Book Review

Mar 2nd, 2020 | Category: Book Reviews
By Kevin Borchers

Called to serve: A theology of commissioned ministry

by Rueter, D. L., 2019.
St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House

Rueter is a DCE and commissioned minister in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), and currently serves in a dual role as the assistant DCE program director at Concordia University – Irvine, CA, and as the youth and family ministry facilitator of the Pacific Southwest District of the LCMS. Like many other individuals that have been categorized as commissioned ministers in the LCMS, Rueter wanted answers to questions often pondered but only occasionally raised publicly by non-ordained yet Divinely Called professional church workers:

  • Am I a minister, or is such a title reserved only for the pastoral office?
  • “If commissioned ministers are…in ministry, how does their ministry relate to the Office of Public Ministry?” (Rueter, 2019, p. 8).
  • Why are only ordained ministers (i.e., pastors) and elected lay persons allowed to vote at synodical and district conventions, and commissioned ministers, though they far outnumber the ordained, only serve as advisory delegates?
  • What is my place in the LCMS? Clergy? Laity? Somewhere in a ministerial limbo?

While one could assume that Rueter could use his research in order to build a case to support the inclusion of commissioned ministers as voting delegates at conventions of the Synod and its districts, for the most part the author refrains from dwelling on the issue of equal representation in ecclesiastical governance. 

In many instances, the view of the commissioned minister is shaped by a personally-shared view of local pastors. In chapter 2, “The Priesthood of All Believers and the Office of Public Ministry,” Rueter (2019) skillfully and strategically uses biblical narratives and commentary, the writings of Dr. Martin Luther, and more recent documents published by the LCMS’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) to provide a clear definition and description of what it means to be a priest in the priesthood of all believers. In no way does Rueter speak out against the pastoral office. Rather, he seeks to establish that all Christians are priests by calling from God (1 Peter 2:5), capable of bringing the Word of God and speaking words of forgiveness to each other in the name of Christ, our Great High Priest, and those who are uniquely called into a vocation as pastors are uniquely set aside for just that, public ministry on behalf of the priesthood of all believers (i.e.,
the Church). 

The point of Called to Serve, however, is to answer the question, “Where do the commissioned ministers fit?” As the author states, “The typical dichotomy of clergy and laity…fails to address the status of those in auxiliary, or helping, offices” (Rueter, 2019, p. 34). Using the work of LCMS theologians past and present, Rueter discussed theological and historical practices in early Lutheranism that identified points of tension related to the question of fit. The pastoral office was clearly viewed as being chief among the public ministry offices and provided the foundation for the existence of all other offices. However, those “other” auxiliary offices were created as a means to assist the pastor in meeting the needs of the church, just as the Apostles enlisted the assistance of deacons to care for and to meet the needs of people in the first century church. Speaking to the early church writings on the office of public ministry, Rueter concluded that those early writings clearly established the pastorate as the highest ministry office, and the creation of auxiliary offices and congregations’ calling of individuals to fill such offices also had validity. However, none of the writings of the Lutheran forefathers explained ways in which commissioned ministers fit into the Office of Public Ministry.

In his discussion of C. F. W. Walther, early LCMS history, and twentieth century developments, Rueter (2019) provided clear testimony that commissioned ministers were to be viewed with high esteem by virtue of their calls to serve in LCMS congregations, most notably as teachers. Furthermore, he noted that all who answered God’s Call into ministry, regardless of whether that Call was to the pastoral or teaching offices, received the same initial educational training as teachers in the Church. However, he indicated that even though the Synod’s first President, Walther, struck a balance in how both the pastoral and auxiliary offices should be viewed, tension remains even today. All duly-called workers continue to be synodically trained. Both ordained and commissioned ministers serve on commissions and committees of the Synod. Yet, [commissioned ministers] “remain disenfranchised when district and Synod meet in convention” (Rueter, 2019, p. 68). Commissioned ministers fit neither among the clergy nor the laity. 

In the final two chapters of the book, Rueter (2019) sought to provide a biblically based-model through which ordained and commissioned ministers serve together. In that model, pastors who serve as the sole called worker in a congregation undertake all of the roles (e.g., preacher, teacher), whereas in congregations with both ordained and commissioned ministers, those in auxiliary offices work to help the pastor fulfill all of the responsibilities of the Office of Public Ministry in that congregation. In a call to remember Luther’s opposition to a hierarchical structure and Walther’s elevation of both ordained and auxiliary offices as being important, Rueter reminds his readers that congregations in Christian liberty may establish helping offices as needed in order to meet the ministry needs of their community.

In his conclusion, the author established a positional fit for commissioned ministers “under the headship of the pastor” (Rueter, 2019, p. 111). He called for all workers to walk together in unity of theology and practice as it relates to the calling of workers in the local congregation to fulfill the responsibilities of public ministry. Recognition that ministry in congregations with both ordained and commissioned ministers should continue to be led by the local pastor. “Like the pastor, commissioned ministers are members of the Priesthood of All Believers called to serve in the various church vocations that have been established in the LCMS” (Rueter, 2019, p. 115).

While Rueter provided clarification that commissioned ministers share in the work of the Office of Public Ministry, he indicated that commissioned ministers often continue to be treated like second-class citizens. In many ways their feelings of disenfranchisement are justified when they see districts and Synod provide disproportionate levels of care to pastors and their wives. Rueter (2019) indicated that even in the 2016 LCMS Handbook, circuit visitors were specifically responsible for providing care to their brother pastors, but their responsibilities to care for all workers, including commissioned ministers, was not specified, something that if it were done with regularity in all circuits could contribute to greater collegiality between those serving the Church together.

This would be a facilitation tool to read and discuss for congregations having both ordained and commissioned ministers serving on their called ministry staff. It provides solid doctrinal and historical substantiation for their mutually shared ministry in their community. While it clearly establishes the pastoral office as the highest among the ministry offices, it speaks against a hierarchical form of church leadership modeled after the Roman view of the priesthood. The book would also be a good read for congregational leaders on an informationally instructive level, particularly as it relates to caring for all church workers. Finally, and more importantly, this text would best be used as an instructional text for students preparing to embark on lives of service in the church as called workers – both ordained and commissioned – in order to establish their collegial thinking as partners in ministry and service to the Lord. LEJ