Deacons dig in to serve Lutheran community

Coastal Point • Laura Walter  : Called to serve, deacons Dave Pittinger, left, and Jim Gelato, right, took a unique leadership role at Community Lutheran Church. Coastal Point • Laura Walter : Called to serve, deacons Dave Pittinger, left, and Jim Gelato, right, took a unique leadership role at Community Lutheran Church.

When two men in their 60s got a urge to serve, they showed up with a gusto to learn.

At Community Lutheran Church near Frankford, retirement offered the perfect chance for Dave Pittinger, 69, and Jim Gelato, 65, to follow their dreams of becoming Lutheran deacons.

And they finished the three-year training in half that time.

Deacons are deemed to have a call of “word and service,” meaning they can preach and serve, (in contrast with pastors, who have a call of “word and sacrament”). They finished the required coursework in 20 months.

“I wanted to get it done before I got too old,” Pittinger said.

Three years can really drag out, Gelato added. “It was good for us. You’re totally focused on that.”

Pittinger, 69, focuses on visitation, so he leads the team of volunteers who visit members who can’t attend regular service, whether they’re stuck at the hospital, at home or in physical therapy. He also leads other service projects.

Focusing on everything in the psychical church, Gelato, 65, covers worship and music. He helps with the liturgy (service), music and lay-preaching when the pastor is absent.

Both respond to the pastor.

They were accepted into the program after a period of discernment, as well as interviews, applications and prayer.

Gelato said he learned a lot about himself — “where I stand spiritually. … It was a humbling experience.”

“It forces self-examination, contemplation and a lot of prayer,” Pittinger said.

They highly recommend it “for anyone who has their heart and soul in their religion.”

Gelato said he had considered becoming ordained but found the deacon program to be a better fit for him, especially since he gets to stay with his church.

Pittinger’s pastor from 25 years ago had poo-pooed the notion for him, but Pittinger held onto the idea.

Within the Delaware-Maryland Synod, Community Lutheran Church boasts the only Lutheran deacons on the Eastern Shore, because the other men and women of the are all across the Chesapeake Bay. (However, a similar deacon program is found in Lutheran churches of other synods, plus Catholic churches.)

About 10 courses were taught, one at a time, with some overlap, and topics included ethics, history, hospital ministry, the liturgy (service) and even a book-by-book study of the Bible. Each class met weekly for several hours.

Their previous pastor, the Rev. Bettye Wolinski, taught them nearly every course right there at Community Lutheran. The deacons credited her for making their education happen.

“Boy, she put us through the wringer. We learned a lot, didn’t we, Dave?” Gelato mused.

Assignments ranged from writing essays and presentations to teaching a four-week workshop on Lutheran beliefs.

Gelato said he didn’t believe the accelerated schedule would be doable with a regular job.

“It’s like going to college. They’re all seminary-level courses” that aren’t accredited only because the teachers aren’t, Pittinger said. “When I wasn’t in class, I was home in front of the computer, reading what I had to know for the next class.”

Was the program worth the stress and loss of hobbies?

“Absolutely,” they both said.

They recalled a moment during the “setting-apart ceremony” when the other religious leaders all laid their hands upon the new deacons, praying and welcoming them.

CLC never has had deacons before, so everyone is learning and shaping their role within the church.

“People ask, ‘What should we call you?’ I say, ‘Dave!’” Pittinger noted.

“I am so blessed to be at a church that has two deacons,” said interim pastor the Rev. Harry “Skip” McComas. “They’re both just spiritually grounded people. … They love the [congregation].

Typically, the pastor spends a lot of time with the homebound, but Pittinger’s work means McComas can make his part-time hours count elsewhere, in church administration. “He has it so organized,” McComas said of Pittinger’s ministry team.

Meanwhile, Gelato is “a walking encyclopedia for Lutheran worship and practices,” always open to new ideas, but knowledgeable in current traditions, McComas said. “They’re caring, giving, loving men, just both of them.”

Officially, they’re deacons in the Order of Saint Stephen (OSSD) within the Delaware-Maryland Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Their OSSD handbook defines deacons “as the bridge between the church and the community. We are set apart in word and service, and serve our churches and pastors in a wide variety of ministries using our spiritual gifts to meet the needs of those we serve.”

Anyone interested in becoming a Lutheran deacon can email