Diakonia: Just doing what the situation demands

Around 120 participants at the Diaconal Forum in Montmirail on May 13 and 14 called for an intensification of social diaconal efforts to meet rising social needs.

The Diaconal Forum’s ten appeals included an improved network of diaconal actors at all levels. The Forum was organized by the Association diaconale romande (ADR) in cooperation with the Office protestant de formation (OPF) and the Diaconal Conference of the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches (FSPC), and took place from May 13 to 14, 2011.

Those on hand, some 120 participants, called upon the churches and diaconal agencies to fulfill their prophetic calling and to work against poverty and social injustice. They also called for a stronger diaconal presence in society, while improving the theological training of the deacons ordained in Western Switzerland.

Christoph Sigrist summed up diaconal work as “just doing what the situation demands.” Sigrist, a pastor and instructor of diaconal studies at the University of Bern, spoke on theological views of diaconal work. As Sigrist put it, diakonia means “being in the middle, acting as an agent for the disadvantaged, and calling others to solidarity with them.”

The diaconal mission consists in “acts of assistance and solidarity,” Sigrist said. Forming social areas and making community possible are two cornerstones of the church’s diaconal mission. With regard to diaconal training, Sigrist explained that deacons were “religious counselors and mediators with a background in theology and social work.”

Martine Kurth, general secretary of the Association romande et tessinoise des institutions d’action sociale (ARTIAS, an association of social action institutions in French- and Italian-speaking Switzerland), spoke on changes underway in the social state and the resulting challenges for diaconal work. Kurth pointed out that “the Swiss middle class is under pressure” as a majority of the people are not able to benefit from the economic upturn.

This was reflected, Kurth explained, in the last revised unemployment insurance figures, in which 15,000 people were no longer receiving unemployment insurance payments. The coming revision of the disability insurance would reduce payments for 17,000 people, and the current political decisions regarding health insurance would make things more difficult for 120,000 people. Kurth added that founding a family was now viewed by some as a potential poverty risk. The only solution, she said, would be to actively counteract this trend and unleash a spirit of solidarity all throughout society.

A discussion with diaconal actors revealed deficits and possible ways forward in terms of interlinking the different diaconal institutions. The contributions of the representations of all of the cantonal churches of Western Switzerland and Bern showed a will to enhance diaconal services even in a time of reduced resources.