Emily (Cosman) Kierstead


Emily Florence Kierstead
Surname as Student: Cosman
Education: Covenant College
Graduation Year: 1964
Designated: 1964
Denomination: United Church of Canada
  • 1941 - Born

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I am the force of life that causes stars to glow,
I am the turbulence that makes the wild wind blow.
I am the baby’s breath; I am the sigh of death,
You seek a form of me,
I am the mystery that you call God!
 (chorus from a hymn, “I am love” by Emily Kierstead)
Ancient Aboriginal people in Australia believed that when an individual is born she must follow her songline wherever it takes her, for that is her path, or calling. In some other Aboriginal communities when a child is born they create a song for them, their own “life song” and they sing it to that newborn child. If while growing to maturity that child errs in any way, the adults in the community will then sit her in the centre of their circle and again sing her song to her, reminding her of who she is.I was fortunate to have a grown up with a strong “song-line” and sense of myself. (Read an article written by Emily about her sister Lois.) This is what I believe drew me in 1964 to Covenant College (once the United Church Training School and now the Centre for Christian Studies). There I experienced “appassionato”- a great passion for the theological discussions, the formulation of what it meant to truly live in community, and the discernment of what it would mean for me to live as a diaconal person, or in those years, a “Deaconess”.

Most of us were called to team ministry, serving in congregations as Christian Development staff. A few went “overseas” and a few to inner city ministries. After serving in several churches in New Brunswick, while raising a family of three wonderful young people, I was called to a rural pastoral charge in Nova Scotia. Unknowingly, the search committee presented a needs description of Diaconal Ministry- a clergy-person who would “walk with” the congregation, at times directing the flow of life in that church community, and using his or her energies to empower the members to live lives of integrity, celebration and service. This encompassed creative group work, study sessions, exploration of meaningful worship and ritual, and service to the community through Food Bank, senior’s gatherings, visitation, etc. (besides all the celebrative markings such as baptisms, marriages and funerals.)

I have always been in diaconal ministry even though for a time I was not recognized as such by the church.  After my service at Silver Falls I was very disillusioned with the infighting of Presbytery, a sentiment I expressed aloud.  At the suggestion of the Presbytery Secretary then, I put my name on the Discontinued Service List.  I think she felt, ‘Here’s another one who is going to raise her family, and isn’t really serious about a vocation within the church.” At the time I did not appreciate the consequences of making that decision. Later as I began my work in St. David’s in Rothesay, I found that I had to be “reinstated” as a Diaconal Minister, which caused me both embarrassment and annoyance. I went before Maritime Conference, said a few vows again, and was welcomed back as a Diaconal Minister, a vocation I had never actually left!

The identity of a Diaconal Minister becomes broadened and stretched when you’re in a village with only one church. I served the larger community as well as the folk of the United Church. There existed a broad need for “foot-washing”- ministering to youth, seniors, and in-betweens. The towel, one of the diaconal symbols, became embodied in the privilege of accompanying families through illness, or the loss of a loved one, or even at times to rub an invigorating energy into lagging committees.

Well, one would almost expect a “ritardando” when reaching the last third of the song- line. By this time I was remarried, to a partner, Don, an ordained minister, who espouses the “diaconal way.” Together we have supplied in pastoral charges, and have led exciting retreats and study groups. My songline has flowed through my mind, body and spirit, often urging me to create music. During the World Council of Churches Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women (1988-98), I was privileged to act as music leader at the closing National gathering in Guelph, before which I produced a CD entitled “Womanspirit”. Later I published a collection of my contemporary hymns entitled “Eternal Spirit.”

In the past few years I have found great meaning in the Universe Story, as promoted by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry. My song has flowed into praise for the universe, and has prompted me to offer “The Cosmic Walk” to several groups. I now see the Universe as the primary revelation of the divine. What a wonderful way for earth’s people to realize our common history as a human species of this amazing web of life!

Diarmuid O’Murchu states that the work of the church today is not that of saving people but that of saving the planet. He says, “We are called with all God’s people into a life of discernment and risk.” The past year for Don and me has been concentrated on our immediate environment, opposing the burning of tires by a local cement plant. And so the song has escalated into crashing chords of protest, calling politicians and citizens to awareness of the poisoning of our environment.

What does living out a Diaconal Ministry mean to me? It has been a gift, a kind of musical theme with many variations. My deepest gratitude goes to the Centre for Christian Studies, for my student years there, and for the vision of the role of diaconal ministry. I now resonate with Thomas Berry as he says: “Within the universe, the planet Earth with all its wonders is the place for the meeting of the divine and the human.” Our calling: to sing and to serve! (Photo of Emily in 2011)

Emily Kierstead is a retired Diaconal Minister and Elementary School Music Teacher. She composes music, directs a 40 member community choir for all ages, conducts workshops on Music and Spirit, The Crone Life and The Universe Story. She and her partner, Don live by beautiful Shortt’s Lake, near Truro, Nova Scotia. In addition to serving as clergy supply and their involvement in environmental issues, they are members of the Canadian branch of Progressive Christianity. She is the mother of Jonathon, Lisa and Jenny and enjoys time with her grandchildren.

This autobiography was written by Emily Kierstead, December 7, 2007.  Editing and additions by Caryn Douglas, July 2013.