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Photo: Calvin Institute of Christian Worship
Kathy Smith
Photo by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship

What you assume about ministers, elders, and deacons depends on your particular tradition. But anyone who looks into Protestant ordination practices will learn that being ordained as a Christian Reformed elder is very different from being ordained as a Nazarene elder.

So, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship is offering a roundup of experts -- its second such story -- discussing the best practices to help churches dig beneath the surface when they ordain or install ministers, elders, and deacons.

Kathy Smith is an adjunct professor of church polity at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Mich.; the associate director and grants program manager at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship; and an ordained minister of the Word in the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

Here is what Smith says: “In ordination the church recognizes the call of God and the call of God’s people on particularly gifted persons, so it sets aside and ordains them to serve on Christ’s behalf, equipping the saints for ministry. Ordained leaders serve Christ and the church, exercising Christ’s authority from a posture of service. The four offices are considered equal in dignity and honor, but different in mandate and task. Deacon, elder, and commissioned pastor are local offices. Minister of the Word is a denomination-wide office. Unlike elders and deacons, who ordinarily serve as volunteers, commissioned pastors and ministers of the Word are usually in ministry as their main vocation.

“Church members are involved in identifying, nominating, and selecting ordained leaders because we believe that, since Pentecost, the Holy Spirit works through the church to identify those called to lead. Confessing adult members of the CRCNA (those who have professed their faith in Christ and have made a commitment to the Reformed creeds and confessions) are eligible for office.”

The Church Order guides the process for calling and selecting all officebearers. Deacons lead and equip the congregation and members to imitate Christ’s mercy in loving God, their neighbors, and the creation. Elders exercise oversight and pastoral care of a congregation in Christ’s name.

“Commissioned pastors ordinarily serve a local church in a particular ministry area, such as youth, education, evangelism, or worship,” Smith continues. “Some commissioned pastors plant churches, and with proper approvals, can stay as pastors after those churches become legally organized. There are no degree requirements for commissioned pastors, but a learning plan including matters of CRC history, polity, theology, and ministry is required for those who serve as solo pastors and include preaching in their ministry. Commissioned pastors are not eligible for call beyond their local context, but could be called to another position by another local church and would go through another ordination process there.

“Ministers of the Word must have a master of divinity degree, except in very exceptional circumstances. They serve as congregational pastors as well as missionaries, chaplains, and professors, and in other approved specialized ministries. Once ordained, they are eligible for call throughout the denomination.

“In the CRC, officebearing is temporary. No one is in office forever. The Church Order doesn’t specify the length of service for elders and deacons, but three years is common. Ministers and commissioned pastors usually serve indefinitely, but once the person leaves his or her position, he or she would not continue to be ordained unless another call was accepted.”

History: “My favorite ordination practice is the laying on of hands. Already-ordained officebearers come forward and lay their hands on the person(s) being ordained. The officiating minister prays, ‘God, our heavenly Father, who has called you to these sacred offices, guide you by his Word, equip you with his Spirit, and so prosper your ministries that his church may increase and his name be praised.’”

Who, How, Where: “Ordination occurs in a public worship service in the church that has called these persons to serve. Having my family involved was a highlight for me, since they had given me so much support through going to seminary as a second career. My father, a retired minister, asked me the questions of the vows, my husband read Scripture, and our daughters read and played their musical instruments. Others involved were the pastor of my calling church, who preached the sermon, elders who offered charges and prayers, and pastors and friends from the church where I was mentored toward ministry.

“The most memorable moment of my ordination as a minister of the Word was the laying on of hands and prayer. When the hands were lifted and I rose from a kneeling position, I heard a friend’s young daughter in the front row say out loud, ‘She’s a minister now!’ That moment still makes me smile, both because it was so affirming at the time and because she clearly understood what had just happened.

“Key participants in ordinations of ministers and commissioned pastors are the persons being ordained and representatives of the calling church. Mentors, friends, former pastors, and family members are often involved as well. While greetings from the classis are very nice, they are not required. The ordination is the result of a call from the local church, so the service is local. The person being ordained would have already passed an examination and been approved at the classis meeting and would have received congratulations and blessings—and an ordination certificate—at that gathering.

“Ordination of elders and deacons is an annual practice, since some of the officebearers’ terms conclude each year. Our polity stresses that ordination clings to the role the person holds, not to the person. Officebearers are ordained in a public worship service at the calling church, even for ministers called to serve in missions, teaching, chaplaincy, or the like.

“In the ordination service of a minister, a celebration of the Lord’s Supper sometimes follows the vows, with the newly ordained minister administering the sacrament. That minister also gives God’s blessing to the congregation at the end of the worship service for the first time. Until then, he or she would offer a prayer for God’s blessing rather than proclaim the blessing on behalf of God to the people.

“The first time a person accepts a call to be a minister, he or she is ordained to ministry. Subsequent charges include an installation service very similar to an ordination, except that it is recognized that the person is already ordained but taking on a new ministry.

“Key elements are vows made by those being ordained, charges to the newly ordained and to the congregation or ministry they will serve, and prayers offered for both groups. The CRCNA has various forms for ordination and installation services. Although wording should be followed for prayers and questions and answers in the vows, there is room for creativity. I recall one service of ordination of elders and deacons where the charges were meaningfully read by members of different ages, from a child to an elderly person.”

Read about more from other denominations.