Historically, the customary solution has been circuit-riding priests. Among Lutherans in North America, the names of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg and Justus Falckner spring immediately to mind; these heroes of the faith traveled vast distances under frontier conditions, preaching the Word of God to small and scattered communities. When they arrived, we imagine the occasion was celebratory: there would probably be a party; there would certainly be a chance for those troubled by sin to confess and hear the promise of pardon; and there would undoubtedly be a rare chance to receive Holy Communion.
But there are certain things that a circuit-rider cannot easily provide. The weekly Eucharist, for example. Or pastoral care in an emergency. So churches have adapted themselves, and their ideas of what ordained ministry should look like or even be. Among Roman Catholics, one reads that nuns have begun to provide "routine" -- meaning non-sacramental -- pastoral care in many parishes, leaving the poor harried priest free to run around, saying Masses, baptizing babies, administering last rites and doing precious little else with his time.
Among Lutherans and Anglicans, there has been a quite different custom, of longer duration, by which lay people are authorized to perform sacramental duties, especially the celebration of the Eucharist. The rights and wrongs of this are complicated to spell out, and would require a much longer post than this one. Not to mention a complex exegesis of the so-called "general priesthood."
But latterly, there has been another practice as well, which more nearly parallels the "nun-as-pastor" model. This is to divide the work up so that, while the ordained person retains responsibility for the celebration of the sacraments, a team of lay people do virtually everything else. For reasons that escape us, it's called "Total Ministry."
Liturgically, as Bosco Peters points out on his excellent website, linked above (and tip o' the biretta to Pr. Joelle for it), this has turned into leading the whole first part of a Mass, so that the priest may drive maniacally from his last appointment and rush in just in time to sing "Lift up your hearts."
It is often hailed as creative response to changing circumstances, even a powerful sign of an empowered laity. We disagree, for many reasons, and Peters has put his finger on one that we had never quite considered:
“Locally Shared Ministry/Total Ministry” has severed the link between pastoring, preaching, and presiding for priesthood, dividing up the tasks that need to be held together to prevent a priest’s presiding from appearing like magic.
In many ways, that last part of the sentence should be in the forefront of many people’s reflection.
What is left in many communities who would articulate a “low” view of ordained priesthood is in fact a rubrical fundamentalism that gives the appearance of the priest being a sort of magician who is brought out to do those bits of a service a lay person cannot lead: the absolution, the consecration, the blessing. What is lost in this is both an appropriate understanding of lay ministry which has been clericalised, as well as an appropriate understanding of priesthood which has been reduced to a magician.
Just so. While a priest is ordained to a ministry of Word and sacrament, those two activities, at least narrowly defined, do not describe his (or her) entire ministry. We are not glorified Pez machines, dispensing by turns sermons or wafers. We are called to live in relationship with God's People, and although this relationship is created by the Word, expressed both in preaching and in sacraments, it extends -- as the Word extends -- to every aspect of the community's life, often including the most intimate.
When priesthood is reduced to mere sacramentalism, the priest becomes a magician, performing tricks. Worse yet, when church rules are shuffled about to provide weekly Eucharist at all costs -- whether the cost is a priest who misses most of the service, or a lay presider "authorized" without a vocation -- the the Lord's Body and Blood are themselves turned into a sort of idol, or at best expressions not of a relationship between God and the whole Church but rather of one between God and the individual believer, which is given precedence over the wholeness of the Church.