Associate in Ministry
by Phyllis Castens Wiederhoeft (November / December 2000 • Volume 16 • Number 6)
What do you do?
I am an associate in ministry and currently serve as an assistant to the Bishop in the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin. I have served in this position since August 1988.
The position has changed greatly since I began. When I first began, I was only part-time and served within that limited time frame in the areas of congregational ministries: worship, education, evangelism, and stewardship being the primary areas.
In 1991, when Bishop Enslin was first elected, he asked me to move into full-time ministry, continuing the congregational ministries portfolio but also taking on the administrative tasks of the synod. As administrator, I work with assembly planning, the finance committee, and the synod council and oversee the administrative staff of the office.
We have moved away from a heavy emphasis on programmatic ministries in the last five years. That means that I now concentrate in the areas of evangelism and stewardship, including other staff as requested. I also carry out responsibilities involving the congregational call process and mobility for rostered leaders, as well as issues involving conflict and misconduct situations; again, I request assistance from other staff as needed.
We have worked on a synodical staff vision and continuing education plan that affects the way we work together. Sometimes that means less distinction between staff portfolios, but it provides a cohesiveness to our intent to seek "teachable" moments in the lives of our rostered leaders and congregations.
How do you see what you do as serving in response to the needs of the church and the world?
Most clearly, I see working with congregations in the area of evangelism as serving the world. Sharing Jesus with others who have yet to come to know and love him is a focus for all of us, wherever we live, work, and play. I love helping congregations see how they can encourage, inspire, and nurture one another to invite and welcome those who are new to Jesus.
I also delight in meeting God's gifted people as they serve through their congregations. Many times I work with call committees who are seeking a leader for their congregation who will equip them to do ministry in their daily lives. I still encounter people who seek a pastor or an associate in ministry to take care of them, but most people know that it is not the rostered leaders alone who can do ministry.
When I do face call committees or other committees who are inwardly focussed, I call upon them to think of others beyond their church doors. That takes a different kind of leader these days than they may be used to. So re-thinking the nature of leadership is something that I help people do.
Much of my administrative work has to do with leadership. Many of the same leadership issues encountered in a congregation are the same for our synod — synod council members who want to micro-manage rather than lead and be visionary, finding people to serve, and rearranging a committee structure to a more responsive task force team approach.
This involves taking many of the concepts in current thinking in the business world and adapting them to a ministry format. I enjoy thinking "outside the box" and trying to find new and challenging ways to do ministry.
What is your rationale for taking the route of associate in ministry to serve the ELCA?
I have a family history of serving God through the church. My father was a pastor; my three older brothers went to Missouri Synod Lutheran high schools and colleges; and I knew that I also wanted to serve in a congregation.
I chose to go the route of a director of Christian education, youth, and music in the Missouri Synod system. People serving in that position are rostered just as the pastors and teachers are.
For a variety of reasons, I moved out of the Missouri Synod after serving eight years in a congregation. I pursued a master's and doctorate in adult education and sought a position in which I could use my knowledge and skills.
I was offered the position of an assistant to the bishop as a lay person. Shortly after beginning, I entered the candidacy process for rostering as an associate in ministry.
I knew that my calling is to serve God through the church as an educator. My brother, an ELCA pastor, and my husband suggest occasionally that I return to seminary and become ordained. But I have no desire to seek ordination. I believe strongly that my witness is to serve as an associate in ministry so that others can see that we are all gifted in different ways and can serve God effectively in a variety of positions in the church.
Word and sacrament ministry is not my calling, but Word and service is. I do a lot of preaching in this position, so it is not as though I have no opportunity to proclaim God's message.
As the ELCA, and other denominations, face a shortage of ordained clergy, I believe I can be a witness to a model of ministry that can be acknowledged more, celebrated more, and encouraged more. Associates in ministry can provide leadership and service in ways that will free pastors to do the ministry to which they are called. Pastors and associates in ministry can team together in a congregation, moving strongly together rather than in competition with one another.
What concerns about rostered lay ministries in the ELCA do you want to share with the readers of Lutheran Partners?
Recognition, validation, and acceptance of the gifts of all the baptized is something that we strive towards. I don't think that we are there, and we may not reach that point until the end of time. That affects the lay rostered ministries because they are a part of the "not ordained," which sometimes means that their gifts are not quite as good as those who serve on the ordained roster.
Too often, the phrase "going into the ministry" still means getting ordained. But because of our baptism, all of us "go into the ministry." So watching our language so that we confirm and affirm all of our ministries, including the lay rosters, is an issue we will continue to face.
Another major concern is funding positions for lay rostered people. A congregation seeks additional staffing, and thinks first of adding a second pastor just because that's who does ministry, right? But they discover that they can't afford a second pastor.
They then look at finding part-time help that won't cost as much. There are many gifted, skilled people in our congregations who have the excitement and passion for doing ministry. So congregations turn to them, but do not offer much financial support or training. The expectations are low: just get the job done; bring in the kids; have a marvelous music program; but don't expect to get paid much or receive any benefits.
Congregations certainly struggle at times to finance their vision, but often it is at the expense of lay staff members. When congregations express concern that they find qualified and trained lay staff, they may come to the synod office, hoping that we will be able to present candidates for their staffing needs.
But rarely is a lay rostered person able to consider moving because of low compensation packages. Mobility is an even greater issue for the lay rosters because of this.
Related to poor compensation is the issue of educating lay staff who want to serve in a congregation competently. They know that they do not have as much of an in-depth preparation for their positions as pastors do if they did not take theological or biblical studies as part of their college work.
Many of the laity bring the specializations of music, education, youth ministry, and others to their positions. So they seek ways to learn Lutheran theology and biblical studies so that they are well equipped to lead others in the congregations and to teach the faith.
But sources for those courses are limited. Traveling to a seminary is out of the question for many simply due to distance, much less, time away from the job and family. Congregations that cannot afford to pay well may not be able to support the cost of such coursework.
Development of online courses is providing hope that this issue will be changed. Lay schools that some synods provide is another means of equipping people to serve on the lay rosters.
Ultimately, flexibility for all the rosters in determining and applying criteria for rostered leadership in the future is needed. Changes are impacting the church in so many ways that the issues I have identified do not apply only to the lay rosters, but also to the ordained.
Our congregations, our synods, and the churchwide office face the challenge of preparing and equipping leaders for a church that is very different from today. What we offer for, and what we expect of, our leaders cannot remain static.
I return to the belief of responding with all the gifts of all the baptized. Together we will find ways to minister to God's people.
Phyllis Castens Wiederhoeft is an associate in ministry who serves as an assistant to the bishop in the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin.