What is a Deacon?
It belongs to the Office of a Deacon, to assist the Priest in public worship, especially in the administration of Holy Communion; to lead in public prayer; to read the Gospel, and to instruct both young and old in the Catechism; and at the direction of the Priest, to baptize and to preach. Furthermore, it is the Deacon’s Office to work with the laity in searching for the sick, the poor, and the helpless, that they may be relieved.
“Almost no one asks what a deacon does,” says Deacon Brad Guilford, who has served as a vocational deacon at Old North Abbey in Knoxville, TN since his ordination three years ago.
Instead, he says, they almost always ask how a deacon is different than a priest – since the role of a priest is generally more well-known. “I find there is a group of people that seem to think that a deacon functions as an assistant to the priest, primarily during the worship service. There is another group of people that can’t quite wrap their minds around the idea of a vocational deacon, seeing the role of a deacon only as a stepping stone on the path to be a priest,” says Dcn. Brad.
However, limiting the role to Sunday mornings – or to a rung on a ministerial ladder – does a great disservice to the scope of deacons’ ministry.
“In one sense, there is nothing particularly unique about the role of a deacon, because a deacon should be living out the greatest commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” says Dcn. Brad. “On the other hand, a deacon is uniquely called to be particularly mindful of the church’s call to love our neighbors, and to invite the parish into that practice. Their ministry is explicitly intended to extend beyond the service to help bridge the gap between the church and the world… I believe the specific functions of a deacon in the worship service reflect that dual presence.”
Dcn. Brad likens reading the Gospel and instructing in Catechism as a reflection of taking God’s truth into the world. Assisting with the sacraments and prayers is part of reminding people what God says is true about themselves: that through the Eucharist, we are invited to commune with God at all times through prayer. And dismissing the congregation to “go out into the world rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit” reminds everyone that what we receive from Christ is meant to be shared.
“Those actions in the worship service model what a deacon is to be outside of the worship service, which in turn models what the entire church is intended to be,” he says.
After three years, Dcn. Brad is still exploring what his role looks like in his context, but has come to recognize four areas that shape his ministry. The first encompasses the traditional roles of the deacon during a worship service. The second: “Reminding the people in our parish of God’s truth and his infinite love for his children, which might involve anything from delivering the homily during a worship service, to leading Catechism classes, to meeting with a parishioner individually to talk about questions or life challenges.”
A third part is serving behind the scenes, taking some of the tasks and chores that help the parish function smoothly and lighten the load for the priest. And fourth, outreach to specific groups outside the church, “with my physical neighbors in my ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood, and with my co-workers in my full-time job outside of the church.”
Dcn. Brad serves alongside his wife, Dcn. Joy Guilford, who is also a vocational deacon at Old North Abbey.
“There are unique challenges to parish ministry, and it’s wonderful to have a marriage partner who truly understands those issues. I think that shared understanding allows us to lift one another up when one of us is working through something particularly difficult,” says Dcn. Brad.
The nature of serving together also means their children become very involved in ministry, although it has required them to set boundaries in order to parent well.
“That boundary is something we continue to explore and revisit, and sometimes we draw it in better places than others, but by grace we’re learning how to balance caring for our marriage, our children, and our parish in a healthy and God-honoring way.”
Dcn. Brad says his favorite part of being a deacon is the privilege of reminding people of God’s truth: How we as people, the Church, and the world all fit into God’s story of love and redemption throughout history.
“My very favorite moments in my ministry are the conversations I’ve had with people who don’t want anything to do with the church because of negative experiences they’ve had in the past,” he says. “I love the opportunity to re-frame their view of Christ and his church in a way they perhaps haven’t thought about before, and to sometimes see a glimmer of hope or curiosity that what they really wanted the church to be might be real after all.”
Originally posted May, 2018.