Moved by deacons’ stories

A notepad its on a desk near a pen, laptop and phone
 on November 1, 2015

Will the real clergy please stand up?

When we think about clergy, the image that first comes to mind is a priest, particularly the full-time, professional priest in charge of a parish. This is understandable because it is the kind of cleric one meets most often. But this is an incomplete picture and it is changing. The Diocese of Toronto is also served by part-time, bi-vocational and non-stipendiary clergy. An important part of that group is the cadre of vocational deacons.

Deacons are an ancient order of the church that can trace its origins all the way back to the New Testament. In Jerusalem, when the church was in its infancy, the apostles encountered a problem when food was distributed among widows. Greek Jews complained that their widows were neglected while Hebrew widows got preferential treatment – apparently, church conflict has a long pedigree! The apostles wisely decided to raise up people with gifts distinct from their own. In prayer, they called seven men to serve the poor (Acts 6:1-7).

When persecution dispersed the church from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria and beyond, we read about Deacon Philip bringing the Gospel with him. The story of this church planter culminated in the dramatic encounter between him and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8: 5-12, 26-40). The call to connect the church with society – the dual charism of service and evangelism – has been the hallmark of the diaconate ever since. The revival of this order is one of the more exciting developments in our diocese.

I met with the deacons of York-Scarborough in late September, as I do every year. After worship and before business, each shared stories of their diaconal ministry. I was so moved by their stories that I abandoned what I was going to write about and now, with their permission, share them with you. They are described in broad strokes to respect the sensitive nature of some of their situations.

All deacons share in the liturgy. The dual nature of their vocation is represented liturgically by their reading the Gospel, setting the table and dismissing the congregation. But each deacon is required to engage in at least one other ministry. Some follow a long tradition of leading or organizing pastoral care for the poor and infirm in a parish. Thus, we have a deacon leading the parish food bank, one leading pastoral visitation and one leading a visitation team to a nursing home. Another deacon called together a team to bring snacks to a local school. Not only do deacons connect the church to the neighbourhood through their actions, but also, by calling parishioners to join them, they call the people of God to pay attention to what is outside the church walls. Beyond providing service themselves, their ministry changes parish culture.

Some deacons are quite creative and intentional in creating space for spiritual inquiries as they offer necessary services. One deacon simply volunteers in the community booth in a shopping mall; subsequent to his long-time participation, he is recognized by the people, and his church connection is respected. Another deacon learned about Advance Care Directives from a Christian perspective and began to offer it to the neighbourhood. Advance Care Directives is a process by which people of all ages create instructions for how they wish to be cared for and how their properties should be used should they become incapacitated through illness, aging or accident. We live in a death-denying culture, and many people have no clue about how their elderly parents want to be looked after until it is too late.  The deacon included funeral planning for good measure.  Another deacon has an office in a friendly funeral home and provides real, albeit unobtrusive, support for bereaved families. She related that young mothers who have lost babies and children are particularly in need of such ministry.

Yet others have responsible jobs in which they bear witness to their faith and vocation. One is a practising psychotherapist; another is a trainer of staff in a big company. Staff from her work came to her ordination, and they were people of many faiths. They had been seeking her counsel before her ordination – an important way to discern vocation is to see whether you are already exercising it – but after the ordination, she got phone calls about life issues even after working hours.

All deacons are required to take courses in theology. Though the requirements are less rigorous than those for a Master of Divinity, some have completed that degree and even gone beyond to the level of doctorate. Naturally, they are resourceful in parish Bible studies. Of special interest to me was the story of a Muslim woman in a Bible study who really loved Jesus (Isa in Islam), but was wrestling with the question of whether he was more than the prophet that Islam acknowledges him to be. The deacon in this case showed great sensitivity in navigating that situation.

There are currently 40 deacons in the diocese, yet their ministry is not fully recognized or appreciated, especially in parishes that do not have vocational deacons. The rise of vocational deacons is relatively recent in this diocese. Vocational deacons have been ordained since the 1990s, after General Synod recommended it after addressing some concerns. The worry was that having deacons lead in outreach and evangelism would further clericalization and discourage lay ministry. This danger is only real when the vocation is misunderstood. Deacons do not perform outreach and evangelism on behalf of the people; they mobilize the people and turn their attention out to the world and its needs. An effective deacon not only does great work in the community; they will, by telling their stories and motivating people, inspire them to do similar, though not necessarily identical, things. Just like the deacons in York-Scarborough bear witness in their work and their neighbourhoods, parishioners can each bear witness in their own situations and in their own way.

And here is the problem: I gather that in my area at least, priests are very happy to share the liturgy with the deacon when there is one in the parish, but it is not a general practice to share the pulpit.  Granted, being a good preacher is not one of the requirements in the diaconal vocation, and it would actually not be helpful if the deacon preaches in exactly the same way as the priest. His or her special calling is to draw attention to the challenges and opportunities in the world around. So I hope priests will give deacons their share of pulpit time, and that deacons will use that time to focus on their special role.

All right, what if your deacon cannot actually preach? How about putting together regular interviews? I have found that format to be particularly real and engaging to listen to, not to mention much less difficult for the interviewee. Come to think of it, what about inviting a vocational deacon from another parish to tell his or her story, especially if you do not have one in your own?

The most helpful thing I have heard about ordination is that ministry is the privilege and responsibility of the whole people of God. The whole church has a priestly, episcopal and diaconal function for which people so ordered are icons. Clergy pledge themselves to be under authority – under orders – not to exclude the people, but to lead and invite others appropriately into these aspects. The whole people of God witnessing to the whole Gospel for the whole world – now that is a vision worth living into!


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