The Whole Gospel

A deaf congregation makes the good news accessible for heart and mind

Date Posted: 
Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Lynn Eccles grew up in the church. But she didn’t get it—and not for the usual reasons.

“I always had the head knowledge but didn’t understand what it meant for Christ to be in my heart,” she says.

Lynn had the head knowledge because she could read the Bible stories. But she hadn’t truly taken part in worship because she’s deaf, and her church had no sign language interpreter. She was physically present but mentally and spiritually disengaged.

That changed when, as an adult, Lynn went on a retreat called Deaf Encountering Christ.

“I went to that retreat, and that’s where I finally understood what it meant for Christ to be in my heart. I got down on my knees and asked Jesus to come into my heart, change me, and forgive my sin, and to let my life from now on serve him.”

That commitment and Lynn’s own experience in church are why she is now a leader of Peace Deaf Church. It’s a congregation of Peace Reformed Church in Eagan, Minnesota, made up almost entirely of adults who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Lynn and her husband, Jeff, pastor Peace Deaf Church (PDC) together. Jeff preaches, leads worship, and makes connections with people. Lynn serves behind the scenes—unlocking the doors, running the computer—and leads a Bible study. They both do pastoral care.

Stepping forward to lead

The prior pastor of PDC left two years ago, and Lynn and Jeff stepped up during the interim. They had been part of the congregation since its founding in 2011. And for a few years before that, Lynn led the deaf Bible study that resulted in the congregation’s founding. Both had been part of Peace Reformed Church from 2000 (it had sign-language interpretation for services before the deaf church began).

Then, two years ago, with no pastor, Lynn and Jeff felt compelled to do more. “We didn’t want the church to dissolve, so I just tried to lead it,” Jeff says. For more than a year, he was acting pastor, with help from Lynn. But they also kept looking for a new deaf pastor.

Eventually, after repeated encouragement from one of Peace Reformed’s lead pastors, Marla Rotman, and the PDC congregation, their roles became permanent. “I can see very clearly that God has called us, both of us, to be involved in this deaf church,” Lynn says. “That’s something I think Jeff has been picking up all along through his life. He’s learned through different jobs how to face different things that come up in our congregation, things he can support them with, things he can help and encourage them with.”

Jeff’s past experience includes serving with a regional deaf association and as a basketball and football coach for a deaf high school. “Now I’ve got a new path that I’m following,” he says. He and Lynn both work full-time in other jobs.

Rotman says that under Jeff’s leadership, PDC has become outward-focused. He lines up monthly guest speakers who have fostered more robust worship attendance. “That gave PDC a whole lot more visibility in the community,” she says. “Two years ago, [PDC] averaged eight to ten people per week. Jeff stepped in just to sub. Since then, it has been worshiping between 20 and 40 [people] a week.”

“We love seeing the church grow, and it is,” says Jeff. “But at the same time, we just want them to be healthy, and to support them and be a blessing to them. We know there’s other deaf people out there that need help, and that’s one of our goals, to bring them to Christ.”

Counting the benefits

Rotman says Jeff and Lynn have changed the worship service to create greater ownership within the congregation, and that as a result, people are more involved. They are volunteering to read Scripture, pray, or take the offering. “People are more relaxed now, more engaged, more comfortable to ask questions,” Lynn says.

“They feel like this is a safe place to express themselves,” Jeff says.

Another sign that the deaf congregants are more at ease at PDC is that they’re more at ease at Peace Reformed. “It’s very difficult for the hearing to interact with the deaf, and the deaf to interact with the hearing,” says Rotman. “They’re both very frightened they’ll make fools of themselves. But there’s more of that happening. [PDC members] spend more time in our fellowship time. They’re hanging out in the fellowship space, instead of just their own space. That naturally makes the two connect more.”

Peace Reformed is also trying to help the congregations connect more—the hearing congregation, the deaf congregation, and a Laotian congregation—at a leadership level. “Jeff has spent the past year joining the deacons in their meetings and joining the consistory in their meetings,” says Rotman. “Starting in January, he’s going to do a year tenure with the elders. That’s helping the elders become more relational with Jeff and giving him a better sense of how the whole church works.” Jeff, Lynn, and a sign language interpreter are also part of the church’s Ridder Church Renewal team. “We had to have representatives from all the groups in order to know this was going to be church-wide growth.”

Once a month, members of the deaf congregation and the Laotian congregation are invited to worship with the hearing congregation. For Lynn, that’s another place she sees greater welcome. More people are signing hello during the greeting time.

Last year, she taught an American Sign Language class to ten members of the hearing congregation. Since then, she says, “one or two people will say they were afraid of us previously, before they learned who I am and are able to communicate with me. Now they say, ‘You’re just as human as I am; you just can’t hear!’ It’s been really cool that they’re trying to communicate more. I feel so much more welcomed. Sometimes they write notes; sometimes they talk slow so I can read lips.”

Training to lead

Neither Jeff nor Lynn had any theological training when they stepped forward to lead PDC. When their roles became permanent, Jeff enrolled in the commissioned pastor program. (Lynn was also encouraged to get training but didn’t feel that it fit her role.) Commissioned pastors are elders who are commissioned to fill a particular ministry need; they receive training particular to their role, usually over several years.

Jeff says it’s helping him on many levels. “With this theological program, I have a great mentor [Rotman]. She’s my coach. And then the other thing I was blessed with is the technology.” Jeff’s courses are offered by Church Leadership Center through video calls; Jeff uses his normal video phone where he can see an interpreter in the corner of the screen.

“The lessons that I’ve been reading and studying during my classes, I actually bring some of what I’m learning to the congregation, and I teach them and we’re learning together.”

Jeff says he’s able to immediately apply lessons learned from his classes, from books, and from his mentor. He points to one example: a church member died, and Jeff was better able to care for grieving people because of the pastoral care class he was taking and because of support from his mentor.

The commissioned pastor process isn’t without its challenges. For Jeff, one of the biggest is writing papers. “My thinking is there, but trying to put it on paper … I have two languages in mind, the English and the sign language, and I’m trying to switch it around. Trying to put them on paper sometimes gets a little confusing.” 

Watch a video of a PDC member signing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” on the RCA Today app.

Learn more about commissioned pastors at www.rca.org/commissionedpastors.

Email disability@rca.org to learn how your congregation can become more inclusive of people who are deaf.

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