Deacons, Mission, and New Church Starts

It’s a joy for me to be an observer at the annual conference of the North American Association for the Diaconate meeting at the beautiful Seattle University here in the Pacific Northwest. A couple of hundred participants were addressed this morning by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori on the topic of mission.

Those who persist in believing that the Presiding Bishop (or the Episcopal Church) now defines the mission of the Church exclusively in terms of the Millenium Development Goals will be pleased to know that her framework for today’s presentation were the Five Marks of Mission defined by the Anglican Consultative Council. (Google “Five Marks of Mission” to see them listed).

I think I was most struck by the PB’s challenge to the deacons (and the Church) to be about the mission of this 3rd Millenium Church in new ways. For example, rather than deciding on “new church starts” by demographic analyses, income predictions, even ethnicity, how about having deacons (and others) tell us where the gospel most needs to be heard and establish new communities of faith there!

Young people, she correctly pointed out, are less concerned about a “spirituality of place” and more interested in a “spirituality of practice.” New church starts and indeed the Church of the future may be less concerned with buildings and more concerned with incarnating God’s mission.

I’ve been following the so-called “emergent church” movement lately and that certainly seems to be among the distinctive characteristics of these young people. In any case, as a longtime supporter of the diaconate,  I was energized by the thought of these devoted deacons — who are in their ordination vows pledged to “interpret the needs of the world to the Church” — providing much-needed guidance to bishops and dioceses seriously interested in planting new churches which can actually be communities engaged in “restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

8 Responses to “Deacons, Mission, and New Church Starts”

  1. thomas bushnell, bsg Says:

    is there any progress on the ecumenical front, vis-a-vis the diaconate, with respect to the ELCA?

  2. ecubishop Says:

    Well, “progress” is a relative term! The Lutheran Episcopal Coordinating Committee commissioned a paper and study to be done about how “some functions of deacons in the Episcopal Church and diaconal ministers and deaconesses in the ELCA might come to be shared over time” (CCM)

    While there is much convergence in the two churches’ understanding of diakonia, the fact that Episcopal deacons are ordained but diaconal ministers and deaconesses in the ELCA are lay presents a problem for interchangeability — at least in the liturgy.

    Currently, the two offices of ministry development encourage joint expressions of diakonia on the local level wherever possible and recommend whatever shared liturgical functions take place be worked out on that level. That’s about the best we can do for now.

    It’s a work in progress…

  3. thomas bushnell, bsg Says:

    indeed. it was the part that gave me the most pause about the Concordat, and continues to do so. indeed, if memory serves, the Concordat specified that the Lutherans would begin instituting the diaconate, and then a key vote decided against it (on the specious grounds that it would be bad for lay ministry, but really based upon Lutheran convictions about the “unity” of Christian ministry–a rejection, ultimately, of there being more than one order). and then, the rejection seemed to me to be papered over.

    i am worried that we will have interchangeability of presbyters, and ignore the rest, based basically upon the silent presumption that only presbyters really count. that surely isn’t a good outcome to the whole experiment.

    so my hope is that you’ll take the diaconal fire you speak about in this post, and push it as strongly as other things in ecumenical conversation. 😉

  4. ecubishop Says:

    Doing my best, Thomas. I was dean of Central Florida’s school for deacons from 1974 until 1978. When I became Bishop of Iowa in 1988 there were two “vocational deacons,” when I left in 2001 there were 30-something. And…I’m married to the Executive Director of the North American Association for the Diaconate!

  5. Ormonde Plater Says:

    Chris, I’m interested in Katharine’s comment on deacons as missionary scouts. That emphasis reflects the liturgical role of proclaiming the gospel. Deacons bear the gospel to Christian people so that all of us may bear it in the world. In the early church this connection between liturgy and evangelization was more clearly understood and, I think, carried out.

  6. ecubishop Says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Ormonde. Thanks for the post…

  7. Linda in Iowa Says:


    As a member of the Diocese of Iowa, where I had the privilege of being received in TEC by Bp. Epting, I’ll vouch for his “bona fides” as an unwavering and passionate advocate of the diaconate — anywhere, anytime! If there is ever a bishop who has “gotten it” about the vitality and importance of deacons, Christopher is that one!


  8. ecubishop Says:

    Too kind, Linda…but thanks!

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