Called to be a DCE

Mar 2nd, 2020 | Category: Columns, DCE Ministry
By Dave Rueter

Sixty years is a milestone truly worth celebrating. DCE ministry has come a long way since its early days. Yet, there remain for some of us certain unanswered questions. One of these questions has been the source of much personal contemplation as well as struggle. A benefit of academic life is occasionally having the opportunity and even the expectation to dig deeply into those types of questions. During the 2016-2017 academic year, I was privileged to hold the Harry and Caroline Trembath Chair for Confessional Theology at Concordia University Irvine, a rotating professorship that allows professors with their terminal degrees that chance for further theological research. This honor, the first given to a non-ordained scholar, gave me the privilege of researching a question that has been poking at the back of my brain for the entirety of my career as a DCE since the late 1990s. I wanted to better understand how the DCE, and more broadly. how commissioned ministers relate to the Office of Public Ministry. 

My parents were both Lutheran schoolteachers. In fact, my father was a principal for many years. While serving in Downey, California, he served on staff with Marvin Schaus, who taught 5th and 6th grades as well as playing organ on Sundays for worship and directing the church and school choirs. His eldest son, Nate was a classmate of mine in preschool and kindergarten before the family moved to Liberia to work with Lutheran Bible Translators. Years later, upon entering college, Nate and I were again classmates and, in fact, freshman year roommates. At Concordia University Irvine, we took some of the same classes despite his plans to become a pastor and mine to become a DCE. During that time, tensions existed between Pre-Seminary and DCE students that have been worked on over the years and structurally corrected. However, at that time the tensions were real and they formed a type of backdrop for the ministerial formation that students of the time received. Interestingly, there was a semester where Nate and I crossed into each other’s worlds. He took youth ministry and I took Greek. 

Years later as I have reflected upon that time, I have wondered whether how students are formed for ministry has a lasting impact on their understanding of their own office as well as the offices of others who serve alongside them in ministry. In my work on district staff and as a church-work-program related faculty member, I often cross lines from one church-work group to another. It is normal at this point for me to spend time in groups of pastors as well as DCEs and teachers. I have grown to appreciate the unique gifts and perspectives that each of these and others bring to their work in the church. My concern remains however, that my experience crossing lines speaks to the ongoing existence of those lines. These distinctions remain important. It would not work to confuse the role of a pastor with that of a DCE. However, if we are to understand all those who serve in public ministry in the LCMS, the lines that all too often divide us and too many times keep great collaborative work from taking place, need to be examined. 

Over the history of our Synod, there have been various understandings of the role and place of commissioned ministers. Though the term commissioned minister came as a result of 20th Century developments related to the tax status of church workers, the conceptual category of auxiliary offices has been discussed since the founding of the LCMS. C.F.W. Walther held a rather high view of the Lutheran teachers who served the synod since its inception. There was even discussion on how to appropriately provide representation of the Lutheran teaching in the governing structure of synod, something we continue to wrestle with today. 

Every other public office in the church is part of the Ministry of the Word or a helping office that supports the Preaching Office…Therefore, the offices of Christian day-school teachers…and others are all to be regarded as ecclesiastical and sacred, for they take over a part of the one church office and support the Preaching Office. (Walther, 1992).

Early forms of training for both pastors and teachers were done in parallel. The establishment of the Addison Teachers Seminary (now Concordia University Chicago) continued the Lutheran emphasis on the formation of men for ministry as teacher, just as men were trained at the Concordia Seminary for pastoral ministry. From the beginning there was a rigor to the theological training that the Lutheran teacher received (now that all commissioned workers receive) that distinguishes them, preparing them for their specific public ministry. 

Throughout the history of the LCMS we have often wrestled with the relationship of commissioned ministers to the pastoral office. Many might grant that commissioned workers are indeed in a form of public ministry but would argue that they are distinct from the office of public ministry. There were attempts especially in the 1950s and 1960s to argue for a functional view of the office of public ministry more in line with the theology of the Wisconsin Synod than the LCMS. In this functional view, each office of the ministry, including the pastoral office, is merely a branch off the larger office of public ministry. While I sympathize with the purpose behind such attempts (most notably by A. C. Stellhorn the first secretary of schools for LCMS and A. C. Mueller who served on the Board for Parish Services), reducing ministry to functions rather than maintaining the distinct nature of the biblically mandated office of public ministry broke with both LCMS and historic Lutheran understandings of
the doctrine. 

Conversely, to hold that commissioned ministry is auxiliary to the office of public ministry leaves commissioned workers as some sort of semi-ministerial laity, and also fails to hold. I believe that Walther properly attempted to hold the tension between the singularity of the office of public ministry, rightly arguing against there being a plurality of offices of public ministry, while at the same time he held that the church had the right to establish offices that derive from the office of public ministry, that are in themselves properly still a part of the office of public ministry. As I have come to understand Walther on this point, as well as the Lutheran Confessions, and a good number of other sources, it would be improper to refer to those in an auxiliary office as simply some sort of called laity. 

In order to get at the center of the argument some philosophical language may be necessary. 

If the pastoral office is coextensive with the preaching office, then commissioned ministers are not within the Office of Public Ministry; however, the church has the freedom to create other helping office and to call people to them as public ministers in a derivative sense. If, on the other hand, the pastoral office is not coextensive with the preaching office, then we can understand commissioned ministers as being within the public ministry but still in a helping sense, as the office of pastor is the only office within which the public ministry which Christ specifically instituted and which is not optional for congregations. (Rueter, 2019, p. 114)

Put more simply, is it more appropriate to say that in all times and in all ways is it more appropriate to equate the Office of Pastoral Ministry with the Pastoral Office, or is there a way in which it is theologically and practically appropriate to talk about the Office of Public Ministry in a way that is inclusive of more than merely the Pastoral Office?

This issue is unfortunately compounded by the use of Lay Minister as a particular auxiliary office. If commissioned workers as bearers of auxiliary offices are public minsters of the gospel and therefore a part of, though not bearers of the full office of public ministry, then to refer to any office as lay ministry is an oxymoron. This is not a judgement on those who serve on the LCMS roster as Lay Ministers, rather I am empathetic to the confusion that such a title creates in understanding just what such a worker is to be about and how they are to be understood in the context of both the local church and LCMS at large. 

How are we then to understand which is the appropriate case? Are commissioned workers properly a part of the Office of Public Ministry or does being auxiliary mean external to that office? The key question is whether the use of a term like auxiliary implies a derivative nature to the office in that it would not properly be considered a part of the Office of Public Ministry. To answer such a question, an examination of key Scripture passages is essential. 

In Acts 6, the early church was growing and growing fast. In fact, the church was growing at such a rate that there were aspects of the work of the church that the apostles were not able to continue to keep up with. Due to the rapid growth of the church, there was added pressure to manage the various developing aspects of the ministry to those both within the church and those that the apostles and others sought to reach out to with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The situation came to a head when complaints began to surface about a disparity of care received by the Greek widows as opposed to the Jewish widows. 

Luther addressed similar situations in 16th-Century Germany. When a parish was larger and the needs of ministry more complex, Luther argued not only for additional pastoral assistance, but also for additional help from workers who might rightly have been called deacons or deaconesses (Klug, 1993). Luther’s thinking here parallels and likely draws upon the rationale that we see in use by the apostles themselves in Acts 6. 

The first thing to note is how soon the church began what some might call social ministry. In a counter-cultural move, the early church became known for its care of those who could not otherwise care solely for themselves. The value that was being defended was the call to care for all. This was not seen as something outside of the ministry of the church, but rather as a natural extension of the ministry of the Gospel being preached by the apostles. In order to manage both the call to preach the Gospel as well as administer the caring ministry to those in need within their midst, the apostles had to maintain an interesting balancing act. In response to the complaints by the Hellenistic followers of Christ, the apostles first readily acknowledged the need to sort out the care for all the widows in their fellowship. It was not an option to let this ministry drop. However, they also noted that “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word ” (Acts 6: 2b-4. ESV). A couple of things should be noted here. There are some who use these verses to mark a clear distinction between the pastoral office and other “so-called” ministry, uplifting the former and nearly dismissing the latter. That is not what is actually taking place in the text. 

If the apostles had considered this ministry to be lesser in importance, something some scholars argue, effectively dismissing the role of the deacon and by extension the modern commissioned minister, then the criteria for selecting them would not have been nearly so stringent. Yes, there is a need for spiritual maturity in all aspects of our service in the church, but there seems to be something more than that implied in the text. This becomes more evident when in verse 6 the apostles placed the seven into their offices as deacons through prayer and the laying on of hands. There is a solemnity to this act. They were not selected merely as food service workers. Rather as we see later in Acts, when Stephen, one of the seven, is martyred for the faith, that they likely were in fact ministers who publicly served more than just bread, they brought the very Word to those in need. 

Now, some will contend that the latter ministry of Stephen is a sign that some deacons were later ordained as pastors, but this is an argument from silence. This may have happened, or it may not have, we cannot know for certain as the Bible is silent on the matter. Good Lutheran theology does not bind the believer to restrictions not actually articulated in the text of Scripture. Similarly, there are those who argue that scripturally only those offices mentioned in the Bible may be considered to be properly a part of the Office of Public Ministry. Turning to texts like Ephesians 4:11, the argument goes that all those offices listed are in fact a part of the pastoral office as we understand that office today. This emphasis on the singularity of the Office of Public Ministry is good, right, and salutary, if handled properly. 

Granting that the offices noted in Ephesians 4:11 are all a part of the pastoral office, what is often missed is that the very listing of these as distinct offices in use at the time, implies that individuals in the early church served in diverse ministries, while remaining a part of the one Office of Public Ministry. The same holds true today. The commissioned minister is an auxiliary minister, but that does not place the commissioned worker outside the Office of Public Ministry. Attempts to argue that one’s ministry can be public but not a part of the Office of Public Ministry fail to logically hold. The goal to maintain a high view of the pastoral office is good and right to do but does not need to be done by devaluing other offices. 

One way to picture this argument is to think of these seemingly distinct offices as having been rolled back into the single office that the church has come to know as the Office of Public Ministry. The pastoral office as we know it bears this office in full. However, as the needs of the local church or denomination grow in complexity, the church rolls back out elements of that single office into distinct offices again, neither dividing the office nor confusing the whole from the parts. In this way, one can both affirm that the list of offices in Ephesians 4:11 is speaking of the pastor and yet further hold that when the church in Christian liberty sees fit to place upon an individual or group of individuals an office that is a part of the Office of Public Ministry, but does not place on the office bearer either the full responsibly nor the full authority of the Office of Public Ministry, that this is both good and right to do in service of Christ and His Kingdom here on earth. 

One possible critique of this image is the potential to see this image as implying that these offices had been distinct and that the church merely subsumed those offices into a single Office of Public Ministry. That is not what is being argued here. The assumption here is that each distinct office was and has always been a part of the one Office of Public Ministry and that whether the church utilized that office in a singular expression or as the LCMS does today with a variety of offices, there remains only one Office of Public Ministry. 

So, what then is the relationship of commissioned ministry to the Office of Public Ministry? It is not as some have suggested that the pastor is merely one office among many that are a part of the Office of Public Ministry, a view historically of the Wisconsin Synod rightly rejected officially by the LCMS, though at times imported into the conversation within the LCMS regardless (Rueter, 2019). Rather commissioned workers and auxiliary offices merely do not bear the full Office of Public Ministry as a senior or sole pastor does. Walther held that the associate pastor and Lutheran teacher both were a part of the Office of Public Ministry, but not full office bearers as the senior or sole pastor is. The major distinction is that the associate pastor may take a call as a senior or sole pastor, whereas the male commissioned minister must rightly become a pastor first in order to do so. 

Returning to the philosophical language noted previously, it is my contention that the latter is the case. That “the pastoral office is not coextensive with the preaching office, then we can understand commissioned ministers as being within the public ministry but still in a helping sense, as the office of pastor is the only office within which the public ministry which Christ specifically instituted and which is not optional for congregations” (Rueter, 2019, p. 114). Note that this claim both respects and uplifts the pastoral office while giving dignity and respect to the commissioned minister as well. In good Lutheran fashion, the attempt is to hold this tension keeping the doctrine in proper balance, neither so weighting things toward the singularity of the pastoral office in a way that dismissed the public nature of the ministry of commissioned workers, while at the same time not so elevating the commissioned minister so as to confuse the distinction between the divinely mandated pastoral office and the humanly created offices that serve alongside and to support the ministry of Word and Sacrament to which the pastor has been called. 

Why does this all matter? Are we as servants of Christ supposed to be seeking after prestige in our ministry? No, of course not. Far be it that we seek after our own glory. However, just as it is right to uplift the pastor who does not seek his own glory, giving him the honor that he is due for his life of service, so to it is right to uplift commissioned ministers: DCEs, Lutheran teachers, DCOs, DFLMs, DPMs, Deaconesses, and Lay Ministers. 

There is however a rather pragmatic result in the ministry of those who are seen and able to see themselves as public ministers of the gospel and not merely hired hands. While this does not argue for the validity of the argument that the DCE and other Commissioned ministers are and should be afforded the respect due a public minister of the gospel, having already made such an argument, this goes to the matter of why placing an emphasis on how we uplift our commissioned ministers is of importance. 

It has been my experience that commissioned ministers who are treated as “hired” rather than “called” approach their service to the church differently. This is not true in every case, and does not negate the many lay workers who are in fact hired for a similar role, however the solemnity with which the called minister is treated when called and placed into an office of service and ministry in a local church or school can, and in my experience most often does, have an impact on the approach taken in one’s ministry. 

The raising up of individuals locally is consistent with the theology expressed in this article with one major caveat. Walking together in the LCMS implies an agreement that we will work together in the raising up and training of church workers. This practice of local churches raising up their own workers and placing them into ministry positions similar to the role of the DCE is the rationale that we used at Concordia University Irvine in the launching of our distance DCE certification programs. It is hard, and I would suggest inconsistent, to expect the above-and-beyond ministry that we know so well from our pastors and other church workers from those who are treated as though they are merely hired for a task. Time and again in my work on district staff, I have seen lay people elevated to DCE-type positions who struggle. They often struggle due to both a lack of training and lack of empowerment that is given to one who is called and placed into ministry more formally by the local church. 

Seeing oneself and being seen by those one serves as a public minister of the gospel can perhaps be conceptualized as the wind in our ministerial sails. A Lutheran understanding of the call into ministry is rightly two-fold. There is the calling that the individual feels or in some way recognizes which moves them toward training and placement into ministry, as well as movement from one call to another throughout a career of ministerial service. This internal call, however, is always to be coupled with an external call. The external call confirms the internal call. One does not serve merely because of their desire or self-perceived calling. Neither a pastor nor DCE should nor can claim to be such or claim a particular call to a local congregation without being recognized as one prepared for ministry and suited for the particularity of that local calling. 

The youth director who is hired from within the congregation should be encouraged to receive training and be rostered in the LCMS both for the benefit of the worker (this opens the door for service in other churches should the calling of God move them from one ministry to another) as well as providing for the congregation a worker well trained in the theology of the LCMS and historical Lutheranism as well as the norms and practices associated with DCE ministry. It has been my observation that workers trained and called to their congregations and schools have a closer association with the LCMS as a whole and their own congregation. Seeing their own congregation in its larger LCMS context often creates within the worker, who becomes rostered via colloquy or certification, a stronger bond with both the local congregation as well as the district and synod as a whole. Conversely a DCE like myself, who is not called to a local congregation, ought not to usurp the DCE who is called to the local congregation. I ought not to take on of my own volition a calling and responsibility not placed on me by an external call. 

The local congregation ought to always respect the call of the DCE just as they would their pastor. While it is understood that the expectations for each are distinct, the ministerial service of the DCE should not be treated as discardable. Yes, there may be times when the ministry of the DCE is of necessity coming to an end. This took place for me at the conclusion of my first call, when I recognized the reality that the congregation lacked the finances to call a new pastor had I remained. I recognized that it was not likely that this uncomfortable question would be asked of me, and I did not want to put the congregation through having to ask me to seek another call after nine years of ministry among them. Given the reality that this kind of situation does take place whether for financial or other legitimate ministry-focused reasons, this kind of situation should be handled with the full knowledge and in open discussion with the DCE. 

Conversely the ministry of the DCE ought not to be treated as a simple 9-to-5 job. While we all may have times in which we desire that simplicity, the truth is that the call into ministry asks far more of us. We are not to be without boundaries that respect our own time and the time we ought to be giving to the ministry of our own family, but ministry is not a 40-hour-a-week proposition. Being present to connect with and minister to the members of our congregations is not something one can easily be hired for at an hourly rate. 

An unfortunate example of hireling attitude took place in a local congregation and involved a lay youth worker who chose to attend another area non-denominational church on Easter Sunday because he did not have any specific duties that morning. There was clearly something missing in this individual’s understanding of his ministry to this congregation. While there is no requirement to be at every event the church holds, being present to minister to and connect with those we serve is not optional. Opting out of all Easter services because you do not have a specific ministry duty that morning is not an option. Not to mention, I would wonder how he managed to not have anything to do on Easter in the first place. That was certainly not an experience that I had in any church that I have served. The DCE is a second-chair leader. As such, we support the ministry of the pastor and others called to serve on our teams. We are there to support them as they are present to support us, not attending everything, but being present for those things essential to our ministry together. 

The most recent NADCE (National Association of Directors of Christian Education) Master DCE, Steve Schedler, was asked in a class on the Concordia University Irvine campus that I was teaching to discuss the team ministry that he shares with his pastor. The exchange between Steve and his pastor, Jim Henkell, was enlightening both about the ministry they share as well as for the shared ministry all church workers can to aspire to. Pastor Jim explained that for him the entire senior ministry staff is a team together, that they all shared the load and responsibly of ministry and ministry decisions together. To which Steve then pointed to Jim and said, “But he’s the boss.” The balance is perfect. As the pastor, Jim was open handed with his authority, sharing it with his fellow workers. Yet, as the DCE, Steve knew where the buck stops, not because Jim insisted upon it, but out of respect for Jim’s calling as pastor and the responsibility placed upon him by the local congregation. Let us all aspire to such a balance. 

I have been privileged to have served with several great pastors who have shared their authority in just such an open-handed manner. Joining these pastors in ministry in the local congregation, district, and university, they have been gracious in welcoming me into team ministry at their sides. It is my prayer that as DCE Ministry continues past 60 years that even more men and women will experience the joys of team ministry as co-laborers with their pastors and all those that God places with them, serving Christ and His kingdom in the many unique contexts of the LCMS. LEJ


Klug, E. F. (1993). Church and ministry: The role of church, pastor, and people from Luther toWalther. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

Rueter. D. (2019) Called to serve: A theology of commissioned ministry. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

Walther, C. F. W. (1992). Essays for the church. St. Louis, MO: Concordia
Publishing House.

Dave Rueter has a PhD from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University in Educational Studies. He serves as Director of Ministerial Formation and Professor of Christian Education at Concordia University Irvine and as Youth & Family Ministry Facilitator for the Pacific Southwest District.