, leads the confession, and blesses folks at the end of the service. According to the rubrics, an Assisting Minister shares the Prayers of Intercession, leads the Offering Prayer, and dismisses the congregation, among other duties.

The inclusion of the laity in worship leadership reflects the major roots of our church in Scandinavian and Finnish churches that emphasized lay participation in worship. As those traditions migrated to North America, worship became even more democratic, including laypeople performing nearly every role in worship. The 1979 Manual on the Liturgy describes the vitality of lay participation in this way:

Liturgy means “work of the people,” but too often in the past, the liturgy gave the impression that it was the work of the pastor. It seemed as though the minister (usually singular) did the work—he (always male) preached, he celebrated the sacraments, he “conducted the service.” But the liturgy has always been the responsibility of all of the people of God.

One feature of contemporary worship is the emphasis on shared leadership to indicate that the service is not something the pastor does while the people watch. Instead, it is an action shared by all who assemble to worship.

Lay participation in worship, particularly in the highly visible role of Assisting Minister, is one way we honor our Reformation heritage in all its egalitarian glory. However, as worship attendance declines across the church, utility is taking the place of equity.

More and more worship services seem to be returning to the style that the Manual on the Liturgy assigns to the past: worship led almost entirely by the pastoral leader, with the only role for laypersons that of reading the lessons that don’t have any red letters in them.

Yes, it is difficult to field a group of 6-12 lay volunteers for each service when attendance may be only two or three times that number. But what happens when only the “paid staff” lead worship is that worship becomes a passive enterprise: a performance by the pastoral leader(s) for the people. And here’s the rub: they can just as easily watch that from the comfort of home, as many have discovered.

People don’t come to church to observe a performance. They come to church to participate in an ever-unfolding incarnational drama enacted in echoing sanctuaries everywhere—a drama in which they are called to be actors. The more we invite them into that drama—the more they recite the prayers, handle the elements, and send forth the saints—the better the church is. So please, save the Assisting Ministers!

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