Standing with Humankind: An Introduction to the Ministry of Deacons
The Rev. Carter Heyward, one of the Philadelphia Eleven (one group of women ordained to the priesthood before General Convention officially authorized it), wrote that every Christian’s vocation is “to love our neighbors as ourselves and in so doing to offer to God the one spiritual sacrifice God requires of us—to take the risks involved in standing with humankind on behalf of a better world.”(1) Heyward’s words have guided me throughout my discernment, formation, and ordination to the diaconate.
All Christians are called to love and take risks to make the world better for everyone, and deacons are specifically called to do the hard work and take the prophetic risks required of leaders in that work, especially when it makes institutions uncomfortable. Healing isn’t always gentle, especially when it requires telling the truth about a painful past and changing toward the promise of a better future.
A deacon empowers the community.
In our baptismal covenant, the values that root us together as a community, we make two promises that are particularly related to the ministry of a deacon: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
One role of a deacon is to empower the faith community to live out these promises. While the priest is busy maintaining the church community, the deacon draws people out into the neighborhood to strive for justice and peace. Humanity can only be healed and justice and peace achieved when we respect the dignity of every human being.
A deacon interprets the needs, hopes, and concerns of the world to the Church. That means that deacons listen to those outside the Church (and those marginalized within the Church) and then take that knowledge and explains it to the faith community, challenging congregations to take seriously the experiences of people facing oppression. The ordination rite for deacons talks about a ministry of servanthood: challenging unjust policies and working for change is what servanthood means when we recognize the dignity of every human being. Being a servant is about working for the greater good because we can only be truly free together, not being a doormat.
In order to fulfill our baptismal promises, especially for those of us whose identities grant us privileges in society, we need time and a willingness to critically reflect on how we may knowingly or unknowingly contribute to dehumanization and injustice in our world. Deacons ask hard questions of ourselves and of our faith communities to help us discern where God may be calling us to live more and more into our baptismal promises. Wrestling with privilege and our complicity in systems of oppression can be a painful experience for many people, but please know that those questions are asked not to blame and shame but to invite all of us into a deeper understanding of God’s dream for the world and the actions we can take to make that dream a reality.
A deacon stands in the in-between.
One unique quality of the order of deacons is that we live in the liminal space between the Church and the world. We are ordained clergy, complete with specific liturgical and canonical responsibilities, who report to the bishop. We also are usually not employed full-time by faith communities. It can be challenging, especially from a time management perspective, to live “with one foot in the Church and one foot in the world,” but it also provides unique opportunities. In fact, one could say that deacons give the lie to the idea that religious and secular life are really separate, as we live our vocation of listening and taking action in all the places we are.
A note on transitional vs. vocational deacons.
Everything I’ve described here relates to the ministry of a vocational deacon, which means someone who is called to be a deacon. We have, in my opinion, outdated canons about ordination that require people who are called to the priesthood to be first ordained as deacons. We call people who are called to be priests but who are currently ordained as deacons transitional. They may fulfill the roles of a deacon in the liturgy but otherwise they are trained to be priests, not deacons.
The transitional diaconate is one structure of The Episcopal Church that needs healing. The requirement for folks who are called to the priesthood to first be ordained deacons has been used as a tool of oppression that kept many women of all colors, men of color, and folks of other historically marginalized identities from fully living into their God-given calling. They were not allowed to be ordained to the priesthood and instead were ordained to the diaconate (or, pre-1970s, as deaconesses) as a consolation prize before the diaconate was recognized as a full and equal order. The ordination of Heyward and other women before General Convention allowed it is an example of a prophetic act that pushed the Church to do the right thing. Allowing for direct ordination to the priesthood and doing away with the transitional diaconate would prevent further abuses of power, allowing both those called to the priesthood and to the diaconate to flourish.
This is just the beginning.
There’s so much more to know about what it means to be a deacon. Deacons are here to listen to the needs of our neighborhood and within our faith communities and to use that knowledge to empower others to live into our baptismal promises to seek justice and peace in the world, responding to the call of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God.
1. Carter Heyward, Speaking of Christ: A Lesbian Feminist Voice (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1989), 23.
The Rev. Chelsea Stanton (she/her) is a deacon at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in St. Paul. She is also Refugee Services Administrative Coordinator at the Minnesota Council of Churches. When she’s not busy with those things, she serves as a facilitator on a diocesan discernment committee and as a mentor for the Deacons Formation Collaborative. When she’s not busy with those additional things, she spends time with her spouse Jeb and their two cats Guster and Star at their apartment in the Battle Creek neighborhood of St. Paul. Chelsea is also an alum of Northwestern College (Iowa), Episcopal Service Corps, and United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.