serving together

USA: Lutheran Deaconess Association (LDA)

LDA Website

LDA Contact details:
Center for Diaconal Ministry
1304 LaPorte Ave, Valparaiso, IN 46383
Facebook: Lutheran Deaconess Association
YouTube: The “LuthDeac” channel
Twitter: The LDA@DeacServ

LDA Executive Director, Deaconess Lisa Polito

Deaconess Lisa Polito

Deaconess Lisa Polito

The LDA is inter-Lutheran*, and prepares women and men for ministries of service to those in need in the church and the world; in various Lutheran church bodies as well as in ministries in ecumenical and secular settings; supports deaconesses and deacons in their varied ministries; encourages the whole people of God in their own Christian service; and assists the church in its diaconal mission.
(There are a number of Lutheran ‘streams’ in the USA, and LDA serves to train and support diaconal ministry agents from any of the Lutheran denominations. Both the ELCA and LCMS train people for diaconal ministry. They have their own diaconal communities. The LDA trains people for the LDA diaconate).

In the late 1800’s, some Deaconesses from German motherhouses were sent to America. They were trained as nurses. Many served in the mission field, or inner city, or Indian reservations. Early deaconesses could not be married, and they lived in community and wore uniforms.
(A really interesting paper by Tim Gumm, The Deaconess and the Lutheran Church, makes for fascinating reading, including the early attempt to replicate Theodore Fleidner’s work in establishing the motherhouse in Germany and the deaconess movement).
In 1911, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Pastor F.W. Herzberger presented a paper before the Associated Lutheran Charities suggesting that a deaconess program be started. Herzberger was a pioneer worker in in Lutheran City Missions in St Louis, and had seen the opportunities for trained women in those missions. However, apart from stirring interest in the programs, his suggestion had no results. It was not until July 1919 that any real progress was made. Herzberger made another suggestion to the Associated Lutheran Charities and a decision was made to organize such a program with headquarters in Fort Wayne.
A month later, in August 1919, the Lutheran Deaconess Association of the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America was born, based in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
An appeal was made to the Lutheran Hospital for permission to send candidates for the diaconate to its nursing school.
The first President of the Association was was Pastor Philip Wambsganss, whose mother was one of the first four deaconesses to come to America.
In 1920, Pastor J.A. Graebner emphasized the great need for a deaconess program: ‘There is, and has been for years, a crying need of women workers, in our city missions, our charitable organizations, and in our foreign mission fields.….’.
As the years went by, the Deaconess program grew, became more organized and adopted some changes. Read more here.
The LDA has continued to change and grow in response to Christ’s call to service.
The LDA offices moved to the Valparaiso University campus from Fort Wayne in 1969.
Interesting Youtube clip here, Deaconess History and Uniforms

Chi-Ro symbol and the LDA
Central to the LDA logo is the Chi-Rho (XP), one of the earliest cruciform Christian symbols. Overlaid, these first three letters of the Greek word “Christ” Chi (X = ch) and Rho (P = r), form a cross and shepherd’s staff.  Popular by the second century, and officially adopted by Roman Emperor Constantine, the XP has come to embed the meaning, “in Christ”.
Since 1972, the LDA has used various adaptations of the XP with a basin and towel, symbolizing Christ as servant washing the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. Today, the XP with a basin on one arm, is surrounded by a Greek cross which seems to reach out and embrace the world.  When we say that deaconesses wash the feet of the world, we mean that with towel and basin, they reach out to those at the margins of society, providing hospitality, hope, and care for physical and spiritual needs.
There have been previous versions of the LDA logo. For example, one included symbols representing fields of service along with the basin. Prior to incorporating the XP in a logo, small brass cross pins were given to deaconesses at their consecration. The deaconesses identification in those times were blue uniforms on which a pin or patch was worn. Changing in style over the years, from nursing uniforms to dark blue dress suits, uniforms were no longer required after 1969. Their only vestige has been the use of navy blue in connection with the LDA logo, as seen in the website header.

Training (a brief history)
At first, the deaconess training program was based in the motherhouse on the grounds of Fort Wayne Lutheran Hospital, since most of the first LDA deaconesses were trained as nurses to meet the growing needs of Lutheran hospitals, orphanages, homes for those with disabilities, and others.
In the mid 1930’s, deaconesses were encouraged to pursue callings to service other than nursing, such as teaching and social work, and called for a different location for the training facility for deaconesses. In 1943, at the invitation of the Valparaiso University (VU) President O.P. Kretzmann, the training location moved to Valparaiso, IN. The university setting gave future deaconesses the opportunity for a superior education with an emphasis in theology. Here, students could be enrolled at one half the regular VU tuition rates. In the announcement of the move to Valparaiso, the LDA said, The Training School is to remain a separate entity, and will not become another department of Valparaiso University, but will retain its peculiar identity. This is the wish of both the Board of the LDA and the Board of Valparaiso University.
Deaconess Hall at VU provided a residential setting and focal point for community worship and activities. Deaconesses were prepared through classes and experiential learning to make significant contributions to the life of the church in congregations as well as in healing and social service ministries.

Deaconess Hall

Deaconess Hall

In the 50’s, the LDA purchased over 4 acres of land on which Deaconess Hall was built. The property was surrounded on three sides by the VU campus. For nearly 30 years, deaconess students lived, studied and worshiped in what over the years became the middle of VU’s campus.

In the 1960’s, Deaconesses were paid a salary and eligible for pension plans. The motherhouse arrangements were no more.

Students 2008

Students 2008

Students in the 1950's

Students in the 1950’s

In 1986, Valparaiso University purchased Deaconess Hall, now Huegli Hall, and the residential aspect of deaconess formation was discontinued. At that time, the LDA acquired and moved into the Center for Diaconal Ministry, located north of campus.
Over the years many deaconess students have studied at Valparaiso in many departments and colleges and have served in numerous campus organizations. Most recently our VU students have majored in social work, education, theology, foreign languages, international service, environmental science and business management
Today, the LDA has students studying at VU and other Lutheran universities as well as taking on-line courses and enrolling in conferences and seminars to further their learning. Students range in age from 20 to 60+, live and work all over the US, and belong to several Lutheran church bodies.  Internships can be local or across the globe – wherever God calls the servant to serve.  The LDA continues to change and grow in response to God’s call to serve all with compassion and grace.

Training (course work and formation)
After the discernment and selection process, a course is designed for each individual student. An overview of the LDA training and formation for diaconal ministry can be found here. The course is usually 2-3 years, and some can be completed by distance. Students gather annually for week-long seminars in Valparaiso, IN (read p.4 to get a flavour of the seminars). Then, they “scatter” to work on individualized plans and relate to others diaconal ministry agents closer to home. Some students take courses closer to home, or online. Some spend a semester or two at Valparaiso University to finish theology courses for Continuing Education Units.  The process is individualized, to consider the student’s previous work and ministry skills
The formation and training phases includes:
* Diaconal Community
* Spiritual Life
* Ministry/Work
* Theology
Students complete about 6 specific theology courses. (Biblical studies, Church History, Lutheran Confessional Theology, World Religions, Theology of Diaconal Ministry)
The formation phase includes 3 experiences in practical ministry:
* Field Work (for 9 months)
* CPE or CEM (chaplaincy training)
* Internship: one year, full time, paid
Students are assigned to a diaconal mentor throughout the formation process.
While a degree is not compulsory, most students complete a BA or MA.

Students in Spring 2014 include:
Ben, a Valparaiso University graduate, and a caring medical/surgical nurse in NW Indiana.
Elliott, who serves in South Dakota as a Director of Youth and Family Ministries
Robin is a hospital chaplain.
Steve has served as a Minister of Youth and Education and DCE Director/Professor/Dean at Concordia University St. Paul, and is a spiritual director and chaplain
Valerie is a musician, a piano teacher, and a leader of healthy congregations.
Read more about them here (p.2)

Upon approval by the LDA Board, the consecration service marks the formal entry into the Diaconate and often takes place in the student’s home congregation.

In the summer of 2014 (northern hemisphere) the LDA was history making – for the first time in its 95 years, three (male) deacons were consecrated. They followed the same path to formation as the hundreds of women who have gone before them. Ben Ema, Steve Arnold and Elliott Stephenson are the trailblazers who were welcomed as the first members of the Community of Lutheran Deacons (CLD), a parallel community to the women’s Lutheran Deaconess Conference (LDC). They followed the same education and formation program as the deaconesses – a combination of theological coursework, practical experience, and a year long internship. Mentors helped them along the way and weekly support meetings shaped them for what ‘community’ means and how it works.

Meet Ben Ema, who graduated from the Valparaiso University College of Nursing in 2013, and has been working as a nurse. Watch Ben’s youtube video, One Man’s Journey to the Heart of Service. Ben was consecrated in June 2014.
Meet Dr Steve Arnold, who joined the LDA program in his 60’s, seeking a community with whom to serve others. He currently is a Spiritual Director and minsiters to residents of a senior living center, many of whom have memory loss.
Meet Elliott Stephenson, who previously served a congregation as youth minister, where he ministered to a wide range of people which sparked an interest in counselling.
Three others are in training:
Andrew Stoebig, a Valpo graduate and professional vocalist who, loving liturgical music, is studying musicology;
Jack Walter, a mid-life paralegal with a passion for prison ministry;
David Rojas Martinez, a Valpo senior Intentional Service and Theology major active in the Chapel of the Resurrection.

Four Deaconesses were also consecrated in 2014: Robin Hughes, Valerie Webdell, Jessica Sauer, and Beth Olejniczak

Diaconal placements
Deaconesses and deacons serve in a wide variety of Christian ministries around the corner and around the globe. There is no one job description, but the heart of all diaconal ministry is faith and service in Christ. Here are just a few examples of how a deaconess or deacon might act as a servant leader.

  • Congregational role such as youth leaders or music director
  • Church administration
  • Health professional – doctors, nurse, therapist
  • Hospital and hospice chaplain and counselor
  • Teacher and professor
  • Spiritual director
  • College campus minister
  • Non-profit administrator
  • Lawyer and advocate
  • Overseas, inner city and rural missionary

Today, LDA diaconal ministry agents are all over the USA, Canada, Costa Rica and Tanzania, and other parts of the world.

Five images of Diakonia (youtube clip which includes quotes from Deaconess Louise Williams)

Professional Development and support
Deaconesses and deacons intentionally stay connected through monthly area conferences and annual meetings.
The Lutheran Deaconess Conference (LDC) is the international community of deaconesses and students affiliated with the LDA. Deaconesses and students within the community gather for spiritual growth and support.
The LDC meets annually for renewal, prayer, worship, and professional growth. The 2013 Annual Meeting met in Valparaiso, IN. Over 20 area deaconess conferences meet throughout the United States regularly.

Recognition awards: DIAKONIA en CHRISTO Awards
Through this diaconal lay ministry award, the LDA seeks to thank God for the varieties of diaconal service through celebrating the lives and ministries of Lutheran lay people who, in following Christ, reach out in care and compassion to the hurting world.

Deaconess Martha Boss

Deaconess Martha Boss

Deaconess Martha Eber

Deaconess Martha Ebe

The award honors Deaconesses Martha Eber and Martha Boss whose diaconal hearts have exemplified the service to which Christ calls us all. Diaconal service takes many forms, but at its heart is a special concern for those at society’s margins. Deaconess Martha Eber served in parish ministry in New York City her entire life, “when and where needed” until her death in 1991. Humility and faithfulness in service were the hallmark of Martha’s ministry. Deaconess Martha Boss represents to many Chinese Christians a faithful messenger and example of the love of Jesus. The Lutheran Church Hong Kong Synod-Martha Boss Lutheran Community Centre, “is named after the sainted Martha Boss, in memory of her untiring service to her Lord among the Chinese people…”

The 2008 Diakonia en Christo Award recipient was Teryl Putnam, Tillamook, Oregon, for her faithful and tireless service. For 10 years, she was a full-time Spiritual Life Coordinator for Good Shepherd Lutheran Home, bringing the residents much joy by
* helping to care for the residents’ physical as well as spiritual needs;
* developing a comprehensive program in which youth taught through skits, puppet shows, posters and music;
* coordinating, for many summers, two-week servant events during which her youth group provided Bible lessons.
In her retirement, Terry has given generously of her time, money and possessions to serve the needs of poor children, children with develop mental disabilities and people with physical and mental disabilities in Guatemala, Panama, and The Dominican Republic. Pastor Kasimir Kachmarek, who nominated Terry for the award, states: “Terry has had a tremendous heart for the poor, downtrodden and helpless of our society. She has reached out to this segment of our population with significant help and with great dedication.”

The 2009 and 2010 Diakonia en Christo Awardees were Barbara Girshner from St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Des Peres, Missouri and Mary Ann Coulston of Trinity Lutheran Church, Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
Deaconess Denise Hegemann who nominated Mary Ann says that Mary Ann has embraced the diaconal call in her life and is a living example of “faith in action” – sharing Christ’s love at work in a broken world. She witnesses the power of service as she quietly and humbly helps others of all ages, in many areas of needs, and in many locations. With compassion and faith, she:
* exemplifies responding to people’s needs.
* treats those served with dignity and respect.
* creatively finds ways to let those served give back and serve others.
Deaconess Addie Wilkins, Transfiguration, St. Louis, nominated Barbara for their work together. Deaconess Addie concluded her lengthy list of the ways that Barbara serves by saying, “Barbara is one of the hardest working women in social ministry in St. Louis. I could not begin to meet the needs of all the people who come to TLC when they are hurting, hungry, cold, homeless and down trodden without her.”

Significant leaders in the LDA
Deaconesses Martha Eber and Martha Boss (see more information above in DIAKONIA en CHRISTO awards)
Deaconess E. Louise Williams (consecrated August 21, 1967) was the first deaconess to lead the LDA as Executive Director, and served for 33 years before retiring in 2008. “Louise’s leadership enlarged the scope and vision of the LDA, allowing more women to answer God’s call to diakonia. Her leadership allowed the LDA to be flexible, able to transform to answer the changing needs in the world. She has been invaluable in building relationships with diaconates around the world.” (Deaconess Lisa Polito, current LDA Executive Director). Louise also served as President, DIAKONIA World Federation (2001-2009).

Meeting New Needs
Responding in new ways to meet the ever changing needs of God’s church and world has been the LDA’s continuing task. The LDA has a stated goal of increasing diversity and, in 2012, admitted men into the diaconal formation program for the first time. Men are known as Deacons; women continue to be known as Deaconesses.

Print resources
Wilma Kucharek, History of the Lutheran Deaconess Association by Deaconess (1976)

LDA publishes a regular newsletter

Overview of  LDA (PDF presentation)

Can a LDA Deacon/Deaconesses be married? Yes. (Prior to 1970, most women in America who were married did not work outside of the home because it wasn’t an accepted societal norm. Because of this, deaconesses did not marry. If a deaconess did choose to get married, then she left the diaconate).
Does the diaconal ministry agent wear a distinctive uniform? No. (Although this Youtube clip, Deaconess History and Uniforms, is fascinating to trace the uniforms worn in earlier years by deaconesses).
Do they live in a motherhouse? No. (although earlier deaconesses did live in a motherhouse, as was the tradition of the German deaconesses who arrived in the late 19th century).
Are they remunerated? This varies. Some work as professionals (eg lawyer) and receive a salary; some work in churches and agencies and are remunerated; some are volunteers and are not remunerated.

Information that may still be added includes (but is not limited to) the following questions.

A brief history (may include links to documents and websites) – how did it all get started? What are the key dates and events? Are there documents that are part of the history (please specify)?

Historical information and dates re formation/recognition of diaconal ministry agents in the denomination/church agency.

How many diaconal ministry agents are there currently in the denomination or church agency? Any comment on trends in numbers?

Are there key people (historical or current) in the organization who have provided significant leadership. Any weblinks to their story, or a short write up?

Who are the current leaders in the diaconal association? (photos, ‘blurb’).

Relationship of diaconal ministry agents to a denomination/church agency

An overview of main responsibilities for diaconal ministry agents (past and present). Are they located within a church, a particular facility or agency, or community based? Are diaconal ministry agents appointed to individual placements or work together on projects or in institutions?

Are diaconal ministry agents able to preside at sacraments (communion, baptism, weddings etc)?

Who makes the appointments for diaconal ministry agents eg they apply for positions, they are appointed (eg by a Bishop, by the conference office, or another body/committee).

Is there a length of time for appointments (eg usually less than 5 years, usually between 5 and 10 years, at the discretion of the diaconal ministry agent or at the discretion of the appointing body), appointed to and remain with a particular mother house, etc.

Key issues and challenges in the contemporary ministry context

Do the diaconal ministry agents have ‘code of conduct’ or ‘code of ethics’ that inform ethical and behavioral expectations for ministry?

Key documents (historical, vision and mission etc) – links or PDF or Word files


Links to relevant articles, websites etc

Other areas of interest……

(information to Rev Sandy Boyce, President, DIAKONIA World Federation,, to upload to this website)