LPNI Health Topic – September 2016


A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body

Diaconal work in the Finnish Lutheran Church has a long tradition.  Its purpose is to help and support parishioners, empower them, and increase their community spirit.  Human beings are individuals created by God, unique and valuable in themselves.  Each encounter is important, because as a diaconal worker we not only confront the human being, but God within him.  These encounters are not always easy: the client may be violent, intoxicated or criminal.  Often the diaconal worker is comforted by the thought that the client is some mother’s child.  A human being’s overall wellbeing depends on many things.  The gospel alone is not enough for a hungry parishioner; he/she needs soup, soap and pastoral counselling.


As a result of the economic recession of the 1990s, the role of the church in Finnish society has grown, as has that of many charity organizations.  Because of the content of diaconal work, it operates at the interface of society’s public and third sectors.  The diaconal worker, deaconess and deacon have a professional errand of mercy, the purpose of which is to respond to parishioners’ personal needs.  We try to keep the threshold for seeking help low so anyone can easily come to us.  For example, we do not ask whether the seeker of help belongs to the church or not, but offer assistance to anyone who needs it.  Diaconal work provides spiritual, mental, physical and social support, societal influencing, education, and it supports the parishioner’s accountability and voluntary ability to function. Diaconal aid extends to people in mental health rehabilitation, substance abusers, prisoners, disabled people, immigrants, the sick and their relatives, grieving individuals, the elderly, and individuals and families of limited means.  The diaconal client process begins when the parishioner him/herself feels the need for assistance.


The purpose of this article is to describe the comprehensive encounters in diaconal work.  The diaconal worker comprehensively considers the human being’s physical, emotional, spiritual and social dimensions.  Diaconal workers meet people at both office appointments and home visits, in various groups, during excursions, and at camps.


As diaconal workers we pay attention to the person’s health and wellbeing.  We make observations about the people we encounter before we have even exchanged words.  In discussions we go through the person’s life situation and state of health: how they sleep, how they eat, whether they are on medication, whether they use intoxicating substances, and whether they are in control of the use of these substances.  As a basis for these discussions we can use pre-formulated questionnaires.  Often ordinary, open and honest discussion is enough to clarify the situation.  The most important thing is that the person is heard, received and welcomed, and that we are interested in them.

During the encounter, mental and spiritual support is given through listening, touching, being present, sharing, and praying.  In diaconal work, we can also use music and spiritual literature, for example, in peer support groups.  Spiritual support can, in practice, be given through participation in services or spiritual events, or by giving the person the opportunity to attend such events.  The nature of the mental and spiritual support within diaconal work clearly includes the strengthening of faith and one’s relationship with God, and discovering the aspect of hope in everyday life.  The practice of mental and spiritual support may also include finding a support person for a lonely senior citizen; strengthening resources through conversation and interaction, health-related advice and information; grief support; support for those caring for close relatives; and collaboration with other health and social professionals, with the permission of the client.  In addition, various groups, excursions and camps can support and strengthen the parishioner’s own resources.

As diaconal workers, we see that the need for social support may arise from mental, spiritual, financial or social difficulties, or threats to one’s health.  In close interaction with the client, we guide, teach and advise them to find their own resources.  Social support also guides the person to different public and third-sector services such as social work, social welfare for the disabled, and different organizations.  The meaning of the congregation for social wellbeing may be of the utmost importance.  Faith and values bring people together and create a community that provides strength in difficult times.  For senior citizens in particular, regular gatherings and the interactions and experiences these provide, may be more beneficial for wellbeing than medication.

Working time regulations do not apply to diaconal work.  Thus, diaconal workers can themselves arrange their working hours and have more time to make home visits.  For example, a lonely elderly person may need someone to talk to, someone who has time to listen and go through their life history.  By talking about and reliving their memories, elderly people may find positive aspects to the lives they have lived.  Listening to the stories and reinforcing positive memories is part of diaconal work, and fosters hope within the client.  In this very situation, diaconal work is at its best: a comprehensive encounter, listening and enabling hope.  Volunteers, trained by deaconesses/deacons of the congregation, are also important participants in diaconal work.

When we as diaconal workers listen and support people in their financial difficulties, we pay attention to the connections between unemployment and illness, and the impairment of mental wellbeing due to financial problems.  Rather than focusing on concrete treatments, health-related assistance in diaconal work concentrates on mental and social support and guidance.  As diaconal workers, we help clients cope with their illness, provide guidance in the use of services, give them conversation assistance, enable peer support, and defend their rights to services.


Mirva Kuikka, Deaconess, Executive Secretary

Kirsi Karppinen, Deaconess, MHSc

Oulu, Finland




Karppinen Kirsi. 2011. Professional skills and knowledge in diaconal worker’s everyday life in rural areas.  University of Oulu Faculty of Medicine, Institute of Hhealth Sciences, Nursing Science. Master’s thesis.


Helena Kotisalo & Lea Rättyä. 2014. Deaconesses as Health Promoters. Diaconia University of Applied Sciences, 2014.


Rättyä Lea. 2009. Diaconal work as individual and social aid in the social change.  Kupio University Publiations E. Social Sciences 179.2009.203 p.