The Greek word diakonia means service among others, and has it roots in the Christian scriptures. Deacons (or “diaconal ministers” as they’re called in the United Church tradition) carry out all kinds of ministries, often in the areas of education, service, and pastoral care. Those in the diaconate serve in various capacities, such as in congregational ministry, in community development, as chaplains, in inner-city ministry, as overseas personnel, at lay education centres and theological schools, or in staff positions within their presbytery/ conferences/ diocese/ General Synod/ General Council. These ministries can also include responsibility for liturgical and sacramental leadership.
Many Christian denominations have diaconal ministers. In the United Church of Canada they are commissioned as a distinct from but equal stream within the order of ministry. In the Anglican Church of Canada the office of “deacon” is sometimes a stepping-stone toward priesthood (transitional diaconate), but there are also those who are ordained to life-long vocational diaconal ministry.
“Diakonia” is also the worldwide movement of those commitment to the vision of Christian service, action, and justice-making. (See Diaconal Community.)
Symbols of the Diaconate
One of the traditional symbols of diaconal ministry is the towel and bowl. Many appreciate the traditional message of this symbol of humble service, as a reminder of Jesus, who took on and transformed the role of servant by washing the disciples’ feet. Others are raising questions about the symbol’s potential to promote servility and challenging the message of humble service when it is directed toward the marginalized.
Another symbol that is popular around CCS is the spiral. It represents, among other things, the flow of the Spirit, and the deeping of understanding that comes from moving from experience to reflection to action and so on.
Vision of Diaconal Ministry
The following “Statement of Vision” comes from the Diakonia of the United Church of Canada, a national organization for UCC diaconal ministers:
God calls us to diaconal ministry.
The gospel of Jesus invites all to this ministry: to offer compassion and accompaniment, to work for liberation and justice, to act as advocates of creative transformation.
Diaconal ministry, as a recognized order, is rooted within our faith tradition and history, and it is continued and embodied in an ecumenical, world-wide community.
This vocation is a journey involving Spirit-filled enrichment and learning,
requiring humble offering of self, demanding prayerful discernment and courageous risking, exercising visionary and communal leadership,
promising joy and meaning, and daring to imagine God’s abundance
in a world of love and respect.
Through education, service, social justice, and pastoral care, diaconal ministry in The United Church of Canada, encourages a growing faith, speaks truth to power, seeks mutual empowerment, proclaims prophetic hope,
nurtures life-giving community, fosters peaceful, right relationship, within the church and the whole of creation wherever the Spirit may lead.
– Statement of Vision, Diakonia of The United Church of Canada
Approved at the National Gathering, Five Oaks, April 14-17, 2009
How will we know when we have enough deacons?
When all the needs of the marginalized and vulnerable are met;
When to gather the gifts of the church and take them to the world, and to gather needs of the world and bring them to the church, has become a habit;
When as the Rev. Canon George Osgood says, “…Deacons, going back and forth, have worn down the boundary lines that we use to keep church and world separated…”;
When deacons, leading the baptized in and out, have beaten a path between the altar and the gutter so that everyone will see the link between the Blood in our chalices and the blood in our streets;
When all people respond to the challenge to live, not in the love of power but in the power of love.
– Excerpt from a June 17, 2001 sermon by Rev. Irma Wyman,
Archdeacon for the Diaconate
for the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota.