When Presbyterians took the radical step in 1997 of letting laypeople baptize and serve the Lord's Supper, few anticipated a surge in ministers like Charity Kamau.
A Kenyan immigrant who has lived in Seattle for seven years, Mr. Kamau is not what the Presbyterian Church USA had in mind when it loosened proudly high standards for ministers.
The goal then was to raise up a few willing laypersons who could lead - and thereby save - churches in rural areas too remote to afford a seminary-trained, ordained minister.
Now, the Presbyterian Church, like other denominations, is watching new urban ministries blossom as a result of the policy, as fledgling ethnic communities link up with America's established churches. The reason: A wider welcome for lay pastors means many immigrants no longer have to choose between having ties to a major church body and having a pastor who speaks their language.
"We sing with our bodies," says Kamau, a special education teacher who now serves as commissioned lay pastor of the Kenyan Community International Church. "We can't just come and impose our way of worshiping on an Anglo-Saxon church. This is a place where we touch base with our languages and cultures from Kenya ... and still be Presbyterian."
While lay ministers may not speak ancient languages like their ordained peers, they are often just as valuable to their congregants. "The closer the spiritual adviser is to the community in terms of cultural background, the more effective he or she is going to be," says Alvin Padilla, director of the Center for Urban Ministerial Education in Boston.
And the move is causing mainline churches to rethink their own standards. By authorizing lay pastors with more personal experience and friendly contacts than formal training, Mr. Padilla says, "mainline churches are saying, 'this is what we need to do to reestablish ourselves on the religious landscape of America.' "
Though data kept on lay ministers can be spotty, church officials in several denominations say they see a link between greater acceptance of lay pastors and the expansion of new ethnic congregations. Among the examples cited:
• Presbyterians have more than doubled their ranks of lay pastors since 1999, from 145 to 351. Over the same period, the denomination added 10 black, five predominantly Middle Eastern, and five Asian congregations, while it lost 126 largely white congregations.
• Between 1998 and 2001, the number of Asian lay pastors in the United Methodist Church tripled from 19 to 59. The count of Hispanic lay pastors also jumped from 91 to 124 over the same period.
• American Baptists and African Methodist Episcopalians have their own seminaries, but are increasingly turning to pastors without seminary training to serve in urban congregations, especially among new immigrants from such places as Uganda and Brazil, says Padilla.
Denominational requirements vary, but lay pastors as a rule lack the formal biblical and pastoral training of their ordained peers. Those in ethnic congregations generally train at night and on weekends for one or two years while holding down full-time jobs.
Eventually, they apply for standing as a part-time lay pastor, with nearly all the privileges of ordination, from preaching to administering sacraments.
As lay pastors gain acceptance in some unexpected settings, the trend is helping many immigrants assimilate. Denominational ties can help boost social status in an adopted country, Padilla says, yet no one has to say goodbye to beloved traditions like waving hands or shedding tears in church.
For established denominations, however, the influx of lay pastors is raising challenges of identity. If lay pastors can do the job effectively, why maintain a multitiered system for ministers? The question has denominations searching to justify old practices and rethinking theology of church in the process.
"In most of these ethnic congregations, they're dealing with a brand of church that doesn't know Methodism much at all," says Robert Kohler, assistant general secretary for ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. "But it's the values coming from Latin America that are going to remake our notions of what it means to be church."
Methodists, for instance, require clergy to move from parish to parish every few years in order to keep preaching and pastoral relationships from falling into ruts. But lay pastors, who are not required to "itinerate," hint at the denomination's growing appreciation for the potential value of long-term settled pastorates.
For Presbyterians the greatest compromise has been to let lay ministers bypass a requirement that all pastors know biblical Greek and Hebrew. Those who preach without such knowledge challenge the church's hallmark esteem for biblical scholarship, especially if some in the pews find they prefer a lay pastor's preaching more.
"There has been some resistance from ministers of word and sacrament [the ordained] who paid out dearly and are seeing some come in who haven't been through that," says Diana Stephen, who oversees small church ministries for the Presbyterian Church USA. "But small churches don't worry too much about seminary training if they get the love they need from their pastor."