The Churchwide Assembly voted 864-32 to create a new category of lay professional leaders, to be called deacons.
There was no floor discussion of the change in how the church handles its roster of professional workers who aren’t ordained, which had been discussed in two hearings earlier in the assembly.
People on the “word and service” roster will join ordained pastors (“word and sacrament” roster) as public ministers of the ELCA, called to their positions and accountable to the church for their work.
Current lay professionals—deaconesses, associates in ministry and diaconal ministers—will be automatically placed into the new category in 2017. There are now about 1,000 associates in ministry (a category established when the ELCA was formed in 1987), 60 deaconesses and 200 diaconal ministers.
Deacons are people who “truly feel called by God to do service,” said Bishop William Gafkjen of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod, chair of the group that prepared the proposal. He said the change would simplify the designations for lay professional workers and create a “clearer sense of unity in mission and ministry.”
The word “deacon” means “service” and has long been used in the church, sometimes for people preparing for ordination, sometimes for lay leaders in congregations. ELCA deacons will be consecrated as they assume their calls to service, with standards for education and service to be developed by the denomination.
The deacons will work, as the current lay professionals do, in a wide range of positions in ELCA congregations, synods, social service agencies, hospitals and others. The list includes administrators, musicians, educators, youth workers and more. Others will work outside the traditional context of the church, representing the church in “non-church arenas and structures of the world,” Gafkjen said.
Sister Nora Frost, a former head of the ELCA Deaconess Community and a hospital chaplain, said the change “helps all of us called to rostered ministry to be able to serve and engage in partnerships in new and creative ways.”
Lynn Bulock of Thousand Oaks, Calif., who has been a diaconal minister for more than 10 years, said, “People understand the word ‘deacon,’ ” and combining the three rosters into one category will “improve communication and partnership.”
For Karen Bernhardt of Millville, N.J., an associate in ministry for 10 years, the new roster will “lift up the ministry of the lay professionals, who sometimes don’t get the respect they deserve for their work.” The ministry of lay professionals, while different from that of pastors, should be seen on a “more equal basis,” she said. The new approach for lay ministry, she added, “will help more people offer their gifts of service to the church.”
The assembly’s action puts in place the needed changes to the ELCA’s governing documents. A group is at work on educational requirements for the deacons, procedures by which they may receive calls and supervision and other matters related to their service.