Becoming a Deacon: A “Sure” Fit
Jess Gulseth’s ministry journey began when a neighbor asked if she would help with kids’ programming at church. Being from a family that didn’t attend church except for the occasional holiday with relatives, Jess didn’t know what was involved, but she knew how to do crafts and read stories, so she said “Sure! Why not?” Thus began a series of events that led to a relationship with God and Jess’s upcoming graduation with a Master of Divinity degree from Luther Seminary on May 21 of this year.
“It was like a domino effect,” says Jess. “People said things to me at different times in my life that steered me into my next direction. Because of this, I decided to attend a small private college with a church affiliation. Toward the end of my freshman year, one of my friends invited me to work at a Bible camp. I had never been to camp and didn’t really know what that meant, but I said ‘Sure!’ I worked there – Red Willow Bible Camp – for several years. It was there I learned that I had gifts for working with and leading people. I started asking questions of the leaders and pastors, ‘What does it mean to work in a church?’”
Then, going into her senior year of college, Jess was leading a closing worship at camp when someone approached her and asked if she would be interested in a children’s ministry internship at their church. That person was the worship director at the church where Pastor Bob was at that time. Jess said, “Sure!”
Eventually, she began to seriously consider seminary. “Lots of people told me I should consider seminary, even when I worked at camp. I knew I wanted to work in ministry somehow. God gave me gifts that serve the church well,” says Jess. “And I knew that I needed formal education. I was accepted at Luther with a scholarship, so all the pieces fell into place.”
In the ELCA, there are two paths of ordination after seminary: “Word & Sacrament” (pastors) and “Word & Service” (deacons). Jess points out a scriptural understanding of how pastors and deacons share a division of labor in Acts 6:1-6, where the disciples are accused of neglecting the widows. “The disciples are there to love and care for the community, but they can’t all do the same job. Some need to preach, and some need to serve. To be ordained in one or the other is to be set apart to share in the work that the church has. Both jobs are important and needed.”
When she began seminary, she started the candidacy process of ordination for “Word & Sacrament,” but she didn’t really know if this was the right fit for her. “I really wanted to take my time for discernment. As I questioned and learned more, I was able to assess my gifts, what I’m passionate about, and what I feel is my call.”
She continues, “I definitely get on fire real quick when we talk about how to take this head knowledge about Jesus and actually use it in our life. What is it to love your neighbor? How do we serve our neighbor? That speaks to me more than being ordained for the elements of sacrament, with a focus on preaching and worship. It’s just more genuine to who I am, and it feels more authentic for me to say my call is to ‘Word & Service.’”
Shortly after beginning her seminary program, Jess received a call from Pastor Bob, who was by then here at St. Mark. He asked her to join the team in children & family ministry. Her answer? “Sure! Why not?”
It turned out to be a good move. “St. Mark has always welcomed the idea that I’m a learner and that I’ve been in an educational process. The congregation has supported me and others before me financially with scholarships, and also by allowing flexibility to create my work schedule around school requirements. When I was ready to do my year of internship, space was created in the organization chart for me to do it here. It’s obvious that it’s part of our church mission to build up leaders.”
As part of her internship requirements, a committee was formed that met monthly to make sure she adhered to her specified goals, which included involvement in preaching, pastoral care, service and outreach. “This space has allowed me to learn, grow, and discover things as a leader. And I have grown so much as a person through seminary…light years!” she exclaims.
What comes next? Ordination will take place sometime in the coming year after Jess concludes a few meetings as part of her candidacy process. Other than that, she plans to stay at St. Mark for the time being. “I believe that God guides me, and I am open to whatever God calls me to, but I don’t feel like my time is done here just yet. I’ve had so many unique moments when someone invited me to something I never would have imagined for myself. It only makes sense that those things happened with God’s guidance. And I always made those decisions with peace. I’m here until God invites me to do something else!”