Saturday, August 03, 2013

Tenth Anniversary as a Deacon!

Today is my tenth anniversary as a deacon.

I was consecrated as a deacon when I was installed as a vicar at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, South Carolina by the Rev. Carl Voges on Auguest 3, 2003.  (Incidentally, the current pastor is a classmate of mine, a faithful shepherd and a dear friend, the Rev. Christopher Burger).

Consecrating vicars to the diaconal order is not the standard practice in the LCMS, but I think we should make some reforms and have both deacons transitioning to pastoral ministry (perhaps as vicars) as well as "permanent" deacons  - for several reasons.

First, it could solve the sticky problem of having vicars preaching - which is reserved for ordained ministers according to our confessional symbols.  We currently "get around" this by resorting to the legal fiction that the vicar is not actually preaching, but rather he is "reading" the sermon that has been vetted by his (ordained) supervisor.  I've never really been too satisfied by this sleight-of-hand.  If we were to ordain men into deaconal ministry, and restrict them from consecrating the elements of the Lord's Supper (as is done in many of the LCMS's partner church bodies), we would not have to play three-card-monte with Article XIV.

Second, to be a pastor is to be a deacon - especially when we consider the meaning of diakonia.  In the LCMS, we typically think of diakonia as "women's ministry" as we have a recognized synodical diaconate made up of women, whose work is officially to perform works of mercy.  There is no scriptural basis to deny the diaconate and its works of mercy to male practitioners and thus define diakonia in exclusively feminine terms.  I think consecrating vicars as deacons would help solidify diakonia as part and parcel of the pastoral ministry and not something forbidden (by implication) to men by synodical custom.  In fact, mercy is a huge part of what it means to be a pastor - as it should be.  While not all deacons are pastors, all pastors should consider themselves deacons.  We should liturgically recognize this during the course of a man's training for pastoral ministry by a consecration and recognition by diaconal vestments.

Third, there are men who may not have a pastoral vocation, but who are blessed vocationally with the gifts and opportunity to assist the pastor liturgically and in his work.  Our current commonly-used nomenclature "elders" comes close to this role, but the term is confusing.  Biblically speaking, "elder" (presbuteros, presbyter) is an ordained man, a pastor.  However, the vast majority of our "elders" are laymen, whose duties and vesture at the altar vary from congregation to congregation.  This confusion (originating in terminology borrowed from the Reformed churches) has manifested itself liturgically in some LCMS congregations where boards of elders "lay hands" on men who are being ordained into the pastoral ministry.  The Pastoral Care Companion actually has to have a footnote in the rite for "Visiting the Sick and Distressed" on page 34, in which the pastor reads James 5:14-16.  The text speaks of "elders of the church" praying and anointing the sick person with oil.  The footnote reads: "The Greek word for "elders," presbyteroi, in the reading from James refers to pastors and not lay elders."

In fact, some lay elders in the LCMS (who have never been consecrated as deacons) actually wear albs and deacon's stoles when assisting at the altar.  Moreover, some deaconesses likewise vest in alb and stole and assist the pastor at the altar.  I believe this latter practice presents confusion as to what the role of the deaconess is - not to mention the role of men and women in general. Ironically, we may have members of LCMS congregations that have only seen the deacon's stole worn by women.

Fourth, many of our partner church bodies, such as the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church, require men to serve as deacons (in the case of SELC, it is typically five years) before being ordained to the priesthood.  This is a very traditional structure, and allows a lot of time and observation - as well as actual parochial service - before turning a man loose to serve as a parish pastor.  There is a lot of wisdom in this kind of maturation process.

Of course, this is one of those issues that people really get worked up over (I don't really know why!); one LCMS pastor angrily denied that there were any LCMS deacons (said to me while I was serving as one). Consequently, the discussion typically just gets kicked like the proverbial can down the road in the interest of peace and harmony.

At any rate, I was consecrated a deacon ten years ago (while my hair was still brown), and I still consider myself a deacon (with my well-earned locks of gray).

While I was a seminarian, I attended the diaconal ordination of a friend in the ACC (Anglican Catholic Church).  The preacher spoke to the ordinand and reminded him that even if he were later ordained to the priesthood (which he was), even if he were to become a bishop, even if he were to become the archbishop - he would always remain a deacon.  It is not something you lose when you become a pastor.  His words stuck with me, especially since I was formally consecrated as a deacon later on myself.  And to me, this is a humbling reminder that a deacon is a servant, a minister, one who is dedicated to a life of mercy.  And that is certainly part of the pastoral vocation.

I am grateful to Pastor Voges and to the people of Holy Trinity for the year I served them as what one of my classmates called in a tongue-in-cheek way a "male deaconess."

No comments: