The diaconate is old – it is as old as our scripture. Deacons were originally set aside so that those who were disconnected from the community and those in danger of being forgotten by the community could stay connected and remembered. In many ways, we deacons still serve in this way.
The diaconate has gone in and out of fashion over the centuries, sometimes almost completely dying out. But you can’t keep a good servant down – and we’re back!
We are in the midst of something called the “recovery of the historical diaconate” right now. What that means is that our understanding of deacons and what they are called to do is a bit of a moving target. How I define myself as a deacon is different from how those who came only a generation before me defined themselves. I’m certain of few things in life, but I am certain that the evolution will continue with generations to come.
All deacons are not created the same. My former bishop, a name you might recognize because he came out of this diocese – +Jerry Lamb – was fond of saying, “There’s no such thing as a cookie-cutter deacon.” We can be very different from each other even if we are serving at the same time and place.
Complicating things further, deacons and priests are very different sorts of ministers. We look similar – except the way we wear our stoles – but don’t be fooled. We serve very different functions within our church – we exist for different reasons.
The best way I can describe it is to ask you to think of the church as a big circle. The priest stands right at the middle of that circle, drawing people into the church and meeting them there to nourish and teach.
If you had to find a place in that circle for the deacon, though, you’d have to put us on the very edge of the circle. We have one foot inside the circle – inside the church – and the other foot firmly planted in the world.
At our ordinations, we deacons promise to always keep the poor, the sick, the weak, and the lonely in the forefront of our minds. Not only that, but we promise to keep these same people in the minds and hearts of the Church as well.
There are many analogies to help people understand the diaconate besides the big circle one. There is the bridge analogy – we stand as a bridge between the world and the church, inviting those from the outside in and encouraging those on the inside out. My personal favorite, though, is the rock in the shoe of the church.
You see, we deacons just can’t shake those poor, sick, weak, and lonely. We can’t stop thinking about them. And we can’t stop trying to figure out ways to help the Church remember them as well.
Just like a rock in your shoe, we’re supposed to annoy the Church a bit. We’re supposed to make you a bit uncomfortable. We’re supposed to make you stop and pay attention.
In truth, deacons are not called to minister to you; instead we are called to encourage you into ministry!
How do we recognize a deacon in our midst? One way that we used to use a generation of deacons ago was to ask them what “diaconal ministry” they engaged in. In other words, when someone put their hand up and said, “I think I may be called to the diaconate” we would expect them to have full blown ministries to the poor, the sick, the weak, or the lonely. We’d hope for answers like, “I work at the food bank” or “I volunteer for Rahab Sisters” or “I knit hats for the homeless.” And when we heard those answers, we thought – aha! There’s one! But those are answers every single one of us should be able to give. By virtue of our baptism we are all called to be so engaged in ministry. Then what’s so different about a deacon?
Where, a generation ago, we were speaking about “servanthood” as the hallmark of the diaconate, we now speak about “servant leadership” in that same way. It’s not so important that I make hats for the homeless. What is so important is who I take with me in that ministry. I am being a baptized Christian when I sit in my easy chair at home on winter nights and crochet hats. I am being a deacon when I organize a knitting/crocheting ministry and teach 20 other people how to make hats to give away.
Where we once asked people interested in becoming deacons, “What are you doing?” we now know it is better to ask, “What are you doing and who are you taking with you?”
People who are deeply moved by the needs of this world – so moved that they cannot not help – and who show a special ability to make those needs so real, so insistent, so apparent to the Christians around them that those Christians want to get involved themselves – those are the deacons among us.
When you spot one, give one of your archdeacons a call!
The Ven. Beth Mallon, Archdeacon