Reflections on the Diaconate in the 21st Century
“If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” John 12:26
So, what is the diaconate anyway?
I stopped at the local farm store for a big bag of dog food. The owner always carries it out to my car for me. “Put it in the back, Jane?” “No, that’s full of things to go to Dismas Farm.” “How ‘bout the middle seat?” “No, that has donations to go to Walking Together and the Mustard Seed. Put it in the front passenger seat.” That’s how it goes for a deacon. There is a perfectly good office space at St. Francis’ Church, where I serve. I sit in there at times. People leave things to go to our mission partners. But a deacon’s place is in the world, not in an office.
Deacons stand on the shoulders of some incredibly great people. Stephen, Phoebe, and Francis were the super greats. Lawrence is perhaps my favorite. He was asked to bring the treasures of the church to the Roman prefect. He gathered up the poor, the sick, the aged, the widows and orphans and brought them – “these are the treasures of the Church” he said. We think of the evolution of deacons in ‘waves.’ It has evolved significantly through the years to what it is today.
The interpretive role – the prophetic voice of deacons is what we’re about today. Our vision now, and for the future, is for social ministry on a church-wide basis. Our hope is that all baptized members of the church are engaged in diakonia, to join in bringing God’s kingdom here on earth.
We now have a wonderful Province One School for Deacons. Those entering the order are well trained. WMA, NH, VT, ME, RI and CT are involved and send students. The school is six years old and six of our ordained deacons are alumni. Jac Essing, who is also an alumna, will be ordained very shortly. The two-year school teaches academics (Scripture, Church History, Diakonia, Spirituality, Theology, Community Organizing, World Religions, Ethics, Liturgy, and Homiletics) and also cements a community that will last a lifetime. The students meet once a month for online learning with a professor specific to each topic. Papers and assignments are turned in and critiqued by the faculty. We meet all together four times each year. Once upon a time it was a physical gathering at a conference center – now it’s a zoom weekend. Everyone gets a chance to lead the daily office and preach. The Dean of the school is The Rev. Dr. Lynda Tyson from CT. The Archdeacon of RI, the Ven. Jan Grinnell, and I round out the faculty. As the school works on a ‘rolling’ basis, students can enter at the beginning of any quarter during the year.
As the Director of Deacon Formation, it is my great privilege to pray for the raising up of deacons and to encourage those feeling called about how to serve God in a deeper way, to think about the diaconate. Jason and Jac are riding the very newest wave, bringing new energy to the order of deacons.
Why do deacons gather as a community?
From Jac: It's hard to know exactly what people have in their mind when they are asked to imagine a deacon, especially because what a deacon does can depend on factors such as the diocese, bishop, and community of ministry. Given that there are different approaches to the diaconate, it is possible that someone might not be clear on what it means to be "deacon-material" or see themselves as that. I, Jac Essing, did not know if I would be deacon material -- what with my tattoos, knack for swearing, young age, and fumbling with anything that requires upkeep. However, what proceeds overall of that is my commitment to having the church live out its values and be followers of Jesus Christ. And I see myself and the vow I will take in the next few months being a part of that. I look at others in the formation process who second-guess themselves, wondering if they are enough this or enough that. In those questions is recognition of the commitment and meaning held by this order and our desire to live up to it. This is why it is important to have a community of deacons. We can listen to those doubts and point to where they are already living the call. And it does vary. Deacons cross gender, racial, ability, sexual preferences, and age spectrums; people are working in non-profit, hospitals, education, factories, churches, government, etc. Having a community captures the broader vision of the diaconate and its potential. We remind each other that there is no single right way to be a deacon.
Having a community of deacons also provides a space for them to gather, share resources and skills, and piece together the different happenings in the community at large. This wider scope is important as one of the primary functions of a deacon is to witness and interpret the needs of the world to the church. The more hands and hearts in the world, the more likely it is that needs, whether on an individual level or on a structural basis, can be met. And that is the church's work, not just for the deacon and a handful of folks. All of us are called to it! And having a specific community of deacons encourages them to nourish each other with prayer, community, laughter, and a space to hold the concern of the world. The vow is a promise, that despite how messy and wonky it can be, we say yes to being a part of making God's Kingdom a reality on earth.
What do deacons do?
When I decided to attend Loving the Questions I was looking for purpose or at least an inkling of what God might be calling me to do; I have often wished that God would learn to use email or texting because that would be so much easier, but somehow, I doubt I will ever get my wish. To my surprise, within days of finishing the program, I found myself applying to the Commission on Ministry to be considered for Holy Orders as a Deacon. Since then I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked what deacons do or what my ministry is. My response has typically been consistent with the “party line,” that deacons are the bridge between the church and the world, that we bring the church to the world and we bring the world to the church. As my colleague and friend Jac hinted at, what this really means or what it actually looks like is greatly dependent on the person saying it and for a very long time I have not been entirely sure what it looks like for me.
As I approach the one-year anniversary of my ordination my primary role as a deacon is coming into focus and I can feel the Holy Spirit pushing me to own that role. What I have come to realize is that bringing the church to the world and the world to the church does not mean that deacons are responsible for getting everyone else out the church doors, nor does it mean that deacons are responsible for bringing people in to fill the pews. It is about sharing your passion for ministry with the church and inviting the church to both join you in that work and find their own ministry passion and it is about paying attention to the sorrows of the world and laying them before the church as something that may need attention. My primary diaconal ministry is mental health and suicide prevention advocacy, which is a ministry that takes many forms for me and that I actively lay at the feet of both the church and the world. I am a Field Advocate for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). I am a founding member of a local foundation that seeks to fight mental illness among teens and young adults; I use social media and my blog to raise awareness of the issues surrounding the stigma attached to mental illness in our culture, and I have currently committed myself to walking 365 miles in 2021 for suicide prevention. I go live on Facebook at the beginning of most of my walks to give updates on my progress, invite others to join me, request that people consider sending a few dollars to the AFSP, and most importantly say a few words about why I am so committed to this work.
Questions? Interested? Ask Us! – The three ‘J’s – Deacon Jane, (Almost) Deacon Jac, & Deacon Jason