The following article was written by Deaconess Diane Marten.
How do you become a deaconess or deacon? How does the LDA prepare people for diaconal ministry? Well, there’s history and context to that question.
Throughout early Christian history, a diaconate survived but was largely invisible to the wider church. During the Industrial Revolution, as European churches responded to new social needs, the diaconate was given new life. In the middle 1800s, German Lutheran deaconesses were trained as nurses, caring for people who were sick, disabled, or orphaned. Some of those nurse-deaconesses came to the United States in the late 1800s to serve in Lutheran institutions. The women wore uniforms, lived in community, were unpaid, and did not marry. Some were sent to foreign countries to serve with other missionaries.
As American society changed, the church needed other kinds of help. Like European deaconesses, the LDA trained women as nurses and matrons for their institutions. By mid-century, congregations in the US experienced rapid growth. The LDA responded by re-imagining and moving its training program to Valparaiso University. The program resulted in a college degree in service fields such as nursing, social work, psychology, and education – in addition to a major or minor in theology. This education prepared deaconesses to serve the church through staff positions, teaching in parochial schools, organizing youth work, managing Sunday Schools, leading women’s Bible study, and making visits to the homebound. An advantage (besides the academic degree) was that all deaconess students lived together during their college years – in “Deaconess Hall” — giving a foundation for the “community” they would enter at consecration.
By the late 1970s, however, fewer congregations were calling full-time deaconesses, and fewer women were entering a deaconess program. LDA deaconesses found themselves serving in many Lutheran denominations, and along with that, ordination, professional careers, and a host of other Lutheran training options became available. The role of a permanent diaconate was only one choice among many for Christian service. While church bodies continued to struggle with various titles and roles for non-clergy ministry, diaconal leaders never gave up tending social concerns and caring for those who are most vulnerable.
Given that history and context, the LDA stretched beyond congregationally-based ministry and ever-decreasing official calls by church bodies, flinging their diaconate into a wider world that still needs a touch of compassion and hope. And because the LDA was a free-standing Lutheran organization, it was flexible enough to respond to changing times. Deaconesses affirmed their servant callings as theologians, pastors, social workers, nurses, therapists, teachers in public and parochial schools, chaplains, attorneys, advocates, camp directors, and directors of non-profit agencies. They became musicians and worship specialists, wives, and mothers. They served part-time and as active volunteers. They began to see Jesus in more and more places of need.
Once again, in the late 1980s, the LDA’s flexibility helped deaconesses adapt. With bold intentionality, the LDA diaconal community began asking questions. “What positions are we training deaconesses for? What knowledge, what skills, what attitudes are needed to prepare people for servant leadership, to the church, and to the world? Are there people who already bring skills to the training, and could they be prepared for ministry without attending Valparaiso University? How might the process change if the LDA included men? What is essential to diakonia?”
In the1990’s a pilot program was initiated to train women over age 35, who had experience and skill for ministry, who would attend week-long seminars at the LDA office, and complete certain courses and experiences during the year – from their own home community. As the pilot program gained success, the LDA took another step – to dream more extensively. The LDA sought direction from a team of deaconesses, educators, LDA staff, pastors, theologians, supervisors, and other lay leaders to formulate a process of education and formation for the diaconate with an eye to the future. Building on a theological touchstone, hallmarks of the diaconate, and promises made at consecration, the LDA designed a process that featured practical and education competencies.
Competencies and Community
The LDA dreamers recognized that deaconesses are critical to the process. While formal classes in theology are important, living into a diaconal identity can only be done through connections with the diaconal community. Practical, supervised ministry experiences hone the diaconal skill and vision, particularly in dialogue with other diaconal people. Tending the spiritual life — a life of intentional prayer worship, Bible study, and spiritual direction – give strength for the journey.
As the new design (the current design) for education and formation, launched in 2004, took shape, we discovered some advantages: the process could be individualized; students could enter at many ages or stages of life, take courses at the BA or MA level, bring in previous experience, move through at their own pace, and serve in many settings. We discovered that the process could be offered to men – the LDA now has one diaconate with two communities. We discovered some disadvantages, too: consecration into the LDA’s diaconate does not result automatically in membership on a church-roster; however, with intentional planning, an LDA student could meet or exceed requirements for certain rostered categories of Lutheran church bodies.
The LDA’s competencies are organized into the four areas noted above and may be addressed in a variety of ways: through course work, projects, papers, reflections on intentional experiences, workshops, or other training situations. Competencies are assessed by qualified people, including course instructors, CPE and intern supervisors, LDA staff, or deaconesses. Documentation of each completed part is compiled in a portfolio and presented during a final interview with an LDA committee. Many students have used their portfolios at job interviews, documenting their experience and providing summaries of feedback from those who know their work and ministry.
A Sustaining Community
Formation and education are ongoing in the diaconal life, of course. But even with a solid foundation in theology and great skills, it is difficult to sustain ministry in deep waters without an anchor. Most diaconal people do not live “in community” with each other, and with a great variety of work settings, both inside and outside the church, the diaconal community intentionally seeks ways to be connected. Regular contact, in person or in virtual gatherings, allows members to share ministry stories, to learn from and support each other, to provide mentoring, and to maintain a shared vision.
Belonging to a community brings insights and skills that overflow into the congregations or agencies of service. The diaconal community is, in itself, a sign to the church that in a go-it-alone world, we need each other.
Here’s a favorite image of the LDA: “The towel shapes itself around the foot – the foot does not shape itself around the towel.” How women and men are trained and formed for diaconal foot-washing ministry remains flexible and adaptable to the changing needs of church and world.