“Diaconal Work – Slightly Different”

The delegates of the Diaconal Conference of the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches discussed the difference between diaconal services provided by the church and welfare services offered by secular providers.

Is diaconal service different from secular social work? Does it have an added value? These were the questions discussed by 47 delegates and guests from the FSPC churches and diaconal institutions who had convened on April 24 in Berne for the Diaconal Conference titled “Diaconal Work - Slightly Different.”

Trying to see diaconal work as a service with religious added value bears a twofold risk of arrogance, stated Heinz Rüegger, research assistant at the Institute of Neumünster, in his lecture: “First, an unrealistic overestimation of Christian capability, and second a denigration of non-Christians’ capability of helping others.” Diaconal institutions, he added, often show a need to present their own activities in a different light than those of their secular counterparts. This view must be examined and challenged, Rüegger insisted. After all, most of the time, the help provided by Christians is no different than that of agents not motivated by Christian faith. In addition, “the ideological-religious aspiration of diaconal institutions to be different, better, more redeemed than other helpers can put staff members under an immense pressure to perform.”

Brigitte Arnold, a Sister at the Community Diakonissenhaus Riehen, took a different view. She agreed that diaconal activities are no better than social commitment. However, she also stated that professionalism is not everything. According to Arnold, what separates diaconal activities from other welfare work is that it has its “foundation in Christ.” Diaconal activity, she said, is “first and foremost about passing on the love that I have experienced in myself through Christ.” Such an attitude, she added, must have an effect on the charitable work, and can be clearly felt.

In the discussion that followed, the delegates of the Diaconal Conference addressed the wide range of debate regarding the difference between diaconal work and social work. They also raised the question of how diaconal work may improve its position within the general field of social welfare. The debate tied in with a recent project in which the FSPC is analyzing the various vessels of diaconal services in Switzerland. The FSPC Council has been commissioned to present a plan of action for pooling, coordinating and controlling these vessels to the Assembly of Delegates by the end of 2013.

The Diaconal Conference is the FSPC’s platform of reflection meeting twice a year to discuss selected topics. It consists of at least one representative for every FSPC member church and affiliated associations and organizations, as well as important diaconal institutions. A delegation of the Diaconal Conference is represented with two seats at the FSPC Assembly of Delegates. The next Diaconal Conference will be held November 13, 2012, in Berne.