Ordination of Deacons

By Bishop Mike Rinehart

deaconsIn 2016, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly passed a resolution to combine three rosters – Associates in Ministry, Deaconesses and Diaconal Ministers – into one roster: Deacon. In a recent lunch with some of our deacons, I heard positive remarks about this move over the last two years. “I don’t think anyone ever understood Associates in Ministry. Ever. We explained it a hundred times. It went right over their heads,” said one person. “Deacon” has traction.

At the 2019 Churchwide Assembly coming up next summer, several recommendations will be coming to the floor. A team has been working on some of the details of this office, like the entrance rite for example. Below are some of those recommendations, but first a little bit of background.

Acts 6

We read about deacons in Acts 6. The church was growing (Acts 2:47), and as is often the case, conflict arose. It was both racial and religious. The Greeks complained that Hebrew widows were getting more food than the Greek widows, who were being neglected in the daily distribution. There was an inequity, an injustice. The Twelve gathered and decided to appoint seven people to handle the daily food distribution. While the apostles did their work, these deacons would attend to a kind of social ministry, distributing food to the poor, orphans and widows. It is instructive that the church saw this as a primary ministry, so important that a special ops team was created to ensure a just system. The deacons are set apart by prayer and laying on of hands. The problem is solved, and the church continues to grow.

Mark Oldenburg points out that the laying on of hands is clearly not only for those with liturgical duties.

The first of those chosen was Stephen, who preached with the Spirit and with wisdom (Acts 6:10). He also preached in a way that made people angry, so angry in fact, that they eventually stoned him. The first martyr in the New Testament was a deacon, stoned for preaching an edgy sermon.

Deacons were distributers of the church’s food. Gordon Lathrop (see link below) says they took communion to the homebound. They distributed the food collected at the church’s assembly, to the sick, the needy, orphans and widows. In the second century Ignatius of Antioch regarded deacons as “entrusted with the service of Jesus Christ.” The role is not presiding. It is serving. Lathrop points out that Bugenhagen, in the Reformation, used deacon to describe the person who kept the community chest.

The role of deacon developed into a more formalized role over time. Deacons preached, baptized, evangelized and more. At times the church rolled back some of those duties. Subdeacons and other roles emerged. In some cases, it was a stepping stone toward the priesthood. Other denominations have two kinds of deacons. Permanent deacons are those who feel permanently called to a vocation of proclaiming the Word to the world, and leading the church in service to the world. Transitional deacons are those who are preparing for ordination as priests. They will serve as deacons for a temporary time of preparation. In our tradition, we do not see the diaconate as a stepping stone to Word and Sacrament ministry.

  1. Louise Williams points out that the diaconate, while not as common in North American Lutheranism, is used around the world among Lutherans. The word diakonia is quite familiar among our companion synods. The World Council of Churches uses it quite frequently as well. Our own Duane Larson, at Christ the King Houston, points out that diakonia/service, while vitally important to the Christian witness in the world, has not be a prominent part of our tradition.

Pastors are ministers of Word and Sacrament in our ecclesiology. They preach, baptize and preside at Holy Communion. Pastors are stewards of the mysteries, the sacraments.

Deacons are minsters of Word and Service. Deacons preach as do pastors. Deacons also lead the church in service to the world. Deacons serve as teachers, youth workers, musicians, administrators and more.

This church keeps a roster (a list) of those who have been prepared and approved for each of these ministries. Such a list helps this church know who have been prepared and approved. It also allows this church to remove those in cases of misconduct. This provides safety for the whole church. Pastors and deacons require a call (by vote of the congregation) to remain on the roster of pastors or deacons.

Why deacon and not pastor?

Deacons usually sense a call to serve the church and the world. At a recent gathering of deacons in our synod, I asked the question: Why deacon and not pastor. Many have said they simply felt called to that, and not to sacramental or liturgical work. “I didn’t feel the call to ordained ministry.” One loved to teach.

Entrance Rite Discernment Group

Once this church decided to strengthen and uplift the role of deacon (diakonia, leadership in service to the world), and combine the three rosters into one, called “deacon,” there was the matter of choosing an entrance rite. Before the combination of the three rosters, bishops were installed, pastors were ordained, diaconal ministers were consecrated, and Associates in Ministry were commissioned. In some other church bodies, however, bishops and deacons are ordained. Ordination simply means prayer with laying on of hands, something we do in commissionings, consecrations and installations anyway. The words are virtually interchangeable. So what is the issue?

Furthermore, Lathrop argues, Augsburg Confession 14 suggests that the Reformers were happy to accept canonical ordination as currently practiced. This would have included ordaining deacons, priests and bishops. The question becomes one of understanding. In North America, Lutherans have used ordination exclusively for pastors. This is not the case for Lutherans in other parts of the world.

How about now? Do we stick with our local pattern, or consider a global view? Should deacons be consecrated? Ordained? Commissioned? Something else? Will deacons wear stoles? What will be the signs of this office?

A team was appointed to work on these things. They did a lot of listening. Gordon Lathrop wrote a paper on this question. You can read it HERE.

Here are the recommendations of the Entrance Rite Discernment Group. They recommend that the ELCA:

  1. establish the rite of ordination as the entrance rite for deacons entering the roster of Ministers of Word and Service;
  2. define the symbols of this ministry as a deacon’s stole and a cross, both to be presented at the entrance rite;
  3. direct the worship staff of this church to develop an appropriate rite and rubrics for the ordination of deacons;
  4. direct the worship staff of this church to share information about the appropriate use of the deacon stole and to facilitate a conversation among deacons regarding a unified cross design;
  5. charge the secretary of this church with proposing appropriate amendments to the Constitutions, Bylaws and Continuing Resolutions of the ELCA that will ensure that at least 60 percent of the members of its assemblies, councils, committees, boards, and other organizational units shall be persons who are not on the rosters of Ministers of Word and Service or Ministers of Word and Sacrament;
  6. review the ELCA candidacy process for appropriate modifications as necessary;
  7. charge the secretary of this church with considering and proposing possible amendments to the Constitutions, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the ELCA to accomplish its recommendations;
  8. call upon this church to increase opportunities for lifting up, recognizing, fostering and encouraging recognition of deacons for the mission and witness of the church in the world;
  9. continue funding for transition events and ongoing leadership and formation events to ensure growth and understanding of the roster of Ministers of Word and Service;
  10. continue the preparation of appropriate and informative materials for the church’s ongoing study; and
  11. refer the resulting amending/amended documents to the 2019 Churchwide Assembly for approval as necessary.

I would summarize this by saying the recommendation is that the rite be ordination, the sign of the office is a deacon’s diagonal stole and a cross. Deacons will not be considered “lay people,” but their ministry will not be sacramental. Deacons will not preside at Holy Communion.

diagonal diaconal stoleMany of our deacons already wear the diagonal diaconal stole, though it has not yet been officially embraced in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Note Deacon Mary Lee Mimms Miller’s stole, second from the left in the photo. This pattern has crept in (in a good way) through Lutheran churches in other parts of the world, and through our ecumenical partners. We seem to be moving in a direction that has the diagonal stole as the symbol for the deacon, the stole for the pastor, and the stole and pectoral cross for the bishop.

The recommendations will be taken up at the 2019 Churchwide Assembly. Talk them through. If you have feelings one way or the other have a conversation with the voting members from our synod who will be attending the 2019 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.

Above all, let us give thanks to those who choose a full-time vocation of leading the church in service to the world. This is, in the end, the heart and soul of the matter. Through our baptism, we are all called to serve. Thanks be to God for those who are trained and set apart to lead us in service, for the sake of the world.