Reflections on 50 years of DCE ministry

By Bill Karpenko

This summer, we’re celebrating 50 years of director of Christian education (DCE) ministry throughout The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. commentary-karpenko.gif
Although there were DCEs at work in our congregations well before 1959, the Synod convention that year — meeting June 17-26 in San Francisco — adopted a resolution encouraging congregations to “analyze their parish education program and, where needed, to establish the office of ‘director of Christian education’ in order to provide additional leadership for the educational program of the congregation.”
Synod President Gerald B. Kieschnick declared June 26 — the date on which that resolution was adopted in 1959 — as “National LCMS Director of Christian Education Day” to recognize this 50th anniversary of the Synod’s DCE ministry.

In a second resolution, the 1959 convention granted eligible DCE’s “all the rights and privileges” that pertain to rostered teachers, stating that they should be considered as such.

Over the years, 1,753 individuals have been certified as DCEs in the LCMS, and today about 800 of them serve full-time in the Synod.
My reaction on this anniversary year: It’s about time! Like Simeon in the temple waiting on the coming Messiah, I have wondered if I would ever see this day.
What I now realize, having lived through the past 50 years, is that there is another deeper, richer meaning to the reaction, “It’s about time.” Some things — professions included — take time to develop, refine, and mature. So it has been with DCE ministry in the Synod.
I still recall the excitement I felt when I first saw a DCE in action. It was 52 years ago at an International Walther League convention.  There was Larry Steyer guiding hordes of young people from Trinity Lutheran Church in Mission, Kan., who were all decked out in bright yellow T-shirts. I wasn’t the only one who was impressed. Nor was I the only one further convinced that to become a DCE would be a splendid way to serve in the public ministry.
Seventeen years later, I was invited to participate in a first-time consultation on DCE ministry in St. Louis. Convened by what was then the Synod’s Board for Parish Education, it provided an opportunity for LCMS leaders to bring together the three DCE program directors at Synod colleges. What a delight to talk about training-program concerns with seasoned educators like the now sainted Dr. Luther Mueller from Concordia, St. Paul, and Dr. Walter Wangerin Sr. from River Forest. During that consultation, a foundation of cooperation and collaboration was laid that would last for years to come.
An example of that kind of working together happened again nine years later. In 1983, key Synod staff leaders, in concert with the then five DCE program directors, and Lutheran Education Association — TEAM officers, realized a major milestone when the Synod in convention decided that roster membership for DCEs was not contingent on being teacher-trained.
In the 1970s and 80s — when the Synod’s DCE ministry was in its most explosive years numerically — an intriguing phenomenon occurred. Lots of questions about this relatively new synodwide ministry surfaced, some of which turned into commonly held myths. A few of them still linger today. 
As a way to address these myths and answer a host of other questions, five other veteran church workers and I recently surveyed more than 800 certified DCEs through the DCE Career Path Project. Several of those myths and current findings include the following:

Myth: DCE ministry is a young person’s career.
Finding: The average age of surveyed certified DCEs was 40, and 21 percent (162) were 50 or older.

Myth: Male DCEs are “pastor wannabes” and eventually head to the seminary.
Finding: Only 15 percent (75) of the 491 DCE-certified males in the survey were pastors.

Myth: Once a female DCE gets married and has a family, she leaves DCE ministry.
Finding: 31 percent (52) of female DCEs had raised or were raising a young family while serving and congregation as a DCE.

Over the years, perhaps the most frequent question I heard as a director of a DCE program was, “Why should our congregation call a DCE?”
Even though DCEs vary in their gifts and maturity, their unique contributions to a parish usually include the knowledge, attitude, and skills needed to:

  • focus their experience and energy on a congregational need, whether as a generalist or specialist.
  • implement an approach to lifespan education within the parish.
  • design enriching and productive learning experiences.
  • recruit, equip, and sustain laity involved in congregational programming.
  • remain accessible in a non-intimidating manner.
  • relate to and have positive impact on young people and their families.
  • assume the congregation’s “second chair” and support the pastor and other staff members.

As one of those “elder statesmen” in DCE circles, sometimes I am asked, “What pleases you the most about the development of DCE ministry?” At the top of the list are these four points:

1. Where there once was tension and resentment between parochial school staff and DCEs, there is now much more appreciation and cooperation. Both realize the importance of working collaboratively to prepare young teens for the challenges of middle-school and high-school life.

2. Even though there still are painful mismatches — especially when a new pastor fills a vacancy — DCEs hold their relationship with the  pastor in high regard. The DCE Career Path Project discovered that DCEs rated this relationship as having the highest positive impact among 29 different professional experiences.

3. Women DCEs are forging long-term careers, some of 30 years or more.

4. DCE program directors from six Concordia universities continue to pursue the high level of cooperation and collaboration established in the 1970s, and now include their Canadian counterpart in their deliberations and planning.

Finally — there is a third sense in which “it’s about time.” With this anniversary, there is an opportunity to:

  • say “well done” to the 1,753 individuals who have been certified as DCEs for their many and varied contributions to the LCMS.
  • celebrate the thousands of congregations and laypeople who have decided to call a DCE and then have supported that individual as he or she served in their midst.
  • thank God for the pastors who have a heart for collaborative ministry and have worked sensitively and openly with their DCEs in the good and not-so-good times.
  • affirm the good news from the DCE Career Path Project that 97 percent of those certified as a DCE over the past 50 years entered some form of full-time LCMS church work.
  • acknowledge individuals like Bob Ewell, who is celebrating his 40th anniversary as a DCE at Christ Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. He and a growing number of others have made congregation ministry a lifelong career.
  • salute the hundreds of certified DCEs who have felt called to other ministries of the LCMS, thereby adding to the diversity and richness of DCEs’ career paths.
  • remember with gratitude the visionary and determined efforts of those Synod staff, DCE program directors, and DCEs in the field who have given so much to further DCE ministry.

Yes, it is about time — time to praise the Triune God for whom 50 years is like the twinkling of the eye.
How glad I am that my allotted days have permitted me to experience this grand anniversary.

Dr. Bill Karpenko, of Rosemount, Minn., is the part-time administrative executive of the Karpenko Institute for Nurturing and Developing Leadership Excellence (KINDLE). He served in DCE-type positions in the 1960s and spent the next 34 years in Lutheran higher education at Concordia University Nebraska, Concordia University Chicago, and Valparaiso University — as a DCE program director for 21 of those years.

Re-posted Sept. 4, 2009

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