“I never saw a burning bush; that’s for sure!” is my usual reply, because my process toward ordination did not begin dramatically. The closest I ever came to a ‘burning bush’ was one day when my stomach turned flips as I sat in my car in the Calvary parking lot and watched a priest named Gary Noteboom walk toward his car. I’d been director of outreach ministries for several years and knew that his job was to spearhead outreach ministry for our diocese AND to begin to form a process for ordination to the vocational, or permanent, diaconate.
That stomach flip was something I’d learned to pay attention to, so a few days later I gathered up my courage and phoned Gary to ask if I might talk to him about ‘the deacon thing’ he was exploring. Gary told me to call Bishop Dickson, which I did. The rest, as they say, is history: a long and winding history. Ordination processes, in any diocese, are rigorous, painstaking, and extraordinarily challenging, as well they should be, and mine was no different.
Finally, on an unforgettably beautiful January morning at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Bishop Dickson and our new bishop, James Coleman, both laid hands upon my colleague Sid Carsten and me, praying, “Give your Holy Spirit to Sid and Mimsy; fill them with grace and power, and make them deacons in your Church.”
“But what IS a Deacon?” you may be asking. That’s the question I get more than any other. The most succinct answer is, “Not a priest!” Vocational deacons like me are called to a unique ministry separate from the priesthood. In the Book of Acts, Luke tells us that deacons were appointed to serve widows and orphans, the neediest people of the 1st century. To this day, that is how we are defined.
‘A deacon is a bridge between the Church and the world’ is the best definition I know. Deacons are to bring the needs of the community into the Church and then go out and make Christ’s love known in the world, by word and action. Thus, we are traditionally associated with outreach ministries as I was for ten years at Calvary. And we are not to be Lone Rangers; instead, we are to inspire and encourage others to look out for and speak up for the neediest people in our communities.
Because we are not priests, there are things we do not do: We do not consecrate bread and wine for Communion, or give blessings as bishops and priests do. We wear clerical collars when in our diaconal roles; we preach and teach, and occasionally have leadership roles in our diocese.
In worship, deacons have clear roles: to read the gospel from the center aisle (taking Christ’s Good News symbolically into the world) and to set the Table, or altar, for Communion. We serve either the bread or the wine, then help ‘tidy up’ the altar before the closing hymn. At the very end (note: deacons have the last word!), we say, ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,’ and that is not just a nice way to end the service. It literally means, ‘Get out of here; go and serve the Lord out there.’
One of the easiest ways to spot a deacon in worship is to notice how we wear our stoles. While a priest wears her stole around the neck, allowing it to hang on either side, deacons’ stoles are worn across the shoulder. (A woman in Maine once asked me why my stole was crosswise, and when I told her it was because I am a deacon, she said, “I’m glad you explained. It looks like a Miss America banner!”)
In the Diocese of West Tennessee, we have a vibrant band of deacons spread among the parishes and missions. Some of us are staff members, as I was a Calvary; some of us work full-time in other jobs and serve at altars only on Sundays. All of us ‘belong’ to the bishop, who is our pastor, and our boss. Bishop Johnson is a particularly good boss, encouraging us, listening to us, and placing us with sensitivity and care where he thinks we are needed.
To my great surprise, and subsequent delight, in 2014 Bishop Johnson appointed me Archdeacon of our diocese. There are many Archdeacons in the Episcopal Church, but this is the first time we have had one in West Tennessee. He describes my role this way: “To work with the Community of deacons to encourage, facilitate and provide for ongoing training; and to work with the bishop to strategize and implement the recruitment, discernment, placement and training of deacons.”
He and I have done some of each of these things since my appointment, and I have absolutely loved getting to know and work with the extraordinary men and women deacons who serve this diocese so faithfully and consistently. It is a real honor to share this ministry with people of their calibre.
Soon after being named Archdeacon, I learned that the appropriate title for any Archdeacon is ‘The Venerable.’ This has caused many a raised eyebrow and no end of ribbing from friends and family. I simply reply: “You never know what God has in store - and it is just as well.”
Perhaps it is just as well that none of us ever knows where God will lead us; but I will tell you this: pay attention when the Spirit nudges you, when your stomach flips for no apparent reason like mine did in that parking lot years ago. God does give us nudges now and then. May your nudge, whatever form it takes, lead you to the fullness of joy that mine has, thanks be to God.