To Be or Not to Be… a Deacon

As seminary nears a close and I can (sometimes) afford to spend time thinking about the future rather than writing a theology paper, I find that I’m not quite as ready to be done as I thought I was.  Don’t get me wrong– 7 straight years of college/grad school is pleeeeeenty.  For me, at least.  But I guess despite writing dozens of call papers and reflection papers over these past 3 years, I still hadn’t quite come to terms with my “call.”  It took an unexpected emotional breakdown the other day for me to realize that I’m still struggling with something I thought I had figured out:

Why should I even bother to get ordained as a deacon?

The thing is, my intended career is to teach English-Language-Learners (formerly known as English-as-a-Second-Language) in the public schools.  Whether I get ordained as a deacon or not, this will… hopefully… be my job.  I don’t need ordination in order to do it, obviously, since that would mean there had been some seriously weird change in our nation’s constitution.

For those of you for whom the word “deacon” is unfamiliar, let me explain… In the United Methodist Church (and some other denominations), the technical term for pastor is “elder.”  (Sidenote:  The original Greek word for “elder” is presbyteros, from which you might guess the Presbyterian church derives its name.)  This is a biblical term for a church leader found in some of the New Testament letters as well as in many different early church documents outside the scriptural canon.  It seems from these documents that besides “elders,” there was another type of church office called “deacon.”  The Greek word for it, diakonos, is actually the word for “servant,” and the types of ministries that these deacons did had to do with serving people:  feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison… stuff like that.

Fast forward approximately 2,000 years, and these church offices have changed a bit.  Every denomination (except Quakers) has pastors/elders, but quite a few no longer have deacons.  Of those denominations that do continue to use the title of deacon (or diaconal minister, or deaconess), they define it in different ways.  The United Methodist Church–my denomination–has recently rejuvenated the term (in 1996).  For a long time, pastors were ordained as deacons first (like a probationary membership) before becoming fully official pastors as elders 2 or 3 years later.  But now, deacons and elders are totally separate types of ministers.  Elders do pastoral ministry in congregations, but deacons–

Well, deacons kind of do their own thing.  Some are youth pastors.  Some are music ministers.  Some are social workers.  Some do campus ministry.  Some work in non-profits.  Some are professors.  Some have jobs in denomination-wide boards or agencies.  The list goes on and on.  Each deacon defines her or his call to ministry differently.  But there are 2 things they all have in common:

  1. They are ordained to Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice.  That is, those are the four things they focus their ministry on.
  2. They are called to be a bridge between the church and the world.

In my case, I feel a strong call to both of these aspects of what deacons do.  My faith motivates me to work to serve others, to seek compassion and justice, and to be a much-needed bridge between the church and the world.  I see the ministry of teaching English to the children of immigrants as important work that focuses on the needs of those in the margins, helping these children have a fair chance at success.  In terms of being a bridge, I intend to support (or start) outreach programs that link my local church’s resources to the needs of the immigrant community, as well as helping to develop a relationship between these groups of people who rarely interact.  Another part of what deacons do (each in her/his own unique way) is intentionally look for ways for people’s gifts to meet the needs of the world around them.  It’s leadership focused on producing more leaders.  This is one of the biggest draws for me about being ordained as a deacon.  When I started seminary, I was dead-set on remaining a layperson my whole life because I believe very strongly in the priesthood of all believers.  There’s no need to have a separate status in order to do ministry.  Leaders from within the congregation are just as necessary as pastoral leaders.  It wasn’t until I learned this aspect of deacons’ ministry that I started to consider it as an option.

So, for me, there’s no question as to whether I have “a deacon’s heart.”  I do.  I have a passion for these people and these ministries.  The question is, what difference does it make if I have the title of “Deacon” in living out this call?

In practical terms, the answer is:  very little.  Being ordained into this role would mostly add a lot of extra paperwork.  (But, since when has ministry been practical, right?)  After a few days of pondering and praying about this question, I think I’ve come to realize that it makes a difference anyway.

The difference is that being a deacon is who I am called to be.  It wasn’t in my original plan, but God has been preparing me for this role for a long time.  It took a while for me to even get used to the idea, let alone embrace it, but it seems that by this point it has embraced me to the point of no return.  It’s who I am.

I could go on doing what I want to do, teaching ELL, participating in and leading outreach ministries to people on the margins, and trying to lead by example so that other laypeople would see how their gifts fit into God’s plan for restoring peace and justice to the world.  I could do all of this without the denomination officially behind me, and that would be fine.

But what a powerful statement it would be if the denomination were behind me, had blessed my ministry as part of what the church does, had deemed what I do to be worthy of ordination.  It’s not about me gaining a title; it’s about expanding what it means to be church.  If ordination is limited to only one kind of ministry–being a pastor–then it leads laypeople to believe that what they do is insignificant unless they’re on the path to pastoral ministry.  And that’s just wrong.  It is important for there to be deacons out there, visible, because it’s a statement that our whole church is making that ministry is broader than people realize.

I would feel honored, as well as burdened, to have the responsibility to represent the meaning and message of deacons to the communities I live in.  I could try to bring this message to people as a layperson myself, but why do that?  I am a deacon at heart, and I’d be counteracting my whole message if I were to pull back from this call that is clearly meant for me.  It’s not a call for everyone–I still believe that lay ministry is vital to the church (and to God’s work on earth).  But it is a call I feel compelled to respond to.  If my ministry is indeed what a deacon would do, and I feel I have been adequately prepared and trained for this ministry, then the only way forward is to do it as a deacon.

It sounds silly to say, but this is how I see it:  If the deacon shoe fits, wear it!  Why should I wear the deacon socks but never the shoes?

About carissalick

EL teacher, Christian, activist, learner, wife, mom
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16 Responses to To Be or Not to Be… a Deacon

  1. maya says:

    carissa, i really enjoyed reading this! i think i feel along the same lines about “poet” as you do about “deacon,” especially in regards to being a bridge (and a commitment to the word). i hope you keep writing no matter where you go.

  2. Josh Herman says:

    Carissa, you have a blog?!? How did I not know this! I will add it to my RSS feed, especially since you and David are pretty much the only people not blood-related to me that read my blog!

    Anyway, interesting post. The relationship between institutional religion (the church or synagogue, in our cases) and the wider public is a challenging one for liberal religious movements. As someone in a seminary who has no earthly idea of what I want to be when I grow up, I think we are in a somewhat similar place. To what extent is our religious education a matter of vocational training, and to what extent is it simply a part of our personal development, a part of figuring out who we are as a Jew or Christian, as the case might be? If it is the latter, then what good is the degree so long as we have achieved a sense of fulfillment at furthering our knowledge of our tradition?

    Interesting questions, but I haven’t a friggin clue. If you figure it out, be sure to let me know!

    • carissalick says:

      hahaha… I had to create this blog for an assignment about a month ago and haven’t felt the need to publicize it until today. So no worries– you’re among the first to know.

      I totally agree with you about seeing religious education as personally/spiritually fulfilling whether or not it furthers one’s career. As I was thinking this whole issue through, I wanted to make sure I didn’t make a decision based on what other people would think. I don’t want my reason for being ordained to be, “Well, I had to find an excuse for why I went to seminary…” I’m too liberal-artsy to see education as a means to an end.

      Best of luck to you as you try to find out what exactly your seminary education is preparing you for! 😉

  3. Thanks for writing this and posting it, Carissa! I feel like I’m in a similar boat. I taught ESL for adults, and then was a social justice preacher-type literature professor. So many people asked why I would want to be ordained as a deacon- why jump through all those hoops when you’ll just end up where you started? I think you said it well: “It’s not about me gaining a title; it’s about expanding what it means to be church.” I am, alas, still discerning, and I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I am grateful for your insight and your call.

  4. Tasha says:

    Carissa, I absolutely love this! I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about my pastoral identity, if I was staying UMC, I’d use elder language. So I’m going to have to do that at some point this week – but no worries I’ll give you credit for the inspiration 🙂 You’re going to look great in those deacon shoes!

    • carissalick says:

      Thanks, Tasha! Now I need to figure out which pair of literal shoes to call my deacon shoes…

      I’m looking forward to your post. I guess we’re just at that time in life to be freaking out about identity. 🙂

  5. Sarah Thornhill says:

    Thank you for posting this! It’s wonderful to hear how your understanding of your call has evolved and continues to grow! I remember talking about this in 1st year VFCL together. It’s been great to learn and grow together!

  6. Barb says:

    I love when my kids enlighten me! You do have a way with words, and I look forward to your working as a deacon with immigrants to help them have a way with words as well! As for the literal shoes, I have a TOMs gift certificate that can help with that!

    • carissalick says:

      Awww, thanks, Mom! I never quite thought of it that way… helping immigrants find their own “way with words.” But it’s true.

      Also, a TOMS gift certificate would be perfect for that!!

    2. You’re awesome.
    3. That’s right — you WEAR those deacon shoes-and-socks! Rock that lay ministry! Woo!

    Thanks for sharing. I think you’re pretty cool. Oh, and merry Christmas too. =)

  8. Pingback: The Teacher in Me | Seeking Wisdom

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