From grief to joy, burnout to blessings – church members serving their congregations in times of pastoral vacancy can go through the full gamut of states and emotions. We spoke to Sabine Haeusler and Adam Morris about the surprising ways God can meet our needs, provided we’re open to his guidance.

When it comes to the pastoral shortage in the LCANZ and the church’s ability to survive and thrive in spite of it, Sabine Haeusler is optimistic – but conditionally so.

‘I’m optimistic as long as we concentrate on our mission – which is getting the gospel out there – then we’ll be doing our job as members of the church and as faithful Christians’, says Sabine, from Outer Eastern Lutheran Church in Melbourne’s outskirts, and the chair of the Victorian District’s Council for Ministry Support. ‘But if we are just looking to support ourselves and our congregations and looking inward, then I’m not confident, I’m not optimistic. We need to concentrate on getting the gospel out and the other things will flow from that.’

When Pastor Tom Peitsch retired in 2020, Sabine, who was then Outer Eastern chairperson, wasn’t sure when or even if the congregation would have another pastor. It was during the first year of COVID and churches were unable to open for worship, let alone consider calling a new pastor.

‘It was a matter of looking at ourselves and asking whether we could actually afford to call another pastor’, Sabine says. ‘And whether that was the sort of call someone would want to accept – to a very small congregation where not much was happening.

‘We were an older congregation with not many families with children. And a lot of those families decided to go somewhere where their children would get more out of it, which was understandable. But we kept going. And when we reopened, it was just small numbers.’

Formerly worshipping at both Immanuel Lilydale and Luther College in Croydon about 10 kilometres to the west, the congregation decided to revert to just one site – Lilydale. Members also started looking at how they were going to survive without a pastor. ‘We’d already started this work when we knew Pastor Tom was retiring’, Sabine says. ‘We worked out how to run the congregation, who would look after pastoral care. So, we were ready for his vacancy. But then COVID hit, and we were locked down. We were able to have Zoom meeting services but having COVID and the vacancy together just really hit us badly.’

After reopening, they had lay readers in place and a staff member to take care of administrative duties and some pastoral care. But when that person resigned, they advertised the position unsuccessfully. It led to a re-think of their priorities.

It also led to an unexpected blessing, as members stepped up to fill the needs. ‘We then got volunteers in to do things – volunteers to organise the services, volunteers to do the weekly newsletter, all those sorts of things’, Sabine says. ‘Pastoral care was seen as a big issue. However, a core group were already attending worship, engaged on rosters and/or attending Bible study, Shedmen or other congregation activities. Pastoral care was already going on simply in what one person identified as their “trust group”. What a blessing!’

But what came next for the congregation in December 2021 was a truly unexpected joy. ‘We’d written to the District inquiring about our alternatives’, Sabine says. ‘Could we employ a pastoral care worker rather than a pastor? Could we have a lay person licensed for word and sacrament ministry? And then comes the blessing that one of our members said he felt called to serve our congregation in that sort of role!’

That member was Ed Blow, who about four years earlier had joined the Lutheran Church through his family contact with Lutheran schools in Melbourne. Originally a Catholic, he had studied for the priesthood about 40 years prior. ‘We were absolutely over the moon to have someone to apply to be licensed and willing to take that role’, Sabine says. ‘The proposal went to church council and then to the congregation to see whether they would be willing to go down that path. And it was met with joy.’

After an approach to District Bishop Lester Priebbenow, Ed completed the requirements and was licensed and installed into word and sacrament ministry in 2022. He is currently part of the LCANZ’s Specific Ministry Pastor (SMP) program and is mentored by Pastor Tom. As well as conducting at least two services each month at Lilydale, Ed also leads worship once a month for the Doncaster-Ivanhoe congregation, which continues an agreement between the two churches that started during Pastor Tom’s tenure.

As Ed is 70, Sabine says Outer Eastern is also preparing for the time when he retires and staying open to how God will lead them into their next season of ministry among their members and mission within their community. ‘On Easter Sunday, OELC celebrated God’s renewal of the congregation as being different from that of the past – from a pastor-centric model to a volunteer lay-led model’, Sabine says. ‘To God be the glory.’

Just beginning a new season of vocation and ministry, church worker Adam Morris knows only too well what being without the leadership of a pastor can do to the morale of a congregation. And he’s experienced the worst and the best effects as both a regular member and a serving lay worker.

Now the Australian Lutheran College (ALC) training support officer and theology and ministry student feels called to further support congregations without an ordained leader by serving as a lay worker at two churches.

‘Vacancies are hard because it always feels like a church goes into caretaker mode’, says Adam, who is a member at Our Saviour Aberfoyle Park in Adelaide’s south. ‘And my journey through that has been to ask, “How do you still keep the church engaged and functioning?” In a time of more and more vacancies, we need to make sure we don’t do less and less, while simply waiting for the time when the next pastor comes.

‘I’m fortunate enough to be able to ask, as a church worker, how do I support the congregation? I’m here with a skill set I’ve gained. But I also want to do that in a way that honours the Lutheran Church.’

Aberfoyle Park’s current year-long vacancy is Adam’s third experience of being at a congregation without a full-time pastor.

His first was at Immanuel Woden Valley in the Australian Capital Territory, where he served as a lay worker for nine years from 2005, in the areas of worship coordination and youth, family and small groups ministry. The two-year pastoral vacancy there was tough. ‘That was a really hard, long vacancy, which as a church worker put me over the edge’, he says. ‘I suffered burnout.’

During Adam’s next lay worker role at St Johns Unley in Adelaide’s inner south, the congregation had a part-time pastor, but its lead pastor position was vacant for 12 months of the three years he served as Congregational Life Adult Education Director there until 2016.

He has since been a Church Worker Support Officer in the LCANZ’s Churchwide Office for five years and has been at ALC since October last year. In both these latter roles, Adam has been able to walk alongside church members dealing with the challenges of pastoral vacancies.

Thankfully, he says, things have changed a lot since his experience in Canberra. ‘The LCA provides a lot more resources to support lay people’, Adam says. ‘There are really good worship resources, there are videos online and lay preacher training and resources. The church leadership now recognises the skill sets of lay readers, for example.’

Since the SMP program began in the LCANZ, the role has been almost exclusively filled by a member of the local worshipping community, who is ordained to serve specifically in that context. What makes Adam’s case unique is that not only has Aberfoyle Park applied for him to be accepted into the SMP program, but Mawson Lakes Community Church congregation in Adelaide’s northern suburbs is considering making a joint application for his admission to the program. In fact, it was Mawson Lakes’ call for expressions of interest in an SMP role there early this year that started Adam’s journey on this path.

He believes the time may be right and that he may be the right person for God to use in this unusual collaboration between two churches located approximately 40 kilometres apart. ‘There’s been a shift and COVID has allowed churches to be more open to sharing resources and more open to doing things differently’, he says. ‘The landscape feels appropriate for this innovative way of not only dealing with the vacancy question but also the way we train and equip appropriate lay people.

‘How do we equip our ministries and continue going? It’s like you are saying to people in vacancy, “We need to take responsibility”.’

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