As the recently appointed archdeacon of the Diocese of Los Angeles, the Venerable Canon Charleen Crean aims to raise awareness about what may be the church’s most misunderstood order.
She also hopes to fundraise to help identify, raise up, educate and train additional vocational deacons, to add to the ranks of the 44 currently serving in the diocese.
About half are retirement age, she said. “The ministry from the beginning has been about servanthood, in all its many forms and aspects,” Crean told The Episcopal News recently. “Their main work is not inside the church exactly and yet they are accountable for the work they do there, as any other ordained person would be. They live this life serving those in the margins of both the church and the world.”
Crean is no exception. For several years, she has juggled the role of diocesan associate for formation and transitions ministry, a role that began when the Rt. Rev. Jon Bruno appointed her archdeacon in August 2017, while serving as deacon at All Saints Church in Pasadena.
As transitions associate she shepherds ordination-seekers from the initial application process through congregational and Commission on Ministry (COM) discernment, until ordination and beyond. The effort involves attending to paperwork, and making sure deadlines and appointments — for physical and psychological exams and the bishop and COM interviews — are kept.
“Call me, that’s what I’m here for,” Crean advises a recent postulant for ordination who receives COM approval to enter the process. The approval comes with a recommendation to take a year off between undergraduate studies and seminary to participate in an Episcopal Service Corps urban intern program.
For the postulant, the news is invigorating and terrifying; affirming and gut-wrenching. It involves major life, spiritual, economic and geographic changes. “This is surreal,” he finally responds. Crean assures him she will accompany him each step of the way.
It doesn’t stop there. Crean also facilitates the diocesan Fresh Start program, along with the Rev. Canon Joanna Satorius, canon for Formation and Deployment. Fresh Start is a collaborative ministry that seeks to strengthen relationships among clergy, congregations and the diocese during leadership transitions.
As archdeacon, Crean embodies servant ministry. At diocesan events like the Jan. 13 ordinations of Mark David Bradshaw, Susan Holliday Cardone, Edward Frank Mikovich, Gethin James Wied, Robin Lynn Kassabian and Elizabeth Grace McQuitty, she prepares the altar for Eucharist and helps to clear it afterward.
During worship, she and other deacons typically proclaim the Gospel, lead the prayers of the people, bid the confession and dismiss the gathered community back to the world to serve all people in the name of Christ.
Deacons: finding their voice
Deacons straddle the secular and sacred worlds, and many people — including some priests and laity — misunderstand their ministry.
“The deacon is a rare breed,” Crean said. “They continue their day jobs just like laity, while holding the weight of their ordination vows to make the needs of the world known to the church and assist the church in developing an appropriate response to those needs.” Unlike priests, usually deacons are not paid for their church ministry.
In some denominations, such as the United Methodist Church, deacons are laity, not ordained as in the Episcopal Church. Episcopal priests typically serve as “transitional deacons” for six months to a year prior to their priestly ordination, which also can cause confusion.
This lack of understanding sometimes leads to deacons being “treated like second class citizens … and they are the ones who have incredible abilities to be that link between the church and the world that we need to increase, especially because things in the world aren’t any better, last time I looked,” Crean said.
Every time a deacon transitions from one parish to another, “we become the voiceless order,” Crean said. “Everybody hears and sees the priest. “Laity have their voice. Bishops have their voice. Deacons’ ministries are in the world. Who sees that? Not the church, for the most part … and sometimes the church doesn’t want to look at the message about the needs of the world the deacon must bring. The needs of the world can be a pretty harsh reality.”
Said Crean: “It is easy to feel overwhelmed in hearing about all those needs. So not allowing the deacon the pulpit time to preach or initiate the prayers of the people or the teaching time can pretty effectively silence deacons in congregations.” While priests gather the community at the altar, deacons “place the concerns of the world there each week, aware they are too heavy to carry alone.”
They also respond to emergencies. During the Thomas fires last fall, a call went out to assist with extra Laundry Love gatherings to aid homeless people in Ojai and Ventura counties, who were severely impacted by the fires. “They asked deacons for help and we helped, “ said Crean, who was among those who responded.
As archdeacon, she hopes to make deacons’ voices heard. She hopes priests and laity will just ask deacons about their ministries.
“Please do not ask us when we are ‘moving on to priesthood,’” she said. “Please remember we are there without compensation and at the bishop’s invitation, not as junior curates or buildings and grounds staff. Deacons are a bishop’s gift to any community; please treasure them and hear what they have to say.”
A sacred vocation, an early calling
The diaconal order has been, for many in the diocese, a second vocation “and that’s not the soil from which I sprang,” says Crean.
She was barely 30, a single mother of two little children, working several part-time jobs and going to school full-time, raised up by a community who witnessed her call to vocation and convinced her to act on it.
Chuckling, she recalls church ladies — convinced of her call to ordination — who made an appointment with then-Bishop of Hawaii Edmond Browning and drove her there. Browning (later presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church) used a grant to pay for her education, she said.
“And I think that my voice has never been as strong as a deacon as it was then.” She is seeking to reprise that experience with other strong-voiced, willing servants, preferably from a diverse cross-section of the church, because “our community of deacons who speaks Spanish is ridiculously small.” She wants to change that.
“I am asking deacons to look in the communities of poor where we serve and to identify those servant leaders and help to raise them up,” she said. “Because a call is a call and you answer it. You don’t wait till it’s convenient.”
With Canon Hank Gatlin, first-ever lay associate to the archdeacon, she is working to fund-raise “because what made it possible for me to go through school was Bishop Edmond Browning paid for it” through a grant allowing her to attend classes at the University of Hawaii.
Born in Alabama, Crean was reared in South Florida. She earned both bachelor of arts and master of social work degrees from the University of Hawaii.
She was ordained a vocational deacon Dec. 14, 1986, at 30 at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Honolulu. She served at St. George’s, Pearl Harbor, while working with an interfaith-based program to train volunteers to care for the elderly in their homes. She also served as a chaplain at Iolani, one of the largest Episcopal schools in the nation. Prior to coming to the Diocese of Los Angeles, she served as a psychiatric hospital administrator in Hawaii and in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Alongside her secular vocation, she has served in a variety of congregations. She founded a food pantry at St. Paul’s in Walker, Michigan, a Grand Rapids suburb. Later, while serving at Grace Church, East Grand Rapids, she created a clothing and food assistance program for a Sudanese congregation worshipping at the church.
After moving to Los Angeles, she supervised the clinical practice of social workers doing outreach in the community for impoverished elderly at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena while serving as deacon at All Saints, Pasadena.
She is married to the Rev. Canon John Crean, an interim pastor in the diocese. Together, they share five adult children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. As archdeacon she succeeded the Ven. Joanne Leslie, who retired in August.
Mostly, Crean wants deacons to be heard. The general lack of understanding of their role “is a justice issue,” she says. “And I’m looking at justice right now for the deacons.”