Deacons: Charge Ahead!

Deacons Told: Do What you see is needed.
Apologize to the Bishop Later.
Presiding Bishop offers keynote address
at biennial conference of U.S. and Canadian deacons
By Kim Forman, June 26, 2007

[Episcopal News Service] Deacons are called to be the “nags of the church,” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told the biennial Conference of the North American Association for the Diaconate (NAAD) on June 22 at their meeting in Seattle. Reflecting the Conference theme, “Being There, Mission for a New Millennium,” she encouraged the assembled deacons to explore new opportunities for ministry.

The three-day Conference opened June 21 with an evening address by Bishop Vincent Warner of the host Diocese of Olympia, and included seven workshops on topics such as the deacon in the liturgy, prison ministry, health ministry, community organizing, the Millennium Development Goals, and the practice of wellness. There were also a number of opportunities for corporate worship, including a eucharist at St. Mark’s Cathedral with Olympia Bishop Suffragan Nedi Rivera as celebrant.

Jefferts Schori’s keynote address to the biennial conference drew a capacity crowd of local guests and some 220 deacons from across the United States and Canada to the campus of Seattle University.

In introducing the Presiding Bishop, Deacon Susanne Watson Epting, executive director of NAAD, noted that Jefferts Schori, before her election, had said that if people wanted to think about new church starts, they should talk to deacons because “deacons know where the church is needed.”

Commenting on the theme of “Being There,” Epting noted that “when we put the emphasis on ‘there,’ it’s often where deacons are: in places of need; in places outside the church’s walls; in places where others forget that people should be defined not only by their needs, but by their gifts.”

“As we look toward a third-millennium church and a renewed sense of mission,” Jefferts Schori said, “I want to ask you deacons, and the rest of the church, about new ways in which deacons could be sent out.”

Reminding them of their ordination vows, she said deacons are called to serve the poor, weak, sick, the lonely and those who have no other helpers and to interpret the needs and hopes of the world to the church.

The ministry of deacons, she explained, is one of urgency about the starving and homeless and also about “the full humanity and dignity of those in all sorts of prisons, whether legal ones, nursing homes or hospices, as well as the prisons we build through prejudice about race, gender, physical and mental ability, sexual orientation, national origin and so many others.”

Jefferts Schori asked the deacons to think about service to people “captive to a consumerist society” or “caught up in the rat race of jobs or shopping or keeping up with the neighbors” and about “forming communities of faith and transformation among co-workers or fellow commuters or soccer parents.”

“Where is the good news going unheard?” she asked. “Who are the hungry in spirit? Whose needs and concerns and hopes are not being addressed?”

The church is recovering the ancient ministry of deacons focused on service connected to the ministry of a bishop “despite the fact that some dioceses have not yet or not fully embraced the ministry of deacons,” she said. “But I want to push us to see those ministries as far more interconnected than we have tended to see them in the past.”

The church in this millennium will be less tied to buildings than in the past, she predicted, because young people hunger for a spirituality of practice rather than a spirituality of place.

Deacons may have to convert the rest of the church to recognize the need for recruiting, training and assigning younger deacons to work with the younger generation, she said. “We need to begin to see those gifts in teen-agers. You know the kinds of gifts necessary and I challenge you to start looking among the youngsters you meet.”

“Deacons should not only be middle-aged, silver-haired, retired or independently wealthy,” she told a room filled with many of those traits, drawing laughter and applause.

The Presiding Bishop offered the deacons a five-point model of mission developed by the Anglican Consultative Council, the Anglican Communion’s main legislative body. That model, she said, has been “around for about 20 years, but [is] little known in the Episcopal Church.”

It includes: (1) To proclaim the good news of the kingdom; (2) To teach, baptize and nurture new believers; (3) To respond to human need by loving service; (4) To seek to transform unjust structures of society; and (5) To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”

Calling them “the elements of God’s mission in which we participate,” Jefferts Schori offered examples of each. Some deacons are working on environmental issues, she said “nudging and prodding and nagging the rest of the world to wake up to the suffering implicit in our lack of care for creation, but there is abundant opportunity for more ministry there.”

Concluding 45 minutes of formal remarks, Jefferts Schori asked “Now what do you want to talk about?” which sparked an animated conversation with the deacons.

The first question was about her reference to deacons nagging and how that could be done on the local “grass roots level.”

“If half of the dioceses of the church are represented here, as I am told,” she said, “you represent a critical mass and person-by-person you can make a difference, you can change things.”

Walking around the room with a hand-held microphone for more than an hour, Jefferts Schori responded to more than 30 other questions and comments on church canons, education standards, scholarships, networking, pensions and conflict.

“Despite the headlines you read,” she said, only about 45 churches out of 7,600 have left the Episcopal Church for alternate jurisdictions within the Anglican Communion.

“Yes, we have conflict,” she said. “Yes we have always had conflict in the church.”

She listed past disputes between Gentiles and Jews in the early church and over slavery, native Americans and other minorities, over the place of women and children in the church, “but we have much more in common and we need to reach out to each other and build on that.”

When a delegate asked how deacons could work with priests or bishops who don’t recognize and use their skills and gifts, Jefferts Schori quipped, “Sometimes it’s much easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”

Several delegates thanked the Presiding Bishop for attending their conference and voiced appreciation for her insights and support.

Kent McCall of Kansas City said Jefferts Schori “appreciates deacons and what we do, and there are lots of people who don’t. She is very intellectual, wise and charismatic. Now we know why she was elected.”

Emily Morales, a priest from Puerto Rico, said, “I was very impressed with her wisdom in dealing with the issues” and for Jefferts Schori’s support of a school opening there in August with 11 deacon candidates.

Three deacons ordained last December in Los Angeles — Margaret McCauley, Walter Johnson and Christine Nevarez — talked about the Presiding Bishop’s encouragement “to go beyond our comfort zone and work for change” for ethnic minorities and youth.

“I especially liked what she said about always being hopeful and filled with unlimited possibility if we can think outside the box,” Johnson said.

An important feature of the Conference was the June 22 presentation of the awards for the “Recognition of Diaconal Ministry in the Tradition of St. Stephen.” Begun in 1995, these awards are given to no more than one deacon from any diocese, who must be endorsed by the diocesan bishop. A total of 25 deacons received this prestigious award in 2007.

At the same ceremony, the Bishop George Clinton Harris Award for outstanding service was presented posthumously to Northern Michigan Bishop Jim Kelsey, and was accepted by Deacon Tina Maki of the diocese, who was also a Stephen Award recipient. Begun in 2001, Kelsey was the fourth recipient of this award. Kelsey, bishop representative on the NAAD Board, died in an auto accident June 3 while returning from a parish visitation. The Bishop George Clinton Harris Award had been planned before his death.

At the NAAD Business meeting, elections to the board, completed earlier by mail ballot, were confirmed by the membership. Deacon Barbara Bishop from the Diocese of Chicago, NAAD’s vice president/president elect for the past two years, was elected president. Tina Campbell of Northern California and Pam Nesbitt of Pennsylvania were elected as new members of the NAAD board. Bishop J. Michael Garrison of the Diocese of Western New York, was elected to fill the bishop slot on the board. The Ven. Jim Upton, a former board member and former Archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas, died on June 17 at his home in Newton, Kansas, following his re-election to the board. He was the third significant NAAD leader to die in recent months.

Br. Justus Van Houten SSF, who was president of NAAD from 1995-97, died suddenly in Papua New Guinea last year.

Dutton Morehouse, editor of the NAAD quarterly “Diakoneo,” said attendance at this conference was 100 more than any in recent memory. The next conference will be held in 2010 but no location has been selected.

— The Rev. Kim Forman is a retired Episcopal priest and freelance journalist in the Diocese of Olympia.

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