Diakonia is the Greek word for “service.” Jesus was sent by God to serve. We promise in Baptism to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to strive for justice and peace. All members of the church are called to represent Christ and his church.
Deacons are called particularly to serve those in need, and to interpret to bishops, priests and laity the needs, concerns and hopes of the world. Deacons assist in the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments.
In the early church, the diaconate preceded the priesthood and possibly even the episcopate. After flourishing for three centuries and contributing to the growth of the church, the diaconate declined when the church became organized following the Council of Nicaea during the time of Constantine. This ancient ministry has been revived since 1978, and it is now once again an essential part of the functioning of the church, thanks to the church’s renewed emphasis on mission and its return to an organic structure in which every church member has responsibility for ministry, mission and diakonia.
Theology and scripture
In Many Servants (XIII), Ormonde Plater states that early Christians used the words of diakonia in three related ways:
• Deacon as messenger, go-between, mouthpiece. In the early church, the deacon was the messenger for the bishop. Deacons today proclaim the message of the Gospel during the service.
• Deacon as agent or instrument. Deacons get done whatever needs to be done!
• Deacon as attendant, one who attends to the needs of others. Deacons set the table for Eucharist, assist priests and bishops, and care for others directly.
Scripture informs the deacon’s special ministry of servanthood. In the Old Testament, Isaiah 58:5-7 tells the exiled Israelites what they must do in order for the Lord to intervene and save them – let the oppressed go free, break every yoke, share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless into your house, cover the naked. Amos 5:21-24 says that the LORD delights not in abundance of festivals and sacrifices but in justice and righteousness. Micah 6:8 is a rallying cry for us to do both justice and mercy: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
In the New Testament, Acts 6:1-6 describes the seven men with Greek names being chosen to serve the marginalized Hellenist widows. They may not be considered by scholars to be deacons in the sense of a separate order called deacons, but they do serve as role models for the philanthropic work that deacons perform. They were anointed for their work directly by the apostles. “Wait on tables” is a reference to the diakonia of taking care of widows and orphans. The salutation in Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Philippians 1:1) specifically addresses deacons. 1 Timothy 3:8-13 sets forth the qualifications for being a deacon, which are very close to today’s requirements. In Romans 16:1-2 Paul commends to the Romans Phoebe, a deacon of the church. In Luke 22:27, the word deacon derives from the Greek diakonos meaning servant or minister, literally interpreted as “waiter.” Jesus uses the word to describe himself: “I am among you as one who serves (diakoneo).” This can be interpreted as “serving at tables,” which emphasizes the humility needed in serving others.
In John 13:1-17, Jesus washes the feet of the disciples to show them that “servants are not greater than their master.” And Matthew 25:34-45 says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it [cared for the needy] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Those who didn’t do it “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Lastly, from the ordination of a deacon (BCP, 543): “At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.”
Deacons in the church
In the early church, deacons performed acts of mercy, justice and charity, and were officers of the church as there were just bishops and deacons then. The Episcopal Church today has three orders of clergy: bishops, priests and deacons. The deacon is the icon or symbol of ministry in the church, to remind all Christians of their baptismal vows. Deacons help the laity discover their gifts and inspire them to use those gifts to meet the needs of the world. They lead them into and prepare them for service and then send them out to do it (the deacon scatters). Deacons serve as role models. They often start ministries for others to continue, then move on. The priest brings people into the fullness of Christ through formation and gathers them around the table (the priest gathers). The bishop is responsible for the unity of the church.
Deacons report directly to bishops. Some have a dual role of serving in an assigned parish and serving the wider church. Those aspiring to the priesthood are ordained for one year as a “transitional” deacon. Deacons who are ordained to the diaconate permanently are called “vocational” deacons. Some argue that having transitional deacons diminishes the true diaconate, but others say, “once a deacon, always a deacon.”
In 1978, a committee of The Episcopal Church studied the diaconate and made recommendations to restore this historic order. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer brought new definition of the role of the deacon. The number of deacons in the US increased from 600 in 1978 to over 2,600 in 2008. In 1978, 93% of deacons were men. In 2008, 60% of deacons were women.
“Deacons are called to be the nags of the church,” 26th Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told the biennial Conference of the North American Association for the Diaconate in 2007. She also encouraged the assembled deacons to explore new opportunities for ministry and said, “the church is recovering the ancient ministry of deacons.” Jefferts Schori proclaimed at the 77th General Convention (July 2009) that “the heartbeat of the Episcopal Church is mission, mission, mission.” Deacons can take a leadership role in connecting the laity with diakonia opportunities as the Episcopal Church moves toward common ministry and continues to make mission a priority.
Deacons in the world
Deacons serve as “connectors” between the church and the world, as the interface between the church and the community. Deacons are called to serve particularly the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely. Scripture that calls Christians to act on the needs of the world includes John 21:15-17, “Feed my sheep” and the hungry of all sorts, and Hebrews 13:1-3 admonishes us to remember those in prison. Numerous Gospel stories feature Jesus healing the sick. A sampling of diaconal ministries includes serving the homeless in various ways (food, temporary shelter, clothing, advocacy for housing), hospital chaplaincy, nursing home ministry, prison ministry, tutoring (including ESL students), and being the liaison between the church and the local food pantry.
Typical activities of a deacon include making the need for specific items (food, clothes, personal items) for the food pantry/resource center known to a congregation through written and oral communication, inviting parishioners to join in social justice efforts, preaching the message of diakonia, advocating to elected officials about social issues, and being present with the dying and their loved ones as one example of pastoral care.
Deacons in the liturgy
The role of the deacon in the liturgy reflects the role of the deacon in the world
- Deacons proclaim the word of God by reading the Gospel during the service.
- Deacons invite the people to confession.
- Deacons lead the prayers of the people, unless a layperson is assigned to do so.
- Deacons occasionally preach.
- Deacons prepare the table, by receiving, preparing and placing the bread and wine on the altar.
- Deacons assist in administering communion, but only the priests consecrate the host and wine.
- Deacons empower the congregation to serve in the community by inviting people through the dismissal to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
- Deacons serve as Eucharistic ministers by taking communion to those who cannot attend the service, or by sending forth laypersons to do so during the service.
With today’s movement toward common ministry and the church’s emphasis on mission, deacons in the Episcopal Church have a unique opportunity to connect the faithful with the needs of the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely, so that all baptized persons will engage in diakonia.
Meribah Mansfield is a Columbus-area deacon who serves her diaconal ministry in the diocese as co-convener of the Becoming Beloved Community Task Force. Connect with her at email@example.com.