Diaconal Ministry: History, Discernment, Formation, and Spirituality
Earlier this month, CCS program staff member Ted Dodd attended a course on Diaconal History and Spirituality at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. Here are Ted’s reflections on the event…
“I chose this course because I wanted to consolidate my understanding of the two thousand years of diaconal history. While I do not claim to be an expert, I now feel that I have a rich understanding of the significant eras in the timeline of the diaconate.
Through the centuries, this ministry has taken on a variety of forms and functions. No one definition of diakonia stands as decisive or irrefutable. No single model delineates diaconal ministry finally or categorically. Over the ages, the diaconate has moved with flexibility into areas where they are needed, where service is required. Further, diaconal ministry is more than an office or the people who were called deacons or deaconesses; the whole church is called to diakonia. If we could summarize diakonia in the 140 characters of a Tweet, it would be easier. Our students — and the church – struggle with this lack of a conclusive absolute. However, by knowing the background and context of this important ministry we go a long way toward clarifying the confusion.
While I do not believe history needs to be seen through a deterministic lens, I do feel that we are shaped by the past. The diaconal story begins before one is commissioned, consecrated, or ordained, and one is moulded by it, often without knowing the details or without articulating its assumptions. I deeply valued this opportunity to learn who we are by studying the past. Immersing myself in the content of our diaconal tradition offered me a broader comprehension of my vocation and will enable me to share this knowledge and insight with our students.
A second goal of the course was to ground the process of diaconal discernment and formation in spiritual practice. We read texts related to community: Brother Roger and the Taizé community, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic work, Life Together. We participated in daily public worship, kept journals, and entered into a private, daily lectio divina reading of the Psalms. Additionally, we studied an excellent short history of Christian spirituality, Bradley Holt’s Thirsty for God; this text proved to be a great complement to, and reinforcement for, the learning we were doing about the history of the diaconate.
Many of our CCS students use the Leadership Development Module (and on into the program) for discernment of call. As CCS is in process of reviewing the Leadership Development Module, I want to think about how we might enhance this vocational testing aspect of our program.
Being immersed in the Lutheran culture for a week proved to be very rewarding. My sense of their theology and values grew exponentially. I delved into their rosters of ministry, various denominational documents and core writings, and some of their divisions and theological influences. As well, this experience offered me the chance to visit in an area of the US where I have not really been connected previously. I ate barbeque and biscuits, collards and fried green tomatoes. One evening we were invited to attend “Beer and Hymns” at a local pub. The bar was packed with Southerners singing songs of faith in what would normally be a very secular setting; I had read about such endeavours of the emerging church; I was happy to witness such an initiative in person. On the weekends bracketing the course, I visited Savannah and Charlotte and managed to see four art galleries, a historic plantation, a restored mansion, and the Museum of the New South. I watched the Martin Luther King, Jr. Parade, attended a service at First African Baptist Church, and also went to a Centre for Afro-American culture. This exposure intensified my commitment to diversity and broadened my perspective.
I am so grateful to the Sisters of the Deaconess Community of the ELCA/ELCIC who sponsored this event and who welcomed us with such gracious hospitality. I, also, appreciate the line in the CCS operating budget that supports, the policy that allows time for, and the vision which encourages, on-going professional development for CCS staff. Thank you.