For those serving the ELCA as a diaconal minister, deaconess or associate in ministry, names—specifically name changes—have been a hot topic for nearly a decade.

After discussion and deliberation, the Word and Service Task Force has officially recommended that the three rosters of church lay leaders be unified into a single body and that its members be known as deacons. If voting members to the 2016 Churchwide Assembly approve the recommendation, the change will be effective Jan. 1, 2017. (For more, view “Word and Service FAQs”).

Cherlyne Beck, ELCA program director for support of rostered leaders, said the task force hopes that passing this will clarify the role of these lay leaders and strengthen the connection between church and the world.

“What has been interesting to me is that even though people on the lay rosters have had questions, not one person who responded said, ‘Don’t do this,’ ” Beck said. “I believe that this isn’t just an administrative change. This is a way to help people recognize the variety of gifts and to compliment those gifts.”

Liz Colver agrees. As a deaconess and community-organizing specialist in the Northwest Washington Synod, she looks at her role as being a voice of the church to the world and bringing back to the church a better understanding of what’s happening in the world.

Her two part-time calls are her first as a deaconess. She doesn’t see the unification as having negative aspects.

“I’m excited about the change from lay rosters to ministers of word and service, largely because it will be less complicated differentiations to explain to people,” she said. “There will be a clearer understanding of what it means to have people called to pastoral ministry and leaders called to diaconal ministry. It will help us name, own and claim the crucial aspects of diaconally called ministers in our larger church body.”

Part of Colver’s work deals with a network of house congregations in the greater Seattle area. With small congregations being built in a variety of nontraditional ways in areas where paying for a full-time called pastor might not be feasible, she sees a future where a part-time pastor and part-time deacon would “nourish a community in partnership.”

Varying paths of ministry

That doesn’t mean the roles of deacons will all look the same.

Lake Lambert always knew his service would be connected to the church, but as a diaconal minister, he saw his route to word and service through education. Lambert, now president of Hanover (Ind.) College, said he always imagined teaching and working in higher education institutions of the church.

“I never saw myself in congregational ministry,” he said. “When the ELCA was formed and study for ministry began soon after that, I was a senior in college and a first-year seminarian trying to understand my sense of call. When I read the report from the study for ministry about diaconal ministry, it was an aha moment. I said, ‘Oh, that’s what I am.’ ”

Lambert said the unification process can help the changing societal landscape. “It’s essential for the life of our church in an increasingly post-Christian world,” he said. “Our expressions of faith are how the world gets to know who we are as a church. We need leaders who can help the church in that. In this new age, we need diaconal leaders who can do that.”

Ministry in the world

One potential issue with the roster change deals with education. When the ELCA was formed, the lay leaders were brought in from the predecessor church bodies and the title “associate in ministry” was used. Some of those who remain on the lay rosters don’t have a master’s degree in theology or a related area, which could be part of the expectation of deacons going forward, although the competencies of candidates would also be considered.

Jim Valentine approves of the educational component, though he didn’t earn his master’s until after he was serving as an associate in ministry at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Arlington Heights, Ill.

Valentine began his service as a youth director for the congregation in 1980. He was grandfathered into the ELCA as an associate in ministry from his lay professional title in the former Lutheran Church in America. His role changed 13 years ago when he was named the congregational operations officer, and he earned a master’s degree in theology going to school part time.

“I can see some squirming from people who say there’s really no choice as to whether they join the new roster or not. I see a unified roster, with clear educational requirements as a really good thing,” he said. “I think a lot of leaders are under-trained. A lot of associates in ministry especially don’t have a seminary background. They don’t have the theological and biblical underpinning that I think is necessary to be a rostered leader in the church. One of the upsides of the new roster is that people will be better trained and will be able to serve the church and the world better than they do now.”

In addition to determining education requirements, Valentine said there are aspects of the unification process that need to be resolved, including housing allowances and whether deacons will be ordained or consecrated.

“I am hoping that [with] a more diaconal focused roster by combining these three groups into one, there will be a better emphasis on the ministry of the whole laity,” he said. “That will be hard to do. But I’m hoping 10 years from now this diaconal roster will be so focused on equipping people for ministry out in the world that regardless of how they are partnered with the ordained, there will be a new emphasis in the church on getting people out there to do ministry and not just bringing people into the pews.”

LAY ROSTERED LEADERS Q & A

Q: In what roles do lay rostered leaders serve?
A: Lay rostered leaders serve as musicians, teachers/educators, church administrators, social workers, community-based organizers and chaplains.

Q: Where can lay rostered leaders be found?
A: They can serve in several settings, such as schools, congregations, advocacy offices, Lutheran social service agencies and hospitals.

LAY ROSTERS 101

People on the current lay rosters include associates in ministry, deaconesses and diaconal ministers. They serve in a ministry of “word and service” compared to the ministry of “word and sacrament.” Word and service leaders:

  • Are trained and called by the church to ministries throughout the church and the world.
  • Equip the baptized for ministry in the world.
  • Commit to innovative service within the church and in the world.
  • Give particular attention to the suffering places in the world.
Jeff Favre
Favre is an assistant professor of Pierce College in Los Angeles and a frequent contributor to Living Lutheran.

Read more about: