Who is called to be a deacon? The fluid and organic nature of the diaconate, an ancient order of ministry renewed in the latter part of the twentieth century as a separate and equal order, can make this a difficult question both for individuals feeling a call to ordained ministry and for others in the church who support them in the discernment process.
The ordination rite for deacons in The Book of Common Prayer (pp. 537-447) is a good place to begin learning more about our current understanding of diaconal ministry. In particular, the Examination on p. 543 spells out the expectations of deacons.
While deacons are assigned to serve within existing parish structures, they serve directly under the Bishop. Deacons serve people who are easily overlooked in our world, while at the same time calling others in the church to serve people who are hungry, sick, alone, or helpless in any way. Deacons serve as a sort of bridge between the church and the world, bringing Christ and his redemptive love to the world, and interpreting to the Church “the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.”
For many in the Church, deacons are most visible when carrying out their usual liturgical role during the Eucharist. Deacons proclaim the Gospel, prepare the table for Eucharist, assist in distributing the elements, and dismiss the people to go and serve in the name of Christ. In many parishes, deacons lead the prayers of the people or write the prayers.
While the deacon’s liturgical role does assist the celebrant, the primary reason for these liturgical duties is to serve as a reminder of the diaconal service to which all baptized persons are called: evangelism, feeding the hungry, praying for the church and the world, and serving in Christ’s name throughout the week.
Potential deacons will be found among faithful members of the Church who worship regularly, but they will be more focused on what is happening outside of the church walls than they are on the internal workings and issues of the church.
Susanne Watson Epting’s book Unexpected Consequences: The Diaconate Renewed looks at the diaconate’s history in the Episcopal Church to help us understand the role of deacons today. The deacon’s role as interpreter of the world’s needs, concerns, and hopes to the church is key to understanding contemporary deacons. Deacons are called to be prophetic voices, calling the church to live into the promises of God’s kingdom by advocating for people in need and leading us to compassionate justice and reconciliation.
The website for the Association for Episcopal Deacons offers several resources both for those in discernment and for ordained deacons. Exploring the website can help you understand what diaconal ministry looks like on the ground.
If you or someone you know is discerning a possible call to the diaconate, you might find especially useful a document from the School for Deacons in Berkeley, California: Seeing the Deacon in our Midst by Roderick Dugliss. The Venerable Bruce Bower, Archdeacon for The Diocese of West Missouri, Canon Steve Rottgers, or Bishop Martin Field can provide you more information and insight into how deacons function in The Diocese of West Missouri. Additionally, the Bishop Kemper School for Ministry offers a two-year program of study to help equip you for this vital ministry.
Giving to Others Because I Love God
As we worked together at Saint Mary’s Downtown Outreach Hunger Relief Program, my dear friend and one of my mentors, Deacon Leslie Hoover, would give me support and encouragement by saying from time to time, “You are a deacon; do you hear me, Kevin? You are a deacon.” This was before my ordination and while I was in formation at Bishop Kemper School for Ministry. I found the classes and the formation process a challenge that made me work harder and deeper than I had ever worked at anything in my life.
Unfortunately, we recently lost Deacon Leslie after a long and difficult illness. I learned a lot by watching how she treated others. Deacon Leslie showed no partiality to any person rich or poor. She just loved serving people wherever she found them. I also witnessed how her life changed many of the lives around her. It was her gift to comfort others in their affliction.
I find it ironic that the only thing I have ever been good at is talking to people, particularly talking to people while I was waiting on tables in restaurants. I used to think those were not very useful gifts. I have since learned to use my gifts in my vocation as a deacon.
Deacon Leslie allowed me to give the homily anytime I wanted at our Saturday morning prayer service at Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Missouri. Then she would let me just wander around the dining room talking to people, clearing tables at our community meal after the prayer service. I did that for a few years with her.
Now I am ordained a deacon, and by the grace of God, I am still a servant of that church. I preach a fair amount, usually once a month at one of two parishes in Kansas City, Missouri. Bishop Marty has assigned me to serve two inner-city parishes as deacon. It takes the cooperation of two very special, selfless priests, the Very Rev. C. Patrick Perkins, Rector of Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church, and the Rev. Chas Marks, Priest in Charge at Saint Augustine’s Episcopal Church. We work together to provide a rich worship experience for our parishioners. I like the arrangement.
My outreach and community ministries are a combination of my ministry outreach from Saint Mary’s to Saint Augustine’s and some other activities. I continue to have a presence in both parishes. I use my daytime hours to serve the community volunteering for VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), an AmeriCorps project. I work at MINDDRIVE as the program coordinator. This is not a lucrative position, but it pays me a stipend set at the federal poverty level for one person. I am also an active volunteer with Saint Luke’s Hospice. I see one family, one day a week for a few hours, which lets the primary caregiver have a break and run errands outside of the home. I am also a volunteer court advocate for CASA (juvenile court advocate program) I have one case currently as a CASA.
Why do I do what I do? I do it because God called me to do it. That is what I would like to encourage any person in any church to consider.
Do you feel a call or a stirring in yourself that you would like to share with others? Do have the capacity to stand at the doorway of the church showing the world the way into the church? Do you have the will to stand at the door of the church and show those inside the world outside? Do not wait for all of the stars in your life to align before you respond to a call.
Being a deacon sometimes means sacrifice and a lot of work. Most of the time, no one but you and God has any idea what you have done, what you do, and what it cost you to do it. For me, being a deacon means giving to others because I love God.
If you have thankfulness in your heart and you want to express it in a radical and profound way of love, consider an offering of yourself to the ministry of becoming a deacon.
Christ calls us to the memory of Saint Stephen as a model for what it is to be a deacon. As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’; and when he said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts of the Apostles, 7:55-60). Now let us go forth in the name of Jesus Christ to love and serve the LORD.
Called from the Congregation
The Association for Episcopal Deacons suggests that there are approximately 3,000 deacons in our church. I am one of those deacons. No one can be more surprised by that fact than am I.
My call? God did not whisper into my ear six years ago. I was nudged by parishioners at my home church, St. Andrew’s in Kansas City. First one person, then another, and then another. Mine was a call from the congregation, in the tradition of the Church from olden times. Finally, I could not find a reason to say “No, not me”, and I began the process toward ordination. That’s not a very flattering or satisfying story, but it is true. Looking back, saying “yes” to God was the best decision of my life. I have no doubt that I was born to be a deacon in the Episcopal Church.
I knew that I wasn’t being called to be a priest. I didn’t feel the need to bless or to consecrate the elements. I was a servant. I wanted to help usher others over the threshold into serving those in need. I was called to be a deacon.
Like many, I approached my training at Bishop Kemper School for Ministry (BKSM) with trepidation. I didn’t have a deep theological background and with an education in engineering and finance, I had not written many pithy papers. Could I do the work and develop the skill set to do the important work set before the Sacred Order of Deacons?
What I found at BKSM were like-minded people. “Regular” folks who felt the same pull towards the Church. People from all walks of life. People who felt called to do His work. People like me. Not only did I write pithy papers, but my faith was developed and my heart molded. After all those weekend sessions and papers, I can’t say that I recall much about church history or some of the other esoteric subjects, but it was absolutely formational for me. I found God and developed my faith at BKSM. The relationships formed were every bit as important as the class work.
Here are some important things I’ve learned about the diaconate during (and post-) my BKSM training.
Being a deacon is not just about dressing up on Sunday morning! In fact, I’d offer that participation in Sunday services is maybe 10% of the deacon’s role. It’s great to proclaim the Gospel (with gusto!) and to set the table and to dismiss the congregation. But the real work of the deacon is that of leadership. We deacons are to identify challenges and needs in our community and then to lead others into addressing those needs. Bishop Marty likens us to “bird-dogs” who go on “point” and say “Look! Look at this problem!” and then we are obliged to lead folks toward the solution. We don’t just serve, we lead!
As a deacon, I do less serving than I did before I was ordained. I didn’t expect to experience this when I began “the process”, but the fact is that the deacon’s job is one of leadership…not just one of “serving”. We all get great satisfaction from serving others, yes? The deacon’s role is to offer the gift of servanthood to the whole congregation so that they, too, might offer, receive, and accept that gift of loving and serving those in need.
Being a deacon is hard work. Again, it’s not just all about Sunday services. If one is truly living out the diaconate, his or her heart is going to get a workout. Hospital visits, funerals, Eucharistic visits to the housebound, mentoring inmates who are alone and suffering, engaging people at the soup kitchen, chaplaincy work, etc. No deacon’s heart is big enough to carry the suffering in this world, but we try. Having ordained friends to work through others’ pain has proven to be invaluable.
If you or someone you know would make a good deacon, I invite you to reach out to me. I would love to share more with you about my experience.