Called to Serve as Jesus Serves

This morning, Friday, August 12, 2016, the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America approved overwhelmingly (more than 90% of votes cast) to move three current rosters of public ministers into one: Ministers of Word and Service, known as deacons. This is historic in many ways and, in my own estimation, is another indication of the ways the wind of the Spirit is blowing through the church to energize and equip us to be church together for the sake of the world and in the name and way of Jesus.

I was honored to be the person, on behalf of the ELCA Church Council and the scores of people who have worked on this for many years, to present this recommendation to the assembly the first night we were together. Some folks have asked for a copy of the text of that presentation, so I have posted it here. The presentation and most of the churchwide assembly may be viewed here: ELCA Presiding Bishop begins to introduce the presentation at 1:37:10. Here is the text, with links to referenced resources:

We give thanks to God for the ministries of Associates in Ministry, Deaconesses, and Diaconal Ministers. In fact, if you are a member of one of these rosters, or in candidacy for one of them, please stand. People of God, please thank these servants of Christ for their ministry among us.

We are church for the sake of the world.

The spirit of this common commitment of ours undergirds the recommendation from our Church Council that we combine three current lay rosters of Associates in Ministry, Deaconesses, and Diaconal Ministers into one, new roster of ministers of Word and Service, to be called deacons. Note well the words “one” and “new.” This is a unification of three existing lay rosters into one.  This is also the establishment of a new roster intended to continue to assist the body of Christ to faithfully and effectively serve and steward the good news of Jesus in our particular time and context, now and into the future.

What is a roster anyway?

In the context of this recommendation “roster” refers to a list of public ministers who have been approved through shared churchwide (or national) candidacy processes, have been called by and to particular ministries, and who serve under churchwide support and accountability through the Office of the Secretary of the ELCA.

Of course, synods and local communities may also have their own rosters, or lists, of leaders and ministers of various sorts. The folks on such synod rosters are prepared locally, affirmed locally, and their service in their particular role is limited to the location that has prepared and affirmed them.

The recommendation that we are talking about here refers only to those who have been approved and called according to churchwide candidacy processes and who are accountable and available to serve in their particular roles across the whole church.

We currently have four such churchwide rosters: Associates in Ministry, Deaconesses, Diaconal Ministers, and Pastors. This recommendation is to combine the first three into one, new roster of Word and Service. Should we adopt the recommendations the roster of Ministers of Word and Sacrament, known as pastors, will essentially remain as it is and we will then have two churchwide rosters where once there were four, Ministers of Word and Sacrament and Ministers of Word and Service.

Because a roster is, at its most basic meaning, a list, it may be tempting to see this movement from four rosters of public ministers to two as what some folks might call a “technical” change. It could be viewed as little more than a sort of tweaking that fixes a problem or tidies up something, but doesn’t really affect the rest of the system of which it is a part. It is true that moving to one roster of Word and Service to be known as deacons will be cleaner and simpler than three rosters known as Associates in Ministry, Deaconesses, and Diaconal Ministers. Databases for the rosters will be simpler and easier to manage should we adopt this recommendation. And surely eventually there may even be a clearer sense of unity in mission and ministry that emerges for those who are on this roster.

But, as good and important as these things are, this is not just a technical “fix.” This is an “adaptive” change. It’s rooted in what we believe and think about who we are and how we live and work together for the sake of God’s mission in the world. It’s about how we are equipped and called to live and serve together as God’s cross-marked Spirit-sealed believers, bearers and “embodiers” of good news, the best news, in a torn, tumultuous, and terrified world. This is about Jesus Christ crucified and risen for the life of the world.

Consequently, this change, should we adopt it, will touch and transform how we understand and live into the vocation of every baptized person to follow Jesus in the way of the cross to care for and serve the neighbor, every neighbor. It also reaches deep into:

  • how we understand public ministries of the Word,
  • how those who serve in these public ministries work and live together,
  • and how public, rostered ministers work and relate and lead and live with and within the whole people of God, who are each and all gathered and sent to be the broken-bodied, poured-out love of Jesus in the world.

Near the center of these concerns is a reclamation of the Greek word diakonia. It is an ancient word, much older than the New Testament. At its most basic meaning it simply means service. It’s Greek sibling, diakonos gives us the English word deacon, which simply means one who serves.  Ancient Greeks used diakonia to refer to waiting on tables and other menial tasks and roles that were below the dignity of important people of influence. In Jewish usage, echoes of such menial work remained, but with the Spirit-inspired twist that diakonia, service, is not below the people of God, it’s what the people of God are put in the world for. Once people who followed Jesus got hold of it, diakonia became something like self-sacrificial love in action, to serve as Jesus serves.

We are, all of us and each of us, called and sent to serve the neighbor, every neighbor, in the name of Jesus, in the way of the cross, trusting the power of resurrection life for us and for those we serve, in the inspiration of the Spirit. We do this, of course, not in hope of garnering God’s grace or to justify ourselves before God or anyone else, including ourselves. Diakonia is a gift to others arising from our trust that we – and they – are taken care of by God’s grace in Christ.

Of course, all too often we forget that we are saved by grace through faith and sent to serve the neighbor. We turn in on ourselves and serve only ourselves or look only our own interests or those of the church of which we are a part.

So, our confessions remind us that we need public ministers, raised up from among us. On our behalf and in the name of Christ these ministers stand before us and walk alongside us to proclaim the good news, to offer the gifts of grace, to equip and encourage us to follow where this good news leads, and to be examples of the call to walk in forgiveness and grace and to follow Jesus into the world in diaconal love.

The gospel and our Lutheran confessions also give us the freedom and responsibility to find the most faithful and effective ways to shape these public ministries in each time and place. The central concern always is that the gospel will take root among us, transform our lives through its offer of forgiveness and grace, and for the Spirit to use us as participants in and means for God’s mission of hope, healing, and reconciliation in God’s beloved world.

And so, we have these recommendations for this time and place. Should we adopt them we will have before and among us two churchwide rosters of public ministers: Ministers of Word and Sacrament and Ministers of Word and Service, pastors and deacons. Each with their own particular gifts and call, working side by side with each other and with and among the rest of the people of God. Together proclaiming, offering, and embodying the good news of forgiveness and life in Christ. Together leading God’s people to offer that same forgiveness and new, abundant, and lasting life as “church for the sake of the world.”

Of course, we have come to this place through a long journey of discernment and decision-making about the ordering of public ministries of the Word.

ELCA Deaconesses and pastors were inherited and incorporated into the rosters of the ELCA at its beginning. The roster of Associates in Ministry was very soon formed to incorporate a wide variety of public ministers and church professionals from predecessor church bodies into another roster of leaders to continue to serve the church in a wide variety of ways, each according to her or his gifts, mostly within the structures and life of the church.

Beginning in 1988, the church embarked on a study of ministry, the results of which were presented to the 1993 Churchwide Assembly. That assembly made two very important decisions in response to that study.

We adopted the document Together for Ministry. This fine document describes with clarity the missional movement of the church as church for the sake of the world. It lifts up the call of all the baptized to ministries of service in the world. And it provides key theological and other foundations for a churchwide roster of public ministers of Word and Service.

That assembly also established the roster of Diaconal Ministers. Many of our Diaconal Ministers are sent by the church to serve beyond the boundaries of the church’s gathered assemblies, in the world and as bridges between church and world.

We did all this before we had a single ecumenical full-communion agreement.

We did it before any of our synods had deep and mutually beneficial companion relationships with global Lutheran churches through the Lutheran World Federation.

And we made these decisions on the front edge of the unimaginable acceleration of the changes, cultural and otherwise, that have placed parts of the body of Christ like the ELCA in unfamiliar, even precarious, positions, wondering how God is calling us to be church in new and shifting landscapes.

And, while Together for Ministry said it clearly and prophetically, in the last twenty years it has become clearer to us that we are part of a global Lutheran and ecumenical movement of the Spirit that is opening the ears of the church to the desperate cries of the world and pushing us beyond our often cloistered Sunday morning gatherings back out into the world in cross-shaped diakonia.

In fact, in the mid to late 2000s the Lutheran World Federation, of which we are a part, issued a series of statements highlighting this movement of the Spirit calling the church to diakonia:

In 2009: "Diakonia is…an intrinsic element of being Church and cannot be reduced to an activity by certain committed persons...Diakonia is deeply related to what the Church celebrates in its liturgy and announces in its preaching."

In 2003: "Leadership at all levels is essential, leaders who equip all Christians to take up their call to serve…Churches should initiate and strengthen education for diakonia. As a ministry, it should be fully integrated into the church’s ordained, consecrated, and commissioned ministries, as a reflection of the fundamental significance of diakonia for the being of the church."

At the same time, beginning in 2007, members of what we have called the three existing lay rosters of Associates in Ministry, Deaconesses, and Diaconal Ministers gathered for structured conversations about how it was going for them and what we had learned since 1993. Among many other helpful and important insights, these multi-year conversations surfaced a concern, a request, really, to unite these three rosters into one and to do so in a way that reclaims diakonia as the foundation.

In 2010, the ELCA Church Council established a task group to explore how to do this faithfully and well. These recommendations are found in Sections V and VI of the pre-assembly report. The recommendation to establish a roster of Ministers of Word and Service that is both one and new is a result of years of broad and deep listening to one another, listening to our traditions and confessions, listening to our global and ecumenical siblings, listening to the Spirit of the servant Christ, and listening to the contexts in which we now live and move and have our being.

The wide and beautiful variety of gifts and ministries of those who are on the current rosters will be welcomed and incorporated into this one new roster of Ministers of Word and Service. The spectrum of ministries they offer will continue to be broad, diverse, and deep. And new heretofore-unimagined ministries will surely emerge. Some are and will be called primarily to administrative or music or educational or youth ministry within the arenas and structures of church life together. Others are and will be called primarily to ministries deeply embedded in the non-church arenas and structures of the world

Every one of them will be called and committed to empower, equip, and encourage the people of God for their diaconal, servant, ministries in daily life. Each one will also be a deacon, a server, who serves according to their gifts and the needs of the church for the sake of God’s mission in the world.

And what about that word, “deacon”?

There has been great discussion about this word or other possible words. This word, this role, this title, has been used in a wide variety of ways, not just among us, but across the church and around the world. See, for example, the paper included with the Report and Recommendations of the Word and Service Task Force in the pre-assembly background material in Section VI, “Here a Deacon, There a Deacon; Everywhere a Deacon, Deacon” [beginning on page 10].

All who carry a role of deacon serve the church well and in essential ways, each in their particular arena of service, as members of the ELCA, and according to the needs of the church. We are confident that we can navigate together potential confusion about synodical deacons and congregational deacons, for example, and all the manifestations of deacon in use among our global and ecumenical siblings.

Other titles may also be used in particular settings by those who are on the churchwide roster of Ministers of Word and Service. For example, a deacon who serves as director of worship and music for a congregation may also be called “cantor.” And members of the deaconess community may also be known as “sister” or "deaconess."

But as an overarching title for all who serve as Ministers of Word and Service, no other term has risen with the power, the history, ecumenical and global recognition, and clarity about the role as the ancient and new term, “deacon.”

As I suggested earlier, those on the churchwide roster of Ministers of Word and Service, known as deacons, will stand with and work alongside other deacons as those who have been prepared and approved through churchwide candidacy processes, are available to serve in their role across the whole church, and who are supported by and accountable to churchwide standards and commitments as well as the synodical and local accountabilities and support of the ministries they serve.

And what about consecration as the recommended rite and what is an entrance rite anyway?

An entrance rite, in this context, is the way in which the church ritually and publicly acknowledges, enacts, and establishes individuals as public, rostered ministers. Such a rite usually includes the laying on of hands, invocation of the Holy Spirit, charges and commitment to mutual support and accountability, and prayer.

Should we adopt the recommendations of the Church Council, the entrance rite for Ministers of Word and Service will be consecration until a recommendation regarding this rite is brought to the 2019 Churchwide Assembly.

As we have considered the adaptive change of establishing this one roster of Word and Service, it has become clear that we still have much to talk about and live into together. This includes, but is not limited to, what entrance rites are, the differences and similarities between them, and what they mean in the life of this church.

This, too, taps into deep currents, cultural norms, theological perspectives, confessional commitments, and contextual realities. Some of them rise up from differences we have brought with us from the three streams of denominational identity into our common life as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Some of these differences are still unresolved and even un-discussed nearly three decades later. Consequently, even as the world around us and within us has changed with breathless intensity, we have not really lived into or grown beyond “Together for Ministry” and the other commitments we made to one another more than 20 years ago.

Making this change now can help us to do exactly that. As the “Consultation Paper on Future Directions of the ELCA” puts it:

Having a church leadership that is fit for the future is foundational to…emerging priorities [like] being a church that engages and serves people who are suffering in the US and around the world.

But we also need to continue to talk through these things faithfully and well with one another. We need to learn about the variety of tradition-streams in which we swim and how they connect with our current context for mission and the common stream of life we now share. We also need time to live into this new roster and its partnership with ministers of Word and Sacrament and with the whole people of God that will emerge in the coming months and years to see what we learn and where the Spirit will continue to lead.

Appointed by the ELCA Church Council, the Entrance Rite Discernment Group continues its work of communal learning and discernment around these questions. They are poised to assist the rest of us to engage in this communal learning and discernment together across the church over the next couple of years. Arising from these conversations the Entrance Rite Group plans to bring a recommendation regarding the entrance rite as well as related concerns, like symbols of this office to the 2019 Churchwide Assembly.

At the same time, other ELCA leaders will continue to establish academic requirements and other candidacy processes and concerns in order to steward this transition, and the people involved in it, well.

In other words, to adopt the recommendations of the Church Council regarding the roster of Ministers of Word and Service is to establish a particular way to move forward together. It is also to commit to walking together and by faith into God’s unfolding future. This decision won’t finally and fully answer every question or settle every concern around it. It cannot and should not. We are people on the Way, after all. There is still more to discuss, more to learn, more clarity to gain, more changes to be made. God’s Spirit has more transformation to work in and among us for the sake of God’s mission of hope, healing, and reconciliation in the world. We are, after all, always being made new.

Nevertheless, this is one more important and bold next step forward as we seek, together and in the power of the Holy Spirit, to be church for the sake of the world.

May the Spirit of grace guide and keep us along the way.

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