Diaconal Vocation and Identity

by Ted Dodd

(Reprinted by permission of Touchstone)

Several of the biblical stories of call evoke larger than life theophany. Isaiah’s vision includes smoke and seraphim. Mary is visited by Gabriel. Paul is blinded on his way to Damascus. My call to diaconal ministry was not that dramatic. It was a quieter nudging toward integrity; a call does not have to be Cecille B. DeMille theatrics and instantaneous flashiness to be valid or authentic.

Numerous scriptural stories of call include patterns of denial and resistance. Sarah laughs in disbelief. Moses fears public speaking. Jeremiah feels he is too young. Jonah runs from Ninevah. In some ways my call to diaconal ministry reflects that pattern of denial and resistance. For 23 years, I was ordained to Word, Sacrament and Pastoral Care. In 2003, I was commissioned to diaconal ministry of Education, Service and Pastoral Care. I avoided this switch for a number of years.

At seminary in the 70s, I was aware of the option for, of what was then called, commissioned ministry. However, I chose ordained ministry without questioning, largely because it was the norm. In the late 80’s, I was in a Conference staff position doing work mostly focused on education and justice. At a national gathering, I was in conversation with one of my diaconal friends. She was sharing her passion for diaconal ministry. I don’t remember the exact course of the conversation but at some point I erupted defensively and said, “So should I give up my ordination and become diaconal because the kind of work I am doing is more diaconal than ordained?” She looked back at me, shrugged and said, splitting the syllables, “May . . . be.”

At the time it seemed an absurd suggestion: complicated, unnecessary, outrageous and even, a bit scary. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, the move carries a sense of faithful inevitability. I do not regret, in any way, the blessing of my years as an ordained person. The church offered me opportunities for growth that honoured my gifts and enhanced my skills. I do not suggest that this move is right for anyone else. It was, and is, right for me; to not make this change would have been dishonest and cowardly.

In 1998, I had been hired to teach at the Centre for Christian Studies. That fall, the (now defunct) national Committee on Diaconal Ministry met in Winnipeg. There was a time of connection with committee and staff. At a break, one of the questions directed toward me was, “So you’re ordained; how does that influence your work with diaconal students?” Not wanting to be apologetic or defensive, I explained that most of my ministry had been diaconal in function and I hoped in style. It was a nudge.

In the fall of 1999, while facilitating a session on diaconal formation, a student started venting, “It kind of bugs me when some non-diaconal folk say ‘I work in a diaconal style’, when they don’t have to walk the diaconal walk.” I didn’t want to be in that position. It felt hypocritical, even dishonest.

In May 2000, the Diakonia of the United Church of Canada gathered for their biennial meeting. For the first time, I was a part of this national community. We discussed diaconal history, perspective, advocacy and international organizations. I was welcomed and included. I considered this community of acceptance, accountability and advocacy to be “my people” — and I wanted to make a deeper commitment. I didn’t want to just claim “adherent” status.

The United Church defines diaconal ministry in terms of function. We commission diaconal ministers to Education, Service and Pastoral Care. Many diaconal ministers do work in community ministries, lead congregational youth and family efforts, serve in chaplaincies. However, many diaconal ministers function in so-called “solo” ministries where a heavy emphasis is placed on Sunday morning worship and sacramental leadership. A certain level of tension surrounds this deployment of diaconal ministers into what is/was traditionally ordained territory. Personally, I find much of the discussion is layered with a competitive spirit that is less than a gracious ideal. I believe the functional way of defining ministry reduces vocation to a job description. And it does not adequately address any sense of confusion or misunderstanding amongst the various streams of ministry.

Sometimes diaconal ministers describe their vocation in terms of style. Commitment to accompaniment, empowerment and mutuality are articulated faith values of the diaconal community.[1]  These values are not, of course, unique to the diaconal community. Obviously, many in all streams of ministry operate with a sense of humble servanthood, pay attention to power and privilege, and employ facilitative practices.

For me, style, as a way of understanding diaconal ministry holds limited appeal. For one reason, style projects a sense of fleeting fashion and trendy superficiality. Diaconia is not a flash in the pan; its history is profound and rich. The United Church did not invent diaconal ministry in some 60s experimental fad. The gospel message indicates that Jesus saw his ministry in terms of diaconia: “I am among us as one who serves (diakoneo)”[2]. “[I] came not to be served but to serve (diakoneo)”[3] And in turn, all the baptized are called to embody that call. The Reformation adage, “the priesthood of all believers” needs to be expanded to remind the church to be the “diakonia of all believers.” Enabling and respectful approaches to ministry remain important to diaconal ministers. However, we cannot (and I would say do not) claim any special claim on these approaches. In my mind, “style” does not provide enough substance or content to capture the depth of our call.

Many of us, more and more, understand diaconal ministry in terms of identity. We are privileged in our position within the order of ministry in the United Church of Canada. Yet, Diaconal ministry is not the norm and, largely because of that, a certain degree of marginalization exists. Diaconal ministers are constantly asked to justify and explain their designation. The preparation for diaconal ministry is considered, by some, to be inferior. A repeated question to diaconal folks is, “When are you going to become a ‘real’ minister?”

However, diaconal ministers continue to embrace the positive aspects of our identity. Our history starts from the very beginning of the early church. In Acts 6, the seven chosen for a ministry of food security and care of the vulnerable are traditionally described as deacons. Phoebe is named a deacon in Romans 16:1. First Timothy outlines the desired qualities in a deacon. Even when the church, relegated the diaconate to a “stepping stone” phase on the way to priesthood, diaconal ministries emerged through creative work like the Beguines and the Franciscans. Remarkably, in the 19th century, the diaconate was imaginatively restored through the deaconess movement.

Much of our present international and ecumenical diaconal impetus emerged as a result of that history. I have been blessed to attend diaconal conferences and assemblies on three continents. I have been hosted in diaconal motherhouses in Germany and Brazil. I have danced, partied, and stayed up late to sing, beside African, Pakistani, Scandinavian, Caribbean and Pilipino diaconal brothers and sisters. I have worshipped and studied with Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican and Presbyterian expressions of diakonia. The rich and diverse mix of languages, cultures, theologies and liturgical practices are undergirded by an abiding sense of connection as diaconal people. This global and interdenominational diaconal community shapes and informs our identity.

Images of diaconia influence our sense of identity. In 2002, Louise Williams shared five images with the assembly of Diakonia of The Americas and Caribbean (DOTAC)[4]:

  • Servant: This traditional image, associated with the towel and basin of foot washing, has been cherished, in diaconal circles, for its reversal of privilege and balancing of power. The gospels are full of reversals – the least are first, a Samaritan is good, children are blessed, a Syro-Phoenician woman changes the rabbi’s mind. In a world and church which orders life and ministry hierarchically and competitively, diaconal ministers appreciate this more egalitarian emphasis. However, we caution and ask that the image of servant not be used to re-victimize those who have no choice about their servanthood. Instead of servanthood, many are adopting language of allies and friendship as models of solidarity and partnership.
  • Table server: Traditionally, the Greek word diakonia, was said to be associated with the one who serves at table. Some controversy exists about the legitimacy of this etymology.[5] Notwithstanding those debates, the image carries importance for diaconal ministers because it highlights our call toward hospitality and welcome.
  • Story teller: Williams states, “From the fourth century, reading the gospel was seen as a diaconal task.”[6] The deacons in the early church had a teaching and catechetical role in preparing people for baptism. Diaconal ministers see themselves as empowering educators who equip folks to reflect on the scriptural story but also to ponder their own stories as holy text.
  • Door keeper: When the early church was under persecution, it was the deacons’ role to safeguard the assembly by standing at the entrance and monitoring those who passed through. For today’s diaconal ministers, this threshold image helpfully indicates the work of standing between church and world. Other images of bridge, go-between or ambassador point to the diaconal role in attempting to connect sacred and secular, worship and work, prayer and action.
  • Light bearer: In the Easter Vigil, it is the liturgical role, in some traditions, for the deacon to light the Paschal candle. This image of bearing the light highlights the diaconal role in keeping hope alive in a suffering world. It also challenges us to shed light in the areas of darkness.

Many images attempt to encapsulate diaconal ministry. None of them perfectly encapsulates the challenge and delight of this vocation.  However, these rich symbols, and the discussion that surrounds them, guide and shape our diaconal identity.

 

Several years ago, I was in Chicago attending a conference. One evening worship was offered from an Afro-American community. The sermon was delivered in the amazing “call-response” format. An astounding energy emerged from the congregation as participants encouraged their preacher to “tell it”, “come on”, “amen, amen.”

The text was Samuel waking up Eli in the middle of the night. The preacher said, “God was calling Samuel.” The congregation responded, “Oh yes.” The preacher continued, “God was calling Samuel and God is calling you.” The congregation replied, “Yes, sir.” The preacher was revved up (pun intended): “God is calling you. God is calling on a direct line.” Then the preacher reached a rhetorical peak, “God is calling on a direct line,” and he lowered his voice and leaned into the microphone, “ . . . but it is a collect call.” And the congregation applauded with a mix of amusement and recognition and conviction.

A call insists that we respond. In responding to the diaconal call I have been blessed over and over again.

 

[1] Diakonia of The United Church of Canada, “Statement of Vision”, www.ducc.ca, 28 April, 2016.

[2] Luke 22:27

[3] Mark 10:45

[4] http://ducc.ca/wp-content/uploads/Claiming-Authority-Address-to-2002-DOTAC-meeting-Louise-Williams.pdf

[5] John N. Collins. Diakonia–Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources. Oxford, 1990.

[6] Williams, page 6.

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6 days ago

fyi, The DOTAC Monthly Prayer Zoom Gathering will not be on August 1 as it is a Sunday. We are moving to Monday, August 2 at 5 pm Central Daylight Time. If you are not on the list but want to join us send me an email -- teddodd@live.com -- and I can send you the link and further information. ... See MoreSee Less

fyi, The DOTAC Monthly Prayer Zoom Gathering will not be on August 1 as it is a Sunday.  We are moving to Monday, August 2 at 5 pm Central Daylight Time.  If you are not on the list but want to join us send me an email -- teddodd@live.com -- and I can send you the link and further information.
7 days ago

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Proper 13



Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665),

The Israelites Gathering the Manna in the Desert,

Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-15

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.

The Israelites said to them,

“If only we had died by the hand of God in the land of Egypt,

when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread;

for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Then God said to Moses,

“I am going to rain bread from heaven for you,

and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.

In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.

Then Moses said to Aaron,

“Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to God,

for God has heard your complaining.’”

And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites,

they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of God appeared in the cloud.

God spoke to Moses and said,

“I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them,

‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread;

then you shall know that I am Yahweh your God.’”

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp;

and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp.

When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance,

as fine as frost on the ground.

When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another,

“What is it?”

For they did not know what it was.

Moses said to them,

“It is the bread that God has given you to eat.

Prayer

Bread of Life and True Manna,

your people are so very human.

When we are hungry or thirsty, we often grumble and complain.

When we are lost or scared, we often murmur and whine.

When are in pain or in doubt, we often get petulant.

When are desperate and in discomfort, we demand gang up on our leaders.

Sometimes our protests are justified and our objections are legitimate.

Sometimes they are not.

In any case, your way is not to scold or judge or blame,

not to be furious or wrathful.

The way of the Holy Mystery is

teeming abundance not scarcity,

generous blessing not revenge,

gracious compassion not critique.

Assemble us.

Have us draw near, that we may

know the intimate dynamic of the divine,

and experience your love in body, mind, and spirit.

God of Exodus and Liberation,

in the midst of the pandemics of

COVID, racism, and violence, and

the floods and fires of climate change,

we know too well the romanticizing and rationalizing of the past:

the desire to return to the “normal” of before,

the whitewashing of colonial history,

the ignoring of humanity’s environmental impact.

Assemble us.

Have us draw near, that we might

be touched by the splendor,

be moved by the presence of gift,

be changed by the hope of connection and community.

Move us into the future in a good way.

Teach us to create new “normals” with faith and courage.

Guide us to reconciliation and right relationship.

Let us be active in fashioning a better planet.

Make us a better people.

*Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), *

*The Israelites Gathering the Manna in the Desert, *

*Musée du Louvre, Paris.*
... See MoreSee Less

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Proper 13

 

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), 

The Israelites Gathering the Manna in the Desert, 

Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-15

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 

The Israelites said to them, 

“If only we had died by the hand of God in the land of Egypt, 

when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; 

for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Then God said to Moses, 

“I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, 

and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. 

In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.

Then Moses said to Aaron, 

“Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to God, 

for God has heard your complaining.’” 

And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, 

they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of God appeared in the cloud. 

God spoke to Moses and said, 

“I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, 

‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; 

then you shall know that I am Yahweh your God.’”

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; 

and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 

 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, 

as fine as frost on the ground. 

When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, 

“What is it?”

For they did not know what it was. 

Moses said to them, 

“It is the bread that God has given you to eat.

Prayer

Bread of Life and True Manna,

your people are so very human.

When we are hungry or thirsty, we often grumble and complain.

When we are lost or scared, we often murmur and whine.

When are in pain or in doubt, we often get petulant.

When are desperate and in discomfort, we demand gang up on our leaders.

Sometimes our protests are justified and our objections are legitimate.

Sometimes they are not.

In any case, your way is not to scold or judge or blame,

 not to be furious or wrathful.

The way of the Holy Mystery is

 teeming abundance not scarcity,

 generous blessing not revenge,

 gracious compassion not critique. 

Assemble us.

Have us draw near, that we may

 know the intimate dynamic of the divine,

 and experience your love in body, mind, and spirit.

God of Exodus and Liberation,

 in the midst of the pandemics of

 COVID, racism, and violence, and

 the floods and fires of climate change,

 we know too well the romanticizing and rationalizing of the past:

 the desire to return to the “normal” of before,

 the whitewashing of colonial history,

 the ignoring of humanity’s environmental impact.

Assemble us.

Have us draw near, that we might

 be touched by the splendor,

 be moved by the presence of gift,

 be changed by the hope of connection and community.

Move us into the future in a good way.

Teach us to create new “normals” with faith and courage.

Guide us to reconciliation and right relationship.

Let us be active in fashioning a better planet.

Make us a better people. 

*Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), *

*The Israelites Gathering the Manna in the Desert, *

*Musée du Louvre, Paris.*
1 week ago

Diaconal colleages and friends, please consider registering for the evening session. These events are sponsored by DOTAC and the World Council of Churches Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace program in partnership with Kairos. ... See MoreSee Less

Diaconal colleages and friends, please consider registering for the evening session. These events are sponsored by DOTAC and the World Council of Churches Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace program in partnership with Kairos.

Comment on Facebook

Don't think I can do it again, but highly recommend it

I look forward to participating again, fully aware each time I have participated in person, I keep learning. I look forward to experiencing the learning in a new way through the online opportunity. I am so glad it is being offered and do hope the evening session fills up!

2 weeks ago

**Sunday, July 25, 2021**

**Proper 12**



*John 6: 5-13*

When Jesus looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip,

“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”

He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.

Philip answered him,

“Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him,

“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.

But what are they among so many people?”

Jesus said,

“Make the people sit down.”

Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.

Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks,

he distributed them to those who were seated;

so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

When they were satisfied, he told his disciples,

“Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”

So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves,

left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets

*Prayer*

Prophet Healer,

we read in our news sources

of fire and floods,

of heat waves and climate change,

and we ask, like an Andrew,

“Who are we to address such devastation?”

Miraculous Messiah,

we see on our devices, images of

brutality and racism,

unmarked burials and a legacy of grief.

We cannot breathe and we wonder,

“Who are we to take on this tragic past and unjust present?”

We are often paralyzed by the enormity of this wrong.

We are tempted to wait out the news cycle.

We can fall into the shame of inertia.

Feeder of the Five Thousand,

we hear the stories of

violence and abuse,

war and conflicts.

We question,

“In the face of so much, what can we do?”

We can be overwhelmed.

We can shut down.

We can suffer compassion fatigue.

Multiplier of the Loaves and Fishes,

this pandemic seems to go on forever.

In the face of exhaustion, isolation, and loss, we sigh,

“When will this end?”

We are tempted toward impatience.

We snap with irritation.

We long for some sort of “normalcy.”

In these struggles of the faith,

we pray for your presence.

Remind us that you are the Prophetic Healer.

Teach us again that you are the Miraculous Messiah.

Show us once more that you are the Feeder of the Five Thousand.

Reveal yourself to us as the Multiplier of the Loaves and Fishes.

And transform our despair into hope.

Change our “not enough” into abundance.

Turn our apathy into action.

Let us become your passionate miracle.

Surprise us with joy and thanksgiving.

Guide us to listen and learn.

Teach us to share with generosity and kindness.

Bless our efforts with vision and amazing grace,

that we might be more truly

your disciples of love in the world,

your ministers of justice-making,

your people of faith and passion.
... See MoreSee Less

**Sunday, July 25, 2021**

**Proper 12**

 

*John 6: 5-13*

When Jesus looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, 

“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”

He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 

Philip answered him, 

“Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 

“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. 

But what are they among so many people?”

Jesus said, 

“Make the people sit down.” 

Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 

Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, 

he distributed them to those who were seated; 

so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 

When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, 

“Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”

So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, 

left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets

*Prayer*

Prophet Healer,

 we read in our news sources

 of fire and floods,

 of heat waves and climate change,

and we ask, like an Andrew,

 “Who are we to address such devastation?”

Miraculous Messiah,

 we see on our devices, images of

 brutality and racism,

 unmarked burials and a legacy of grief.

We cannot breathe and we wonder,

 “Who are we to take on this tragic past and unjust present?”

We are often paralyzed by the enormity of this wrong.

We are tempted to wait out the news cycle.

We can fall into the shame of inertia.

Feeder of the Five Thousand,

 we hear the stories of 

 violence and abuse,

 war and conflicts.

We question,

 “In the face of so much, what can we do?”

We can be overwhelmed.

We can shut down.

We can suffer compassion fatigue.

Multiplier of the Loaves and Fishes,

 this pandemic seems to go on forever.

In the face of exhaustion, isolation, and loss, we sigh,

 “When will this end?”

We are tempted toward impatience.

We snap with irritation.

We long for some sort of “normalcy.”

In these struggles of the faith,

we pray for your presence.

Remind us that you are the Prophetic Healer.

Teach us again that you are the Miraculous Messiah.

Show us once more that you are the Feeder of the Five Thousand.

Reveal yourself to us as the Multiplier of the Loaves and Fishes.

And transform our despair into hope.

Change our “not enough” into abundance.

Turn our apathy into action.

Let us become your passionate miracle.

Surprise us with joy and thanksgiving.

Guide us to listen and learn.

Teach us to share with generosity and kindness.

Bless our efforts with vision and amazing grace,

 that we might be more truly 

your disciples of love in the world,

 your ministers of justice-making,

 your people of faith and passion.

Comment on Facebook

Love your lectionary poem meditations!!

Thanks for this John 6 meditation.

Thank you brother please pray for Indonesia

I’ve seen this mosaic in person, in the Holy Land!

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