Part I Theological Perspectives, most of the Essay
Part II Spirituality and Ministry
Part III Practical Implications


Some Reflections on Diaconate

Fr. Jim Liggett

October 4, 1996

Part I

I want to spend some time tonight doing theology. As I say that, I can almost hear the windows in folks heads slamming closed. What is theology? It is hard and it is boring, right? NOT. Theology has had real bad press the last 50 years or so, and it needs to be rehabilitated. I have a real thing about theology. I have heard more than one member of each order of ordained ministry say, almost proudly, "I'm not a theologian, but..." That is disgraceful. What is meant, of course, is that few of us are theologians in an academic sense. But that sort of conversation makes theology sound like some sort of ivory tower nonsense with no relationship to the real world, to real life, or to real ministry. I promise, bad theology will always lead to bad pastoral care; and no theology will always lead to bad pastoral care. Always. What does the word "theology" mean? It means words about God.

All Christians are called to "Proclaim by word and deed the good news of God in Christ". Deacons have the special task of interpreting "to the Church the needs, concerns and hopes of the world." That's doing theology. So is the business of making "Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example." We are all called to theology. If we don't do it, nobody will. We gotta know stuff about God and we gotta say stuff about God. Part of our call, as Christians, part of what it means to be an ordained person, has to do with theology, with being theologians. Neither fear nor minimize that title. It is an honorable one.

Also, I want to do this in order to offer some images, some pictures, of what it means to be in Orders, and to be specifically in Deacon's orders. We all have images, we all have models, of what we are about. It is dreadfully important that we have images and models that are from Scripture, and from our tradition, for what it means and looks like for us to be ordained people.

Listen to this: If we don't take our images from our tradition, we will take them from the world. If we take them from the world, we will lose our soul. It is that simple.

Ever hear Church folks using the world's models for the Church? "The Church is a business; or the Church has a market and a product; or we hire a Rector just like we hire someone to manage a store; or the Church is there to help people, to make them feel better about themselves" and so on. Ever do that yourself? These are all cases of taking our understanding of who we are and what we are about from the world, and not from the tradition. This is part of the secret, and the great value, of the art of thinking theologically. Doing that is vital.

OK, it is especially easy to slip into this business of taking models from the world when we are taking and thinking about the role of ordained people. After all, when we are formed by the world, that's all we have; and we call it real.

What is a Priest, or a Rector? Is a Rector a CEO, a therapist, a counselor, a business manager, a conflict management specialist, a showman, a fund raiser, a community organizer, all of the above, none of the above, Why?

What is a Deacon? Is a Deacon an assistant to the Rector, a holy social worker, a lay person who really takes her religion seriously, a helper to whoever needs help, what? What is a Deacon about, what does it mean or look like to be a Deacon? and, more important, much more important, Why?

If the answer to that question does not come clearly from our story, from Scripture, tradition, and reason, it will come from somewhere else. If it comes from somewhere else, the renewal of the Diaconate is doomed. Really. Besides, if you don't have a picture of what Diaconate is that is at least clear enough to allow you to say "no" without guilt, you are forever owned by other people's images of what a Deacon is supposed to be and do.

"Without a clear understanding of our own particular vocation, we flounder about, subject to every claim from the outside and capable of no focused, sustained effort in any direction. As Alice learns from the Cheshire Cat, if you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there. The scandal is not that we cannot do everything, but that we do not recognize the particular thing given us to do." (Quoted in Messer, p.28). Without a vision, the people parish.

So what I want to do is offer a theological context for looking at orders and the Diaconate, and then to suggest some models of Diaconate that flow from that context.

Now, where to begin doing theology about Holy Orders in general, and the Diaconate in particular? Assumption: Before you can talk about orders, you need to talk about Sacraments, and before you can talk about sacraments the way we usually do, you have to talk about the Church, because Orders are about the wholeness and the good of the Church. Before you talk too much about the Church, you need to talk about Jesus--because that's whose body we are. That is, we need to get this by way of Ecclesiology and Christology. That's just an assumption I will start with. I didn't make it up, but not everybody starts there. If they don't, they're missing some important stuff.

You can't talk about your orders without first talking about the Church, and you can't talk about the Church without first talking about the Lord.One way to get at this is to look at something very basic about the way God acts, about the way God has acted in history, and the way God acts now. That has to do with creation, and with the notion of sacrament in a bigger way than we usually use it. There is an old standby in theology called the Sacramental Principle. It is the theological principle that says that there is a relationship between the material and spiritual world that is one of expression and instrumentality. That is, God expresses himself in and through the material world. Indeed, God generally acts or operates through the material. Now, this is really behind the catechism definition of a sacrament. What is that? "Outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace..."

What I suggest is that this sacramental way of looking at things can provide a helpful way of getting at what the Church is about, and what we are about as ordained folks. That is, there are certain material things that are gifts from God to be both instances of and means for access to His grace and love. This perspective can also be a helpful way of looking at the great story of our faith.

From this perspective, what is the first instance of this principle, the first case of God using material, physical stuff as a demonstration of and means to his grace and love?

Creation is the first: God loved and so God created, God created the world, and God created humanity, because God loves. Now, within this context, what is the next step, what does God create so that the world may know who God is and have special access to God?

Israel. (Note Gen.12.3b, where God says to Abram, "In you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (see also 28.17). That is, Israel was created, called, blessed, given all sorts of stuff, not for privilege, but as a means of grace for the world. It was through Israel that God was to be known. The nations were to look at Israel, see how wonderful Israel's God was, and so be drawn to God. That was a big part of what Israel was about. You see, beginning with Israel, (which was the result of a policy decision God made when the Flood did not improve things), being chosen always meant being chosen for service, for mission. So God creates things in the world as signs of and means to God's grace and love.

To skip ahead quickly, this can be a helpful, if far from exhaustive, way of looking at the Incarnation. Among all of the things that Jesus is, He is certainly an outward and visible sign of God's love and Grace. He is a sure and certain means to that Grace. It is through Jesus that we can come to know fully and completely who God is to us and for us. If we want to know God, we look, no longer at Israel, but at Jesus. In Jesus, God comes directly, personally, and materially to his world. Jesus is the person and the image of God. The world is to look at Jesus and so know what God is like, and so be drawn God. When he is lifted up, he will draw all men to himself.

Are you at all with me? Do you see what I'm trying to say. This is a quick and dirty way into a pretty deep place, but it is useful. God deals with his world through the gift of material means of conveying God's grace and love. That is one way, an incomplete but helpful way, of looking at Jesus. In a way, Jesus was to do what Israel was to do. The world would look at Jesus, and in seeing him know who God is, and so be drawn to God. (E.g. John 12.32).

More on Jesus: What was his mission? What was the mission of the Lord? Paul says that "In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself" (II Cor. 5.19). That is, Jesus came to heal the wound of the Fall. He came so that the distance between God and humanity could be closed, and so that all barriers between us and God could be broken down. That is a big part of what the ministry of Reconciliation is all about. Now, while that was accomplished fully at the cross, the reality of that victory is not yet being fully lived out. The Lord no longer lives among us as a human being just as we are human beings. There is still work to do. In fact, there is still the work of Jesus to do. The business of being an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace continues. The ministry of reconciliation is still needed.

Indeed, there is still a desperate need for a place where the world can look to see what God is like and so be drawn to God.

What provisions did the Lord leave to see that this is done? He created the Church. He created a new community which, like Israel, has the mission of revealing to the world who God is. The Church is the next, and, we believe, the final, such creation of God. God has no contingency plans if the Church fails.

Karl Rahner calls the Church the primordial sacrament; and I think that is a very useful term. That is, what is central when we talk about sacramentality is the Church. The Church is central to all of this because the Church exists to continue the work of the Lord Jesus in the world. The Prayer Book is very clear when it says that the mission of the Church is "to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ." That is, the Church is to have the ministry of reconciliation, the undoing of the Fall, that is the way Paul describes the work of Jesus. The Church is to continue to be the Body of Christ.

So, before we talk about Orders we need to talk about sacraments, and before we can talk about sacraments we need to talk about the Church.

(Look, this is just another way of telling our story. I have outlined the Creed, a paragraph each on the father and the son, and moving on to the Spirit, which is where we are with the Church.)

What is at the heart of it all is the ministry and the mission of the Church--which is to be the body of Christ, the presence of Christ, in this place, and in this generation. What we call the seven sacraments are derivative from the Primordial Sacrament, the Church, and all seven exist, primarily, to support and strengthen the Church in its mission. That is, the purpose of the sacraments is the building up of the Church. They are almost the Church writ small. The sacraments are to the Church what the Church is to the world. Hence, the Church receives the body of Christ at the Altar so that the Church may leave that place and go, and be the body of Christ for the world. Again, the purpose of the Sacraments is to help the Church carry out its mission, which is the mission of the Lord Jesus, whose body we are. This has a lot to say about Orders and the Church, a whole lot, but I am just going to take one small part of it, as a way of getting to Diaconate.

Here is a very brief sketch of how the Church carries out its mission. It is based on a lot of stuff, but most simply on the flow of the life of Jesus. It is really simple-minded. There are two major movements of the Church's life. There is movement in, and there is movement out. Wow, smart, huh?

By movement in, I mean the life of the community gathered for formation as the people of God. This includes worship, fellowship, teaching, preaching, some taking care of one another, stuff like that. This is what we usually think of as Church. It is the constant re-creation of the community that the Lord created to be his Body.

By movement out, I mean the business of mission to the rest of the world. This includes pastoral care to those on the edge and outside of the community, evangelism, service, and the daily business of living out in the world what it means to be a baptized person. This is what folks do while they are in the world, which is where most folks are most of the time. Now, any model sacrifices truth for the sake of clarity and usefulness, and there is no way a completely clean distinction can be made. None the less, this can help a lot when it comes to understanding what we are about as the Church.

If you look at the life of Jesus, and his life with the disciples, you see this pattern going on all of the time. The disciples are brought together and formed by the Lord, and then they are sent out in ministry and mission. Then they come back. Jesus does the same thing. There is no question about which is more important, any more than there is a question about whether our own breathing out or in is more important, or about which blade of a pair of scissors is more important. It takes both--but that is because it is by both that the Church carries out its mission. The issue for the Church is always mission. The issue for the Church is always being the presence of Christ in this place in this generation.

All of the sacraments exist to strengthen and support the Church in its mission. Remember, the Church is not here primarily so people can be saved or primarily so that yuppies can get their spiritual needs met, or primarily so that anything like that can happen. The Church exists to be the body of Jesus, to reconcile the world to God through Christ.

Holy Orders are about helping this happen. I suggest that the purpose of Holy Orders, of Ordination, is to help, to strengthen, and to provide leadership to the Church as it carries out its mission. Orders are, to be sure, for the wholeness of the Church, but they are also for the good of the Church. We are for the bene esse as well as the plene esse. In terms of task, the central task of the ordained is leadership. Not just any leadership, but leadership as it applies to Christian community. Hence, we are all called to servant leadership. We are to be servants of one another, and servants of the Church, to help the Church, as it goes about its mission. For most of us, this is lived out at the level of the local parish and the diocese. The fact that all leadership in Christian community is servant leadership is very important. Jesus wasn't fooling. That has to do with the nature of our community. It has to do with our baptism.

By the way, this is why talking about the Diaconate in terms of servant leadership has never worked very well. All leadership in Christian community is servant leadership, so to define Diaconal leadership as servant leadership, or to say the ministry of the Deacon is servant ministry and to stop there, is to lead to hopeless confusion.

On the one hand, it could easily mean everything. After all, what work, what activity in and around the Church, with the possible exception of sitting around eating grapes that other people peel, cannot somehow be called servant. I don't know what you guys do, so I might be insulting you when I tell horror stories from my COM days, but I remember applicants for the Diaconate who talked about putting together the parish Newsletter as their ministry as a Deacon because doing that was a real service to the parish. And it was. A real service. But it was not Diaconal ministry. On the other hand, defining the ministry of the Deacon as servant ministry and stopping there says nothing. It gives the Deacon no distinctive arena in which to operate, and no clear vision of what she or he is to do. So I don't think it is very useful. Remember, we don't ordain people to do servant ministry. We baptize people to do servant ministry.

Instead, I offer the idea that the task of the Deacon is the be the central person, the central called leader, to the Church as it breathes out, as it reaches toward the world in service and in compassion. The priest as pastor is the central person for this gathering function. The Priest stays pretty much on this side of the line. Hence, the priest has the responsibility for such things as teaching, pastoral care, liturgical presidency--in short, for meaning, or formation. The Deacon has the responsibility for those reaching out, for service.

The Eucharist is the Epiphany of the Church, and the central act of the Priest at Eucharist is to preside, it is to be at the head of the table as the community gathers around to be fed, and to be formed. The central act of the Deacon in the liturgy, I am becoming more and more convinced, is the dismissal. The people gather around the altar and are fed the body of Christ, and then they go out the door to be the body of Christ. The priest is the one who oversees one movement, the Deacon is the one who oversees the other.

Remember, the point is not that you have to be ordained to do what a deacon does, the point is that this is what a deacon is ordained to do.

Now, be clear about this. The Priest does not do all of the formation. But we are ordered in such a way as to locate the Priest at the center of that process. By the way, the Priest must be a formed person, a person whose life is shaped by the tradition in a very special way. This is necessary both to model and to lead this process. (This says a lot about where we are going in the Church now that the vast majority of our new Priests are people who are formed by something other than their ministry. Overall, I think it is going to hurt us really badly.)

In the same way, it is necessary for the Deacon to be a servant, to be engaged in living in the world and in serving the world. But the Deacon doesn't have to be the best servant in the place, and the best servant in the place doesn't have to be a Deacon. The best servant in the place may well be too busy being the best servant in the place to be a Deacon. But the Deacon is called to be the central person in the movement of the Church. Orders are about leadership in community. The Deacon doesn't do all or most of the servant ministry, or even of the ministry outside the Church doors. It is the community that does the ministry in the world. That's why Christian people live in the world.

Now, what it means for the Deacon, and the Diaconate, to be formed as a servant is very important, and I will talk that in some detail later tonight or another time, depending on time.

Remember, the Deacon says the dismissal--and then leads the people out of the small sacred space of worship and leads them in revealing to the world the fact that all space is sacred, all meals are holy, and all of creation is destined to live forever as we live for an instant at Eucharist.

I want to say one more thing before I give some images and stop. What I want to say is that what it means for the Church to serve the world is trickier than we like to think. It has to do, really, with the baptismal apostolate. It is not always about programs and projects, although it sometimes is. It is not always about building up a kingdom of the good works we do. That model is being questioned by some of the most powerful thinkers in the Church today, and we need to be cautious lest we think that what it means to lead the Church out is to set up as many programs as we can. There must be those things, but that is probably not where most of the action will be in the next few decades.

Leading the community out may involve such things as helping people discover what needs there are for ministry in their work and in their other environments. It may have to do with gifts identification. It will definitely have to do with helping people reflect on what they have done and not done, and help them understand how what they can do and are doing is part of what it means for the Church to carry out its mission. It won't be doing the Newsletter.

It also involves the business of being able to know what the bad news out there is. What hurts, where is the image of God abused and violated? Where must the community look, and what must it know. Again, this may be more than jumping on board every current cause, or trying to form a committee around every publication out of 815.

Finally, whatever it looks like will be shaped by the gift of particularity. It will be shaped by the individual community and the individual environment in which you work. What particular things are appropriate in one place may not be in another. But if the theology is solid, it will always be there. What Deacons are about, whatever that may be, will obviously be connected to leading the Church outward in service and mission. That should be clear and easy to see.

Images of what you are about are terribly important. I want you to think about your images of what it means to be a deacon--in the light of this stuff, and in the light of all the other things you know and do. And I want to offer some images of Diaconate, some pictures of what it means to be who you are. I think all of these work, and somehow all of them need to be held together in some sort of tension.

First there is the image of the Deacon as the leader who causes this movement of the Church to occur. To be the one who says the dismissal and goes first out the door and into the world, to take the body of Christ to those outside or on the edge. This, I believe, is central, and needs to work with whatever other image is used.

Second is the image of the Deacon as the one who dances on the edge. There is this odd, flexible, and very uncertain border between the Church and the world. It isn't a set wall, it's an ever changing and constantly moving line.

The Deacon dances this line. The Deacon weaves back and forth, facing first one direction, then the other. The deacon lives and works in the world because that's where the community lives and works. But the Deacon serves the Church's mission by making his or her life and work, and the life and work of the community, part of the mission of the Church. It is not just doing good. It is serving the Lord in his body, the Church, and it is being called to a very real, and a very important part of the leadership of that body.

Third, is the image of the Deacon as institutionalized prophet. That never works. That is part of its charm. A prophet is one who knows God well and who sees the present clearly and so can speak the truth.

Finally is the image of the Deacon as model to the Church of the Church as servant. What does that look like? Can the Deacon be to the Church what the Church is called to be to the world? Can the Church look at the Deacon and see, not so much individual servant ministry, but the Lord's imperative to the whole community to be servant? You don't have to be ordained to do servant ministry, but you probably do have to be ordained to do best what I'm talking about here. This image is terribly interesting to me and says all sorts of things about power and money and institutional identity and stuff like that. On the one hand Christendom is dead and on the other hand the religious right has all the votes, so what do we mainstream folks do with the world now that we can't run it anymore? I'll say more about this later when I talk about Diaconal character.

These are just a few images, there are lots more. But I am convinced that they all need to be organically connected to this model, and to this notion as the Deacon being the ordained leader in the doing of this.

Time for a break. Next, I want to explore how some of this might be lived out, and what some of the implications of all of this might be for living out Diaconate. Also tomorrow, at the end of it, I am going to tell you one of the great secrets of the mercy and compassion of God.

Part II

Top of the page

I want to talk about Diaconate from a slightly different perspective now. I want to explore a little of what some of the consequences might be if we try to take seriously this image of the Diaconate, or one like it. In doing that, I will talk about two sorts of things that grow from what I was talking about last night. They both have to do with the issue of personal formation and personal integrity.

The first point is that being the leader of the Church as it is sent out into the world is to be a leader of the Church. Deacons are leaders. We dress you funny, at least on Sunday, and put you in front of people, and we train you in the tradition. We don't do that just to make our official social workers good conversationalists. The point is not one of status as much as of responsibility. Remember Israel; being called is being called for service, not for privilege. Still, it is being called.

Who Deacons are in and for the Church, the Christian community, is very important. In our concern not to clericalize the Diaconate we have perhaps failed to stress enough the realities of religious leadership involved in Ordination. That is a shame. Never disparage Holy Orders, never minimize them, never pretend that it is a light thing or a small thing to be ordained into the Sacred Order of Deacons. It is a real thing, and a holy thing, and an eternal thing.

Deacons are of the Order of Stephen, Philip, Timon, of Athanasius and Gregory the Great, of Lewis Carroll and David Pendleton Oakenhater. Never forget that. One of the challenges of the Diaconate is to hold on to this reality and deal with it differently than most Priests and Bishops do, at least in the sense of not living it out within the sometimes comfortable context of full-time, stipendiary ministry. This is tough, because there are really no other models than Priests and Bishops. But no matter the difficulties involved, it remains true that the Deacons' role is a role of ordained leadership in the Christian community.

That means, among a variety of other things, that all of us who are called to such leadership have a certain amount of stuff in common. Bishops, Priests, and Deacons have different ministries, different ways in which we are called to help the Church be who she is. Still, we share more, by virtue of our calling, our Ordination, and positions of leadership, than many involved in the renewal of the Diaconate seem willing to admit.

One central thing we share is the absolute demand for what is sometimes called religious authenticity. This has to do with being real in terms of our relationships, including our relationship with God. This is the number one concern of the people we serve, the people in the parishes, the people in the world. Survey after survey, experience after experience, all point to this reality. If we are not for real, it will show, and when it shows, the community we are called to serve will see it and draw back.

"Theologian Langdon Gilkey contends that the starting point for pastors who want to be effective servants of their congregations and the world is to be spiritual leaders." (Messer, p.107) Central to this is spiritual engagement--real spirituality, real work in the business of living out that part of your Baptismal and Ordination vows. Without this, it all becomes a terrible burden. If you do not have a rule of life that you have developed with the help of someone else and are reviewing with someone else, get one and do it. Period.

There is simply no other way to do that than to do that. You do not have to be a spiritual giant, you do not have to talk like a Christian radio station commentator, but you do have to take the life of prayer, devotion, and study seriously. If no other reason is compelling enough, look at the Ordination vows. You will promise.

As leaders in the Christian community, the sort of leadership we offer, the sort of community we are committed to, the vision of life we have, this is all different from that of the world around us.

It is hard to live it out, it is sometimes very hard even to believe even a little bit of it.

Without going back to the well, over and over, and even when that well is dry, without that, it will all turn to ashes and dust.

Spiritual authenticity is the number one thing the people around you are looking for in you and in every religious leader. At the same time, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit long to embrace you and breath life into you and love you and kick your butt across five counties all in the same week. They really do.

But none of that will happen if you don't take some responsibility and reach out for that in a disciplined way. This is not about being a pious little mouse. It is about leading the Church. You must know the Lord and you must know our story. Your ministry must be fed by these things. That is a big part of the job. To do any of the things we are called to do as religious leaders, we have to be there with our soul.

What that means is that you set out to live faithfully the vows you made when you were baptized, and start anticipating the Ordination Vows. If that has always been a part of things for you, give thanks for that and keep on keeping on. If that has been a struggle that is more often honored in the breech, then welcome to the club, thank God for His mercy, and start doing it again. If you have never been able to deal with this, then find someone you admire who can, and talk to them about it. The issue is not what has happened up to now. The issue is what happens now.

Remember, this whole business of spiritual growth is God's idea, and God is really on our side as we enter that mystery. But most of the time, God will not force us. Instead, God will wait for us, and God will long for us.

Closely connected to this is something I have tried to tell every applicant for ordination I have worked with, regardless of the order they sought: The simple fact is that, much of the time, Mother Church is a bitch. Mother Church will not take care of you, Mother Church will not fix you, Mother Church will not make you all right or affirm you or make you whole. That is not Mother Church's job; or even if it is, she won't do it. In fact, Mother Church just might tear your guts out. Twice.

To get into this hoping to be healed, to be made complete and well, is a terrible trap. We don't put people through the Ordination process in order to affirm them, to fix them, or to make them better. We do all of that in order to make the Church better. Therapy is not a part of the process.

One consequence of all of this is that you are responsible for your own support--for your emotional, and spiritual, and intellectual support. You have each other, cherish that and nurture that. Also, there are gobs of resources around to help with this, but these resources will not seek you out. If you take the responsibility to look for them, and move with it, and reach out, and work on it, you will find all sorts of things. If you wait for mommy or daddy to figure out what is wrong with you, to intuit your needs and meet them, you are in for a really painful time.

The central importance of religious authenticity, and the reality that you are responsible for taking the initiative in discerning and beginning to deal with your religious and related needs, these are things that all of us who are in orders, who are called to leadership, need to hear and be reminded of. I want to stress that for you.

Part III

Top of the page

The last part of this stuff on Diaconal formation has to do with the business of living out Diaconate in the Church and the world. It is about Diaconal character. For obvious reasons, this is the part I know the least about. I don't do this. But I'm going to talk about it anyway. Also, at the end of it, I am going to tell you one of the great secrets of the mercy and compassion of God.

Let's go back to the earlier stuff for a minute. Remember, the Church is the place for the world to look to see what God is like. The whole Church, in its life and ministry, is to reveal God to the world. As a part of that, it is the calling of the Deacon to lead the Church in its outward movement into the world in service and mission. Now, this includes the calling of the Deacon to be the place where the Church looks so that the Church can see what the radical servanthood of Christ looks like. This is so the Church may be drawn to that and helped to live that out.

As the Church is the sacrament of Christ to the world, the Diaconate is the sacrament of servanthood to the Church.

The idea is that to see the Diakonia of the Church, in order to see what the servanthood of Christ looks like, the place for the Church to look is the Deacon. There is a subtle difference here that, like I said, I am still working on. My vision here is that people should look at the Deacon, or, more properly, at the body of Deacons in the Diocese, and be able to say, not just, "I could do that", but "We should all be like that".

The point is for Deacons to model, by their individual and corporate character, what it means to be a certain way, not just to express that being in some actions. (Maybe the heart of it lies in the suggestion that, in the early Church's battles over power and authority, when the Deacons lost every round to the presbyters, the Deacons really won. In that defeat may lie an important key to the renewal of the Diaconate.)

(Parenthetically, the things Deacons do in liturgy, they do for this reason--to reveal servanthood to the Church, not because getting ordained gives Deacons so many liturgical pennies to spend.)

Anyway, what does it look like to be a leader in revealing the servanthood of Christ? I think one very important place to begin is with how the body of deacons deals with issues of power, position, status, control, authority, obedience, dependency, openness, and the like within the community, within the Church, the parish and the diocese. Remember, your central witness and ministry is to this community (the parish and the Diocese). I suggest a couple of things.

These are almost guaranteed to be unpopular, and without the theological and practical context I have tried to set out, they don't make any sense. But with it they do. First, one of the most powerful living symbols of servanthood is powerlesness. Servants and slaves have no official or enforceable power. To have power and at the same time to claim to represent servanthood is a little like what folks in West Texas seem to believe is the biggest lie around: "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you".

Deacons should have no institutional power. Deacons should not vote on any matters before Diocesan Convention or any other parish or Diocesan body or board or committee or anything else. In part, going back to a model of Diaconate I mentioned before, this is necessary for the Deacon to function as institutional prophet as well as model of servanthood.

In order for this to work, there must be, as a essential part of this institutional powerlesness, a thorough going commitment by the Church to access. While they should not vote, Deacons should be present, as Deacons, on or in every Diocesan and parish and body that makes decisions. That prophetic voice must be allowed to speak, that vision of servanthood must be visible. Think about it. When combined with access, powerlesness can be, I think, central to effective witness in the Church.

Obedience is also a sign of servanthood. This is the primary theological reason for the Deacon's special relationship of obedience to the Bishop, and to others under whom the Deacon works. Deacons are called to model obedience so the whole Church can see what that looks like and be drawn to it.

Another part of this has to do with community. Like all ordained leaders, Deacons are community people. The idea of a 'lone ranger' Deacon, out there doing his or her own thing, is as alien and as contradictory as the idea of a 'lone ranger' Priest or Bishop. Our orders exist for the good of the community. We cannot exercise these orders in isolation, or apart from our community, or from our Bishop, who is the incarnation of our community.

Logically, this point really belongs earlier when I was talking about what Ordained folks all have in common. Exactly the same thing can be said, and needs to be said, about Presbyterate and Episcopacy. But it also has to do with Diaconal character, so I am mentioning it here.

All of this is about the Deacon's relationship to the institution and the community of the Church, and it is difficult and tricky. Similar questions can be raised about the relationship of the Deacon to the world.

For example, should the Deacon live in the world and rely, in some way, on the world to make a living? What about hiring full-time Deacons to do Deacons' stuff the way we hire full time Priests and Bishops to do Priests' and Bishops' stuff? This is not a question about finances, it is a question about theology and the practice. Also, this is not exactly a question about hiring people who are Deacons to do other work in the Church, such as being DRE's or whatever. That is a different issue as long as these Deacons do not consider that work to be their Diaconal ministry.

It is a question about how to institutionalize this special ministry and witness.

I don't have a really neat answer to this one. The worker is worthy of his hire. Clearly, expenses incurred should be reimbursed if possible. But can Deacons really dance on the edge, or speak the world's truth to the Church, if they are totally of the Church, and if their livelihood depends on the institutional survival of the Church? Maybe, but it will be very hard.

If the Deacon is to lead the Church into the world, then the Deacon should probably know rather a lot about living in the world. If the Deacon is to direct and support lay folks in that aspect of their Christian life, then the Deacon should probably be living that life. (I know I'm not very useful at questions of living out your faith in the world. That's not where I am. That's probably O.K.)

All of those considerations point away from full-time paid Deacons doing Diaconate as I have been presenting it here. But there must be room for careful exceptions. (Bob Parker in Wichita was clearly one.) Also, this is America, and to say we value something without putting money there is hard to believe. The flip side of that is that having a very critical role in community life that is not valued as the culture values things is pretty darn radical. I would probably come down on a nuanced "No" here. Remember the images of dancing on the edge, and of being an institutionalized prophet. Neither of these fly real well as a paid profession. Still...

I'm going to stop in the hope that I have caused enough confusion, consternation, and thought to keep you going for a while. This analysis has much to say in the way of recruitment, selection, training, continuing education and things like that. But that is for another day and another place.

I just have one thing left. Notice that most of what I have said about Diaconate has to do with task. It has to do with the calling of the ordained to build up the Body of Christ and to support and strengthen the ministry and mission of the Church. That is, in some very basic ways, what we are about. We have jobs to do, important jobs to do.

Now, I am going to tell you one of the great secrets of the mercy and compassion of God. It is very simply this. With all I have said, it would seem that the ultimate purpose of all ministry would be successfully doing the jobs we are given to do. That is, it would seem, with this analysis, that results would be at the heart of things.

But that is not true, and results are not the ultimate purpose of all ministry. The ultimate purpose of all ministry is the sanctification of the minister. Really, the ultimate purpose of all ministry is the sanctification of the minister. That is because God loves us, and forms us so that our calling, which is for the sake of something outside of ourselves, can be a gracious thing for us.

This has to do with the mystery and the gift of self. We do what we are called to do so we can become holy. Not because that is directly our task as secular clergy, but because, as the Lord calls us to this task, he will bless and strengthen us as we faithfully live it out. The ultimate purpose of all ministry is the sanctification of the minister. Remember that, and keep it alive and in tension with the rest of what I have said. It is absolutely the truth; and the truth for lay folks as well as for ordained folks. It is a mystery of the love and compassion of God, and you need to know it.


Top of the page

Return to efm.htm

Return to Home Page

This page is a project of
The Diocese of Northwest Texas.
Send comments or questions to

Last Updated: July 19, 2006