Deacons Play Evolving Role

The Rev. Stannard Baker, deacon, Cathedral of St. Paul, Burlington, VT

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

In the Diocese of Kentucky, congregations depend on deacons to tweak consciences and inspire ministry in surrounding neighborhoods burdened by poverty. Kentucky deacons also play liturgical roles from bidding prayers to delivering homilies. And they don’t get paid, which helps preserve funds in tight budgets.

But more than half of the diocese’s 33 congregations have no deacons at all. And that’s a problem, according to the Ven. Rose Bogal-Allbritten, archdeacon for the Diocese of Kentucky.

Archdeacon Faye Somers of the Diocese of Southeast Florida

“We always need more deacons,” she said. “Congregations who are not successful, who are dying, are the ones who focus inward and think about the congregation primarily… Sometimes laypeople have to be led to see that there are needs in communities surrounding congregations, and that it’s the responsibility of the church to serve those communities. That’s the deacon’s very big responsibility.”

The need for more deacons is not unique to Kentucky. Across the Episcopal Church, deacons are in high demand to meet a host of timely ministry needs. For instance, when cries for racial justice quickly escalated in 2020, parishioners looked to deacons to help them make cross-racial connections for local dialogue and action projects. In Atlanta, Arizona and other dioceses, congregations have tapped into deacon-led programs to confront systemic racism when the moments have called for it.

Deacons emphasize that their call is to be prophetic in interpreting the world to the church, not to function as “mini-priests.” Meanwhile, bishops depend on deacons to help keep congregational life running smoothly and assign them where they’re most needed.

That’s part of what keeps deacon numbers down, according to Bogal-Allbritten. Although Kentucky deacons are not asked to relocate, they must serve where the bishop says they’re needed. That might mean leaving one’s home parish to serve in an unfamiliar congregation across town or in another county. They give up a measure of independence to answer their call.

Where priests are in short supply, deacons sometimes fulfill roles that a priest would normally have. For example, at St. Cuthbert’s in Boynton Beach, Florida, and nearby St. Patrick’s in West Palm Beach, deacons preach and administer Communion from the Reserved Sacrament, according to the Ven. Faye Somers, archdeacon for the Diocese of Southeast Florida.

“In the future, the role of a deacon will probably be changing where we don’t have enough priests to cover the smaller congregations,” Somers said. “In that case, deacons are probably going to be relied on more to be those [pastoral] visitors, to be the ones to perhaps lead a deacon’s mass or occasionally bury someone if a priest isn’t available.”

Somers says she doesn’t worry about the role of deacons being compromised. She cites the Book of Common Prayer, which authorizes deacons to administer certain rites and responsibilities when priests are unavailable.

Others insist deacons need to stay focused on their uniquely prophetic calling, lest the integrity of the diaconate be watered down or compromised.

“When there is a shortage of priests, which there soon will be, and a shortage of money, the impetus is to scan the horizon for anybody else in a collar,” said the Rev. Lori Mills-Curran, executive director of the Association for Episcopal Deacons and a deacon herself. Though deacons are ordained, she warns against thinking: “’Oh, they can do the confirmation class. They can do the baptismal prep. Oh, they can’t do Eucharist, but maybe I can give them pre-sanctified elements and send them out to the little church in Podunk, Iowa, so that the last dozen gray heads in the pews can get Eucharist.’ What really needs to happen is for the little church in Podunk, Iowa, to conceive of a new reality for itself. It needs to look for the Lutherans in town.” That would mean receiving the sacrament from a pastor ordained in a denomination in full communion with the Episcopal Church.

Figuring out where deacons fit in the matrix of church life has been a long-term challenge. For decades, Episcopalians have grappled to find roles for deacons that are both practical and consistent with ideals. But even the ideals have been hotly debated.

“Since the 1960s, we’ve had a major rethinking about the diaconate,” said Robert Prichard, professor emeritus of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary. Prior to 1960, he said, it functioned largely as a terminal ministry for women and a long-term holding pattern for racial minorities. After the mid-60s, deacons were reframed as having a role representing Christ in a way that functionary priests do not. But scholars are skeptical whether such distinctions are historically accurate.

“It is a return to one understanding of the role of the diaconate in the early church,” Prichard said. “I’m not convinced that bishops, priests and deacons were entirely separate orders before the Council of Nicaea [in 325]. Nowhere is there entirely convincing evidence that that was the case. It’s an attractive thought experiment… that involves some big jumps.”

These days, myriad forces – some theological, others more pragmatic – continue to shape what deacons actually do. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer defined for the first time what deacons are to do in liturgy, Prichard said, but much about the role is still debated nonetheless.

“There is a lively discussion, and I think finance also is playing a role: how you support parishes becomes an open question,” Prichard said. “Another question that comes up: to what degree should General Convention authorize deacons to preside at the Eucharist? There is this kind of liturgical creep, partially for financial reasons, to give more and more of what was previously understood to be the role of the presbyter or priest, to a deacon.”

In a welcome boost, diaconate ranks have swelled by 13 percent from 2,716 in 2010 to 3,063 in 2020, according to figures from the Church Pension Group. But the median age of a deacon is 73, which some deacons believe is too high to keep the order sufficiently diverse and effective. The Episcopal Church has more deacons over age 90 than it has under age 50, according to the Rev. Jon Owens, a 39-year-old deacon who’s spearheading an initiative to recruit more deacons born after the mid-1970s.

“If you want to attract people, you’ve got to start young,” Owens said. “When you have younger people in ministry positions, they bring a different type of energy. They bring a new and fresher perspective. And they have different types of skill sets that the church desperately needs,” such as adeptness with technology and online communications.

Young Episcopal Deacons launched in 2016 to provide encouragement and recruit deacons below age 45. YED ambassadors have been visiting colleges, graduate theological schools, and Episcopal Service Corps programs to explain the diaconate and invite discernment.

The Association for Episcopal Deacons has been rolling out the welcome mat, too. AED offered need-based grants to help deacons under age 40 to attend the triennial conference in Providence, Rhode Island in 2019. Forty in that age group attended, marking the first time such a youthful cohort had an organized presence at AED, according to Mills-Curran.

To date, filling the deacon pipeline and enriching its diversity haven’t been easy tasks. Among the reasons: training generally costs between $5,000 and $10,000, according to Mills-Curran. The time commitment adds up, too. In Kentucky, for example, training involves 20 weekend sessions over a two-year period. For most deacons, the discernment and preparation process results in an unpaid part-time commitment of up to 15 hours per week in a parish or diocesan setting.

Financial support for education has been growing. In the Diocese of California, for instance, tuition costs are now covered for those who discern a call to the diaconate. In 2019, the New York-based Fund for the Diaconate of the Episcopal Church announced a broadening of its mission.

“Until recently, dollars from The Fund could only be spent on deacons who demonstrated dire financial need,” the Fund says in a fact sheet from 2019. “But, looking forward, The Fund sees its mission as assisting the entire diaconate to flourish.”

Some would like to see systems modified to lower the barriers to entry and increase incentives. Owens works as a paid deacon at St. John’s Church in Oakland, California. He’d like to see more such positions created.

“If [congregations] can come up with actual paid positions, that’s going to strengthen the diaconate, which is going to strengthen the church as a whole,” Owens said. “It’s time to try new things because what we’re doing is not working as a whole for the church, which is shrinking.”

AED is not advocating for more salaried deacon positions. But it is urging the church to do more to get benefits to deacons who’ve earned them under existing canons and policies.

According to the Church Pension Group, deacons are entitled to certain benefits as long as they’re paid at least $25 per month and assessments (18 percent of salary) are paid on their behalf. These benefits aren’t on par with pensions paid to retired priests, but they do have meaningful value, Mills-Curran said. Examples include a resettlement benefit at the time of retirement, as well as invitations to CPG’s Planning for Wellness and CREDO conferences. CREDO takes a holistic approach to fostering spiritual, vocational, psychological, physical, and financial health.

Most deacons don’t receive such benefits, however. One reason: only 12 percent are employed as deacons by an Episcopal Church-affiliated organization, according to the Church Pension Group. Another reason: those who are employed often haven’t been properly supported in the CPG program. A 2019 AED analysis found that only 46 percent of employed deacons were getting their assessments paid on their behalf.

“These are not deacons who might have the right to assessments,” writes Mills-Curran in the AED analysis. “These are deacons that based on the data they provided to CPG are entitled, but are simply not getting them. Would 46% compliance be tolerated for any other order?”

CPG offers programs to educate deacons, dioceses and other Episcopal organizations about benefits and processes for eligible deacons. Example: CPG hosted a webinar on deacons’ benefits on Dec. 8. CPG also covers the subject in e-learning courses, conferences for administrators and other settings.

Dioceses have also taken action to make sure more deacons receive benefits. In 2019, the Diocese of Vermont adopted a policy mandating that any organization with a deacon agreement must pay its deacons at least $25 per month. Though the sum isn’t large, it’s enough to trigger CPG benefits. Other dioceses are reportedly considering similar measures.

“One reason we want to do this is to make benefits available to younger people who want to discern [a call to] the diaconate,” said the Rev. Stannard Baker, deacon at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Burlington, Vermont. “It’s much more of a prophetic, herald order than it used to be. So we really are seeing a renewed interest from younger people in becoming permanent deacons.”

Benefits could also help older deacons such as Faye Somers, the archdeacon in Southeast Florida, who is in her 60s. She’s not paid for her diaconate role at St. Andrew’s Chapel in Boca Raton, where duties include assisting the priest in liturgies. Her paid job is Lower School Chaplain at St. Andrew’s School, which shares space with the congregation. Because her deacon role is unpaid, she’s ineligible for the CPG benefits that she’d get if she were paid even as little as a $25 per month stipend.

“I’m not part of the Church Pension Fund,” Somers said. She said she has asked St. Andrew’s to classify her chaplaincy work as deacon work, which would make her eligible for CPG benefits. But doing so would require the School to pay CPG assessment bills in amounts equivalent to 18 percent of her salary. Instead, St. Andrew’s regards her diaconate work as separate and unpaid. That means Somers has no access to financial planning assistance through CREDO or other benefits that deacons receive when they’re paid a $25 per month stipend.

“I have tried,” Somers said. “I have tried.”

With movements underway to keep reshaping the diaconate, the order could potentially continue on a post-1960s trajectory toward greater professionalization and distinctive identity. Whichever dynamics hold sway, they’ll shape an order that’s positioned to play a growing role in the future church. Deacons plan to keep advocating for they see as their calling in the meantime.

“If we’re told by the bishop, ‘well, you need to do confirmation class and baptismal prep,’ then we don’t have any time to go lead marches,” Mills-Curran said. “I don’t want to squander the charism of the diaconate [because that] squanders the evangelism opportunity at the march.”






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