USA: Keeper of the words for yesterday and today

24 Apr 2020
Deacon Sue Rothmeyer, Secretary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Photo: ELCA

Deacon Sue Rothmeyer, Secretary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Photo: ELCA

Voices from the Communion: Deacon Sue Rothmeyer

(LWI) - Deacon Sue Rothmeyer, Secretary for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), recounts how sometimes secretary sounds like it is all about rules, regulations and documents. She doesn’t deny that is an important part of the office, but Deacon Rothmeyer says it is all about relationships, too.

With relationships, she says, “We go beyond rules in a document to how we embody those documents in meaningful and helpful ways for the sake of the whole church.”

Rothmeyer, is the first woman and deacon as ELCA secretary. As a former campus minister at Iowa State University she discusses how these ministries shape her work.

What is the role of the secretary?

We are the recorders, we are the historians, we are the wordsmiths - the keepers of the words. We function as the recorder of the minutes in church meetings and assemblies – small and large. We maintain the archives of the church – the keepers of the words of the past.

It is about language and relationships. The office of secretary, guided by representation principles, works with racial-ethnic communities and associations on how shifting language represents these communities. We are mindful and respectful of how language is changing and adapting, and the documents of this church reflect our desire for diversity and inclusivity.

You are the first deacon to hold this office. How does being a deacon and the church secretary connect?

In the ELCA, the office of deacon is described as a call to Word and Service and that is significant to me. Obviously, as pastors, deacons and laypeople, the Word of God is what is central to all of our understandings, but it is “service” that gives meaning to my sense of vocation. My predecessors often defined the office of secretary as “one that serves as a service unit for the whole church.”

The ELCA is one church body organized in three expressions of church – congregations, synods, and the churchwide organization. In some ways, the office of the secretary is the connective tissue that keeps these three expressions functioning together. It is a service to that body.

You don’t do this alone. What is the structure of the office of the secretary?

No, I don’t. In the office of the secretary, there are 15 staff.

The management includes leaders of three teams; legal, meetings and administrative. I served as the assistant to the secretary prior to becoming secretary.

How is your office functioning differently during the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic?

Like many, we are working remotely and using online tools. One of the first things we did was hold a meeting on “how to do meetings.”

The bishops and churches had questions like, “How will we do assemblies, now?” “How will congregations hold meetings to call new pastors?” These first meetings were held to find solutions and ideas and to share online platforms, resources and best practices. Often, the office is thought of as the convener of meetings, but in those first meetings, we listened and became a place for an exchange of information.

In other ways, the management team has been busy rearranging flight cancellations, providing legal counsel and non-profit tax forms for churches interested in the U.S. Government economic plans.

Overall, the pandemic and restrictive measures by governments have been a game-changer, making us more attentive to how we can be of greater service to the church.

Your background is in campus ministry. What does that experience bring to your current role as secretary?

Being campus minister to young adults who were going to be engineers, veterinary medical students, or who were studying rhetoric like myself, stretched my understanding of how we all live out our vocations in various ways. These students were examples of living out a vocation as people of God in the world.

I have always valued the voice of youth and young adults and in this office, I can ensure that the wisdom of those voices is heard in new and different ways. Remembering my youth, I appreciate how the church invited me into roles and responsibilities as a young adult.

It was while I was working with young adults and campus ministry that I worked with the office of the secretary to implement the 10 percent presence of youth in ELCA leadership.

Why is it important from your perspective for the ELCA to be in communion with LWF?

In 2016, our church made some important changes in how we speak about our work with the global church. We often spoke about the ELCA as a church with three expressions, but that refers to the church body here, locally.

It is clearly stated in the constitution Chapter 3 The Nature of the Church,

“This church, inspired and led by the Holy Spirit, participates in The Lutheran World Federation as a global communion of churches, engaging in faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and in service for the sake of God’s mission in the world.”

It affirms that our participation in the Lutheran World Federation is one way in which our church lives out its commitment to be part of the whole church.

Voices from the Communion

The Lutheran World Federation is a global body that shares the work and love of Christ in the world. In this series, we profile church leaders and staff as they discuss topical issues and set out ideas for building peace and justice in the world, ensuring the churches and communion grow in witness and strength.

Voices from the Communion Series