by Matthew Folkemer-Leonard

Q: How can the church better support non-traditional candidates?

A: I found this to be a difficult question to answer at first, because when I hear it, it leads to two questions popping into my head. One: Who are we defining as non-traditional candidates? Two: Why aren’t we supporting them already? As a young African American man who is candidate for ordination, I fall into the category of “non-traditional candidate” for ministry within the ELCA, despite having grown up as a Lutheran.

In my experience through candidacy, there were times when I did not feel that I was supported like other candidates. Feeling as thought I was on the outside looking in. Wondering what I was doing wrong and why I wasn’t receiving the same support.

We as a denomination can better support our non-traditional candidates by first referring to them just as candidates and not labeling them or placing them into a separate category. It creates an unnecessary barrier and makes it seem like some candidates are different from other candidates.

Secondly, we need to do a better job of standing with all candidates through their discernment journey.

Too many times, non-traditional candidates who do not fit this “traditional mold” that is in place within the church’s candidacy process are given unnecessary hurdles to clear, putting them in uncomfortable positions to fit into the mold. In some cases, those hurdles force candidates into positions where they must deny themselves and hide what makes them who they are.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Support for non-traditional candidates has changed and grown over the years but there is still work that needs to be done as a church to support candidates who would not be identified by the majority as “ideal.”

We should have standards as to what should be expected of a candidate when they embark on this journey of discernment but, when the standards are not the same for all candidates, there is a problem. The best way we can support these candidates is to listen to them and allow them to grow in their discernment of where the Spirit is calling them to be. Most importantly, we should help our ELCA congregations open themselves up to the movement of the Spirit and advocate for inclusivity.

I pray that one day all who are called by God to enter candidacy will know that they are loved, supported, welcomed, and celebrated for their diversity, instead of treated as “other.”

May we continue to tear down barriers and follow Jesus’ call to serve.

My name is Matthew Folkemer-Leonard. I’m a fourth-year seminary student from United Lutheran Seminary on my internship year as a Vicar for Trinity Lutheran Church in Wrightsville, PA and Zion Lutheran Church in York, PA. My wife, Margaret Folkemer-Leonard, is the Director of Music at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in York, PA and is on track for ordination as a deacon in the ELCA. We live in West York with our two dogs, Rosalind and Rooster.  I am planning on graduating this May 2021.