Deaf Ministry

1990 Church of the Brethren Statement

Growing out of a concern for the lack of opportunities for deaf persons to participate in Christian service within the local and denominational program, we, the Deaf Fellowship of the Frederick Church of the Brethren, do hereby submit to Annual Conference, through the Mid-Atlantic District, the following query:

WHEREAS: the Church is called to discipleship and the formation of communities of faith, and that we must continue to offer to all peoples, including deaf persons, the call of Christ to become his disciples and be added to the church (Matt. 28:19-20, World Mission Philosophy Paper 1981);

WHEREAS: we see a need for the Church to be about the task of educating people concerning Deaf Ministry;

WHEREAS: the issues surrounding Deaf Ministry, i.e., leadership training, education, publication, representation, funding for interpreting services for deaf persons at Annual Conference, are complex and should be addressed by the church;

WHEREAS: the hearing Church has not understood the extent of Deaf Ministry and its full impact on Deaf culture, Deaf language, and Deaf mission;

THEREFORE, we ask that Annual Conference name a committee to study Deaf Ministry and the issues surrounding it, and to prepare recommendations to Annual Conference for the denomination the following year.

Action of the Frederick Church of the Brethren, July 27, 1988: Passed to district conference.

Paul D. Steiner, Moderator
Martha R. Mauck, Church Clerk

Action of the Mid-Atlantic District Conference meeting November 7-8,1988 at Manassas, Virginia: Passed to Annual Conference.

Paul D. Steiner, Moderator
Sharon Dougherty, Clerk

Action of the 1989 Annual Conference: Duane Strickler, a Standing Committee member from the Mid-Atlantic district, presented the recommendation from Standing Committee that:

  1. the query be approved;
  2. five (5) person study committee be elected;
  3. the committee be structured to include at least one deaf person.

The delegate body adopted the recommendation of standing Committee and elected Francis J. Bourne, Jan Elise Eisemann, Robert Gessinger, Donna Kay Graff, and Korene Wile as its study committee.



“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19-20, NIV).


The 1989 Annual Conference approved a query on a “Statement of Deaf Ministry.” Our committee was commissioned to study Deaf Ministry and the surrounding issues and subsequently, to prepare recommendations to Annual Conference for the denomination.

The term “deaf” throughout this report is used to signify deaf, hard of hearing, and other individuals with varying degrees of hearing loss.

This report seeks to make the hearing members of the Church of the Brethren aware of the needs and concerns of the deaf culture. Issues of interpreting, leadership training, representation, and Deaf awareness involving the culture and the language are addressed. As a result of our study, this committee presents these issues and recommendations for Deaf Ministry in the Church of the Brethren.


Moses said to the Lord, “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” The Lord said to him, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, The Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say” (Exod. 4:10-12).


If you are Deaf/hearing impaired, it is impossible to reap the benefits of hearing the liturgy, the sermon, and the singing unless someone interprets for you in sign language. Rarely will you find a church with that service in your community. Even if you do, interpreted services make the Deaf feel somewhat like spectators with a good number of Deaf in attendance.

If you can’t see, or walk, or talk, or move your arms, you can still go to church on Sunday morning and take part in the worship service. But if you are Deaf/hearing impaired, it is impossible to reap the benefits of hearing the liturgy, the sermon, and the singing unless someone interprets for you in sign language. Rarely will you find a church with that service in your community. Even if you do, interpreted services make the Deaf feel somewhat like spectators with a good number of Deaf in attendance.

A separate service affords deaf persons the opportunity of participating in the worship service itself, or in the business meeting or in other activities. To neglect any segment of the deaf church is to discourage the Deaf from continuing to participate in the church activities;

Deaf activity groups can be formed to parallel those of the hearing Church of the Brethren, regardless of age. The only necessity is that the church have enough experienced personnel to work with the Deaf. The church must be sensitive to meeting the needs of the Deaf at every age level.

The American Annuals of the 1970s identified 503 churches or synagogues for the Deaf of all denominations in the US and 15 in Canada. According to population statistics for the Deaf, this means there should be an average of 25,888 deaf persons for each church. However, the sad truth is that it is a rare church for the Deaf that averages 50 or more in attendance.

The Winchester Deaf Brethren, Calvary Church of the Brethren, Winchester, Va., and the Frederick, Md. Church of the Brethren are among the churches that have deaf people emerging from the hearing congregation into a sub-congregation. The credit for both of these goes to Rev. Merlin Garber who, in Winchester, ordained a deaf man, Rev. Warren C. Blackwell, to continue his work with the deaf church. Pastor Garber then started a deaf group in the Frederick Church of the Brethren. Because the Maryland School for the Deaf has a campus in Frederick, the Frederick church has a good resource of deaf people though it is in need of finding an appropriate deaf pastor for the deaf sub-congregation.


Deaf people believe that the deaf culture is as crucial as nature. Capacities for language, thought, communication, and culture develop automatically in deaf persons. They are not just biological in origin. They are a gift–the most wonderful of gifts from God, from one generation to another. Hearing and deaf people are equally articulate in their own language, whether it is heard or seen.

Sign language is a visual language whereas English is an auditory language. We may expect or think that American Sign Language (ASL) is “universal,” but this is not true. Each country has its own sign system. There is Japanese Sign Language, Korean Sign Language, French Sign Language, and so forth. The beginning of ASL may go back to the 1700s. We credit ASL to Laurent Clerk who, when brought by Thomas Gallaudet to America, started the first American school for the Deaf in Hartford, Conn.

Rather than ascribing to deaf persons a “medical” status, we should consider deaf persons as having an “ethnic” status–persons with a distinctive language, sensibility, and culture of their own. We instantly give a black group a Black community, but not the Deaf their own identity. The attitude among the Deaf is that the factors of language, society, politics, and audiology create a true deaf community.


The Church of the Brethren’s first deaf pastor, Warren C. Blackwell, travelled from his residence in Charlottesville, VA, to Calvary Church of the Brethren in Winchester where he began the Winchester Deaf Brethren group March 25, 1957. Many deaf people who came to the church lived 50 to 100 miles away. And so Brother Blackwell took literally and personally the injunction “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel…” At his own expense he also conducted services for the Deaf at Roanoke, Newport News, Richmond, Staunton, Hampton, and Charlottesville in Virginia and in Washington, D.C. He held odd jobs to continue the mission of ministry to the Deaf. After his death in 1980, many deaf persons went to other denominational churches.

The deaf church in Winchester continues its monthly services led by a variety of deaf lay ministers from the Frederick, Md., Church of the Brethren.


First Deaf Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., started in 1945. Deaf church people erected their own church building. For years their offspring who were hearing continued to attend deaf worship. But the hearing children needed a hearing model and had a hearing teacher to meet their needs. In later years; they wanted to have their own service within the church. With permission from the deaf congregation, they formed their own hearing congregation and used the deaf church building. They expanded it by inviting other hearing people to join the church. Both groups are satisfied with their own worship services.


1. Deaf Ministry Interpreters

When they heard this noise, a large crowd gathered. They were all excited, because each one of them heard the believers talk in his own language. In amazement and wonder they exclaimed, ‘These people who are talking like this–they are all Galileans! How is it, then, that all of us hear them speaking in our own native language?” (Acts 2:6-8 TEV).

In establishing a Deaf Ministry there is a strong need for total communication to maintain and strengthen dialogue and understanding. The only way this can happen is by the use of registered interpreters.

“Interpreting involves competence in at least two languages, an understanding of the dynamics of human interaction in two quite different modalities, an appreciation of social and cultural differences, the ability to concentrate and maintain one’s attention, a good deal of tact, judgement, stamina, and above all, a sense of humor.” (Nancy Firsberg, Interpreting An Introduction, R.I.D. Publications 1986)

Registered interpreters adhere to certification standards, administer certification testing, and maintain and promote a code of ethics. Support services such as interpreters, visual aids, and TDD (Telecommunication Devices for the Deaf) should be made available at all age levels, including children, youth, young adults, and senior citizens. According to NAD (National Association for the Deaf), l out of 10 individuals has some degree of hearing loss; 8.7 persons in 1,000 are Deaf; 2 in 1,000 become Deaf before the age of 18. There are 31.2 million Deaf/hearing impaired in the US. This averages 2 deaf people per 230 hearing people per congregation. Others of the deaf/hearing impaired are so isolated in our congregations that they probably are not involved in the life of the church due to the lack of support services.

In the 1989 Ethnic Study Committee report to Annual Conference entitled “A Vision of Participation,” it was stated that new ethnic congregations most likely will be reached through worship services they understand and in a language with which they feel comfortable. The organizers of any conference are urged to provide adequate translation of the process for the non-English speaking delegates.

2. Guidelines for Deaf Ministry

In Deuteronomy 6:6-7 God implores us,

“never forget these commands that I’m giving to us today. Teach them to your children. Repeat them when you are at home and when you are away, when you are resting and when you are working” (NIV)

Throughout the Old and New Testament the themes of teaching and learning are repeated. In Matthew 5:19 (NIV). Christ asserts that

“whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Learning God’s word is for adults and children as well. Proverbs 22:6 tells us to

teach a child how he should live, and he will remember it all his life.

Through the word, God calls the church to intentional efforts of education. The hearing members of this denomination must realize that current Sunday school programs reach only hearing people. Deaf people need different provisions.

Minimally, deaf members need a certified interpreter in order to participate in a hearing Sunday school class. A certified interpreter is not just a person who knows some sign language. Interpreters undergo intensive training and pass a rigorous certification test. Their job is to interpret exactly what either the hearing person says or the deaf person signs. A person interpreting a hearing Sunday school lesson is inadequate for deaf children below the age of 12, because children of that age do not understand how to use an interpreter. For deaf adults, an interpreter is only the beginning of Deaf Ministry. In order to maximize such ministry, instruction should be conducted in American Sign Language.

For most persons in the US, a hearing person’s natural language is English. Therefore, Christian education is generally conducted in English with a curriculum based on English. However, for the deaf person whose natural language is not English but rather American Sign Language (ASL), that same curriculum is inappropriate. Instruction of any kind for a deaf Sunday school needs to be in ASL with a bilingual education emphasis.

The delegates of the 1989 Annual Conference accepted a recommendation for the Church of the Brethren’s response to education. The report encourages parents and other church members to “support efforts to provide education for every non-English speaking person through bilingual education.” To put this statement into practice within the walls of the church, we must provide teachers fluent in ASL and English for deaf people in our Sunday school programs.

Furthermore, a curriculum that focuses on deaf culture and language (ASL) must be available either through our own denomination or in cooperation with other denominations. This curriculum needs to be built around instructional methods that are highly visual and active, such as drama and ASL storytelling. A curriculum designed for deaf people and taught through ASL is not just a “nice idea,” but rather a necessity if the church desires to reach these children of God.

In order to grow as a Christian, education through Sunday School is paramount. Of equal importance is a time to gather together to worship and praise God.

All languages include a special language for worship. It is equally difficult for an English speaking person to worship God in an unknown language as it is for a deaf person to worship in English. An interpreter is the first step in allowing deaf Christians the job of worshiping God along side other Christians. As we grow in Deaf Ministry, it is important for the hearing church to meet the needs of our deaf brothers and sisters in Christ by allowing them to “hear” the word of God through hands that express the glory and grace of God in ASL.

Everyone is important in God’s work. It is through the church that His work goes forward. God is depending upon us. For “you did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide ” (John 15:16, RSV). What a joy and privilege–to work for God and with God. But with that joy and privilege comes a very solemn responsibility.

For congregations interested in growing with a Deaf Ministry, helpful guidelines need to be established. The guidelines will make suggestions about support services, visitations, sign language classes for the hearing members, and what to do and not to do. The guidelines will help churches accept the Deaf as an ethnic group with its own language and culture.

Hearing members of the Church of the Brethren should not control deaf members. Instead, the attitude and point of view of each ministry should be to work with the Deaf, encouraging them to take part in the leadership roles of the church as one body.

If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? …As it is, there are many parts, but one body (1 Cor. 12:17, 20, NIV).

3. Leadership and Training Programs

We call upon the leadership of the church to recruit persons from other cultural groups who may become leaders in the planting of the Church of the Brethren in the United States.

The deaf population in the community is small and an ethnic minority. Having less money for pastoral support, ethnic minority churches often have bivocational pastors.

There is a need to have a training program for the Deaf to provide an opportunity for biblical studies and to develop their gifts for ministry. Such a program will encourage deaf persons in our Anabaptist churches to develop their leadership skills and to be trained to fill the pastoral vacancies in deaf churches.

The Deaf Christian Leadership Program (DCLP), affiliated with the Mennonite Board of Missions, has three of its eight members on the board of directors from the Church of the Brethren. The board of directors was formed under Jeffrey Hoffer as chair; currently, Nancy Marshall is the developer/director.

There are currently 12 deaf Anabaptist congregations in the US and Canada, of which only three have deaf pastors. Five are currently trying to maintain the functions of the church until a pastor can be found, and the remaining four have hearing persons who are temporarily assuming the role of “director” while interpreting the worship in a hearing Anabaptist congregation. In addition, there are at least three congregations that have recognized a high population of deaf adults in their locale and have consequently made requests to Deaf Ministries to “send someone to do church planting.” Our empty pulpits are crying out for faithful and skilled leaders.

Historically, the unique culture, language, and world view of deaf people have been ignored. For many years, deaf people were perceived as “handicapped” individuals worthy of pity because most believed that they were inevitably doomed to a life of dependency. Consequently, in many of our churches deaf people had accepted the labels given them by the majority. They had agreed that they basically “couldn’t lead themselves, or understand the Bible, so they needed a hearing person to ‘help’ them.” This resulted in a paternalistic relationship that to this day is hard to shed by both deaf members and hearing Deaf Ministries directors.

However, over the past 5 to 10 years the tide has begun to change. Theological experts are beginning to use the term “indigenous worship” to refer to groups who worship according to the culture of the minority group. Among Anabaptists, it is becoming increasingly clear that the majority need not force the minority to worship in Germanic style, but rather allow minority persons to express their praise and longings to God in a manner appropriate to its culture.

At the same time deaf people are becoming increasingly aware that their culture is not inferior to the majority white-anglo culture. They are becoming proud of their language and demanding that it deserves the respect accorded to other languages. Evidence of this growing awareness was the “‘Deaf President Now” campaign in 1988 on Gallaudet University’s campus in Washington DC. Similarly, in the past 5 years 12 states have enacted laws that recognize American Sign Language as the language of the deaf community which may be studied in high school curriculums to fulfill the language requirement.

When a congregation has only a few deaf members, an interpreting ministry is adequate: however, as the number of deaf individuals increases, a Deaf Ministry conducted by the members themselves needs to evolve. The Deaf are reaching out to develop their own worship materials, worship style, and understanding of God. They want to see the sermon directly off the hands of someone who can use their language, someone who understands their culture naturally. They want to participate in the worship events as leaders, scripture readers, and preachers. They have been taught and “helped” for a long time and are aching to grow independent. But it doesn’t evolve in the blink of an eye.

Some may question why many deaf people can’t attend our established Anabaptist educational institutions. Like Hispanic or black people, when deaf people attend a Brethren College, because many of them have grown up in a different culture, they are immediately stunned by the amount of knowledge the majority culture has acquired. Deaf education has been unsuccessful in bringing deaf students to their potentials. Further, the teachers at these institutions would require interpreters. Certified interpreters are difficult to locate outside of major cities. Currently, most charge $22 to $25 an hour, and generally require two interpreters if the session is longer than two hours. Furthermore, the deaf student is a minority on campus, with few same-culture members with whom to share perspective and discussion.

The goals of the Deaf Christian Leadership Program are:

  • to Provide potential and existing deaf leaders with courses in general biblical knowledge, Anabaptist perspective, deaf culture/language, and skill courses in preaching, planning, teaching Sunday School, and group dynamics.
  • to give students accredited college credit for successful completion of the course material.
  • to utilize only deaf teachers or hearing persons who are fluent in American Sign Language and cognizant of deaf culture.
  • to provide deaf college students the opportunity of ongoing biblical studies and examining their gifts for ministry.
  • to train deaf leadership who will have the potential to eventually fill the pastoral vacancies in deaf churches.

The board of directors of DCLP is applying for incorporated tax exempt status. The Mennonite Board of Mission has agreed to be the hiring agency and the Mennonite Board of Education has agreed to be accountable for funds received on their behalf.

4. Deaf Ministry Liaison

As Paul started his ministry to the Gentiles, questions among the Jews arose due to fear and the lack of knowledge (Acts 15:1-11). Paul acted as an advocate for the Gentiles and presented their case before the council at Jerusalem. The fuller understanding of the Gentiles lead Peter to say, “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (v. 11, NIV).

In establishing a Deaf Ministry, many questions will arise out of a lack of understanding. As Paul was the advocate for the Gentile, so the Deaf Ministry needs a person to work as a liaison between the hearing members and the deaf members of the Church Of the Brethren.

Since deaf people, like Hispanics and Koreans, have a culture and language of their own, and the Parish Ministries Commission is responsible for all ministries within the church, a Deaf Ministries Task Force should be established under Parish Ministries with the chairperson acting as a liaison and reporting directly to the commission. Deaf members of the Church of the Brethren should have direct contact with the national offices via the phone and a Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD) located in the Parish Ministries offices.

According to the 1989 Parish Ministries report, the purpose of a liaison relationship is to maintain contact and to strengthen dialogue and understanding. The first duty of the Deaf Ministries Task Force liaison would be to promote deaf awareness in the hearing church by coordinating educational workshops and media presentations at the local and denominational level. The Task Force would initiate Deaf Ministry concerns to be addressed by the church and also respond to concerns as they arise. Members of the Task Force would help focus the denomination on Deaf Ministry issues and serve as resource persons for deaf adults, parents with deaf children, and pastors with deaf members in their congregations.

On the local level, this Task Force would help churches in establishing Deaf Ministries by providing information, curricular resources, and moral support to the pastor, and guidance. At the denominational level, these duties would expand to include location and coordination of interpreters (to be budgeted by the General Board), networking churches with Deaf Ministries into a larger system, and representing Deaf Ministries in the structural committees of the church.

Finally, the Task Force and chairperson/liaison would work interdenominationally with shared resources, materials, educational programs for leadership, and leadership retreats. At all levels of the church, a liaison/advocate is necessary.


  1. Assistive devices and interpreters be used at all age levels within the Church of the Brethren, including children, youth, young adults, and senior citizens. We also strongly recommend the use of a current dated registry of certified interpreters from Registry of Interpretation for the Deaf (RID) for these assignments.
  2. Provide Sunday school materials for the Deaf either through Brethren Press or another denomination.
  3. Establish, through consultation with existing deaf fellowships and deaf church members, guidelines for hearing churches growing in Deaf Ministry.
  4. Support the Deaf Christian Leadership Training Program (DCLP) and the Ministry Training department. We encourage the Deaf Ministry in the Church of the Brethren to continue to work with the established Deaf Ministry program of the Mennonite Board of Mission for support, guidance, and development of programs.
  5. Establish a Deaf Ministries Task Force under the auspices of the Parish Ministries Commission, coordinated by a chair/liaison, to provide guidance for the church in developing Deaf Ministries.
  6. Equip the Parish Ministries office with a TDD so that deaf members of the denomination have access to the national offices.


  1. Utilize Sunday school materials for the Deaf in developing a deaf Sunday school program.
  2. Wherever feasible, locate deaf adults to teach in deaf Sunday school classes.
  3. Locate and secure certified interpreters for deaf persons who elect to attend a hearing Sunday school class.
  4. Nurture deaf leaders to work in the whole church.
  5. Locate and seek deaf individuals to support and participate in the Deaf Christian Leadership Program.


And in that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book, …shall see out of obscurity, and out of darkness. (Isa. 29.18).


Judith Georges, Ivy Farms Church of the Brethren, Newport News, Va.

Tracy Wiser, Frederick Church of the Brethren, Frederick, Md.

Nancy Marshall, Developer of Deaf Christian Leadership Program

Sheila Stopher Yoder, director of Deaf Ministry, Mennonite Board of Mission


Registry of Interpretation for the Deaf National Office Rockville, Md., NAD (National Association for the Deaf).

Church of the Brethren Annual Conference, July 4-9, 1989, Living As God’s Friends.

Deaf Christian Leadership Program. HIGH Foundation Proposal by Nancy Marshall, with adaptations.

Falberg, Roger M., The Language of Silence Wichita Social Services for the Deaf, Wichita, Kan. 1963, Deaf and Hard of Hearing Counseling Service, Inc., 1977.

Gannon, Jack R., Deaf Heritage (A Narrative History of Deaf America). National Association of the Deaf, Silver Spring, Md., 1981.

Greenberg, Joane, In This Sign (a novel). Holt, Pinehart and Winston, New York, NY. 1970.

Jacobs, Leo M., A Deaf Adult Speaks Out, Gallaudet College Press, Washington, DC. 1974.

Mindel, Eugene D. and Vernon, McCay, They Grow in Silence (The Child and His Family). National Association of the Deaf, Silver Spring, Md. 1971.

Ministry to the Deaf by Croft M. Pentz.

Rice, Cathy, My Heart for the Deaf. Bill Rice Ranch, Inc.. Murfreesboro, Tenn. 1977.

Schein, Jeroma D. and Delk, Marcus T. Jr., The Deaf Population of the United States. National Association of the Deaf, 1974.

Lawrence, Edgar D., Ministering to the Silent Minority. Gospel Publishing House. 1978.

Sacks, Oliver, Seeing Voices, A Journey into the World of the Deaf, University of California Press, 1989.

Baker, Charlotte and Corylle, American Sign Language. Teacher Text Book.

Padden, and Humphries, Living in Deaf Culture. Harvard Press, 1988.

Annual Conference Reports:

1989 Statement on How the Brethren Should Support Education for Their Children and Youth

1989 Statement on Inclusion of Ethnics Into the Church of the Brethren

Jan Elise Eisemann, Chair
Korene Wile, Secretary
Francis J. Boume
Robert Gessinger
Donna K. Graff

Action of the 1990 Annual Conference: The report of the Annual Conference study committee to respond to the QUERY: STATEMENT ON DEAF MINISTRY was made by Jan Elise Eisemann, chair. The report was adopted with one amendment by the committee and one amendment by the delegate body, both of which have been incorporated in the wording of the preceding text.