I have realized that I have talked a lot about being a deaconess student, but some of you might not know what a deaconess or deacon is. A deaconess/deacon is someone who serves and is called to the ministry of Word and Service, versus a Pastor who is called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. Those may seem like big churchy words, but the basic gist is deacons and deaconesses do service. On the website of the Lutheran Diaconal Association (my diaconate) they explain it this way:
A deaconess or deacon is someone one who serves. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and instructed them to do the same for others. Sometimes deaconesses and deacons do actual foot-washing like Jesus did; but more widely, they serve Christ by walking with those the world easily forgets; the marginalized, the poor, the powerless, the sick. People who reach out to others in this way—with care and compassion in a hurting world—are practicing diaconal service. Some of them desire to do this as a professional in ministry, and enter a more formal training and formation process to become deaconesses and deacons.…Deaconess/deacon ministry has come to mean many things: it means serving others on bended knee, and from positions of leadership. It means entering the hurt parts of society and carrying the light and love of Christ in service to others. It means telling the story of God’s love, and helping others to hear God in their own story. It means welcoming the stranger in our midst.
The role of deacons/deaconesses goes back to the Early Church, and was created as a way to reach out and care for those on the margins as the church was growing. Some of those early deacons named in the New Testament are Stephen, Phillip, and Phoebe. There were a few main roles that deacons filled in the early church from table service to working as missionaries. A sister from my community has written and spoken about 5 Images of Diakonia. These images being foot washing, table waiting, storytelling, doorkeeper/go-between, and light bearer. These images stem out of those traditional roles of deacons and deaconesses in the early church.
Foot washing, often represented by a basin and towel is probably the most iconic image of diaconal ministry. It is the servanthood modeled by Jesus as he knelt to wash his disciples’ feet. This is hard and humble work, responding to real need, often in places that we would rather not see or acknowledge exist. But it is often there where we meet Jesus.
The table waiting image stems out of the diaconates role in the early church’s agape meals- gathering, preparing, and serving food. In the early church the deacons also filled the role of what we now call assisting ministers, preparing the communion table and helping distribute that meal. As well as being the ones who carried out that meal to those who could not be present, like our visitation minsters.
The image of story teller in part comes from the fact that Jesus himself often used stories as a way to teach and the role of the diaconate to help the stories of the Bible come alive for people. But another important piece of the story teller image is to help people tell their own stories, of pain, of joy, of suffering, and of resurrection. Especially creating space for those whose stories are often the ones that are ignored or told by others rather than themselves. Part of the role of storytelling is listening. Listening without an agenda. Listening to learn something from the person who is sharing their story with you.
In the early church there was a lot of persecution, so when the community gathered the deaconesses/deacons would stand at the door to welcome and check those coming in. They were the door keepers. They provided the hospitality and were what we might call ushers or greeters. They were at the boundary between the church and the world, and were the go-between as they carried messages connecting the bishop to the community and the church to the world. The go-between was also a role of mediation and reconciliation. Bringing together those from differing ideals and understandings and helping build conversation.
The light bearer image stems from the role of the deacon/deaconess during the Easter Vigil service, blessing and lighting the Pascal candle. They carried the burning candle into the darkness of the worship proclaiming “Christ our light.” The diaconal role of bearing light is about bringing hope, and that the night does not have the last word. The role of bearing light can be one of vulnerability, being willing to uncover the not so pretty parts of our world. Exposing places where the vision of shalom, the wholeness of creation, is distorted or obscured. Calling people back to this vision over and over. Seeking to see with the eyes of God and speak with the voice of God.
These images of foot washing, table waiting, storytelling, door keeping, and light bearing are central to the many roles of deacons and deaconess in the early church and today. But there are also ways the whole church is called to serve and reach out to others. The work of diakonia, of service, belongs to all the people of God, deacons and deaconesses are those who do this as their work and help others to see their diaconal role as well. We all do the work of diaconal ministry in our everyday lives. Where are you doing the work of diakonia?
If you have more questions about what a deaconess is I am always happy to chat!