Certified for Word and Service: Nebraska’s Parish Ministry Associates program
by Judy Gifford
Seventeen years ago, the ELCA Nebraska Synod began thinking of ways to deepen education among laity. One result of this was the formation of the Parish Ministry Associates program.
Seventeen years ago, on January 22, 1993, about 50 people gathered at the campus Lutheran ministry site at the University of Nebraska at Kearney to hear Bishop Richard Jessen, Gretchen Ritola, assistant to the bishop, and steering committee members share their vision of lay ministry education in the Nebraska Synod of the ELCA.
In a short period of time after this meeting, 40 people signed up to begin working toward certification as Parish Ministry Associates (PMA) in this synod.
From the start, the PMA program was a cooperative venture of the Nebraska Synod and the Central States synods of the ELCA. After several years passed, each synod began developing the requirements that would meet the specific needs in their own synods, with reciprocity permitted between synods.
The Parish Ministry Associate program of the Nebraska Synod is only one of approximately 50 other lay theological education programs active throughout the ELCA.
Candidates for the PMA lay ministry program in our synod are people who both personally believe and demonstrate a deep sense of commitment to serve our Lord and the church and have a desire to study God’s word and the faith and theology of the our church. Before beginning the PMA program, students select an ordained ELCA mentor (usually the pastor of their home congregation) to give them guidance, wisdom, and support while they are in the program. PMA students are expected to demonstrate spiritual maturity, a willingness to learn, and a willingness to serve after being trained.
The synod’s PMA program is a three-year program (though students are allowed six years to complete it). All financial obligations are the responsibility of the student; however, some home congregations help with these expenses.
The PMA student studies from six core groups for a total of 27 credits. They utilize resources from Select Multimedia Resources, including: biblical studies, introduction to the Old and New Testaments, Lutheran theology/confessional writings, introductory systematic theology, ministry practice, church history, and Christian ethics. These classes are usually held at the church of an ELCA facilitator who has agreed to lead the class.
In addition to the core studies, PMA students are also expected to complete six elective credits and attend three convocations to be considered for certification. Once certified, these individuals are expected to complete 12 contact hours of continuing education every year.
Trained lay ministers are not trained to take the place of ordained ministers nor are they placed on a roster. After they successfully complete the requirements of the program, students are certified in Word and service. Most serve in their home congregation.
When the need arises, the synod bishop may authorize a lay minister to serve in Word and Sacrament at a specific location for six months. If the need continues at the congregation and no ordained clergy is available (for whatever reason), the synod bishop may re-authorize the lay minister, six months at a time.
The Nebraska Synod is not training lay ministers as a way to have “cheap” ministry. The focus of our synod-based lay ministry programs is an answer to the call from laity to deepen their understanding of their faith so they can minister more effectively with the gifts God has given them. Our synod desires to help the people of God better serve the mission of Christ in their own situations.
The Nebraska Synod continues to try to find ways to provide leadership to all congregations, including those that are unable to secure the services of an ordained minister.
For more information on the Parish Ministry Associates program in the Nebraska Synod, visit their website.
For more information on the Parish Ministry Associates of the Central States Synod, visit their website.
Judy Gifford is the assistant to the bishop in the Nebraska Synod for the Parish Ministry Associates Program. The synod office is located in Omaha, Nebraska.