All About Deacons

by The Rev. Libby Garfield

What is a deacon? 

In the Episcopal tradition, we have three ordained orders of ministry: bishops, priests, and deacons. While there are overlapping areas that concern all ministries, deacons are particularly focused on serving those in need, both inside and outside of the church. They are also charged with assisting the bishops and priests in proclaiming the gospel and administering the sacraments.

We are very lucky to have Deacon Charles Sternberg regularly serving in our parish. A deacon's role is reflected in the part Charlie plays while serving on Sunday mornings. He brings the gospel into the people and proclaims it, prepares the eucharistic elements on the altar for the priest to pray over, and at the end of the service sends us out into the world to proclaim the Gospel.

Are there different types of deacons?

In short, no – a deacon is a deacon. In the church, we may refer to someone as a vocational deacon or a transitional deacon, but the call of their ministry is the same. A vocational deacon is called to the specific ministry of the diaconate, like Dcn. Charlie. A transitional deacon is someone who feels called to the priesthood but is serving first as a deacon. In the Episcopal Church, one must be ordained and serve as a deacon for at least six months before being ordained as a priest.

On June 15, Tori Gilliland and Sutton Lowe will be ordained as deacons. Sometime next winter they will then be ordained to the priesthood.

How does a deacon differ from a priest? 

Because all priests were first deacons, they continue to carry out the ministry of the deacon. Just as all bishops are also priests, all priests are also deacons. The ministry of the priesthood includes administration of the sacraments such as the eucharist and baptism, blessing and pardoning in the name of God, and proclaiming the Gospel. Priests represent Christ and his Church in pastoring the people, specifically those in the church where they have been called to serve. In the ordination service, the bishop calls upon the Holy Spirit to dwell within the ordinand, praying that God would make them a priest in his church.

Physically, you can identify a deacon by their stole, which they wear across their chest, while a priest’s stole goes straight down.

What happens before the ordination?

Before being ordained to the diaconate, a candidate goes through both spiritual and academic preparation, guided by the diocese and the bishop. The process is slightly different in every diocese and for each person. When one feels a call to ministry they have a conversation first with the rector, followed by a committee of fellow parishioners who help to discern if that person is called to ordained ministry, and in which order (diaconate or priesthood).

Lay and ordained people play important roles throughout the discernment and ordination process, walking alongside those going through the process. The parish committee review usually takes a few months and is followed by a meeting with a diocese-wide committee on ordination and a one-on-one meeting with the bishop. There are different steps as the candidate moves from aspirant (one who aspires to be ordained) to ordinand (one being ordained). Along the way, usually at the stage of postulancy, the candidate is sent to seminary to receive formal education. Ordination occurs within a year of completing seminary training, depending on the individual. While each experience is different, it typically takes about 5 years from the first conversation with the rector to ordination to the diaconate.

All are invited to celebrate with our own Sutton Lowe and Tori Gilliland as they are ordained to the diaconate on Saturday, June 15 at 10 am at Christ Church Cathedral as part of their ordination journey.

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