Local synod approves first deaf Associate in Ministry
The Minneapolis Area Synod (MAS) is the first synod in the ELCA to approve a culturally deaf candidate who uses American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate to become an Associate in Ministry (AIM). Dorothy Sparks is well-known in the MAS because of her extensive lay ministry at Bread of Life Deaf Lutheran Church (BOLD) in Minneapolis. Over the years she has served BOLD as both a parish worker and, most recently, a lay minister. For those who know her, finally receiving an official credential to mark her ministry is both right and long overdue.
“It doesn’t surprise me that Dorothy Sparks is the first deaf AIM in the ELCA,” says Doris Buerkle, chair of candidacy for MAS. “She is a faithful servant of God, and by the leading of the Holy Spirit, the Minneapolis Area Synod has been allowed to walk with her as she fulfilled her call to ministry. Throughout her journey, Dorothy has always come to the table with a strong sense of call. The worshippers at Bread of Life Deaf are truly blessed because of the love for God that Dorothy embodies and relates.”
The Rev. Susan Masters, a hearing pastor in deaf ministry, noted the implication of Sparks’ achievement for other deaf leaders: “I’ve known Dorothy for a long time, and we’ve worked side-by-side in deaf ministry for years. She is one of my mentors and I am so delighted that her faithful and hard work is being recognized. For the ELCA deaf ministry community, which has very few deaf leaders, this is huge. It says to other deaf people considering church leadership in the ELCA, ‘God can use you, too, and we will support you as you discern and pursue your call.’ We are so proud of Dorothy and for what this means for her and future deaf leaders in our churches.”
Ask Sparks when she first felt a sense of calling to ministry, and she describes the loving, supportive Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod congregation in Lincoln, Nebraska, in which she grew up. “My entire family is deaf, and our church had a strong deaf ministry at that time, so I grew up surrounded by deaf church leaders. When I was a young adult, my pastor recognized that I was a good Bible teacher and, even though I had only a high school diploma, he encouraged me to lead our Bible study.” Her pastor co-led the Bible study with Sparks, and when he later resigned, Sparks led the study alone.
“My entire family is deaf, and our church had a strong deaf ministry at that time, so I grew up surrounded by deaf church leaders.”
Although she loved teaching and felt a strong sense of calling to serve God as a teacher or pastor, Sparks struggled with two formidable obstacles: She had only a high school diploma with little hope of going to college, much less seminary; and she struggled with scripture that seemed to indicate women should not be church leaders. For a number of years, Sparks assumed there was no hope of ever becoming a church leader.
A BOLD step for Sparks
In her early 30s, Sparks moved to Minneapolis to become a parish worker at BOLD, leaving behind the familiarity and security of her deaf world in Lincoln. At BOLD, she encountered a large deaf community that had not been exposed to a lot of deaf worship leaders as she had been. When the Rev. Mark Hendrickson invited her to sign the gospel in ASL during worship, Sparks remembers, “I could see [church members’] faces light up. It was as if they were understanding the gospel for the first time, signed in their own language, by one of their own. It was so powerful for all of us.”
Over the years, other pastors at BOLD invited Sparks increasingly to share her leadership skills, first teaching and, later, occasionally preaching. In 2001, during a period of interim, the congregation called Sparks to serve as their lay minister. For the next six years — with her sense of call to ministry only growing stronger — without a college degree, working fulltime at a bank, and serving the congregation halftime, she became a long-distance student at St. Thomas University in Florida, completing all the required coursework except a thesis for a master’s degree in deaf ministry. And she began having conversations with both MAS staff and faculty at Luther Seminary about pursuing an alternate route to ordination.
It seemed that she was finally realizing her dream to become a pastor. And then serious health problems forced her to step down from her ministry at BOLD.
Recuperating from heart surgery, and laid off from the job at the bank, Sparks used the 14 months she drew unemployment to immerse herself in volunteer work in the local deaf community. She taught health classes, provided tutoring, and volunteered with a deaf hospice program to gain a better understanding of the particular needs of the deaf community. She joined a team of ecumenical deaf church leaders to visit a church-sponsored deaf school in Jamaica to provide a Vacation Bible School program.
With support from MAS staff, she decided to pursue the AIM credential instead of ordination. After the process was delayed several times over a year and a half, Sparks was approved in June.
In Word and Service
When asked how it felt to learn that she had been approved after such a long journey — one that began, really, in childhood — Sparks enthusiastically declared, “It felt wonderful! I didn’t think it was possible, but God led the way. I am honored to be a pioneer for other deaf people to follow me because there is so much need for deaf leaders in deaf ministry.
“Only 10 percent of deaf people go to church; what about the remaining 90 percent? My call to Word and Service compels me to reach out to that 90 percent, to help overcome all the barriers that keep deaf people not only from going to church but from being successful in all the parts of their lives. I have always been called to do that, but now I can do it with some authority from the church behind me.”
With all the extra work of pursuing the AIM credential now behind her, Sparks hasn’t slowed down a bit. BOLD will soon officially call her to be their AIM, and, as the congregation is currently in an interim period, Sparks is part of an interim leadership team, teaching and preaching regularly. She also continues her outreach work in the deaf community, teaching and tutoring as needed. She says of her current vocational plate: “I haven’t gone back to work since I was laid off, and my schedule is still busy and demanding. But, at my age, I am finally doing what I was called to do. And it feels so good.”
Tags: AIM, American Sign Language, ASL, Associate in Ministry, Bob Hulteen, BOLD, Bread of Life Deaf Lutheran Church, Deaf community, Deaf ministry, Doris Buerkle, Dorothy Sparks, ELCA, Luther Seminary, Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, Mark Hendrickson, MAS, Minneapolis Area Synod, Rev. Mark Hendrickson, Rev. Susan Masters, St. Thomas University Florida, Susan Masters, Word and Service