by Phillip R. Deming (November / December 2000 • Volume 16 • Number 6)
There is a soft, quiet, but resolute click in the sound of a steel door closing firmly in the locked unit of a psychiatric facility. The sound of a door shutting. Metallic echoes of the rejection felt by many struggling with mental illness who have been shut out from the faith practices of their youth. Individuals who are forgotten when shifts change, and those with the keys of access go home.
There is a particular, wordless, and unspeakable agony in the eyes of parents who hold the lifeless body of a two-year old child. An oldest son, just now taken off life support, the most recent casualty of a slate of pool-side accidents. Radiating from the parents, the degree of pain not lessened a single measure by the most carefully crafted sermon.
These are a small but representative sample of the many places where the church is not often experienced, places not contained within the familiar four walls of a sanctuary. Nor are these times comfortable moments of casual encounter that conveniently occur within the shielded morning hours of Sunday.
These places and times are unconventional and uncomfortable, and they are where Christ calls us to be: people serving individually as members of his flock, and collectively as his body, the church; people active and present in service to others through diakonia.
What do you do?
Just as the secular work environment has changed significantly over the last few decades, so has the work environment of those called to service by the church. Some of us now work in a variety of settings, often simultaneously in part-time capacities. In this combination of jobs, one becomes a "portfolio worker."
As a diaconal minister, I have responded to my call to ministry in a similar fashion and I might be aptly labeled as a "portfolio of tentmaker." I concurrently serve as a chaplain in a retirement community, a hospital emergency room, and in a psychiatric unit. I am also a therapist and serve as the "deacon" of a parish. In my "spare" time, I am an educator.
While the duties in each setting may be different, my experience reflects more similarities than differences. I preach, teach, counsel, lead worship, facilitate small groups, provide the ministry of presence, help in bereavement, administrate, and write policy at times.
I occasionally help to feed and wash individuals who are unable to do so for themselves. As I reflect on this last duty, I cannot help but feel it resonate with the historic understanding of diakonia.
|Diaconal ministry is an intentional statement that the church desires to be both relevant and vibrant in the world.|
Until the recent expansion of the ministry rosters, individuals who were called into the ordained ministry filled many of these positions. I believe, however, that the ELCA has chosen to embrace and expand our understanding of ministry. This understanding suggests that ministry is sometimes more effectively provided in non-congregational settings.
The Ministry of Word and sacrament is an essential, ongoing expression of the church's ministry to the world. Providing such ministry within the context of a parish or congregational setting is one crucial way in which the world experiences God's grace.
An equally important function for the church is having the ability to recognize the need for ministry outside of the congregation and providing that ministry. The ELCA's perception of ministry flows from its historic experience and perspective.
This historic understanding of ministry is being increasingly challenged. Our complex world has need of a variety of ministries. I believe that the evolving sense of diakonia within the ELCA, particularly in the form of diaconal ministry, helps address this challenge. Diaconal ministry can serve as an important bridge between the organized structure of the ELCA and the varied cultural contexts in which we now live.
How do I see what I do as serving in response to the needs of the church and the world?
As envisioned by the ELCA, I understand diaconal ministry to be an intentional intervention to more clearly recognize the inherent connection between the "world" and the "church." An essential distinction for those called into diaconal ministry is dually rooted in an understanding of this connection and in a desire for the church to be relevant.
Diaconal ministers are called to grapple with the brokenness in the world and to assess the manner in which the resources of the church may be applied to this brokenness. Diaconal ministers help others to see the possibilities for ministry and seek to empower them to do that ministry. The empowerment may flow from a diaconal minister doing the ministry as an example, or in providing training, mentoring, and encouragement. I am blessed with opportunities to both act and to empower others as a teacher and mentor.
Many who are called to serve the church on other rosters express their ministry flowing from a parish or congregation. As a diaconal minister, the primary focus of my ministry is essentially external to the traditional parish setting.
Whenever I encounter someone in a ministry situation, I represent that part of the body of Christ expressed by the ELCA. These encounters are based on intent rather than circumstance. They are intentional in that in my ministry I am actively seeking these interactions outside of the congregational setting.
In the minds of many, the world is a place that is both real and gritty, while the church is often seen as an innocuous place with stale hymns and a coffee hour. There is a significant discrepancy that is perceived to exist between the "church" and "world." Diaconal ministry is an intentional statement that the church desires to be both relevant and vibrant in the world.
What was my rationale for taking the route of diaconal minister to serve the ELCA?
Several core issues have evolved, as I pondered my response to this question. The first concern was in the wording "serve the ELCA." I see myself first as serving the body of Christ present in the world, rather than serving the ELCA as an institution.
While I firmly understand myself to be one who offers ministry under the authority and "license" of the ELCA, I see the institution as the vehicle for ministry rather than being the focal point. A significant element of my rationale for pursuing diaconal ministry was a desire to help clarify what our purpose as church was to be.
We live in a social environment that often perceives the institutional church as being both irrelevant and self serving: irrelevant, in that the precepts preached on Sunday are often not lived out in meaningful ways Monday through Saturday; self-serving, in that the institutional church is frequently perceived to be more interested in how individuals are serving it, rather than how the church can be in service to individuals.
I understand that a fundamental precept of diaconal ministry is a focus on bridging the gap between the insulated institutional church and the needs of the external world. In order to be faithful to this calling, I understand that I have a responsibility at times to be a squeaky wheel and a nagging voice. In performing this responsibility, there may be times when I may be able to offer perspectives not easily seen within the traditional church structure.
What concerns about rostered lay ministry in the ELCA do you want to share with the readers of Lutheran Partners?
In both my training and experience I have become increasingly aware of how powerful resistance to change is. This dynamic is present in all systems, including families, congregations, and even the ELCA. This resistance to change is pervasive and largely unconscious.
My first concern is that as diaconal ministry emerges, it experiences a premature death in its infancy — perishing either from neglect, or due to an inherent suspicion of all things different.
A second concern stems from a related issue that often follows a system's attempt to correct a problem or to address an important issue. This is the desire to do "more of the same."
It appears that the ELCA has perceived the need for more flexible expression in its forms of ministryforms of ministry that allow the church to be more vibrant and involved in daily lives. In attempting such a change, the first and most powerful response of the church will be to do what it is already doing, but just do more of it, and somehow do it better.
There is a danger that the potential vitality of diaconal ministry may be leached out by forcing it to mirror what we are already doing, rather than to truly embrace a vision of a new, more engaged ministry. This new vision requires differences in perspective, training, praxis, perhaps even in priorities and in goals.
These differences may cause more discomfort than ease within the ELCA. The powerful desire to maintain a homeostasis may eliminate these vital differences, resulting in our providing new words for our ministry efforts, but dispelling any actual difference in function.
Philip Deming, of San Diego, California, is a diaconal minister, serving concurrently as a chaplain in a retirement community, hospital, and psychiatric unit, a therapist, a deacon of a parish, and an educator.