Deaf Lutherans discuss ministry opportunities
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) supports deaf ministry
through the Evangelical Lutheran Deaf Association (ELDA). In July nine ELDA
pastors and lay leaders met in Roseville, Minnesota, to discuss shared
experiences in deaf ministry. Half of these leaders are themselves deaf, and
so sessions were conducted in American Sign Language (ASL).
During a break in one of the sessions, the leaders of ELDA were interviewed
about deaf ministry. Participants included Russ Rockwell (Lancaster,
Pennsylvania), Mark Koterwski (Sioux, Falls, South Dakota), Beth Lockard
(Philadelphia), Dorothy Sparks (Minneapolis), Don Rosenkjar (Los Angeles),
Dayton William (Chicago), Sarah Anders (Sioux Falls, South Dakota), Gisele
Berninghaus (Appleton, Wisconsin), and Susan Masters (Minneapolis).
Below is part two of the interview; part one (“Deaf Lutherans discuss the
struggles of being church”) appeared in the August issue of Metro Lutheran.
The participating persons signing are identified by their initials.
Metro Lutheran: What are your greatest challenges and joys in the ministry
BL: Overwhelmingly our biggest challenges are low membership, weak
financial support, and lean staffing. These are struggles that most churches
face, but the issues are more stressful in the deaf church. Stewardship is
often a new concept for deaf people – again because historically they’ve
missed out on all the teachings about it in the church. Without solid financial
support, there is little staff support. So pastors end up doing so much work
themselves, usually on part-time salaries.
MK: Many deaf people attend hearing churches that provide sign language
interpreters during the worship services. We are always so grateful when we
hear about the churches who do this. But there’s often tension about how
much the interpreters cost, how they will be paid, etc. It’s one of those
added burdens that hearing church members don’t usually have to think
DR: Deaf people just don’t go to church. They have been so alienated and
excluded from the church for so many years. It’s hard to convince them to
come back, that we do things differently now. So our deaf churches tend to
be small, or the number of deaf folks attending a hearing church with an
interpreter is small.
DS: I am always overjoyed when I know that someone is “hearing” the Gospel
for the first time. One of my members came to me after he heard me preach
the first time. He had a big smile on his face and he said, “Wow! That’s the
first time I really understood the Gospel!” Of course that was very joyful for
me, but it was also very sad because this man was 91 years old! Imagine,
waiting until you are 91 to hear the Good News about Jesus.
DW: It’s always a joy to see deaf people taking on more roles of leadership in
the church. As they become empowered, they realize that they can do
anything in the church that hearing people do. God loves them, and they are
part of the body of Christ, too, with everyone else.
BL: Many of our deaf members are becoming increasingly involved in
mission work, both locally and globally, which has been wonderful to see.
Don (Rosenkjar) has traveled extensively on mission trips abroad. Most of our
congregations have sent groups to New Orleans and other places to help with
disaster clean up. Just like hearing people, deaf people enjoy and are blessed
by reaching out and helping others.
ML: What are your hopes for the future of deaf ministry in the ELCA?
BL: We hope to continue to raise awareness of the deaf community within the
ELCA, attract more youth, strengthen our financial support, capture more of
the unchurched deaf people. Pretty much the same kinds of things that
hearing churches hope for!
MK: The church, both hearing and deaf, is changing these days. We are
having to think about new ways to be church together and reach out to
people. I hope the deaf church can adapt to the changes that are needed and
continue to grow and reach others for Christ.