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Deaconess's report on diaconia in Finland

“I am grateful as a deaconess and I get to praise God who has given me such a great gift in my life.” (Deaconess Terttu Pohjolainen)

Bild vergrößern A deaconess in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland refers to a person, who has completed nursing and health care education and ecclesiastical education and training, and who has been ordained to the deaconate. I was ordained a deaconess in 1975 by Bishop of the Diocese of Tampere, Erkki Kansanaho (1966 – 1981). I have done many kinds of work in my life. I have worked as a nurse and a child educator, in the office of deaconess in a parish, vocational diaconal teacher, principal lecturer of diaconia at a university of applied sciences, director / rector of educational institutions, director of operations in disability services in the social sector, and in many church, society and international positions of trust in the diaconal field and in the social and health care sector. When I was young, my teacher assured, “Who once is a deaconess, will always be a deaconess.” This is something I have experienced very intensely in anything I have ever done in my life. At my deaconess ordination I promised to serve Christ’s Church “always and everywhere” and to be a follower of Christ in my life. The call to the ministry of deaconess, ordination to the deaconate, and living as a servant of Christ have carried me every day. That is why today I am grateful as a deaconess and I get to praise God who has given me such a great gift in my life.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland has approximately 1300 diaconal offices in congregations that employ deaconesses and deacons to diaconal professional tasks. Deacons, on the other hand, have received training and education in the social field and ecclesiastical education. Deacons and deaconesses serving as diaconal workers in parishes can be men or women. Currently, graduating as a deacon or deaconess requires a degree from a university of applied sciences. A Social worker / Deacon has a 210-credit bachelor’s degree in social welfare and health care. A nurse/ Deaconess has a 240-credit bachelor’s degree in social welfare and health care. These degrees has to include theological, church and parish work as well as diaconal studies in accordance with decisions made by the Church. Thus, the knowledge base of the education of deacons and deaconesses is built in a multidisciplinary manner not only from theology but also from health and social sciences. The Finnish state pays for the education received by deacons and deaconesses. The degrees enable professional diaconal work in parishes or in ecclesiastical organisations as well as in social and health care tasks in the society.

In parishes, deacons and deaconesses meet, support and help people, families and community members who live in difficult life situations. The distress faced by deacons and deaconesses in their work is diverse, and it is related to, for example, loneliness, illness, grief, financial difficulties, substance abuse and violence. Diaconal work means not only helping in distress but also influencing its causes in order to promote a dignified life for all people. At the core of the work is the defence of human dignity and the realisation of social justice. Deacons or deaconesses may also perform duties in parish worship, such as intercessory prayer, assisting in the Lord’s Holy Supper, or preaching with the permission of the vicar. They can also take the Consecrated Communion to the homes of sick people. Deacons and deaconesses work in cooperation with, for example, social welfare and health care and various organisations. They also train, support and guide thousands of volunteers in Finland to diaconal work tasks, such as support persons, hospice care or helplines.

In the Ev. Lut. Church of Finland diaconal activities has been in charge for about 150 years. Diaconal activities reached Finland from Kaiserswerth, Germany, through the deaconess institution movement that spread around the world in the second half of the 1800s. The first deaconess institutions were established in Helsinki (1867) and Vyborg (1969), which was located in Lahti after the second World War. Diaconal institutions worked in good cooperation with parishes and dioceses to help people with various difficulties. Last year, our church celebrated the 150th anniversary of diaconia. The first deaconess of the Church of Finland, Mathilda Hoffman, was ordained as a deaconess in the St. Peter-Paul Church in Vyborg on 1st of September 1872. According to Kaiserswerth movement, the director of the Vyborg Deaconess Institution ordained Sister Mathilda to be a deaconess. Sister Mathilda worked as a deaconess for 52 years in her life. Her workplace was the Vyborg Deaconess House. The Rauma parish was the first to hire Deaconess, Cecilia Blomquist, for diaconal work of the parish in 1879. At its core, the mission of diaconia has remained the same throughout the centuries. Recognizing distress, the ability to be present and meeting people were key features of Finland’s first deaconesses. These skills are also required of today’s deaconesses and deacons.

Since the time of Sister Mathilda, diaconal activities, diaconal work, the ministry of deacon/deaconess or the deaconate have been discussed in our Church in many ways. The first episcopal ordination of a deaconess in the Church of Finland took place in Oulu diocese in 1927. However, episcopal ordinations did not become common until the 1940s. Discussions in the early 1900s led to the decision of the Church Synod in 1943 that in every Finnish Ev. Lut. Church congregation must be a diaconal office. This decision remains in force. There was also a decision that the education of deacons began in 1953 at the Järvenpää Diaconal College. The first deacons were ordained by Bishop Eino Sormunen on 16th of October 1955 in Järvenpää Church.

The current practice is that each congregation has one diaconal office for every beginning 4,000 members of the congregation. My parish for example has about 10,000 members and therefore three diaconal offices, one of which is the office of chief diaconal worker. Large parishes also have diaconal offices for special tasks, such as disability services, prison work, substance abuse work or elderly care. In addition, our Church has diaconal offices in the diocese and in the special diaconal offices of the Church as a whole. Deacons or deaconesses can be working in these offices.

The Church Handbook approved by the Church Synod contains a separate formula for ordination to the deaconate. A deacon or deaconess who has completed a university of applied sciences degree must apply in writing for ordination to the diaconate. Ordination is decided and performed by the bishop of the diocese. Ordained deacons or deaconesses must have vocation for ecclesiastical duties, and the diocese organizes ordination training for them. The bishop gives a diaconal book to the ordained deaconess or deacon. They also have the right to wear the green shirt and the stola in worship as a sign of the diaconate.

In Finnish dioceses, bishops ordain deacons and deaconesses to the diaconate. Despite this, the diaconate as an ordained ministry itself, has been debated for many decades. Initiatives, reports and proposals have been made to the Church Synod. However, the process has not been completed. The Church Synod’s Legal Affairs Committee has stated that “there is insufficient consensus on the theological basis of ordination.” So far, the Church Synod has closed the discussion on the diaconate in 2019. The basic question, the theological nature of the diaconate, has remained unclear in these discussions. Deaconess Laura Puustinen, as a doctoral student in theology, playfully describes in her article that we are “next to the perpetual motion machine” in our church, when we examine the discussion about the diaconate between 1959 and 2019. The basis for discussions of the deaconate development in Finland has been the idea of the threefold ordering of ordained ministry accepted in ecumenical discussions, in which the ordained ministry of the Church consists of bishop, priest and deacon. Our Church has had ecumenical discussions e.g. with the World Council of Churches, with the Orthodox, Anglican and Catholic Churches from the ordained ministry of the Church and from the diaconate. Various commitments and documents have emerged from these discussions. No clear practical conclusions have been reached about the deaconate in Finland on the basis of these ecumenical discussions.

Despite everything, diaconia is a strong and essential work field in the Church of Finland. Our Church Order defines what diaconia is all about: “The congregation and its members should practice diaconia, the purpose of which is to provide relief based on Christian love, especially to those who are most in distress and who are not otherwise helped” (Church Order 4:3. See, John 5:7.).

In Finnish society as a whole, there is a much larger number of deacons and deaconesses than the approximately 1300 people working in the church’s diaconal work. There are e.g., diaconal nurses, health care nurses, social workers, educators, teachers, people in leading positions or researchers. Deacons and deaconesses meet regularly for the Diaconia Day gatherings of the Church. Deacons and deaconesses are organised in their own Diaconal workers’ union, which published the ethical guidelines for diaconal workers in 2016. Diaconate Day is celebrated annually on 1st of September. The Diaconal society has been established for diaconal research, which publishes Diaconia’s journal. Basic and further education in the field of diaconia is provided at the University of Applied Sciences. Diaconal institutions carry out valuable educational, research, social and health care work and contribute to the development of diaconal activities. Personally, I would hope that in the future, when justifying the diaconate theologically, we should rely even more strongly on biblical theological foundations and seek innovations for diaconia and deaconate from the teachings and practices of our apostolic fathers.

The Author: Terttu Pohjolainen has been a deaconess in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland for almost 50 years. She had been playing a very active role in DIAKONIA World Federation and has been a delegate for IDC for 13 years.

Written material used:

Hietamäki, Minna: Selvitys diakonian viran uudistusprosessin tilasta:

Malkavaara, Mikko (2015). Diakonia ja diakonivirka, Suomen ev.-lut. kirkon julkaisuja 26, Kirkko ja toiminta. Kirkkohallitus. Helsinki. (S. 113-117). 18.7.2023 18.7.2023 18.7.2023 18.7.2023 18.7.2023 18.7.2023 18.7.2023 20.7.2023 21.7.2023

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