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Ministry in the Episcopal Church

The Qualities of  a Deacon by The Rev. Sam Pillsbury

What qualities should an Episcopal deacon have? Every deacon will answer this question differently, because each of us is a unique child of God. Also, our dear 21st century Episcopal Church is much committed to the principle that its ministers, like the rest of God’s flock, come in all different shapes, sizes, races, genders, and ages, with considerable distinctions in life experience and theology as well. So in answering this question I can only speak for myself. 

In my view, a contemporary deacon should be humble, subversive, courageous, and open.

1. Humble

I say that a deacon should be humble; in truth, humility is built into the role. The word deacon comes from the Greek word diakonos, for a waiter, as in someone who serves food to diners. Now, being a good waiter is a wonderful thing, but let’s be honest, not many grow up wanting to be a waiter. Where’s the glory in that? The same for being a deacon.

The Episcopal deacon needs humility because few outside the church have any idea what deacon is. Most people have only heard about deacons in Baptist churches, where they are the lay leaders – something quite different than the Episcopal deacon.

In the Episcopal Church, a deacon is an ordained minister who charged with bringing the world to the church and the church to the world. This wonderfully expresses diaconal aspirations, but it does not say much about what the deacon actually does, or can do.

In fact, even in the Episcopal church, there is considerable confusion about deacons. Some see us as assistant priests (no, no no!) or ministers who failed to make the grade for priesthood (again, no). Cluelessness about the diaconate in the church is a source of constant frustration to us deacons. Each of us has our favorite stories of outrageous misunderstandings that we are ready to recount to any half-interested listener. I, for example, might cite the recent diocesan meeting in which a lay person who for years has been deeply engaged in Episcopal Church administration suggested that deacons were not church leaders. Or I might cite the well-educated young priest who, in lining up the entrance procession at a funeral (we Episcopalians love processions) said: “Okay, next will come the clergy and then the deacon.” Really? The deacon is not clergy? Oh, the outrage.

But the truth is, in the hierarchy of the Episcopal Church, the deacon occupies the lowest order of clergy, below priests and bishops. Deacons have the most limited sacramental powers. There are certain sacraments we can never perform, such as consecrate the wine and bread at communion; for others, such as preside at a wedding, we need a Bishop’s special permission.

Then there is the distinction, the very worldly distinction, that just about everyone recognizes, in and out of the church. Money. Deacons don’t get paid. We are not just poorly paid, like many priests today. With few exceptions, we are not paid at all. And even in the church, money and respect tend to travel together.

Bottom line? As I say to those aspiring to the diaconate, it is a humble position. It’s part of the job description. It’s also, as we’ll see, a prerequisite for the main work that deacons do. 

2. Subversive

When I was in high school back in the 60s there was a book that made a big impression on me, called Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Its thesis was that teachers should teach questions more than answers. Good education should make students question the status quo and interrogate authority. The authors took the word subversive, which had been the dread descriptor of suspected spies, and communists, and made it central to democracy. 

I believe a deacon’s ministry should be subversive – in just the way that Jesus’s was. Jesus was constantly seeking to subvert the hierarchies of his day that put the clean above the unclean, man above woman, Jew above Gentile.

Following Jesus, a deacon makes a special commitment to those on the margins. The homeless, the chronically ill, the disabled, the poor, the incarcerated. These are the people that many would love to see disappear entirely – just disappear, poof – if that could be done in a guilt-free fashion. 

As a jail chaplain, I visit with, pray with, and learn from men that the law has convicted, or expects to convict, of criminal conduct. My presence, my entirely voluntary presence, pushes back against the chains and suspicion and denial of dignity inherent in all American incarceration. It’s why the security staff views us religious volunteers with some suspicion. Even as we follow all the facility rules, we aim to value all persons in lockup. That’s subversive. 

Many of us deacons also have jobs in the secular world, which provides other opportunities for subversive activity. I have been for many years a law professor, teaching and writing about law and justice. Mostly this accords with Christian values. But for years an aspect of higher academics has grated on my soul. It’s the never-ending, all-consuming drive of students, professors and schools to get ahead – meaning to get ahead of others. It’s the incessant competition built into higher education in America.  

Who’s the best? So much of our lives is about answering this question. That’s what competition in sports is all about. We also have competitions in music, in debate, in writing. We give prizes – Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, gold medals. And cups and trophies. We spend our lives competing, and helping our children compete, to get into the best schools, to get the best internships, fellowships, jobs, promotions. 

At my school, the student quest to get top grades, the faculty quest for scholarly recognition, and the school’s drive to rise in the national rankings are parts of that competition. I have joined it myself. It’s unavoidable. But as a deacon I know that if humanity were finally divided into two camps – into winners and losers – I’d have to go with the losers. That’s where Jesus is.

At my school I have not campaigned directly against competitive culture and values. It would do no good. Instead I look for chances to ask a subversive question, or reframe a debate or make a suggestion, that might reveal the cost of human ranking. For example, I remember recently talking to my first year students about the difference between being smart lawyer, and a wise lawyer. A smart lawyer knows all the arguments; a wise lawyer knows why, when and whether to use them. Then I added something that I had not planned to say. I suggested that the best lawyer might be not just wise, but kind. A kind lawyer.

Now there’s a subversive concept.

3. Courageous

Like every rabbi and priest and imam; like every lay leader in the church, the deacon must be courageous. Spiritually courageous. She must challenge the enemies of God in this world, and that takes courage.

Mostly when people talk about danger and courage they speak of  physical risks. When people hear that I do jail ministry, they often want to know if it’s dangerous. Meaning physically dangerous. It isn’t. Driving to and from jail in downtown LA is clearly more hazardous than any  encounters I have inside. I have been hit hard on the 101; never in jail. I’ve never even been verbally threatened. 

There is spiritual danger in jail, however, in the form of shame and despair, rage and fear. The walls, the clanking gates and bars; the shackles and booking bracelets that all inmates wear, they all convey a shameful, despairing message. If you’re locked up here, you must have done something very bad, you must be very bad. 

Unfortunately this is a message that resonates deeply for many who are locked up. They’ve been hearing it all their lives. Many saw far more than anyone should as a child, many were used, abused, neglected. From this experience, they have lodged in their bones and muscles, in their very blood, a sense of worthlessness. Of shame. Which can be easily triggered, often coming out in self or other destructive acts. It can explode in violence that surprises even the violent. Which can then provoke shame, guilt and despair.

A man in his 40s tells me that he had hurt too many people in his life, especially in his own family, to ever be forgiven. He has long suffered from a serious mental illness, which I believe is the cause of his past misdeeds. He said that if he met the boy that he was at age 8 years old, he would strangle the boy, to prevent the pain that he would cause in later years. That’s shame and despair. 

Facing despair and shame takes courage, because it triggers one’s own shame and despair. 

In the Twin Towers where I have spent much of my ministry, many of the floors are designated HOH: High Observation Housing. This is where the seriously mentally ill and the suicidal are locked up in single cells. Entering an HOH pod you feel a chill. Often the men stand at the door of their cell, which is faced with a scarred Plexiglas window, and stare out. Most wear suicide gowns, long blue quilted robes that are sleeveless and wrap around the body from shoulder to below the knee. It’s a ghostly scene.

When I enter one of these pods, and I contemplate going down a row of cells to speak to men through the cracks in their cell doors, which is how it’s done, I have to gird myself for the task. I face not the slightest risk to do my body, but there is such a desperate need for human connection and hope that radiates from behind these doors, and often the madness of mental illness and confusion and frustration as well. A man may start knocking on his cell door to get my attention, or the attention of someone else. Then the old voices start up in my head, voices of doubt and despair. Do you really think you have anything to offer here? You have no clue. Your faith is not strong enough. Who are you to offer help? Why don’t you just leave before you make a fool of yourself, or worse. 

There is enough truth in these words that I cannot answer them by argument, only by action. I have to find the courage to proceed down the row, to see who wants to talk and who might like a prayer.

 4. Open to Pain and Joy

A deacon should meet the world with an open heart. She should walk  open to the world’s pain. And her heart should be ever open to joy.

Being open to pain is hard, but it’s how we follow Jesus. By listening to another’s painful story and not giving advice or trying to fix the situation, just letting the words go deep in us, we can be a healing presence. It’s such a deep human need, to be heard, to be seen. 

To many, such openness to pain may seem a little – well, ridiculous. What good does it do? It may also seem dangerous. A nurse or doctor would not treat an infectious patient without protective equipment. Same here. Why go into that pain defenseless?

And make no mistake, spirit pain is contagious. There’s a good reason that people avoid strangers in emotional turmoil, whose eyes brim with pain. Get close and you will feel their pain and that pain can go so deep inside that you feel it even weeks and months after. It’s called secondary trauma. The person who cares for the traumatized becomes traumatized themselves. 

We deacons get close anyway. To use the word that civil rights advocate Brian Stevenson favors, we get proximate, because in getting proximate to the hurt we represent God and God’s love. 

The flipside of being open to others’ pain – which is God’s pain too – is being open to God’s joy. Often this comes as a wonderful surprise, in the form of laughter. Sometimes it arises in song or prayer. Here are a few examples. 

While leading a church service in jail, I warned the men gathered that I was going to sing. I do this sometimes, not because I am an especially gifted singer (nope – definitely not), but because music works on a totally different level than spoken words. Now this particular song started on a fairly high note. And without accompaniment, starting any song can be a musical  adventure. So it was here. I took a big breath, opened my mouth and began to sing, but all that came out was a high-pitched squeak. The guys smiled and then they laughed, and I laughed, and the laughter grew and grew, until it made its own music. In this laughter there was such joy. I had made a fool of myself, but that was the great gift that brought us together. 

Some years ago my wife, who is a therapist, and I did a program in the Compound in juvenile hall in Sylmar, where teenage boys aged 15 to 17 were being held while being prosecuted as adults. Many of them were facing life sentences for gang related homicides. In the program we combined emotion exercises with spiritual discussion. At the end of one of our sessions we sang the old gospel hymn Freedom. What followed not very tuneful, but unlike the men in jail who I often have to coax into song, these boys, these young men, gave full voice to the hymn. At top volume in the small confined space where we met, the call to freedom went out. And when we finished the song they wanted to sing it again. And again. There was joy in that dark space for a brief time. 

I may also feel God’s joy in a man’s thank you after our talk and prayer. I needed that, he may say, his face bright with relief. Which is usually what I feel as well. God’s love always goes both ways.


As a deacon I aspire to be subversive, courageous and open to God’s pain and joy. My efforts will often fall short, but that’s okay. A deacon must also be humble. 


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