Wednesday, February 11, 2009


My sister, every Christian is called to follow Jesus Christ, serving God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. --Book of Common Prayer (BCP), 543.

When I was a teenager, it was my job to cook dinner for my family once a week. My mom said that she was preparing me to be an adult. Of course, it also gave her a night off. One night, with a friend from school alongside me, I was making a salad for part of the meal. That meant I had to also slice tomatoes and put a slab of lettuce on a separate little plate for my father. He didn't like salad. I was in a generally peevish mood that night--probably because I had a friend over and still had to cook the weekly dinner, and probably because I was, well, a teenager. With my friend as the perfect, attentive audience, I went off on a rant about how silly it was to make something different for my dad--it was still lettuce and tomato after all--and when I got married, I was never going to cowtow to my husband's every demand. A while later, my mother came into the kitchen and said simply, "Your father has overheard every word you said." Then she added: "I make a separate plate for your father because I love him."


Mom always had a way of getting directly to the point.

Unlike a priest--who is called to be pastor, priest and teacher--a deacon is called to be a servant. And in the upside down world of the Gospels, this is exactly what Christ recommends. You want to be great? He asks. (Here I imagine him thoroughly exasperated with his disciples' never-ending pissing contest to be His number one.) He gathers the disciples around him and says: "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Mark 10:42b-45, NRSV).

But once we reach the epilogue--the Acts of the Apostles--the tone seems to change a bit. Irritated by squabbling between the Hellenists and the Hebrews over the distribution of food among the widows, the apostles proclaim: "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables" (Acts 6:2b). So they chose seven men "of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom" to handle the details of caring for the marginalized. The apostles prayed and laid hands on these men--a precursor to our ordination liturgy.

These references to service in Mark and Acts both relate the word diakonia--service. Christ uses the same word (in verb form) to characterize himself, both in the passage from Mark and in Luke 22:27: ". . . I am among you as one who serves." And it's from diakonia that we get the term "deacon."

So just what does this service look like? For a long time, the servant role had negative connotations, especially for women who were trying to break free of gender expectations. Then, in the 1970s, the idea of "servant leadership" developed into a contemporary catchphrase--so much so that it is bandied about without much thought of its Christian origins. At its best servant leadership has the potential to do what Christ did when He washed His disciples feet: upset an entire worldview concerning leaders and the led. At its worst, servant leadership provides a kind of "good guy/gal" screen for leaders still operating under the old rules. Something like: "If I make it look like I'm doing this for your benefit, if I act like I give a damn about you, I can get away with some really oppressive leadership decisions."

Or maybe that's my cynical side talking. But I think we do well to remember that we are all prone to entanglement in the corruption of a broken world. So how can we reclaim the term "servant" from popular culture? How do we know when we are truly serving as Christ served, not merely playing a role? I would suggest there are three key signs of true servanthood.

1) The servanthood of the deacon has less to do with doing the roles typically identified as diaconal (such as charity, pastoral care, and social justice work) and more to do with a certain stance of the heart. All of the "doings" of deacons can be accomplished without a servant's heart--admittedly with varying degrees of success. And activites normally associated with the other orders--congregational leadership, preaching, teaching, administration, and so on--can be performed from a place of servanthood. This has something to do with love--as my mother's love for my father made her willing to spend an extra few minutes to provide for his particular desires--and it also involves emptying the heart of self-service and attachments, and actively rejecting the human lean toward heirarchy and disparities of power. Servanthood isn't about doing; it's about being.

2) The servanthood of the deacon may be evidenced in service to others--especially the ones on the margins--but the deacon is ultimately serving God. Charity is not servanthood. Labor is not servanthood. Fighting injustice is not servanthood. Servanthood happens when the deacon is oriented toward her true north. The deacon listens in the world for what wrecks God's heart, and seeks to bring healing and reconciliation in service to Him.

3) Just as Jesus washing the feet of His disciples caused some serious consternation, the true servanthood of the diaconate should--and will--upset the familiar order. If a deacon isn't causing at least a little scandal, a little anxiety in her community, she's probably not leaning into her servanthood quite hard enough. Diaconal servanthood requires the recognition of imbalanced relationship and seeks to restore balance--often by defying expectations.

The servant ministry of the deacon is to be a sign for others of "Jesus as servant"--that particular expression of God-among-us.


  1. Yes, the stance of the heart. I've been trying to figure out what spiritual disciplines give me that stance. Seems they usually involve some strand of self-control. Controlling the self, what a counter cultural idea these days. More of that upside down world you mentioned. I like your thoughts.

  2. Yep, and there's always a bit of obedience involved--in a world where rebels are admired.

  3. Your comments have made me realize that over the years I have become less and less expectant about the results of my servitude. The task at my hand for me is occassionally get self out of the way (if I am not serving self, serving others is pretty much automatic)or failing that, that I serve imperfectly through sheer obedience (git behind me emotions!!). Wanting to see some good result throws self right back into the picture for me--my good works made THAT happen(or in moments of humility "HELPED that happen"). I am still trying to figure out how to pray expectantly, to serve expecting God to meet needs, and not have my pride wash over every good thing God provides. How do you serve in humility? Do we want to open that can of worms?

  4. Re: serving with humility. See heart-stance, #1 above. Understand, I don't speak from any particular success in this area ;) only a recognition of my falling-short. The "how" for me has to do with vigilant realignment. And trusting that God honors intention, so the results don't matter. Being an "animator" of minstry, not the lone ranger, helps--(more on that in an upcoming post). Serving in places and ways that are beyond my own abilities reminds me that the only power is God's. Luckily, that's pretty much the norm at Trinity. All of these attempts at keeping self in check have been, of course, imperfectly executed. :)