When one looks at the clergy structure of the Episcopal Church, it appears that there is an inherent chain of command: bishop → presbyter → deacon. This could give the perception that vocational deacons are ecclesiastical “followers”, who carry out the instructions of the clergy “above” them. In reality, however, vocational deacons can be and must be leaders. They lead within their congregations and within the communities they live and serve, and they lead in representing the laity to the other clergy.
According to the Episcopal diaconate ordination vows,
You are to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship. You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.
At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself (Book of Common Prayer, page 543)
This part of the diaconal vows comes first; deacons are to go out into the world, ministering to all they meet.
Letting deacons find their own ministry, based on their own interests and inclinations, helps to create successful leaders. They go out into the world as disciples of Jesus where they can do the most good. They are less constrained by parish politics; they can be imaginative and energized people who inspire and motivate, based on vision and call.
A good leader concentrates on people and solving the issues and problems of the day. Their passion drives them to the forefront of an issue or project, and the strength of their conviction continually encourages others to take up the cause. A leader has a purpose that goes beyond the present, and pushes for a better future. Strong leadership springs from a caring and concern for other people and a clear vision of better solutions.
By nature of the diaconate ordination, deacons tend to ‘think out of the box’; they function in the community at large, where there may be no distinct lines of standard behavior or function. They have a vision of what the future can be, and they work diligently, both within the church and out in the world, to move toward that vision. Deacons read the Scriptures, pray, study, worship and maintain fellowship with others to help provide guidance and awareness as they pursue a project or goal. These are all attributes of a committed leader. (From the ordination vow: As a deacon in the Church, you are to study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment from them and to model your life upon them)
Deacons also assist in liturgy and other functions within the local congregation and diocesan-wide. This, too, is a part of their vows. Deacons may be counselors or mediators, and often walk through the end of life with parishioners with whom they have established a relationship.
But, ultimately, if left to answer the call from God and fully live out their intricate role in the church, a deacon must provide valuable leadership, not only to the church, but also to the world about them.
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The Rev. Deniray Mueller serves her diaconal ministry at the In the Garden Ministry at Trinity, Columbus, and as the legislative liaison for the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.