August 29, 2022
Deacons Zainab Kajang, Char Mansfield, Emily Harris, Breeann Blumenthal, Emily Sutphin, and Victoria “Tori” Callahan Giger. This year’s deacons also include Shenita Thomas, Aubrey Lewis, Israel Gwatana, Uzunma Bell-Gam, Hanna Richards, James Ayers, Emily “Z” Zinsitz, and Hannah Lee.
From chapel services to field education placements, students at Princeton Theological Seminary have many opportunities to put their ministry skills to work outside of the classroom. One such opportunity, the deacon program, has been recently reimagined to better serve the deacons themselves as well as the communities they care for.
Deacons at Princeton Seminary are a bit like undergraduate resident assistants, says Director of Student Life Programs Rev. Yedea Walker, MDiv '18. Teams of two deacons are responsible for the pastoral care of a particular community on campus, such as a residence hall or apartment building. Deacons care for their assigned communities by holding prayer groups, meeting with students one-on-one, and reaching out when students are struggling.
The deacon program has existed for more than a decade, but it has been restructured over the last two years under Walker’s leadership. Previously, it was a relatively informal program with a variable number of deacons; now, it includes a formal application process, a set number of deacon spots, and a stipend.
For Walker, the program is a chance for students to experiment with a pastoral role and discern if a future in pastoral ministry is right for them. “I love that students get to really explore their gifts,” she says. “They get to say, ‘Can I try this?’ and I get to say, ‘Yes!”
New students get to know campus on a deacon-led tour.
In addition to their pastoral care work, deacons are encouraged to host community-building events for students as well as their partners, kids, and even pets. In the 2021-2022 academic year, the deacons have organized a fall party at the Farminary, an Easter egg hunt, a clothing swap, and many other smaller events. This year’s class of deacons has played an active role in new student orientation, leading tours and hosting welcome events for new students and their families.
But Walker also says that students don’t need to be extroverts in order to make good deacons. Part of the selection process, in fact, involves making sure there’s a balance of personalities among the team, including students who would rather hold prayer groups than parties.
For Z Zinsitz, a dual degree student and current deacon, the role incorporates not only the pastoral side of ministry but also the more practical side. “You’re a little bit event planner, a little bit responding to emails, a little bit knowing everyone’s name and if there’s anything going on in their lives,” says Zinsitz. “It feels like I have a parish.”
Another current deacon, MDiv student Victoria Callahan Giger, also values the chance to make community happen in a concrete way: “Not only students but their families come together in all seasons of life, to live, eat, play, and worship together,” Giger says. “It is a joy to organize events that provide an opportunity to revel in the beauty of experiencing life together in community.”
The program is open to all current students at Princeton Seminary, including both master’s-level and PhD students. Walker encourages interested students to apply for the next cycle when the application opens.
“If you want to know what it is to care for a community and have that community be more than just your fellow students — to really think of that community holistically — I think it’s a really great training ground,” Zinsitz says.