by the Rev. Canon Mark Harris
December 2019 marked ten years of life with deacons in Delaware. On December 5, 2009, at St. Stephen’s Church, six deacons were ordained in a joyous service that could not be marred even by mud and rain. That service sealed the commitment of the Episcopal Church in Delaware to the ministry of deacons, a commitment which grew from the conviction that the church ought to nurture the servant ministry of all the baptized by setting apart some particularly called to that ministry as living symbols of servant ministry.
The decision to ordain and engage deacons did not come quickly or easily to the diocese. There was no clear mandate for vocational deacons until during and after the process of electing the Rt. Rev. Wayne Parker Wright in 1998, when the matter was raised as a hope for the diocese. Bishop Wright came knowing that there was interest, but it took several years for this to result in a decision to move forward with the idea.
In 2003–2004, the idea bubbled to the surface and several diocesan clergy took the lead in promoting the idea. In 2004, it was decided to proceed, and the commission on ministry formed a task force on the diaconate with the Rev. Rita Nelson as its head. In 2005, a call went out inviting interested persons to attend a first meeting introducing the diaconate. Amazingly, 60 people responded! Clearly, it was an idea whose time had come. In 2006, a discernment document was completed and put into use. Over the next three years, ten to 12 people took part in various aspects of the training, and in the end six candidates were presented for ordination.
The initial discernment document envisioned the diaconate in the following terms:
The Deacon is a living symbol of the servant ministry of the whole Church.
- They serve the needs of the world and the communities where they live.
- They bring the needs and concerns of the world to the church.
- They serve as example and they teach, encourage, and support others in the life of service.
- They witness to this service in prayer.
The Deacon is a primary sign of the relationship of the Church to the society, as a reflection of Our Lord Jesus Christ’s relationship to the world.
- The Deacon is charged to speak the truth to the Church, and the Church’s truth to the world, based in the experience of service to the broken, the downtrodden and the helpless.
- The Deacon is expected to contribute to the prophetic role of the Church as experience, vision, and the Holy Spirit give voice.
- The Deacon offers prayer and service as an outward and visible sign of the ministry of the whole church.
- Deacons provide a sacramental focus for the ministry of prayer and service to the poor and poor in spirit, and for this reason Deacons are set apart and ordained by solemn vows.
- Deacons are diocesan ministers.
One of the first group of deacons remembers the long wait for that first call in 2005. “I felt the call to be a deacon in 1998 and had to wait until 2005 when the program was finally put in place. The waiting seemed like an eternity.” Another commented, “We were the foundation, but it had some cracks in it.”
Now, ten years later, ten deacons are active in the diocese, and many of the initial concerns, quandaries, and institutional puzzlements have been dealt with but, of course, more work still needs to be done.
Several deacons reflected on what they were thankful for in their ministries.
A recently ordained deacon noted that what she was most grateful for in her ministry was the sense of the Holy Spirit at work in her life. “God has touched my heart through the Holy Spirit to do God’s work through Jesus’ example.”
Another from the first class of deacons concurred, commenting that she was grateful “to the Holy Spirit who fills me with inspiration for projects” noting that “there are no projects I introduce that stay within a box.”
Deacons in Delaware have been actively engaged in the liturgical life of the parishes where they are assigned. One deacon remarked, “I love serving liturgically and am honored to read the Gospel.”
Another, working with those in an assisted living community, was particularly grateful for the gift to “truly see the mental needs of others.”
Deacons are called to unique ministries, yet each is a facet of the larger call to be a living symbol of servant ministry. As one noted, “There are so many ways to do God’s work through Jesus’ example.”
The process of discernment, training, and formation as a deacon is still a work in progress. Several deacons said the process seemed too long, often without sufficient encouragement or communication, and unnecessarily complex. Hopefully, the process will be continuously perfected. However, all the deacons found their vocations affirmed in the realities of parish and diocesan life.
Working with our current bishop, the Rt. Rev. Kevin S. Brown, and guided by the vision that all parishes need to engage their communities more deeply, the commission on ministry is developing a new discernment process calling forth new ways to use the ministry of deacons. If we wish to open the Episcopal Church in Delaware to greater hospitality and church members to greater service, if we wish to engage Invite Welcome Connect as a central process of church life, we will certainly need new deacons.
Ten years is a good beginning. Now we are in for the long haul!