This short article was written sometime in 2014 to answer a question many people--inside and outside church life--ask: What is a deacon?
All baptized Christians are sent into the world to serve others, proclaim God’s vision of justice and peace, and bear the Good News of Jesus Christ to those who most long to hear it. Deacons are nothing special. They are merely baptized Christians who are “under orders,” that is, they have been set apart by the Christian assembly, under the oversight of their bishop, to be “on point” for this work. Deacons agree to be limited and restrained in their ministry, to make their ministry specifically diaconal, for the benefit of the whole community of diaconal Christians.
The ministry of deacons is threefold: first, deacons are iconic servants. Like an icon, they are a visible sign of servant ministry. They set the Eucharistic Table the way a busboy would at a restaurant, and they oversee the ministries of chalice bearers and Eucharistic visitors as a servant of servants. Jesus said, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). When baptized Christians go out into our worlds of work, family, and civic life, we do so as footwashers in service to our neighbors.
Second, deacons are fiery prophets. They challenge and provoke; they goad and push the Christian assembly to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). Deacons bid the Prayers of the People and the Confession, and they dismiss the assembly into the world at the end of the liturgy: they draw our attention to the uncomfortable truths we need to face, and challenge us to do something about them in lives of prayer, cooperation, and hard work. Deacons keep their day jobs and aren’t paid by the church, and the oneFshoulder diaconal stole frees the other arm for labor with you in the harvest of God’s justice.
Finally, deacons are charismatic Gospellers. They proclaim the Good News, and as such are not dour, sad, or angry. Deacons joyfully proclaim the Gospel in the liturgy (and sometimes preach), sing the Exsultet—the song that bids all creation to rejoice—at the Easter Vigil, and like the Archangel Gabriel appearing to Mary, they stand in the midst of the assembly as if to say, “Greetings, favored ones! The Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28). To be Christian is to be diaconal, and to be diaconal is to go out into the world with Good News—with glad tidings—of God’s deepest hopes and dreams for all creation.
Your deacon is an imperfect incarnation of this call. Like you, she or he continues to grow in God’s grace, learn from mistakes, and discern in Christian community the future God imagines for us all. Pray for your deacon, but pray more fervently for all Christians, that we might live more fully into our identity as the servants, prophets, and Gospellers God so lovingly desires us to become.