Equality for Lutheran Clergy and Lay Ministers

11/6/1996 12:00:00 AM

        CHICAGO (ELCA) -- Ordained ministers and lay ministers of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are treated differently by the church and by federal laws governing pension plans.  When it met here Oct. 18-20, the board of the ELCA Division for Ministry asked the division staff to look into ways to have "equitable treatment for ELCA rostered lay ministries."
        The ELCA has four "rosters" for its professional leaders -- pastors, associates in ministry, deaconesses and diaconal ministers. The church ordains pastors; and the others are lay ministers.
        The Rev. Jeffrey J. Larson, ELCA director for specialized ministry and clinical education, reported to the board that Congress recently passed a minimum wage bill including special provisions for clergy serving as chaplains.  The measure lets ordained ministers participate in their denomination's pension plan while being employed outside the church.
        This is good news for clergy, but it doesn't go "far enough," said Sister Nora Frost, directing deaconess of the ELCA Deaconess Community, Gladwyne, Pa.  "We were not included -- no non-ordained people."
        The Tax Reform Act of 1986 was a good thing too -- equalizing benefits for everyone in the same institution, she said, but the hospital she worked for decided not to participate in the church's pension plan. The church's health and pension plans are "bundled" together, so Frost worked for a year as a hospital chaplain without health coverage.
        Since the tax reforms went into effect in 1988, 14 deaconesses have been "displaced from institutional ministries" -- chaplains, social workers, nurses -- "anyone who was working in an agency or an institution," Frost told the board.  They took jobs in ELCA churches which were allowed some exemptions from the tax reform act.
        "Unless the church pushes this issue for the sake of deaconesses and diaconal ministers, it will be talking out of both sides of its mouth -- affirming the public ministry of members of these rosters, while tacitly accepting tax and benefit treatment of these persons that implies they are not "real" ministers of the church," said David M. Soderlund, board member from Geneva, N.Y.
        The board's action has less to do with tax reform and minimum wage legislation than with how tax codes distinguish between ordained and lay ministers performing "essentially the same ministerial roles," said Soderlund.  All people involved in the "public ministry of the church" should have equal treatment, he said.
        It may have even less to do with tax codes than with the recognition of the church body.  Congress is very careful not to make laws that regulate religious matters because of the First Amendment, said Robert H. Rydland, general counsel for the ELCA Board of Pensions.  Lawmakers work with the definitions churches give their professional leaders, and "ordination" is a guiding principle.
        Federal tax codes say, "The term employee of a church or a convention or association of churches shall include ... a duly ordained, commissioned, or licensed minister of a church in the exercise of his ministry, regardless of the source of his compensation."

        The board also:

*Appointed the Rev. Fred W. Meuser, retired president of Trinity Lutheran
Seminary, Columbus, Ohio, to complete the unexpired term of the Rev.
James K. Echols, dean of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at
Philadelphia, on the board of the ELCA Deaconess Community;

*Authorized the ELCA Church Council to extend 13 letters of call to
personnel at ELCA seminaries, including Diaconal Minister Nancy E.
Gables, director of admissions, financial aid and diaconal ministry at the
Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Pa.; and

*Recommended the ELCA Church Council adopt "Guidelines for Interim
Pastoral Ministry" -- ministry conducted during a period of pastoral
vacancy in a parish, usually by an ordained pastor who the local bishop
has appointed.


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