… equipping the saints for diakonia; building up the Body of Christ (Eph. 4:12)
diakonia is a two-year process of spiritual formation and theological education for baptized members of the Lutheran Church. This process occurs in three basic ways:
- By thorough grounding in the classic seminary disciplines of practical, systematic, historical, and Biblical theology;
- By identifying particular skills and aptitudes in ministry, and encouraging their use in the local parish;
- By providing spiritual growth through worship, retreats, and a supportive community of fellow students, mentors, and instructors.
These tools help equip God’s people for service in parish and neighborhood ministries. The primary theme and focus of the diakonia experience is the word of Jesus in scripture (e.g. Mark 10:43: “Let the one who would be great among you be your servant [Greek: diakonos].”)
See the website for diakonia in the Metro Chicago Synod for detailed information: www.mcselca.org/diakonia.
This article describes diakonia another way, by telling one diakonia graduate’s experience from first exposure to nearly two years after graduation. My wife Carol’s comments are added at the end.
My introduction to diakonia was a workshop at the 2003 Metro Chicago Synod Assembly. I heard from two or three diakonia graduates, and first learned some of the reasons that diakonia students have enrolled, and benefits they have obtained from the program.
I took home a brochure and learned the following: The diakonia program is a part-time, two year course of study for lay people, with twelve courses spread over the two years. Each course is comprised of five three-hour weekly sessions. A typical course requires from two to five hours of weekly course preparation in addition to class time, so the total time invested over two years ranges from 300 to 500 hours.
Classes meet in the evening or on Saturday morning at several sites. The number of sites near Chicago has expanded to seven in the Metro Chicago and Northern Illinois synods, and one new site has opened in the Greater Milwaukee synod. At this writing 92 students are enrolled at these eight sites.
Besides these three synods, there are established diakonia programs in Metro New York (where diakonia originated) and New Jersey, with new programs added this year in the Southeastern Pennsylvania and Florida/Bahamas synods. Flexibility is provided by arranging courses so that either Year A or Year B can be taken first; neither year is pre-requisite for the other. A typical diakonia class has both first year and second year students.
After a few days, I gave the brochure to my wife Carol with the comment, “Am I nuts? I think I want to do this.” Later, Carol returned the brochure saying, “I’m nuts too. I want to do it with you.” We enrolled and eagerly awaited September, when we’d have a study date every Friday night and a few other nights as well, and would drive together from Lake Forest to River Forest for a three-hour class every Saturday morning.
What attracted two people with too little spare time to go back to school part-time for two years, intending to commit 500 hours plus commuting time? There are many. I saw in diakonia a way to fill the many gaps left by a lifetime of undirected reading. I’m always reading something, and often it’s about the Christian faith. (I’ll call these topics “theology” here.) I read what interests me at the time, so my readings have been heavy in some areas and light or non-existent in others. diakonia provided an opportunity to spend two years studying a variety of theological subjects designed by people who know what they’re doing, with courses taught by capable instructors, thus “filling in the holes” from my previous reading.
I’ve heard the program described as “Seminary Lite.” I understand that to be a fairly accurate description, as the diakonia student skims the surface of every seminary topic except Hebrew, Greek, and preaching. The short description of diakonia’s twelve courses is as follows; see the notes for my pre-diakonia reactions:
- Introduction to the New Testament (Note 1)
- Church History — The First 400 Years (Note 2)
- Practical Ministry I: Biblical Images of the Life of the Church (diakonia, koinonia, leitiurgia, kerygma) (Note 3)
- Lutheran Creeds and Confessions (Note 1)
- Practical Ministry II: Visitation (the sick, the homebound, the grieving) (Note 4)
- The Daily Life of a Christian (Note 2)
- Introduction to the Old Testament (Note 1)
- Christian Doctrine (Note 1? Note 2?)
- Lutheran Faith in the American Context (Note 2)
- Practical Ministry III: To Communicate the Gospel (Note 4)
- Christian Worship (Note 2)
- Themes and Issues in Christian Ethics (Note 2)
Note 1. I know a fair amount in this area, but I’d love to know more.
Note 2. This is one of the “holes” I need to fill, and I’m looking forward to it!
Note 3. Huh?
Note 4. Uh-oh, do I really have to do this? If they think I need it, then I’ll swallow hard and go with the program.
Before long Carol and I were off to our first Saturday morning class at Grace Church River Forest. Here are comments about my experiences, beginning with individual courses:
Introduction to the New Testament
New Testament was taught by a Lutheran parish pastor with a bonus qualification of a PhD in New Testament, with a specialty in St. Paul. He was enthusiastic about his topic and taught it very well, which is a comment that applies to every instructor in every one of our twelve courses. With or without obvious additional qualifications, it’s gratifying to see what enthusiasm and knowledge a well-qualified Lutheran pastor can bring to teaching.
The course readings were primarily from two sources. One was a well-regarded New Testament text written by Richard Harris. In addition, each student was assigned to read the New Testament during the course. The Harris text was written in plain English, so a reasonably literate student with no competence in a language other than English can, with reasonable effort, read and understand the text. To my great relief, this was true of every text for every course. A few chapters of the Harris text weren’t assigned during the course, and I enjoyed rounding out my New Testament learning by reading those chapters later.
Assignments primarily consisted of reading, writing, and class participation, with no examination given. Class participation was an unanticipated pleasant surprise to me. I’d expected to learn from the readings, the instructors and the work itself, and had assumed the other students would be motivated and serious. But I hadn’t anticipated learning so much from classmates and class discussions. In each course, I learned from my fellow students’ questions, answers, insights and ponderings, as well as the diverse life experiences they brought.
diakonia groups were delightfully diverse. They were black, white and Hispanic, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, old and young, highly educated (a university dean) and not so, likeable and annoying, healthy and frail, Democrat and Republican, cradle Lutherans and converts, possible seminary candidates or not, affluent and financially struggling, well-spoken and awkward, high church and low church, opinionated and uncertain, liberal and conservative. I learned from some of my classmates all of the time and from all of my classmates some of the time. This was one of the truly pleasant surprises of diakonia for me.
In New Testament I was very gratified to learn more about the background of the Canon, the authors, the intended audiences and emphases of the books, and conditions in the times and places in which the readers and writers lived.
Church History — The First 400 Years
Early Church History was an area in which I recognized my ignorance and was interested in learning. The time between Acts and the Reformation has been, for me, an uneventful time interrupted by a few ecumenical councils and populated by some saints. Five weeks of systematic reading and lecture (there being little class discussion in this course) began to close the ignorance gap.
Our instructor was a Luth-eran parish pastor, and the text was a standard for the period, written by Justo Gonzales. This course featured an open-book, open notes final examination, the only examination given in any of our courses. The note taking was furious and detailed as the instructor filled whiteboards with dates, events, and names. This wasn’t as much pure fun as some of our courses, but the format was effective, and we learned the material.
Though the course ended with the First Council of Constantinople, the Gonzales text continued to just before the Reformation. Reading the chapters that were outside the scope of the class closed that gap for me, and gave me a heightened appreciation for the term “dark ages.”
Practical Ministry I: Biblical Images of the Life of the Church (diakonia, koinonia, leitiurgia, kerygma)
This course provided a change of pace from the first two, with their emphasis on facts and history. This course dealt with the life and ministry of the church and its members, and involved less reading but more introspection and discussion. A major basis for discussion was Luther’s “The Freedom of a Christian,” with emphasis on its two propositions:
- A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none, and
- A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
The instructor was a Lutheran parish pastor who has a longstanding interest in diakonia and serves on the diakonia board.
Lutheran Creeds and Confessions
Returning to textbooks, we studied the Book of Concord, key Lutheran doctrines, and the times and events surrounding the Reformation and shaping the Lutheran Confessions. Our instructor was a retired Lutheran parish pastor. Many comments made elsewhere apply to this course.
Practical Ministry II: Visitation
(the sick, the homebound, the grieving)
I frankly dreaded this course. Taught by a Lutheran pastor whose call is to a hospice, it involved a little reading, a lot of thinking and discussion, simulated visiting exercises within small class groups, and a real visit to one who is sick, home-bound, or grieving, followed by a detailed report of the visit. The visitation course was surely one of the most beneficial and practical courses in the program. The insights learned are valuable, and will become even moreso as my peers and I age. I am now capable of bringing comfort to one in need by a visit as appropriate.
The Daily Life of a Christian
This course was taught by a Lutheran parish pastor and dealt with Christian discipleship in daily life. Readings included Bonhoeffer ’s Life Together and a small book titled What You Do Best in the Body of Christ.
This course included introspective activities, including evaluations of my own aptitudes, personal style, and what I care about most intensely. This evaluation helped students decide where to focus limited time and energy, as most of us have more interests and opportunities than we can handle. This useful exercise helped me decide to focus on Christian education and Sunday School teaching as well as helping promote and support new diakonia sites, without guilt for treating other volunteer activities as “less important” simply because I’ve left them for somebody else to do.
For our second year of diakonia, a new site had been opened, at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Luke on Belmont Avenue in Chicago. Hoping the drive might be easier when it snowed, and wanting to contribute our two bodies and our bit of devotional and snack experience to this smaller group of new students, Carol and I transferred to the new site.
Introduction to the Old Testament
Old Testament was taught by a Lutheran parish pastor. The text was Harris and Platzner’s The Old Testament — an Introduction to the Hebrew Bible.
Material covered included the formation, canonization and translation of the Old Testament, culture and religions of the ancient Near East, the God of Israel, and the origins, authorship, key topics and themes of the major sections of the Old Testament. My own benefits from the course included a systematic understanding of scholarly methods for analyzing ancient texts (“criticism”) and the challenge involved in writing a paper on the topic, “If I presume that the Pentateuch is a composite work that evolved slowly over time, how does that affect my view of the work’s authenticity and religious authority?”
Christian Doctrine was taught by a Lutheran parish pastor who was working toward a PhD in Systematic Theology. The primary text was Introduction to Christian Theology by Bradley Hanson, supplemented by articles and excerpts from other books. Topics included faith and theology, God, the reasonableness of belief, creation, providence and the problem of evil, the Person of Jesus Christ, Christ’s work, the Church, the Holy Spirit and salvation, Sacraments, comparative religions, and eschatology. This course was easily the most rigorous; it was was both stimulating and challenging.
While struggling with a difficult theological topic, our PhD candidate instructor observed that one who teaches theology or Scripture to others must spend time every day reading Scripture devotionally. As the press of secular and churchly duties often leaves me “too busy” for devotional Bible reading, I repeatedly recall this advice and move daily devotional reading back up on my personal priority list.
Lutheran Faith in the American Context
Taught by a Lutheran parish pastor, this course placed our Lutheran tradition in the context of the U.S. history, Christian denominations of the U.S and the world, and major non-Christian world religions. It also dealt with Lutheran immigrant groups who have brought their forms of Lutheran Christianity to the U.S., the political and religious situations they left behind in Europe, and some forces that have shaped Lutheran traditions on this side of the Atlantic.
This course was at the light end of the scale for reading load and intellectual demands, which provided some good downtime for brains exhausted by Christian Doctrine.
I learned enough about major non-Christian faiths to understand them a bit better. Just as interestingly to me personally, I learned enough about the varying backgrounds of Lutheran immigrants, the traditions they brought with them, and how their Lutheran churches have fared since immigration, to finally stop asking, “If he’s Lutheran, how can he believe X?” or “If that’s a Lutheran body why are they so wrong about Y?”
Practical Ministry III: To Communicate the Gospel
I mentioned that diakonia is supposed to be like a peek into seminary, but without Greek, Hebrew or preaching. In our case, they lied about the preaching. Our course on communicating the Gospel was taught by a Lutheran parish pastor who patiently and carefully taught us about sharing the Gospel. She taught us through a bit of lecturing, a bit of reading, lots of practice, and lots of good feedback from classmates and instructor.
Step by step over the five weeks of the course, each student prepared a sermon that was delivered at the last session. Because we had come to know and trust our classmates through three courses, the experience was easier than it would have been earlier in the year. The sermon preparation process was so well-defined that it wasn’t intimidating. We learned skills including exegesis, story-telling, and clear public speaking which are very transferable to preparation of Sunday School lessons, Bible studies, and group devotions. This was the second course that I had approached with some dread, and the second favorable surprise.
Christian Worship was taught by a Lutheran parish pastor who is a recognized scholar in the field of Christian worship, having written books and taught at the university and seminary level. The learning was almost entirely from reading and lecture. Material covered included the content and historic development of western Christian liturgical worship, contrasts with the revival style of worship that has influenced modern U.S. Christian worship and has dominated in some parts of Christian tradition in the U.S., scriptural roots of the western liturgy, distinctions between and significance of the ordinary and proper parts of the liturgy, and recent developments in western Christian liturgy. As one whose attraction to the Lutheran Church included its liturgical practices as well as its doctrines, I enjoyed and appreciated this course very much.
Themes and Issues in Christian Ethics
Taught by a Lutheran pastor on call to the ELCA Division of Church in Society, we considered ethical topics in Luther’s catechisms and elsewhere in the Lutheran Confessions, and considered problems such as the relationship of Christ to culture, war, sexual ethics, education, and economic justice. We examined several ELCA Task Force Studies and Social Statements, the processes used to develop them, and their implications for the ELCA’s public stance on social and political issues. Understanding the development of ELCA Task Force Studies and Social Statements was helpful to me as I prepared to be a voting member of the 2005 Churchwide Assembly, with its deliberations and actions following the multi-year Sexuality Study.
As a result of diakonia, I am better equipped to do the things to which my aptitudes, personal style, and concerns have led me. The courses in New and Old Testaments, Church History, Christian Doctrine, Lutheran Creeds and Confessions, and Communicating the Gospel have contributed to my Sunday School teaching. The course on Visitation has prepared me for doing visitation with some confidence when the need arises. Christian Worship has improved my ability and confidence when serving as Assisting Minister. The first Practical Ministry course and the Daily Life of a Christian have re-emphasized for me the importance of daily discipline and prayer. The theology instructor’s advice has repeatedly reminded me to read my Bible devotionally.
As a graduate, I’m completely sold on the diakonia program. I have volunteered to help get diakonia started in the Greater Milwaukee Synod. The first year of Milwaukee classes is now underway, with 19 students. I serve as site coordinator for this group, taking care of administrative matters and communication with faculty and students.
How Will the Church “Use Us?”
This question has been asked in various forms. The Metro New York Synod, where it all started, has established a Synodical Deacon program with the approval of the ELCA. This program establishes a role for deacons that is only recognized within that synod. The Metro Chicago Synod is in the process of establishing such a program. Participation is an individual matter involving the candidate, his or her pastor, and the synod bishop. There is no presumption that all diakonia graduates will become deacons; few have done so in New York.
Some students enroll in diakonia intending to consider seminary. According to a recent diakonia newsletter, five former Metro Chicago diakonia students are now enrolled in seminary.
Most diakonia graduates have found that whatever they were doing in God’s service before the diakonia program is being done more usefully after its completion, and that is the major benefit from diakonia. I hope the Church will “use us” well, and that diakonia will expand to prepare more lay people. I hope that those reading this article will consider enrolling or recommending the program.
Comments from Carol Bennett
The diakonia experience was a rare opportunity to study and ask questions without the pressure to perform well to earn a good grade or bonus. The courses were an opportunity to learn how much there is to know, filling in some significant gaps with important foundational instruction. The workload was serious; you get out of these courses what you put into them. For me, it took some serious calendar management. For the two years of diakonia I had to say no to some very enjoyable activities in order to protect my study time and class time.
The instructors understood how to present the material for the lay person within condensed course schedules. Whatever the subject matter, it was a delight to sit in a room with others studying the different aspects of our faith, from the academic to the theological to the practical. We had the opportunity to struggle with our faith — to write about what we did not understand as well as what we did understand.
The overall benefit of the program for me has been that I am more confident in putting God first in my life, because I have a better understanding of what that means. I also felt strongly the benefit of continuing to study, whether in a small group ministry, a Sunday morning Bible study, devotional reading and reflection, or through other means. Study is a regular part of my routine and my faith is stronger for it. As with any worthwhile activity, answers lead to more questions and learning leads to a thirst for more study.