I’m baaaack….

Hard to believe we’re already in Week 2 of the month of February!

I’ve been out of town for a while.  The first 2-plus weeks of January, I was in Gettysburg, PA. at the seminary there for what is called the Diaconal Ministry Formation Event.

In plain English: two weeks of intensive instruction, discussion, discernment, and collegiality, all designed to help those of us considering diaconal ministry to get a better idea of where we’re going.  I met people from all walks of life, from all over the country, all on the same path towards ministry, either diaconal or ordained.  It’s a required class in my process.  (Then I came home, repacked, and headed to Utah for 11 days of skiing bliss.)

I’m going to depart from the usual worship & liturgy subjects to explain a little bit more about diaconal ministry and what it can be in today’s ELCA.

Diaconal ministry is also called the diaconate, and those in this ministry are sometimes called deacons – which sounds a little confusing.  “Diaconal ministers” are one of three layperson rosters in the ELCA – the other two are Associates in Ministry and Lutheran Deaconesses.

Lutheran Deaconesses have a long history that goes back to the mid-19th century in Kaiserswerth in Germany.  This is the nursing training hospital at which Florence Nightingale received her early nursing training prior to her groundbreaking work in the Crimean War.  Deaconesses generally work in health care, but also in other areas.

Associates in Ministry are lay professionals working in almost any area of ministry, usually in a congregation but sometimes in synod offices or specialized ministry areas.

Diaconal ministers, by comparison, specifically seek to work at the intersection of the church and the world.  This can manifest in as many ways as there are people!  They might be in a congregation, in a social service agency, on Churchwide staff – the possibilities really are endless.

As far as requirements for these rosters, the diaconate requires a master’s degree in an area of ministry.  Associates in ministry have to complete a specific set of courses, but a master’s degree is not required.  Deaconesses have specific requirements unique to their call.  All three rosters are considered Word and Service rosters, in contrast to the ordained roster or Word and Sacrament (ordained pastors).

There is a discussion in the ELCA going on about these three rosters, in hopes of providing some clarity for people.  We talked at the Event about what those changes might mean, and what our feelings were about the diaconate.

One day was spent “in context” – out in a ministry setting to see how a diaconal minister integrated into that setting.  The setting we visited was an in-town congregation with a full-time pastor (Word and Sacrament) and a full-time diaconal minister (Word and Service).  They had other staff members, some of whom were full time, but we were really struck by the way the pastor and the diaconal minister (DM) were modeling how these two rosters could be highly complementary.

It’s a bit of a change from what many of us grew up with: if there was “too much work” for one pastor, then the church had to think about calling a second one.  It’s only been in recent years that the ELCA has urged parishes to re-think this model.  As far as rostered leadership goes, the ELCA is in a tricky position.  We’ve been hearing for some time about the “retirement tsunami” that is imminent, with so many folks ordained in the 60s and 70s nearing retirement.  The numbers haven’t been there in seminaries – meaning graduating seminarians – to replace these retiring pastors.

But at the same time, the “way we are church” is changing too.  The model from the 50s of a programmatic ministry situation, with a building, a mortgage, expenses, and all the rest is not one that new ministry starts automatically default to any more.  And that’s a good thing!  You see, that old model is heavily reliant on what in the theatre we called “butts in seats” to keep things going.  You need a constant influx of people to the church – people who are contributing – for that programmatic model to work.

Don’t get me wrong; this model can and does work very well in many places.  But the questions are increasingly being asked, both in established parishes and in new ministry starts: are we meeting OUR needs or the needs of the community around us?  What are we called to do here and now, in response to God’s lavish gift of grace in Jesus?  How might our ministry look different five, ten, twenty years down the line as we continue to live into that response?

The parish we visited in Pennsylvania was established the same year as the town itself – 1752.  Its graveyard is the resting place for the town founder.  There’s a considerable history there – but they are not resting on those laurels.  Instead, they seek ways to meet the needs of the community around them, as well as the parish community itself.

One of the “markers” of the diaconate is to empower the people of God to do ministry in the world.  This was where the DM at this parish was particularly skilled, and she helped congregation members find their place to serve in a wide variety of ministries.  She and the pastor are in constant contact about the ongoing ministries of the parish, the possible future ministries, their ecumenical partnerships, liaisons with the town itself and its agencies – and they work out which of the two of them is best suited to respond to or work within a particular context.

I was mesmerized.  I saw before me what could be an amazing partnership model throughout the ELCA.  Of course, it would look different in each setting.  But the idea of those complementary rosters, in service to the body of Christ as well as the world, and enabling the body of Christ to likewise be in service to the world – THIS is what I want to do.

It’s incredibly exciting, and will require quite a bit of discernment and careful thought.  But the potential just blows me away.

As for now, though, it’s back to classes and study.  Preparation is a good thing.

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3 thoughts on “I’m baaaack….

  1. I need to contact my synod to see if there are any Diaconal Ministers in it–I would love to connect with one! Thank you for being a part of the process that helps these rosters work together, to know each other, and to be relevant to the ministry of the ELCA.

    • Ken, good to hear from you! There are DM candidates in most of the ELCA seminaries at the moment; do ask your synod about it. I know there’s a number of folks at Wartburg right now in the process.

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