The Most Pressing Question on the Diaconate

Does the Church need deacons?

It seems silly to ask if the Church needs deacons. One scholarly study after another demonstrates the apostolic origins of the diaconal order. Deacons have been essential to Christian Church life from the very beginning.

This is an academic perspective. Have we paused to ask a question of the Church as a community of people: do you want deacons? Do you need deacons? Would it be better to have multiple priests (pastors)? If you want and need deacons, what do you need them to do?

Consider All Orders

Discussions on diaconal ministry tend to focus narrowly on the deacon. These conversations tend to ignore the deacon’s role in cooperation with priests (pastors) and bishops. A trend emerges: the Church compartmentalizes diaconal ministry. Deacons only do service or narrowly defined tasks. (See Christopher Ruddy’s recent article in Commonweal on this topic).

Frequently, important texts dictate the deacon’s exercise of ministry. Lumen Gentium authorizes deacons to preside at baptisms and the rite of marriage. The deacon reads the Gospel. Orthodox service books appoint certain texts and ritual actions to the deacon, so the deacon performs those specific roles.

The problem with the process is a lack of inquiry into ministerial gaps. The Church tends to view the priest/pastor as a minister of everything, except ordination. The priest/pastor not only presides, but is also expected to teach, preach, console, guide, heal, and pray. The administrative burden is heavy: represent, report, supervise, manage budgets, raise funds, and everyone’s favorite – lead meetings.

The seminary system sustains this model of the priest/pastor as minister of everything. Obtain competence in dogmatic theology and the fundamentals of liturgy, and then learn how to guide everyone and anyone through this life to God’s kingdom. Christians take this model for granted, and we shouldn’t mess with it, because parish vacancies depend on a steady supply of priest/pastors.

One Guide for Everyone?

How does the current model of ministry compare with the realities of a life’s journey? How many people will rely on one person to guide them through a career? Will a person have only one appointed mentor, coach, or companion in work and family life? Do households rely only on one person’s direction, creative through, and problem-solving skills?

With some exceptions, the answer is ‘no’. The Church once relied upon many people with different talents to exercise its ministry. Some taught, others served or prophesied. The priest/pastor began to absorb all of these ministries as the Church journeyed through history.

The diaconate did not completely disappear. In the East and West, ordination to the priesthood required diaconal ordination first. The diaconate was a temporary step lasting from one day to a year. This impression of the diaconate remains intact today. Parishioners ask deacons, “when are you going to be ordained a priest (or pastor)?” (I understand that married deacons do not encounter this in the Roman Church). To this day, I am often asked, “why weren’t you ordained a priest?” It is tempting to translate reasonable queries like these into “did something bad happen that stopped you from the next step?” Or even worse, “maybe you’re not smart enough to be a priest/pastor?”

Diaconal renewal: what do they do?

The limited restoration of the diaconate in the 20th-21st centuries causes some confusion. Outside of what the book or text tells us to do, is the Church calling us to specific ministries that are not finely printed with the proper authoritative signature? A properly formed deacon can share in the Church’s ministry of teaching, preaching, healing, consoling, praying, and administration. Online descriptions of diaconal service in Lutheran and Episcopalian Churches suggest that deacons and deaconesses engage service with breadth and depth. Most of us know what we cannot do – we cannot preside (unless a bishop or community asks deacons to preside for liturgies without a priest).

Urgent: where is the call for deacons?

Here’s where the rubber hits the road for the diaconate: is the Church calling for deacons? And of equal importance: are priests/pastors willing to share the Church’s ministry with deacons?

This notion of the sharing of the Church’s ministry is crucial. The priest/pastor presides, and much – not necessarily all of the rest – is shared with Christ’s body. It will be necessary to change the way we imagine ministry for an authentic renewal of the order of the deacon. The Church has to accept that deacons will anoint the sick, lead prayer, preside at some services (when a priest/pastor is unavailable), and represent the Church. Priests/pastors will have to learn to treat deacons as equals in Christ’s ministry – not as subordinates who are deficient in some way.

How to embrace deacons

Is the Church ready to embrace the diaconate as a permanent, stable holy order? I’m not sure. I remain amazed, to this day, when I assist in distributing communion and some people refuse to receive from my line (as if the Body and Blood of Christ were somehow different in a priest’s line). I also have to check my own assumptions about exercising Christ’s ministry. On a few occasions from the past, a priest/pastor asked me to assist in anointing. On both occasions, the Church was packed. It made sense – the Church had asked God to appoint me, despite my faults, to contribute to Christ’s ministry. I did so, even though the priest/pastor had customarily performed this task. The lightning strike I dreaded never came. And, we all shared in this holy ministry of Christ’s healing.

The Church’s voice

Instead of continuing this argument, I’ll stop here. The academic and theological justification for permanent deacons who perform multiple tasks in Christ’s ministry is strong. The academic argument is useless, though, if the people want to retain the status quo of the priest/pastor as the one appointed for all of Christ’s ministries, except ordination. It’s time for the holy people of God to testify on the viability of a diaconate. The alternative is fidelity to the status quo of ordaining deacons so they can quickly ascend a step to priest/pastor.

Does diaconal ministry flourish in your Churches? If so, share a story here, in the comments.

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