The Role of the Deacon
by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane, Bishop of Maine
The diaconate is a full and equal order in the church. Its purpose is to help the body of Christ grasp the fullness of Christ’s ministry. As the church moves from an “operational” mode of life to a “missional” mode of life, deacons will play a crucial role.
From the ordinal: “...God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely... 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... At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.
” The central concept of the diaconate is “servanthood.” Deacons are to model servanthood, by their word and example, and they are to call Christ’s people to their own servanthood in Christ’s name. Deacons are to remind us to seek and serve Christ among all people. They are the icon of Christ’s service to us and to all creation.
Such an understanding means the primary functions of deacons are to exercise their own ministries of servanthood and to recruit and train the people of God for theirs. Deacons are examples and models of servanthood. Deacons are discerners, recruiters, trainers, organizers, exhorters and pray-ers for the servanthood the baptized.
Relationship with the Bishop: Deacons serve at the direction of the bishop and the agreement of the local priest-in-charge. Normally, deacons work in their home communities, but for good cause or missionary strategy may be moved. A letter of agreement between deacon, bishop and priest helps keep expectations, roles and time commitments clear. When a new priest arrives in the parish, all parties will work hard to establish a good working relationship and will re-draft the letter of agreement.
Pastoral care: While all Christian ministries are pastoral, i.e., they are done out of love and in response to the care we have received from our loving shepherd, the role of a deacon is not primarily pastoral - at least not within the congregation. Care for the sick in the community at large or in institutions is an honorable diaconal ministry. But care for the congregation is the responsibility of the priest-in-charge. Neither is the deacon charged with the administration of the congregation. Canon law specifically prohibits it. Administration of servanthood ministries may properly fall to the deacon. The role of the deacon in worship is to incarnate the servanthood of Christ, to represent the concerns of the world, and to assist the priest.
Warning signs of role blurring or confusion in the congregation:
1. The deacon is put in charge of pastoral care or of the pastoral visitors. The deacon might properly train and organize such persons.
2. The deacon is put in charge of worship services.
The deacon may well train lectors, organize the prayers of the people, assist in the administration of the sacraments. The deacon may also lead non-eucharistic services as part of a worship team and as part of a missionary strategy authorized by the bishop. The deacon may preach on an occasional or regular basis.
3. The deacon’s congregational duties detract from and compete with the deacon’s ministry in the community: the deacon is to make Christ known by word and example. Actions speak louder than words. The deacon’s words in the congregation should grow out of the experience of hands-on work in the community.