Jesus uses the word diakoneo about himself: “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). Deacon! Servant! Through the crucified and risen Christ, we are called to be a missional, diaconal church with a prophetic voice to love with compassion, justice and boldness. In the ELCA, deacons—ministers of word and service—and pastors—ministers of word and sacrament—serve collaboratively, side by side.
Deacons respond to the unhealed hurts of the world. Diakonia is not an add-on, but essential to the life and work of the church. Service is offered not just so people will be ready to hear the gospel. Nor is diakonia merely the carrier of the gospel. In service is the real presence of Christ and salvation.
We see diaconal service in the Bible when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. The towel is flexible and shaped by tired feet. The church needs to be flexible, adaptive and creative in calling deacons to care for changing needs in the world. Deacons respond to concrete situations of suffering, oppression and injustice. Their work is difficult, challenging, daring and life-giving.
The deacon’s leadership in Christ is freedom for servanthood that is quite different from subservience. Martin Luther in his Treatise on Christian Liberty wrote: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” We are freed from subservience for powerful servanthood.
From New Testament times through the centuries deacons and deaconesses served on behalf of the church. Their place and authority grew and waned; most often they served among the marginalized.
During the first century to the fourth, deacons had significant liturgical and administrative roles and served the poor. They were the eyes and ears of the early church, reporting needs to the bishop. The eucharist was a bridge between the liturgy and service beyond the Christian community. Ignatius wrote that deacons were to be respected because they represented Jesus Christ.
Things changed when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Hierarchical structures diminished the diaconate, reducing their roles. Still they were called to interpret and meet needs within church and society. In Geneva in the mid 1540s, the hospital couldn’t handle all the welfare needs in the city primarily because of the many refugees who were seeking religious freedom. Impoverished foreigners were being expelled. A fund was established to help the refugees, administered by deacons.
The diaconate was renewed in 19th-century Germany and came to the United States. Today deacons serve from Tanzania to Australia, from Jamaica to Brazil. A worldwide ecumenical diaconal movement is unstoppable, authorized and authenticated in Christ.
In recent decades churches have been rediscovering the role of the deacon, particularly the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the global Anglican Community and the Lutheran World Federation. Deacons are helping the ELCA see how the church can be in service for the sake of the world.
ELCA deacons now serve in diverse ministries. For example: Liz Colver, neighborhood organizing; Jim Valentine, congregation administration; Susan Lindberg Haley, disability ministries; Lake Lambert, college presidency; Shannon Johnson, shared parish ministry with her husband, Josh, a pastor; Christine Connell, Lutheran Social Services; Mel Kieschnick, Lutheran education; Louise Williams, global leadership; Nora Frost, hospital chaplaincy; Marlene Lund, urban education ministries; John Weit, churchwide worship and music; and Tammy Devine, wellness ministries.
Janine Johnson is deacon of rural Calvary Lutheran in Buffalo, Iowa, and urban Zion Lutheran in nearby Davenport, working with both to meet community food needs as the congregations grow in relationship with each other. Community people, in the midst of food insecurity, feel the church really cares about their whole lives.
Terese TouVelle is another deacon who serves in Davenport, called by the synod to work with youth at an alternative high school. They grow food and then share it with pantries. TouVelle networks with congregations throughout the Quad Cities with amazing passion.
Together, from two directions, these deacons and congregations bridge and create community in church and world.
“Mutuality and interdependence” should permeate all relationships of the whole people of God and the public ministries of the church. This was the vision of the “Design Task Force on Specific Ministry” (1983-84) before the ELCA “Study of Ministry” (1988-1993). The task force put side by side “The Office of Word and Sacrament” for “pastoral work” and “The Office of Word and Service” for “diaconal work.” The potential for the fullness of this vision of partnership is now before us.
Listening to millennials and to church leaders from the Southern Hemisphere, they talk most about the church needing to serve in the world. That’s diakonia. That’s where the energy is. Deacons stand side by side with pastors, in solidarity with the laity, seizing every Reformation opportunity for good news action in the world.