As part of our six-year celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Northeastern Iowa Synod is focusing on the Gospel this year.  At the heart of the Lutheranism is our deep commitment to the good news (Gospel) that we are saved by grace through faith.

So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching Gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted.  Article IV, Augsburg Confession, Book of Concord.

Because it is so important that we get the Gospel right, and that people hear the Gospel, not legalism, not opinions and made up feel good philosophies we have a fairly rigorous process called Candidacy for those who feel called to rostered ministry in the ELCA.

Lutherans understand that there is both an internal call and external call involved in being called to serve as a rostered minister, whether to the ministry of Word and Sacrament or to the ministry of Word and Service.

The internal call is when an individual feels personally called by God to ministry.  Lutherans have always emphasized the importance of Vocation for all baptized Christians.  All baptized Christians are called to serve God, whether it is in our careers or perhaps our volunteer activities.

When it comes to serving as Ministers of Word and Sacrament or Word and Service, Lutherans also hold to the importance of the “external” call, in which the community recognizes the gifts and vocation of an individual to serve the church in this particular way.

Both calls are important.  The candidacy process helps a person who feels called to rostered ministry discern both that internal and external call.  The decision to become a pastor or deacon is never only an individual one.  It involves the whole church.

Candidacy is a partnered process.   It weaves a relationship between the candidate, local congregation, the synod and churchwide ELCA in prayer, support, and discernment.

When someone hears that internal call to serve as a pastor or deacon, they are encouraged to begin that discernment process with others, including their pastor, their home congregation, synod staff and eventually a candidacy committee in their synod.

Northwestern Iowa Synod Bishop Steven Ullestad observes:

“The Candidacy process is one of the finest examples of the partnerships of this church.  The churchwide office, seminaries, and representatives of the synod work side by side with those attending seminary to develop the finest rostered ministers possible.”

Every synod has a candidacy committee whose role is to work with the candidate, the local congregation, and the seminary to help discern, mentor and shepherd them through this process.

“The Candidacy Committee has the important task of helping candidates discern what God is calling them to do. If that discerning leads to seminary, the Candidacy Committee has the pleasure of accompanying candidates through that journey by supporting and encouraging them through the process,”  explains Pastor Steve Brackett, Assistant to the Bishop who works with Candidacy.

“The committee is also there to provide honest feedback, and to challenge candidates to grow and change so that they may become the most effective and grace-filled leaders possible.”

The ELCA candidacy process is meant to be a welcoming and joyful opportunity for people to discern how to serve in and through the church.  Sometimes it feels like gate-keeping to those who feel the initial rush and excitement of the call and candidates may be frustrated when asked to slow down and take second look

It requires some hard work and difficult questions for the candidate.

“The synod Candidacy Committee called attention to make me think about my call in ways I hadn’t before” notes Pastor Corey Smith of Messiah Lutheran in Denver. “It’s not about listing requirements for becoming a pastor. They helped me be better equipped to deal with questions. I could talk about my call in a way that made sense.”

Candidacy partnership ease the road to ministry (April 2012 STAR)

Also, it’s a human work, so we don’t always get it right.  Nobody wants to impede the work of the Holy Spirit when someone feels called to serve the church.  But neither do we want to allow the deep spiritual damage that can be inflicted on individuals and whole faith communities when someone who is unsuited to the work of church leadership is given that kind of power.

Most people who work in candidacy do it out of a deep love for the church and the people who feel called to serve the church.

Synod Vice President Syd Brinkman has served on the Candidacy Committee for several years.  She writes:

“When Assistant to the Bishop Darrel Gerrietts asked me to consider serving on the Candidacy Committee my response was ‘I’m not qualified’. To me, it was a committee filled with theologians, those with high degrees in fields of study. I did not qualify.

Pastor Gerrietts responded he was not looking for theologians and (in Darrel fashion) said ‘I’ve got enough of those’. He was looking for the perspective of a layperson, someone who participated in the church as a lay leader and hears the Word from the pew.

So I agreed to give it a whirl. It has been an incredible gift to my life to serve on this committee. I would give up many things to walk with the candidates in their journey”

The formal beginning of the Candidacy is called “Entrance” and takes place before a candidate begins seminary.  There is paperwork.  A psychological and overall health evaluation is required.   A background check is done.  There is a financial review.  The candidate meets with Pastor Steve Brackett and has a formal interview with the Candidacy committee.

Endorsement is a second major point of discernment for both a candidate and a Candidacy Committee. Endorsement focuses on the type of rostered leadership for which a candidate is best suited and a candidate’s readiness to complete candidacy successfully.

The final step in the candidacy process is Approval. A Candidacy Committee, the seminary of enrollment (or affiliation), and a candidate discern together a readiness for service as a rostered leader in the ELCA following the successful completion of all academic and candidacy requirements.  When a Candidacy Committee grants Approval, it is acknowledging that a candidate is qualified and competent to serve under call in a specific rostered ministry.

One of the synod staff that candidates in the Northeastern Iowa Synod get to know really well is Linda Sue Hamilton.  Linda Sue has been working with candidacy for twenty years and knows the ins and outs so well that other synods call her to ask for advice.

“Candidacy is the best part of my job.  I enjoy getting to know the candidates and helping them in any way that I can. By the time they finish seminary, most of the candidates know me pretty well,” observes Linda.  “Pastor Steve Brackett and the Candidacy Committee also truly care about the candidates and we all work with them to help them succeed.”

Every year in the spring, the Candidacy committee hosts a retreat for the candidates.  According to Syd Brinkman, “It allows all of us to further connect with the students and spouses in a more informal way and address relevant issues in the church or in the lives of the students by inviting in speakers. It could be anything from being a healthy pastor so the pastor can serve a healthy congregation to how a pastor can take the lead in addressing the returning veteran. I hope committee members gain as much insight as the candidates”

By the time a candidate has finished the process in our synod they are pretty well known by a lot of people in the synod.  We are happy and grateful if they end up in our synod but if, as is more often the case, they are assigned elsewhere, we are proud to have had a part in sending this person as a gift to the Church.

“It is a joy to watch candidates grow in their faith, deepen their experience of the mission of the church and become articulate spokespersons and models for the love of Jesus.”  Bishop Steven Ullestad observes.

Recent graduate Dan Hanson describes his candidacy process this way:

“I appreciate that the candidacy process exists. For me, it provided some accountability outside the seminary and connected me with the roots of my home synod.  Candidacy helpfully challenged me to articulate and explore what my sense of call was, why it was I felt God was calling me to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. What I appreciated most were our annual candidacy retreats.  At these retreats, I enjoyed connecting with other seminarians who were all at different stages of their candidacy journey.  The candidacy mentors were all very supportive and eager to hear how we were doing.  These retreats were a grounding experience which embodied the larger churches accompaniment of candidates.”

Not all candidacy committees in all synods work the same way and Pastor Hanson notes that not all of his classmates had a positive experience as he did.  He adds, “What I believe is strong about candidacy in our synod is the intentional action of the committee to gather with candidates annually, which fosters relationship.”

We in the Northeastern Iowa Synod believe it is the relationships in our synod that is our strength.

Whether it is our networks, our youth and family ministry programs, our YAGM relationships or our candidates and other areas, it is the relationships we build working together in mission to build up the body of Christ to share the good news of Jesus Christ to all people that is what we are about.

Next week – Senior Seminarian, Anita Nuetzman, who has been approved for assignment and ordination this spring writes about her experience in the candidacy process.

For more information about the Candidacy process see ELCA Candidacy Resources


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About The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson

The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson has been Director for Evangelical Mission, ELCA for the Northeastern Iowa Synod since late 2013. Part of her job description is to help leaders and congregations use social media and other digital means for outreach and mission. She writes and edits this blog as well as runs the social media accounts for the synod.




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