Protestant Recovery of Deacons and Deaconesses

Jeannine Olson

The terms ‘deaconess’ and ‘deacon’ refer to an office of service in the church that exists today and dates back to the first century. The terms themselves are derived from the Greek verb, diakonein, and its cognate nouns diakonos and diakonia. Diakonein meant to serve or to minister. The noun diakonos, or deacon, meant servant or minister.

This article will trace the development of the diaconate historically and theologically for both men and women. The approach will be chronological as the roles of deacons and deaconesses changed over time in the church and society – from the early role of deacons as assistants to bishops to the present diverse roles of deacons and deaconesses in various Christian denominations and churches today. Much of the literature on deacons concentrates on the deacon’s liturgical roles. While not forgetting their important liturgical roles, this article will concentrate on the deacons’ and deaconesses’ role and the role of the church in the care of the poor. Woven into the historical development of the diaconate will be relevant scriptural citations and interpretations, the life and experience of the community of faith within which deacons and deaconesses worked, and social scientific engagement and interactions with the topic.

1 The early church: deacons as assistants to bishops

It has been said the early church created the deacon out of a need to administer charity (Olson 2005: 17), but there are those who take exception to what they call a solo social-caritative role for these early deacons (Latvus 2017: 1) and see their role as more diverse, including preaching and evangelism, as would John Collins (1990).

Church tradition held the first deacons to have been ‘seven men of good repute’ whom Christ’s apostles chose to serve tables and help with the daily distribution, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles 6:1–4. These seven included the first martyr, Stephen, considered by Irenaeus (c.135–200) as the first deacon, but nowhere does the New Testament name as deacons these seven men.

St Paul acknowledged the existence of deacons early, before the Gospels were written. They are important in his view. The first possible reference to deacons as officeholders in the New Testament is in Paul’s salutation in the first verse of his letter to the Philippians where he greets the bishops and deacons together: ‘To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi with the bishops and deacons. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’. Deacons appear also in Paul’s first letter to Tim 3:8–13, where their expected attributes are described:

Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain; they must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons. The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers but temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husband of one wife, and let them manage their children and their households well; for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans (16:1–2), he speaks of a woman, Phoebe, as a diakonos of the church of Cenchreae:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well.

By his multiple references to deacons, Paul suggests that they are important and it is an appropriate role for women.

Scholars who believe that there is no biblical proof of a major socio-caritative role for early deacons argue that in the nineteenth century, as the diaconate in Protestant churches moved in a socio-caritative direction, leaders in the diaconal movement attributed a socio-caritative role also to early church deacons. These nineteenth-century innovators included men such as Theodore Fliedner and Wilhelm Löhe, founding leaders in the Germanys (the regions in the area now known as Germany) in the training of Protestant women as deaconesses working as nurses, teachers, and parish workers.

Both scholars who deny a primarily socio-caritative role to early deacons, as well as those who accept it, could perhaps agree that deacons of the early church were assistants to bishops in various capacities and that the office of deacon arose in early Christian communities in response to varied needs. The argument that early deacons served as assistants to bishops is reinforced by the fact that a deacon often succeeded to a bishopric when a bishop died.

From the perspective of scholars with a strictly caritative view, deacons emerged in the first century with little, if any, obvious place in the liturgy and a large role with the laity, including the poor. The elders or presbyters (later priests) existed alongside deacons and were not initially necessarily above them. Deacons worked closely with bishops, helping them with financial administration and with charity. The role of the deacons in the Christian congregations brought them into close proximity with other Christians; they visited the sick and prepared the dead for burial. Deacons were called the eyes and ears of the bishops, conveying messages and reporting problems.

Although some women were apparently deacons in the earliest church, women were moved out of the office of deacon as the church hierarchy evolved, and, by the second or third century, into an office of their own as deaconesses. The deaconesses did for women what deacons did for men. This office evolved on the Eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea to fulfil diaconal roles among women that were thought inappropriate for men, such as anointing women’s naked bodies before baptism. Deaconesses existed alongside the widows of the church who lived from the church’s charity, were supposed to have been married once, and were to be over a minimum age. In the western end of the Mediterranean, widows could fulfil the deacon’s functions among women.

As assistants to bishops, deacons, widows, and deaconesses assumed some importance in the liturgy alongside their other roles. The deacons were given functions which varied over time but included reading the Gospel. Later, sub-deacons read the epistle. Deacons recited prayers; they also served communion wine and sometimes the bread. Deacons and deaconesses were doorkeepers and ushers during services, and instructed new Christians before and after baptism. Some deacons presided over the Eucharist, particularly in churches over which the bishop had given them charge, notably with third-century church expansion. Deacons conducted catechism classes, and sometimes preached.

Some churches, such as the Church of Rome, limited the number of their deacons to seven because of the precedent in Acts 6, but allowed the number of presbyters to expand. Churches appointed sub-deacons to aid the deacons. By the third century, some churches also had acolytes, readers, exorcists, and doorkeepers in an evolving expansion of church office. Among deacons, there was often a senior or principal deacon, called ‘archdeacon’.

As the bishop’s right-hand helpers, some deacons succeeded to the office of bishop directly without becoming presbyters. This practice continued down at least to Hildebrand (Gregory VII, pope 1073–1085) who was an archdeacon in diaconal orders when chosen pope. There was disagreement in the church in the third and fourth centuries as to the role of deacons in relation to presbyters, especially with regard to who was higher in church hierarchy, who could preside at the Eucharist, and who could preach. Although the diaconate eventually became a steppingstone to becoming a priest, this was not a foregone conclusion in early centuries.

As Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire, deacons became subordinate to presbyters, deaconesses subordinate to deacons, and widows subordinate to deaconesses. The emperors Constantine and Licinius announced official toleration of Christians in the Roman Empire in 313. This meant enormous change for the church, which could now begin to own property. Worship moved from house churches into large basilicas. Leaders of worship services adopted liturgical dress. Deacons served as bishops’ representatives to church councils and meetings; with other clerics, deacons judged over assemblies, adjudicating quarrels among Christians. Church offices and liturgical roles developed. The role of the church in social welfare expanded: Christian emperors relied heavily on bishops to administer poor relief, care for orphans, run hospitals, and oversee prison conditions. In 380–382, the emperor Theodosius required the people of the empire to practice orthodox Christianity.

2 The late antique and medieval church: the diaconate became a transitional office to the priesthood

In late antiquity, the diaconate became a transitional office to the priesthood. Church office became a full-time occupation for many bishops, presbyters, and deacons, who came to depend on ecclesiastical revenues for support rather than on their own incomes. With financial support came requirements of office, such as celibacy. Just like monks in the newly forming monastic communities, bishops, presbyters (priests), and deacons in the western end of the Mediterranean were asked to be celibate or if already married, not to have sexual relations. This later request proved difficult to enforce as evidenced by married couples who continued to have children. That priests and deacons should not marry took a long time to make official and longer still to enforce. It was not until the Second Lateran Council of the Church in 1139 that marriages of sub-deacons, deacons, and priests were invalid.

After the end of persecution and the legalization of Christianity (313) under the emperor Constantine (306–337), conditions encouraged a full-time clergy and a difference in rank, even among the deacons. The custom of some bishops of living together with their clergy facilitated apprenticeship in church office, as exemplified by Augustine of Hippo (354–430). The dedication to the church of young children to be raised by bishops (from the late fifth century in Spain) favoured their progression through ‘minor ecclesiastical offices’, such as reader and acolyte, to those considered of ‘a higher grade’, such as deacons and presbyter. In late antiquity and early medieval times, male deacons lost out to presbyters in an emerging ecclesiastical cursus honorum (that is, a hierarchy of offices). As communities of celibate women continued to form, female deacons and deaconesses became nuns.

Just as the legalization of Christianity had enormous ramifications for the church, so too did the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476. Still, in the fourth through the sixth centuries, bishops, with the help of their deacons and others, cared for the poor of their diocese.

With the barbarian invasions, civil bureaucracy collapsed. Many services ceased, especially in outlying parts of the Roman Empire. The custom grew of dividing each diocese into smaller units or parishes. The responsibility for the poor within each parish fell on the parish and its priests. Already in 567, the Synod of Tours made each parish responsible for its own poor. Deacons retained a role in social welfare property and management at least into the fourth and the fifth centuries, but they lost it by the seventh century when parishes were taking responsibility for their own poor rather than relying on the bishops whom the deacons had been assisting. In the systemization of canon law in the twelfth century by Emperor Gratian, ‘poor law’ was a part of church law, and church courts governed issues surrounding charity.

As deacons lost social welfare functions, the church emphasized their liturgical role and their singing in the liturgy. By the early sixth century or before, deacons blessed the paschal candle at the Easter Vigil. The responsibility for helping the needy was passed on to monasteries and religious orders as they emerged. The male diaconate became an office one occupied on the way to the priesthood.

Deaconesses and widows formed female religious communities, which sometimes also included young unmarried women. From these female living situations emerged religious orders, into which the roles of deaconesses and widows were absorbed.

Some functions of the deacons were continued in the role of the archdeacons, who retained important responsibilities in the financial, judicial, and charitable work of the church. Medieval archdeacons were legal representatives of bishops and exercised jurisdiction over priests.

In Rome, social welfare centres known as deaconries distributed food and cared for the poor beginning in at least the seventh century. The name reflected the diaconal functions of the deaconries, not necessarily their staff, which, in Rome, consisted of monks. There is mention of deaconries in Ravenna and Naples in the letters of Pope Gregory the Great.

Although the diaconate became transitional to the priesthood in medieval Europe, this was not always the case. There were deacons who never became priests, such as Alcuin (c.735–804), the learned British advisor to Emperor Charlemagne. Some bishops continued to come directly from the diaconate, such as Hildebrand (later Pope Gregory VII), who was archdeacon and still in diaconal orders when chosen as bishop of Rome. Archdeacons were somewhat of a special case, however, because they retained responsibilities in the financial, judicial, and charitable work of the church as legal representatives of the bishops. Archdeacons accompanied their bishops for parish visitations and eventually made visitations alone. By the Carolingian period, the archdeacon had priests and archpriests subject to him. By the ninth century, some archdeacons were priests in the West. By the twelfth century, archdeacons were generally priests in the Western church, although they never became priests in the East. Archdeacons exercised jurisdiction over priests during the medieval period.

In Rome, in about 1100, the deaconries and the seven diaconal regions of the city combined, resulting in cardinal deacons. Also, some of the staff and episcopal assistants of the Bishop of Rome (the pope) and priests of the papal or ‘titular’ churches were cardinals. The Roman Synod of 1059 under Pope Nicholas II (1058–1061) placed the election of the pope in the hands of the cardinals, who have continued to elect popes to the present day.

As deacons’ charitable responsibilities declined, sixteenth-century Reformers considered the diaconate ripe for reform along what they considered biblical and early church models.

3 The Reformation through the eighteenth century: reformed churches recover the original diaconate

As the reformers of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century found the diaconate ripe for a reform based on biblical reasoning, the model that they advocated was that of the early church when they felt deacons had more responsibilities for the poor. This was practical as well, for in areas that became Protestant, Roman Catholic religious orders and confraternities were abolished or gradually dissolved, leaving social welfare and education bereft of the services they had performed.

In many situations, city councils took over the Catholic Church’s endowments and properties and also the responsibility for social welfare and education, even though Martin Luther advocated for the new Protestant churches to take over these responsibilities. Reformers such as Martin Luther, Martin Bucer, and John Calvin wanted those who cared for the poor to be called deacons, but, of these three, it was Calvin who imposed the title of deacon onto those in Geneva who were responsible for social welfare already. Deacon was one of the four church offices in the plural ministry of the ecclesiastical ordinances of Geneva (1541) that Calvin was instrumental in writing. Deacons served alongside pastors, doctors (teachers), and elders.

Calvin envisioned a ‘double diaconate’ based on his reading of Rom 12:6–8. He interpreted these verses to imply a difference between (1) those who ‘serve the church in administering the affairs of the poor’, that is the procurators, or trustees, of the city hospital, and (2) those who care ‘for the poor themselves’, who work in the hospital daily. The title of deacon seems to have been seldom used in Geneva for these officials in the city’s documents, perhaps because Calvin simply renamed as ‘deacons’ those city officials and workers who were already in existence, the trustees of Geneva’s new city hospital and the caretakers who worked in the hospital. In extant documents and probably public parlance of the era, the label ‘deacon’ most commonly referred to the administrators of the privately-endowed funds for Protestant refugees to Geneva that sprang up in the city in the sixteenth century: the French Fund, Italian fund, and German fund (Olson 1989).

There were no female deacons in Geneva. Calvin supported the restoration of the ancient office of ‘widow’ for women in the church, but he failed to affect such a restoration even though he considered care of the poor to be the only acceptable public office for women to hold.

Women were not completely excluded from the diaconate as Reformed churches spread elsewhere. For several centuries, however, their presence in a diaconal office was a rare exception, dependent on the decisions of regional churches. Wessel on the Rhine was one such exception. The first general Reformed synod of the lower Rhine and the Netherlands in 1568 approved women as deacons that cared for the sick.

The organization of city welfare did not differ greatly from each other in Protestant cities such as Geneva, Wittenberg, and Strasbourg in the sense that those responsible for social welfare, whatever their title, tended to be officials as much of local government as of the church, even in Reformed churches in Switzerland. Ulrich Zwingli’s Reformed church of Zurich did not call those who worked with the poor of Zurich deacons.

There were some Lutheran regions where those responsible for poor relief were entitled deacons. Johannes Bugenhagen (1485–1558), Luther’s pastor and minister of the city church in Wittenberg, used the title of deacon for those responsible for social welfare in the church orders that he wrote or edited for Lutheran churches in north Germany and Denmark. Still, some Lutherans of the sixteenth century called ‘deacons’ those ordained clergy who were serving as assistants to parish pastors, and by the seventeenth century, among Lutherans, ‘deacon’ as a title generally referred to an assistant pastor.

In newly Protestant regions, where religious orders and confraternities were abolished or gradually dissolved, city councils often absorbed Catholic endowments, properties, and responsibility for social welfare and education. While Martin Luther, Martin Bucer, and John Calvin advocated the title ‘deacon’ for those who cared for the poor, only Calvin wrote ‘deacon’ into ecclesiastical ordinances (1541).

Governments were also taking more of a role in social welfare, and by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, confraternities or lay brotherhoods and sisterhoods had begun to take a major role. By the fifteenth century, the Catholic deacon’s role was almost exclusively liturgical. The diaconate prepared men for the priesthood. The Anabaptists who came out of the Protestant Reformation appeared to more freely allow women service that involved a title than did Lutheran or Reformed Churches. Mennonite Anabaptists allowed for both deacons and deaconesses in their Confession of Dordrecht or Dort (21 April 1632).

The Church of England retained the transitional diaconate of the medieval era, even though those Englishmen who had lived on the European continent in Reformed cities during the Marian exile (1553–1558), or who were Puritans, preferred the Reformed model of deacons as serving the poor. When the spiritual descendants of some of these people migrated to the Americas as Separatists or Puritans in the seventeenth century, they retained the office of deacon in their churches, but gradually that term included that of elder or trustee. The Boards of Deacons became governing boards of many Congregational or Baptist churches. Meanwhile, in eighteenth-century England, Methodists emerging from within the Church of England retained the transitional deacon of that church.

There were, then, broadly, two models for deacons in the denominations that emerged from the Reformation and the early-modern era up to the nineteenth century. (1) The transitional diaconate in which the office of deacon was held by a clergyman on his way to becoming a priest or pastor. This was true in the Catholic Church, the Church of England, and the Methodist Church. (2) The second model for deacons was that of the deacon as social worker and financial officer. These deacons were chosen from the congregation without the intention that they would become pastors; they usually worked part-time at their diaconal tasks and were not considered ‘clergy’. This model is found in Reformed churches modelled on the Swiss Reformed Churches.

Lutherans, as they came to the new world and founded congregations, used the term ‘deacon’ in both senses – that of the transitional diaconate and that of the Reformed diaconate of deacons selected from the congregation. There were ‘congregational deacons’ and boards of deacons in some synods of Lutheranism, but Lutherans also used the term ‘deacon’ to refer to men on their way to becoming Lutheran pastors.

4 The nineteenth century: deaconesses as nurses; the inner mission

After the Protestant Reformation, the next major development in the diaconate occurred in the nineteenth century and originated in the Germanys. The Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, leaving families disrupted, women widowed, and children orphaned. The industrial revolution, arriving later in Europe than England, brought urbanization problems, child labour, dangerous working conditions, long work days, and crowded living conditions.

Germany made a unique contribution to urban work in the Inner Mission, a programme of social action and evangelism that began with rescue houses for children neglected or abandoned during the wars. In 1833 in Hamburg, Johannes Wichern founded a home for homeless boys, educating and training them, gathering them into groups of twelve to fourteen boys with a ‘brother’, a new type of deacon. In 1839, Wichern founded a brother house and trained deacons for work in jails, slums, and places where many pastors would not go. As the movement spread in the Germanys and beyond, deacons were trained in other places, too, sometimes in conjunction with their female counterparts, deaconesses. The Inner Mission included seamen’s missions, hostels, hospices, halfway houses, visitation of prisons, distribution of literature, homes for women escaping prostitution, and youth work. Deacons also worked in hospitals.

The deaconess movement in the Germanys owes its origins to Theodore Fliedner (1800–1864), a parish pastor at Kaiserswerth on the Rhine River below Düsseldorf, who was inspired by trips to England where he visited Elizabeth Fry, prison reformer, and to the Netherlands where he became aware of Mennonite deaconesses. Fliedner established at Kaiserswerth a halfway house for women workers as prisoners in 1833, a kindergarten and nursing school in 1836, an orphanage in 1842, a mental hospital in 1852. To staff these institutions he educated women to be nurses, teachers, and social workers. These working women were referred to as ‘deaconesses’. Germany has been credited with the origins of the nursing profession, making it a respectable female profession.

The Napoleonic Wars had left many women without men. Single women of rural or artisan families came to Kaiserswerth to be educated. Many became deaconesses, living together in mother houses, dressed in the blue dress and white bonnet of the Kaiserswerth deaconess, committing themselves for five years at a time, receiving no salary except pocket money and a promise that they would be cared for in their old age. From Kaiserswerth they were sent out to other parts of Germany and abroad.

In contrast, Florence Nightingale had stayed at Kaiserswerth but neither became a deaconess nor used the deaconess movement as a vehicle for making nursing a profession in England. In 1862, the first deaconess of the Church of England, Elizabeth Ferard, was set apart by the Bishop of London. Her movement continued in the deaconesses of St Andrew’s House, London. The Oxford movement in England and its orders of religious interfered with the attraction of the deaconess movement, however, as did the fact that nursing in England developed along secular lines. British deaconesses were less involved in nursing than their Continental counterparts.

The deaconess movement spread beyond Germany to France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. The movement grew enormously in numbers of deaconesses and mother houses. In 1861, Fliedner organized a General Conference of deaconess mother houses. Others founded mother houses, such as Wilhelm Löhe of Neuendettelsau, Bavaria (1854). Some mother houses, such as Bielefeld in Westphalia (1869), built clusters of institutions for the sick, mentally ill, and elderly. Later, under Adolph Hitler, German deaconesses took heroic measures to protect these disadvantaged people.

Methodists and Baptists in England also had deaconesses, and Methodism would play a prominent role when deaconesses spread to the Americas, but the deaconess movement in North America owes its foundation to William Passavant, a Lutheran pastor, who, inspired by a visit to Kaiserswerth, consecrated his first deaconesses in North America on 28 May 1850.

The Lutheran deaconess movement in the ‘New World’ followed the mother-house model of the ‘Old World’, with centres in areas where Germans and Scandinavians settled: Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Brooklyn, and Omaha. Deacons could be trained in Colorado and Nebraska. Philanthropists and trustees took leadership roles, but a deaconess from Norway, Elizabeth Fedde, was instrumental in bringing the movement to Brooklyn and Minneapolis. Lutheran deaconesses often spoke the language of their mother country to each other and in the mother house.

Although the deaconesses movement never became as large in the United States as it had been in Europe, there were deaconesses from many Protestant denominations: Reformed, Baptist, Episcopal, Congregational, Presbyterian, Mennonite, and Methodist. There were also interdenominational deaconess associations. Women of German descent were well-represented, and sometimes mother houses in Europe, such as Bielefeld and Neuendettelsau, sent deaconesses to the United States. Deaconesses founded or staffed hospitals that dot the country, some with ‘Deaconess’ in their titles.

It was not so much nursing that caught on among American deaconesses but the inner-city work of the Methodists. Deaconesses among Methodists in the United States got a later start than among Lutherans. The General Conference of the Methodist Church recognized deaconess work as an institution of the church in 1888, after Lucy Rider Meyer had established the Chicago Training School for City and Home and Foreign Missions (1885). The Chicago School became the first school for deaconesses in the Methodist Church. By 1915, Methodists had founded sixty such schools across the country in cities such as Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Grand Rapids. These schools trained people (including deaconesses) to work in the church, especially in the city. Prominent Methodist women agitated for the deaconess cause, including the well-educated Jane and Henrietta Bancroft, deans of the women’s colleges at Northwestern and at the University of Southern California.

Methodist deaconesses were particularly active in work in the inner city. They met women arriving at train stations and found them safe housing, helped people find work, opened clubs for young people, sponsored mothers’ circles, and established kindergartens and nurseries. Aware of society’s problems, they opposed child labour and were active in the temperance movement (which encouraged abstinence from consumption of alcoholic beverages). Methodist deaconesses were noted for their work among immigrants.

5 The expansion and diversification of the roles of deacons

The growth of the deaconess movement and deacons on the inner mission model continued into the time of the First World War. Celibate groups of Lutheran and Reformed men and women dedicated themselves full time to the poor and the sick as nurses, social workers, and teachers. In some regions, such as Europe, growth continued until after the Second World War, but by the 1950s the movement appeared to have peaked. Some groups modernized and fared better, switching from pocket money to salaries, educating deaconesses in colleges and universities, and allowing deaconesses to marry or to work part-time. As more denominations accepted women pastors, their deaconesses faced problems with recruitment. Some deaconess groups that were founded late and in denominations that did not ordain women as pastors, such as the Missouri Synod Lutheran deaconesses, continued to offer a vocation in the church for women besides that of parish secretary or pastor’s wife.

5.1 Lutherans

Proposals for a form of diaconal ministry for men arose in conventions of the Lutheran Church of America (LCA; 1970–1978). The LCA considered including men in the diaconate and perhaps as full-time lay workers of the church and persons involved in special ministries through congregations and para-congregational groups. (This idea would resurface in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s study of ministry, 1988–1993; see below.) Efforts to experiment with deacons were made in Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Bishop Perry in the Upstate New York Synod of the Lutheran Church in America started a synod-wide training program for congregational deacons. Pastor Stephen Boumann of Trinity Church, Bogota, New Jersey, started DIAKONIA, an inter-Lutheran program in the New York metropolitan area which delivered training for congregational deacons, both male and female. The Order of St. Stephen, Deacon incorporated in Baltimore, Maryland.

Prospects for a formal recognition of deacons within Lutheranism was complicated by the proliferation of Lutheran ‘synods’: ecclesial groups of Lutherans sharing similar beliefs, who were originally organized separately from other Lutherans in America. This was because early Lutheran immigrants spoke different European languages, particularly German and Scandinavian. In the twentieth century, as use of the English language became more dominant, likeminded synods – each with its own order of ministry – united with other synods. Differences needed to be worked out in the newly formed synods, including the role of deacons (Olson 2005: 433–454).

One of these synods, the Lutheran Church in America, created a task force that studied the ministry of deacons and suggested that men be allowed to join its deaconesses association. This was approved by the LCA deaconess association but a synod gathering rejected the idea. Study of the matter continued. By 1984, about two hundred congregations said they had deacons. Some were merely worship assistants. Others preached, taught, carried Communion to those unable to leave home, and engaged in community service. Because of prospects of merger of the LCA with the American Lutheran Church, the Division for Professional Leadership recommended that the synod referred the matter of diaconal ministry to the Commission for a New Lutheran Church.

In the 1970s, while the Lutheran Church in America was struggling with the issue of deacons, final steps were taken in December 1976 to form the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC). The AELC would join the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1 January 1988. The AELC had some strong proponents for the diaconate, of whom one of the most articulate was Stephen Bouman. The East Coast Synod of the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches had recognized the office of deacon in 1982. On 30 May 1983, the bishop of the East Coast Synod consecrated three deacons. The new Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) included former AELC deacons on its roster, but the ELCA was going to initially choose to label deacons ‘diaconal ministers’ as did the Methodists.

A Commission for a New Lutheran Church (CNLC), charged with the foundational work leading to the first constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was unable to resolve all issues concerning the patterns of ministry before the new synod got underway in 1988. These issues had to be resolved in order to situate the deacons, deaconesses, and lay professional people employed by the merging church bodies. The Lutheran Church in America brought over one hundred consecrated deaconesses and almost six hundred lay professional leaders into the new synod, required to have a bachelor’s or master’s degree. The American Lutheran Church brought 550 commissioned church staff workers, from parish secretaries to teachers, who had received letters of call. There were American Lutheran Church deaconesses as well. The AELC brought 150 commissioned and called teachers and forty-six deacons and deaconesses. The teachers had a long history in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, out of which they came. They were considered ministers of religion, even by the Internal Revenue Service, which classified them as clergy. The deaconesses were part of the Lutheran Deaconess Association at Valparaiso University. The deacons were relatively new, but the AELC embraced them and allowed them both liturgical and service functions. They were called by the bishop, consecrated, and non-stipendiary.

The situation was further complicated by the fact that, depending on the church body, some of these church professionals had been consecrated; some had been commissioned, and some had been installed. Some had experienced a laying on of hands when consecrated or commissioned. Others had not. Some, but not all, had received letters of call. What was to be made of all this in the new synod?

The Commission recommended that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America carry out a study of ministry. While the study was being undertaken, inherited rosters of church workers were to be frozen, with no assurance of a future status in the synod. Publications by Lutherans on the office of ministry appeared that included ‘the office of deacon’. A strong argument for an ordained diaconate in the new ELCA came from William Lazareth, bishop of Metropolitan New York and formerly of the Lutheran Church in America, who argued that the restoration of an ordained diaconate (in whatever public roles this church considers helpful) could be of great benefit to the fullness of ministries in the ELCA. It would also provide the ‘Lutheran understanding and adaptation of the threefold ministerial office of bishop, pastor and deacon’ that is called for consideration in the ELCA constitution (10.11.A87) (Lazareth 1991: 30–41).

A different point of view was expressed by Michael Rogness, then Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Ministry at Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary, later Professor of Homiletics. Both Rogness and the Seminary itself were of the former American Lutheran Church, many of its members had difficulty with changes that came with the merger, such as calling the former district presidents ‘bishops’. Without denying the historical reality of the diaconate in all of its ramifications, Rogness was equivocal about the ordination of deacons in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He argued in a short historical essay on the Office of Deacon in the Christian Church that

diakonia as service is of course the task of every Christian in every congregation […] What is important is that the ministry of diakonia is being carried out, not what titles are used. One difficulty in restoring the diaconate as a distinct order is the diffusion of ministries in a congregation. (Rogness 1990: 157)

Meanwhile, on the ecumenical front, the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches had sponsored a consultation on diaconal ministry in December 1988, out of which denominational leaders formed a National Diaconal Dialogue Group (NDDG). The Diaconal Dialogue Group met for a four-to-five-year period and influenced the Task Force for the Study of Ministry and the requirements for diaconal ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

In 1989 and 1991, the Task Force for the Study of Ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America prepared interim reports to the Church-wide Assemblies (1991). The Task Force asserted that no one dogmatic or institutional form of ministry was necessary for salvation or as a guarantee of the Gospel. The justifying ministry of Jesus Christ is the one essential ministry, and all other ministries are derivative and dependent.

The 1991 report set forth three different models for the ordering of ordained ministry in the Evangelical Church in America and invited response by means of an appended form due back to the Task Force by 31 December 1991. It elicited a disappointingly poor response. In the fall and winter of 1991 and 1992, a series of forums were held around the country focusing on content of the report.

All three proposals retained the ordination of women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, but the issue of grand-parenting in all previously rostered lay ministries was open. The three proposals were a threefold, twofold, and unitary ordering of the one office of ordained ministry as follows:

  1. The proposal for a threefold ordering was that of deacons, pastors, and bishops. This proposal carried three separate options for ordination: (a) three ordinations, as practiced in the Church of Sweden; (b) one ordination to deacon, pastor, or bishop that would not be repeated if one moved from one office to another; or (c) one ordination for pastors only, and consecration of bishops or deacons.
  2. The proposal for twofold ordering was that of (a) Word and Sacrament and (b) Word and Service for deacons and other professional church workers. This proposal was without ecumenical precedent.
  3. The unitary ordering was to ordain pastors and roster other lay professional church workers. Some advocates of this ordering wanted to use the title of deacon for rostered full-time church professionals. Others wanted to consider only some of the rostered groups ‘deacons’. This option allowed for leaving the presently existing deacons and deaconesses much as they were. Deacons or deaconesses were to be consecrated or commissioned (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America 1991: 30–41).

In this unitary ordering, some people envisioned deacons as filling in where there was a shortage of ordained pastors, even preaching and administering the sacraments, just as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had some non-ordained people serving in that capacity without the title of deacon.

Could not everything be left as much as possible as it was with regard to church office? In the case of a merger of church bodies, different orderings of ministry had evolved necessitating viewing church office with an eye to what was essential and what could be compromised.

An issue underlying the proposals of the Task Force for the Study of Ministry was ordination. Some, but not all, of the merging church bodies had practiced the laying on of hands for consecrated deacons and deaconesses and for some commissioned church staff workers without speaking of that as ordination. Deaconesses were also spoken of as being ‘set apart’. What was ordination? For Martin Luther it was clearly not a sacrament. An interpretive paper prepared by the Task Force suggested that ordination might be considered ‘public recognition, affirmation, and confirmation of call from the Church to a public ministry of the Church’ (Busse 1999: 89–108). This definition could allow more than just pastors to be ordained. There was a minority on the Task Force who disagreed with such inclusiveness.

Concerns about the role of bishops in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America would overshadow the issue of diaconal ministry. The Task Force recommended that the title of ‘bishop’ be retained in the ELCA, that the term of office should be six years, and should be renewable, and that a service of installation be used for bishops. The Task Force was acting within its commitment to cooperate with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC). The ELCIC and ELCA had reciprocity of ministers. Ordained ministers of one church may serve in the other church.

By the time the report and recommendations of the Task Force on the Study of Ministry passed the Church wide Assembly of the ELCA meeting in Kansas in 1993, there had been some amendments. The Board of the Division for Ministry had voted to delete the recommendation to ordain diaconal ministers. The Conference of Bishops had concurred. Diaconal ministers were to be consecrated, whereas associates in ministry, the term used for lay-rostered individuals, were to be commissioned. Deaconesses were left as they were on a separate roster. The Division of Ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was charged with recommending a rite of entry for diaconal ministers to the 1995 Church-wide Assembly in Minneapolis. By 1995 the Division had prepared standards, requirements, and procedures for diaconal ministry.

Educational requirements for the diaconal ministers included a Masters in Arts from a seminary and whatever training their specialty required. There was some latitude about this. Their activities overlapped considerably with those of the associates in ministry encompassing a variety of callings: directing church music, teaching, social work, and counselling. In addition, diaconal ministers were required, at least once, to attend a two-week formation event, held in July 1995 at Gettysburg Seminary, the ELCA Center for Diaconal Ministry Preparation. There were thirty-four candidates for diaconal ministry at this first formation event in 1995. By July 1999, 135 people had participated, and by 2003 approximately 300. The formation event was co-sponsored by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Division for Ministry and the Eastern Cluster of Lutheran Seminaries (Philadelphia, Southern, and Gettysburg Seminaries). Diaconal ministers underwent forty hours of spiritual direction. They were asked to have 700 hours of supervised field experience.

Diaconal ministers were not necessarily congregationally based. Some were chaplains in hospitals. With approval of the bishop, they could lead eucharistic services, especially if they were the only Lutheran chaplains in the particular hospital. Non-stipendiary posts, although they were allowed by the constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, had to be approved by the Conference of Bishops. The need to obtain such approval potentially left out of diaconal ministry people of sufficient means or with retirement pensions who wanted to serve in areas where there was no budget for them. It also left some candidates, who had completed their education for the diaconal ministry, waiting for a salaried call in the ELCA.

Privileging the consecration of diaconal ministers who were receiving a salary from the church in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America might have contributed to the relatively modest number of diaconal ministers. In June 1996, the first Evangelical Lutheran Church in America consecrations of diaconal ministers took place. As of 12 August 2003, the Director for Candidacy of the Division for Ministry reported that there were sixty-six consecrated diaconal ministers on the rolls, and more than 160 candidates. According to many, congregations need pastors, but they could do without a diaconal minister.

Diaconal ministers held periodic gatherings in or near various cities around the country that have included Indianapolis and Phoenix. They published a newsletter.

In the ELCA, with the approval of the bishop and a synodical board or committee, lay people could preach and preside, usually in geographically isolated or economically challenged areas where there was no ordained pastor. Allowing non-ordained people to preside over the Eucharist is disturbing to many Episcopalians. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is in a relationship of full communion with the Episcopal Church and has an agreement for the orderly exchange of pastors and priests.

Studies of church ministry, such as the one conducted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, tend to concentrate on full-time professional church workers and to leave out of consideration lay congregational deacons who are unpaid.

Lutheranism historically has had a considerable degree of flexibility in its conception of deacons. If one seeks historical precedent within American Lutheranism for two kinds of deacons in the same church, one can look to the Muhlenberg churches that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had both transitional deacons on their way to becoming pastors and lay deacons elected within individual congregations.

5.2 Comparing diaconal ministers and deacons

How did deacons and diaconal ministers compare? Catholics and Episcopalians use the term ‘deacon’, and Methodists switched their terminology to ‘deacon’ in 1993. The United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America chose to use the term ‘diaconal minister’, which allowed for congregational deacons and synodically-approved deacons in the same denomination. Worldwide organization of deacons and diaconal ministers was defined as broadly as possible, as reflected in the Foundation Diakonia, World Federation of Diaconal Associations, and Diaconal Communities.

Nevertheless, there are differences between deacons and diaconal ministers. There were many more deacons than diaconal ministers. In 2003, there were over 2,000 vocational deacons in the Episcopal Church and over 13,000 in the Catholic Church in the United States. The United Methodist Church had around 450 diaconal ministers and stopped consecrating as in 1993 it had voted to ordain deacons. In June 2003 the Methodist Church had over a thousand deacons.

In contrast to churches that speak in terms of thousands of deacons, the Director for Candidacy of the Division for Ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church reported a combined total of around 220 diaconal ministers and candidates for diaconal ministry in August 2003. Catholics and Episcopalians began much earlier with permanent and perpetual deacons. The Catholic Church has had permanent deacons since 1968, and the Episcopal Church had perpetual deacons in 1952. The United Methodists began with diaconal ministers in 1976. By comparison, the adoption of diaconal ministers into the Evangelical Lutheran Church is relatively recent.

Diaconal Ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America needed a theological master’s degree. Catholic and Episcopal deacons did not need a master’s degree. Deacons in the United Methodist Church needed either a master’s degree or certification. Requiring a master’s degree of diaconal ministers might have contributed to the relative lack of minorities in the diaconal ministry of the ELCA.

An additional difference among the denominations is whether the diaconal ministers and deacons are paid. One would assume that it is better to be paid, but for many called to be deacons or diaconal ministers, pay is not the issue. They have other sources of income, are willing to serve without pay, or are looking for a diaconal role outside of a church institution. With the constraints of denominational budgets, there are those who would rather be ordained or consecrated to a non-stipendiary call than wait for a budget line to be found.

5.3 Presbyterians and churches in the reformed tradition

Presbyterians in America have lived for a long time with a polity that includes ministers, elders, and deacons – albeit at times using the terms ‘teaching elders’ and ‘ruling elders’ to distinguish between ministers (of Word and Sacrament) and elders who are members of local sessions (the term for what in other denominations is called a vestry or a church council). Deacons are rarely paid in the Presbyterian Church. Besides ordaining ministers, Presbyterians ordain elders and deacons from the local congregation to what can be very time-consuming posts.

Not all Presbyterian churches have had deacons. Some churches had trustees instead of or in addition to elders and deacons. Some congregations, especially in the southern stream of the Presbyterian Church, have used boards of deacons as trustees in charge of real estate, investments, buildings, and grounds. Entrusting deacons with material responsibilities on behalf of the church is in the tradition of John Calvin’s Geneva, as a role of the deacons in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Geneva was to take the financial load off pastors. This has been true in the Reformed tradition in various times and places since.

If a congregation has no board of deacons, the tasks that deacons ordinarily fulfil fall to the elders. These tasks include hospital visitation, fellowship, and some of the charitable tasks of a congregation. Deacons undertake those tasks the session assigns to them. Some Presbyterian churches have instituted parish nurses. Both elders and deacons can help with Communion and take Communion to those confined to their homes. Some Presbyterian congregations have eliminated their boards of deacons (as deacons sitting collectively together are called) and instituted what some Presbyterians call a ‘unicameral’ system; that is, congregations with only a session consisting of elders and no board of deacons and no trustees. Comments on the elimination of boards of deacons in Presbyterian churches were characterized by a notable lack of knowledge of the heritage of deacons in Reformed churches, emanating from Switzerland in the Reformation era, of which the Presbyterian Church (USA) is one.

As the diaconate spread across different geographical and cultural regions, it did not remain exactly as it had been in Calvin’s Geneva. For instance, deacons and elders in the Reformed ‘stranger church’ of the French in London sometimes met together as they do in the Reformed Church in America.

In the Reformed Church of Calvin’s era, there is no evidence that elders, deacons, or doctors (teachers) were ordained to those offices, nor that Calvin and the other pastors of Geneva were ever ordained if ordination entails a laying on of hands. Calvin personally favoured ordination. Geneva’s city council did not approve of ceremonies that could be considered ‘papist’ and idolatrous. Alongside Pastor, Elder, and Deacon, there was a fourth office in Calvin’s Geneva, that of ‘Doctor’. This form of leadership was often served by professors of theology, many of whom were also pastors. Proposals to recognize church educators in the Presbyterian Church could be justified on the basis of John Calvin’s fourfold conception of church office as (1) pastor, (2) elder, (3) deacon, and (4) doctor or teacher.

While conscious of the need for educated ministers, the Presbyterian Church has shortages in rural and economically disadvantaged areas, as is the case for other denominations. The Presbyterian Church (USA) had a provision for lay pastors. After specialized training, lay pastors functioned on every level as pastors, even sacramentally. They worked among immigrant groups or Native Americans for whom it is important to have someone who shares the culture and can speak the language. Lay pastors were controlled by the presbytery; a group of regionally contiguous Presbyterian congregations that send representatives to common periodic meetings to decide on policies that concern more than one congregation within the presbytery.

5.4 Deacons elected in congregations: Baptists, Reformed, Lutheran, and others

Like Presbyterians, many denominations elect deacons within individual congregations to serve part-time, without salary and on a volunteer basis. This is true of Baptists, Mennonites, Unitarians, Seventh Day Adventists, the Reformed Church in America, other churches in the Reformed tradition, and some Lutherans. The roles and functions of deacons depend, to some extent, on other officers with whom they can share the congregation’s work. If there are trustees or elders to share financial and administrative responsibilities, deacons can, in theory at least, concentrate on serving the community.

Unlike other denominations that abolished either the roles of elder or the deacon over time, Reformed churches originating in the Netherlands have been able to maintain both offices. For example, the Reformed Church in America, with origins in the Netherlands, has elders and deacons. Both are members of the consistory (church council). Deacons are charged with financial administration of the church, care of the sick, visiting those in distress, and benevolent concerns. They are ordained by a laying on of hands by the minister. Deacons in the wider Christian Reformed Church have similar roles.

Many deacons have an active role in well-coordinated ministries. Deacons of the Deacons’ Conference of the Holland Classis of the Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan coordinated their efforts but retained unique programmes within each congregation. At Calvary Reformed Church, deacons have been assigned both to a ‘fellowship family’ within their congregation and to outreach work beyond members of their congregations. Deacons have been encouraged to find church members to work with them and have been asked to submit a detailed monthly report evaluating their work. The result in one seven-month period was that sixty-nine families were helped, of whom thirty-four were non-member families. Deacons coordinated their efforts with their Christian Reformed classis of churches and with the national programme of the Christian Reformed Church. Christian Reformed deacons have also cooperated ecumenically, especially with deacons in the Reformed Church in America.

Baptist deacons encompass both the role of deacons and of what would be the role of elders in other denominations. Baptist deacons have responsibility for finances and governance in many congregations, although some Baptist churches have other financial officers: trustees, stewards, treasurers, and financial secretaries. Baptists in the American South tended to ordain their deacons. American Baptist churches have female deacons, but this was true of only some Southern Baptist congregations. Since the 1970s, women have more often been ordained as deacons rather than as deaconesses.

Ever since Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918) and the ‘social gospel’, Baptist deacons have grappled with the needs of society and problems of poverty. Much of the literature aimed at Baptist deacons has emphasized their service role, with some suggesting that the role of deacons has shifted from management to ministry. Many congregations have used the Deacon Family Ministry Plan whereby a church divides up the congregation into groups of families and assigns each of its deacons to visit and watch over a number of families. Other denominations have used this plan or variations of it.

In the former United Lutheran Church, some congregations called their church council members deacons. Historically, some Lutheran churches in America have had both elders and deacons. Denominations and churches that have organized in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries have incorporated the deacon into their structures, including the Seventh Day Adventists.

5.5 French-speaking parts of Switzerland and France

As part of the ecclesiastical ordinances of Geneva in 1541, John Calvin labelled the trustees and administrator of the city hospital ‘deacons’. However, in 1549, there were also deacons who ran welfare funds for refugees to Geneva, with each fund concentrating on refugees of its own nationality: French, German, Italian, and English. After the dissolution of these welfare funds in the nineteenth century, Geneva had other deacons at work in its churches, charged with charity work and relief.

Deacons in French-speaking Reformed churches date back to Calvin and were common in the French-speaking parts of Switzerland called the Suisse Romande (southwest Switzerland around Geneva, Lausanne, Neuchâtel, and Fribourg). Eventually both men and women could become deacons and pastors.

The modern Genevan church provided for deacons named by each parish council. They had to be at least twenty years old. Deacon nominations were announced from the pulpit in the parish church. Deacons in each parish were to organize themselves and determine where to focus their attention. Deacons could not make appeals for funding without consent of their parish council and the Protestant Church of Geneva Council. Money placed in the alms boxes in the individual churches was to be handed over to a Commission for the Common Funds of the Protestant Church of Geneva, composed of two delegates from each diaconate and two from the Consistory, after which the Commission determined how these funds, and also gifts and legacies, would be spent.

For a long time, deacons in French-speaking Reformed churches in Geneva received no formal training except for what they acquired on the job. Then the Reformed Church initiated a formal diaconal training program, particularly for deacons who intended to make it all or part of their career. The Protestant Church of Geneva had sixteen trained deacons on 5 July 2001, and eighty-seven pastors. Deacons and pastors received the same salaries based on age and length of service in the church. Not all pastors, nor their wives, were happy that deacons and pastors were paid the same.

The statutes for the Department of Diaconal Ministries of the Suisse Romande date from at least 1967. The diaconal education was modified in 1996. People aspiring to become deacons had to have acquired professional training and two years of experience before beginning diaconal training. They could not be over fifty when they begin diaconal training, which took three years to complete. The training involved an oral examination and written work. Attendance was mandatory, but it was a part-time commitment that allowed people to attend alongside another job.

Some of the literature surrounding this salaried diaconate in the French-speaking part of Switzerland shows a naiveté as to the rich history of deacons there. A piece about the nature of the ministry of the deacon stated that in reintroducing the diaconal ministry, churches of the French-speaking part of Switzerland are giving a new possibility of a ministry oriented toward the world (Section four of Satuts du Département Romand des Ministères Diaconaux. ‘La nature du ministere du diacre.’). The deacons’ salary might have been a recent development, but the orientation of diaconal ministry towards the world was not new to this part of Switzerland.

Once trained, a deacon in French-speaking Switzerland was consecrated as part of a service that included the imposition of hands. Deacons could work full or part-time for the church in a congregation or an institution. They could receive a salary from the church, or they could retain their former professions and income. At times when there has been a shortage of pastors, deacons have stepped into their role. They could teach and preach freely.

Swiss deacons from the Suisse Romande have met with French Catholic deacons. They were invited, for the first time, to the assembly of deacons of the Catholic Church in France, held on 27–28 February 1982 at Nîmes. This annual gathering had attendees from Portugal, Spain, Germany, and Belgium. Communion et Diaconie, a diaconal periodical, recorded their impressions. The editorial board of this ecumenical journal consisted of eight Catholics and five Protestants. In some ways, it can be easier for deacons than for pastors or priests of different denominations to work together – something that is reflected in the expansion of diaconal organizations.

Despite these developments, there was uncertainty in many churches about the need for deacons, their status, and functions. What distinguishes the diaconate from other ministries: catechists, musicians, and so on? Why should deacons be ordained? If they are ordained, is their ordination only the first step towards ordination as presbyter.

5.6 Ecumenical interest in the diaconate

Ecumenical interest in the diaconate was expressed by deacons themselves but also by church mergers and unions, interdenominational dialogues, and the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. The roots of ecumenical discussion about the ordering of ministry go back at least to the world conference of Faith and Order in Lausanne, 1927. This movement evolved into the Faith and Order Commission that, after the Second World War, became a part of the World Council of Churches. The Roman Catholic Church participated fully in the Commission after the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) (World Council of Churches 1990: 7–8).

The Faith and Order Commission initiated a study on ministry in 1964. That same year, the Faith and Order Commission held a consultation on ‘The Ministry of Deacons in the Church’ and the following year a consultation on ‘The Deaconess’. These resulted in the publications of The Ministry of Deacons (1965) and The Deaconess (1966). The Faith and Order Commission began its studies on baptism and the Eucharist in 1967. Further study of those documents by member churches led to the publication of One Baptism, One Eucharist and a Mutually Recognized Ministry which was received at the Commission meeting in Accra in 1974. That led to further study and the document Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM), received at the Commission meeting in Lima in 1982. The World Council of Churches Central Committee authorized the transmittal of BEM (or ‘the Lima text’, as it is known) to the churches.

Post-Second World War, the World Federation of Deaconess Associations became a precursor to DIAKONIA, World Federation of Diaconal Associations and Diaconal Communities, serving as a contact for deacons, deaconesses, and diaconal ministers worldwide. National, regional, and denominational organizations of deacons arose for men and women. Around this time, some organizations dropped the title ‘deaconess’.

The diaconate within the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion of churches experienced a revival after the Second World War. The American Episcopal Church established ‘perpetual’ deacons (1952), an office that was opened to women in 1970. Pope Paul VI (in 1967), responding to the Second Vatican Council, revived the permanent diaconate for men not intended for the priesthood: married men at least thirty-five years of age and celibate men at least twenty-five years old. Thousands became deacons as clergy serving the church, but not permitted to celebrate the Eucharist.

When in 1982, the Faith and Order Commission at Lima, Peru, produced Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM), they promoted a threefold ministry of bishops, pastors, and deacons. Churches, if they had deacons at that time, elected them in congregations or labelled assistant or interim pastors as deacons. In 1993, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America authorized consecration of male and female diaconal ministers, alongside existing deaconesses. The United Methodists consecrated diaconal ministers (1976–1996) alongside deaconesses, and in 1996 they eliminated the transitional diaconate and began ordaining deacons. Some Episcopalians also wanted to eliminate the transitional diaconate.

Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry became an ecumenical bestseller, the most successful publication the World Council of Churches ever produced. By 1990 it had gone through twenty-four reprints with a total of 85,000 copies and been translated into at least thirty-one languages. Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry is only thirty-three pages long in English.

Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry discusses the role of deacons, alongside bishops and presbyters, in ‘Forms of Ordained Ministry’ in the section on ministry. Acknowledging that the New Testament does not describe a single pattern of ministry, it puts forth a historical argument that during the second and third centuries a threefold pattern of ministry developed which has a strong basis for acceptance by the church today. Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry thus advocates a threefold ministry of bishop, presbyter, and deacon. It states that there is tendency in many churches to restore the diaconate as an ordained ministry with its own dignity, meant to be exercised for life. As the churches find common ground, they may be united in this office of ministries, which now exists in a variety of forms.

Churches with a unitary vision of ministry (centred on the pastor) took exception to the threefold pattern of ministry, some Lutherans, for instance. Many Reformation and Free churches felt that BEM was attempting to make definitive a historically developed pattern of bishops, presbyters, and deacons. Respondents objected to the diaconate as a separate order of ministry or to the ordination of deacons. Other respondents, from the Congregationalist and Baptist traditions, felt they had a more clearly defined role for deacons than BEM. Some churches felt that BEM was not appreciative of the other offices of the church. In many churches there is today considerable uncertainty about the need, the rationale, the status and the functions of deacons. In what sense can the diaconate be considered part of the ordained ministry? What is it that distinguishes it from other ministries in the church (catechists, musicians, etc.)? Why should deacons be ordained while these other ministries do not receive ordination? If they are ordained, do they receive ordination in the full sense of the word or is their ordination only the first step towards ordination as presbyters? (World Council of Churches 1982: 27)

There is a rich variety of other institutional forms of ministry in the church. BEM neglected, for instance, the office of the elder in the Reformed tradition, which is not identical with that of pastor. The 1990 Faith and Order Commission report on the responses to BEM acknowledged that attention should have been given by BEM to the ministerial functions of elders in the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition. Likewise, churches from the Reformed tradition, objected to BEM’s diaconate, which seemed to resemble the model of deacons in churches that, after the Reformation, retained a medieval hierarchy of church office, including Catholics and Anglicans.

From 1986–1988 the Faith and Order Commission published six volumes of responses of churches and some ecumenical bodies to this document. A number of respondents to Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry welcomed its call for reform of the threefold pattern of ministry:

The function of deacons has been reduced to an assistant role in the celebration of the liturgy: they have ceased to fulfill any function with regard to the diaconal witness of the Church […] The traditional threefold pattern thus raises questions for all the churches. Churches maintaining the threefold pattern will need to ask how its potential can be fully developed for the most effective witness of the Church in this world. (World Council of Churches 1982: 27)

Respondents applauded BEM’s broad description of deacons as representing the church as servants in the world:

By struggling in Christ’s name with the myriad needs of societies and persons, deacons exemplify the interdependence of worship and service in the Church’s life. They exercise responsibility in the worship of the congregation: for example by reading the scriptures, preaching and leading the people in prayer. They help in the teaching of the congregation. They exercise a ministry of love within the community. They fulfil certain administrative tasks and may be elected to responsibilities for governance. (World Council of Churches 1982: 25)

Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry asserts that the threefold ministry may serve as an expression of the unity we seek, and that churches not having the threefold pattern need to ask themselves whether the threefold pattern has a powerful claim on them. It further states that the church may ordain people who remain in other occupations or employment, allowing for non-stipendiary deacons, pastors, and other ministries. This document has influenced ecumenical dialogue and the position of various denominations on deacons. For instance, the description of the diaconate in the 1984 Consensus of the American-based Consultation on Church Union (COCU) intentionally resembled that of BEM. Indeed, some of the language was identical. The Consensus accepted the threefold pattern of ordained ministry. It described the diaconate as a ministry in its own right and not as a stepping-stone to other office, and it emphasized the social service and teaching aspects of the deacon’s role. The COCU Consensus admitted, however, that it was impossible to reconcile the various forms of diaconal ministries at that time.

The ultimate goal of the Consultation on Church Union was to establish unity as one church.

Since 1962, the churches of the Consultation had engaged in efforts to find agreement. In 1970, the Consultation submitted ‘A Plan of Union’ to the participating churches. It turned out to be premature, but the Consultation continued to attempt to work out whatever agreement was possible. The 1984 Consensus was a part of that process.

Organization of ministry and polity were key problems in generating enthusiasm for the COCU Consensus among members of denominations participating in the Consultation. For Presbyterians, the office of bishop is non-Presbyterian and the office of elder is held dear. Many Presbyterians are ordained elders, though, typically, all the elders in a congregation are not serving concurrently on the congregation’s session (church council). For some, giving up the office of elder would be the same as ceasing to be Presbyterian. The office of deacon poses less of a problem as it is recognized in many denominations.

At the time of the 1984 Consensus, the Consultation on Church Union consisted of nine member churches: the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and the International Council of Community Churches. The Lutheran Council in the USA, the Catholic Church, and the Reformed Church in America were not official members of the Consultation but were present on the Theology Commission. Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC) was the renamed Consultation on Church Union.

In addition to its influence on the Consultation on Church Union, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry has influenced bilateral ecumenical dialogues: the conversations of the Lutheran World Federation with the Baptist World Alliance, and, in the United States, the Lutheran-Episcopal ‘Agreement between Reformation Churches in Europe’ negotiated in Leuenberg, Switzerland in 1973, but also the so-called ‘Leuenberg Agreement’ between Lutheran, Reformed, and related pre-Reformation churches: the Waldensian Church and the Church of the Czech Brethren. By 1989, eighty denominations had signed the Leuenberg Agreement, which included seventy-six European and four Latin American churches. They acknowledged differences over ministry and ordination while offering table and pulpit fellowship that included the mutual recognition of ordination and the freedom to provide for inter-celebration. The Leuenberg Agreement is the only one of the above-mentioned ecumenical dialogues not to mention deacons. Other texts failed to mention deacons as well, such as the ‘Pullach Report’ from the 1973 international Anglican-Lutheran dialogue and the 1987 Anglican-Lutheran ecumenical text, the ‘Niagara Report’.

As for the Lutheran-Reformed Dialogue, its 1984 report, ‘An Invitation to Action, argued that no substantive matters concerning ministry should divide Lutheran and Reformed churches. Churches participating in this Dialogue were the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Association of Evangelical Lutherans, and Episcopalians.

The new Evangelical Lutheran Church in America labelled as bishops what had been district presidents in a preceding American Lutheran Church. The bishops were not considered to be in an unbroken line of succession from the apostles but were elected for six-year terms; it was possible for a candidate to lose an election. (Lutheran bishops of the Church of Sweden are considered to be in that line of succession due to political exigencies at the time of the Reformation.) The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod had district presidents.

Despite differences, an accord was reached by a majority of the members of the Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church, USA. The Concordat reads as follows:

In light of the agreement that the threefold ministry of bishops, presbyters, and deacons in historic succession will be the future pattern of the one ordained ministry of Word and Sacrament in both churches as they begin to live in full communion […] the Episcopal Church hereby pledges […] to begin the process for enacting a temporary suspension, in this case only, of the 17th century restriction that ‘no persons are allowed to exercise the offices of bishop, priest, or deacon in this Church unless they are so ordained, or have already received such ordination with the laying on of hands by bishops who are themselves duly qualified to confer Holy Orders’ to permit the full interchangeability and reciprocity of all Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastors as priests or presbyters and all Evangelical Lutheran Church in America deacons as deacons in the Episcopal Church without any further ordination or re-ordination […] the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America also pledges […] to begin the process for enacting a dispensation for ordinands of the Episcopal Church from its ordination requirement of subscription to the unaltered Augsburg Confession […] The creation of a common, and therefore fully interchangeable, ministry will occur with the full incorporation of all active bishops in the historic episcopate by common joint ordinations. (Norgren and Rusch 1991: 99–102, 104)

Representatives of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) were full participants in three rounds of Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue (1969–1972, 1976–1980, and 1983–1991), and would in fact stay with the Dialogue throughout its duration. The LCMS was not a part of the Lutheran/Episcopal Interim Sharing of the Eucharist Agreement of 1982. They abstained from voting on the ‘Concordat of Agreement’. Two members of the Dialogue from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America dissented from the Concordat, objecting to the introduction of the historic episcopate into the ELCA as a matter of necessity for church unity. This, they said, was in conflict with the teachings of scripture and the Augsburg Confession. The Lutheran-Episcopal Concordat was defeated at the ELCA church-wide assembly of 1997.

After the Lutheran-Episcopal Concordat failed to be accepted, a Lutheran-Episcopal drafting team was called to prepare a revised proposal. Todd Nichol registered opposition to two Lutheran members of the drafting team, Martin Marty and Michael Root, in a minority report published in Lutheran Quarterly, a scholarly historical journal. Strong discontent with the Lutheran-Episcopal agreement was expressed by some members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, particularly by some who were formerly of the American Lutheran Church. There were also attempts to emphasize commonalities shared by the two church bodies, including a rich liturgical and musical tradition that renders many Lutherans and Episcopalians comfortable participating in each other’s liturgy.

Ultimately, both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church adopted the ‘Called to Common Mission’ (CCM) agreement and entered a relationship of full communion, recognizing each other as distinct but catholic and apostolic churches ‘holding the essentials of the Christian faith’ (Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. ‘The Orderly Exchange of Pastors and Priests under Called to Common Mission: Principles and Guidelines.’ 1 January 2002) As for bishops, the churches agreed over time to share in the ministry of bishops in an evangelical, historic succession. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod neither adopted ‘Called to Common Mission’ nor entered into full communion with the Episcopal Church.

Since 1 January 2001, the ministry of pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and priests of the Episcopal Church has been fully interchangeable, and, when invited, the ELCA can serve in an Episcopal church and a priest of the Episcopal Church can serve in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Initially, however, a rector, the ultimate person in charge of an Episcopal congregation, has to be a priest of the Episcopal Church. Priests or pastors may serve for short or extended periods of time with the other church body and still remain on the clergy rosters and pension plans of their respective home church bodies, but if they intend to serve indefinitely, they can apply to be transferred to the clergy roster of the other church body. Lutheran pastors who become Episcopal priests are not required to be ordained again by an Episcopal bishop even though they may have been originally ordained by no bishop at all.

When serving in the other church body, a pastor or priest will observe the traditions and liturgy of that church, which often requires mastering the other tradition’s vocabulary. The document governing the orderly exchange of pastors and priests of the two church bodies contained glossaries of selected terms from the Episcopal Church and from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, useful to anyone who had ever been lost in a maze of curates and vicars, vestries and wardens, synods and dioceses, diaconal ministers, deacons, deaconesses, and associates in ministry.

Full communion, of course, also meant that members of the two church bodies could receive the Eucharist in each other’s churches – although, as Lutherans, some might object to the common cup used in many Episcopal churches; and as Episcopalians, some might object to the individual communion cups used in many Lutheran churches.

The issue of the diaconate was unresolved by those who agreed to ‘Called to Common Mission’. This was the case with many ecumenical agreements prior to it, commencing with a dialogue between the Church of Sweden and the Church of England that began in the 1920s. That dialogue led to intercommunion between the two churches, although both churches recognized that no conformity existed between them concerning the diaconate.

Likewise, Lutherans and Episcopalians in the dialogue that produced ‘Called to Common Mission’ agreed to recognize and accept each other’s deacons and diaconal ministers, despite the fact that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America initially consecrated diaconal ministers and the Episcopal Church ordained deacons. The two churches agreed, in paragraph eight, to begin consultation to explore how some functions of ordained deacons in the Episcopal Church and consecrated diaconal ministers and deaconesses in the ELCA could be shared insofar as they are called to be agents of the church.

The Lutheran-Episcopal dialogue was helped along the way by the Hanover Report of the Anglican-Lutheran International Commission entitled, ‘The Diaconate as Ecumenical Opportunity’. The Hanover Report was the product of two meetings in 1995 and 1996 in West Wickham of the United Kingdom and in Hanover, Germany, the first in the history of ecumenical dialogues at which the diaconate was the exclusive object of the dialogue. The Hanover Report was published under the auspices of the Lutheran World Federation and Anglican Consultative Council (1996).

The renowned philological work of John Collins provided some insight into the meaning of diakon in the early church, but no matter how skilfully done, such studies are insufficient to produce universal concord. Many were uncomfortable with ordination of deacons when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America called their equivalent ‘diaconal ministers’ and consecrated rather than ordained them. Lutherans and Anglicans have had different experiences and expectations of the diaconate since the sixteenth century. Historically, the Church of England – over the objections of the Puritan contingent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – retained the medieval transitional diaconate, wherein the office of deacon provided a route towards entering the priesthood (see section 2).

Through developing a deeper understanding of the rich diversity with Lutheranism historically, Lutherans can more effectively engage in dialogue over the diaconate. Apart from the Reformation deacons of Johannes Bugenhagen and the example of Pietist August Hermann Francke, there were eighteenth and nineteenth-century Lutheran deacons in America who transitioned to become pastors and, for a time, were ordained, co-existing with congregational deacons and with the deacons and deaconesses who came into being with the Inner Mission movement in Europe.

The differences among denominations in the understanding of the diaconate is not the deeper issue, but whether differences can be lived with. Do these differences in ‘Called to Common Mission’ fall within the realm of adiaphora (the opposite of diaphora, meaning different)? As so often happens in ecumenical agreements in which the issue of the diaconate is not resolved, the signatory churches pledged to work on the issue. This was also the case with the ‘Porvoo Common Statement’ (1992), adopted in 1996 by the Anglican churches in Great Britain and Ireland and by Lutheran churches in Scandinavia, as well as the Baltic states with the exception of Latvia and Denmark. The Church of Denmark appointed a group to reconsider diaconal ministry in their church. The Porvoo signatory churches agreed to full mutual recognition and interchange of priests, deacons, and bishops even though the issue of the diaconate had not been resolved. The churches pledged to work towards a common understanding of diaconal ministry.

In conjunction with the ‘Porvoo Common Statement’, a series of conferences on ministry were held in the Scandinavian countries. A conference on deacons was held in 1995 in Finland, where Kari Latvus has been a prolific researcher on the subject of deacons. Out of this conference grew collaboration between some of the participants. This collaboration began as a research project by academic institutions in Sweden, Finland, Norway, and England and evolved into the Anglo-Nordic Diaconal Research Project (ANDREP). The Nordic Ecumenical Council (established in 1940) became involved early on in the project and agreed to coordinate it. The first meeting of the ANDREP participants was in January 1997. A five-year project plan was agreed upon to run from 1997–2002. ANDREP has produced several sophisticated and informative volumes on the ministry of the deacon in Scandinavia and the British Isles.

The role of the deacon has been particularly prominent in churches in Sweden, Finland, and Norway. Many church members, especially the elderly, appear to be more familiar with their deacons than of their pastors.

5.7 The influence of the diaconate on ecumenical discussion

The issue of bishops also remains relevant in Lutheran-Methodist dialogues. The final report of that dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation and the World Methodist Council (1984) stated: that since the New Testament presents diverse forms of ministry, we hold that no particular form of ordained ministry or church order is prescribed by the New Testament.

Members of the dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation and the Methodist World Council concluded that a ministry of oversight like that of bishops is a practical necessity, but apostolic succession was not at issue. Some Methodists acknowledged the influence of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry on continued support within the denomination for their diaconal ministers (now deacons). Geoffrey Wainwright, an ordained minister within the British Methodist Church, which has a single rank of ordained ministry, namely presbyter, and which makes no claim to episcopal succession, advocated adaptation of the structure of bishop, presbyter, and deacon for the sake of church unity.

The Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches in the United States held consultations on the diaconate in 1987 and 1989. Out of the second meeting, a National Diaconate Dialogue Group from eighteen denominations was formed: the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches, the Christian Church (Disciples), the Christian Reformed Church, the Church of the Brethren, the Church of the Nazarene, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Moravian Church in America, the Orthodox Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Church, the United Church of Canada, and the United Methodist Church. In addition, there were representatives from the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches. There was liaison with the Consultation on Church Union; with DIAKONIA, the World Federation of Diaconal Associations and Diaconal Communities; and with Diakonia of America.

With all the attention to church office, the question has been asked, what became of the laity? Of course, in many denominations, deacons and diaconal ministers are considered lay, even when working full-time for the church. Theological and ecumenical conversations, within and between traditions, continue to unfold about the role and nature of ministry within the church – and the relationships of different roles to one another.

6 Conclusion

Within the last two centuries the scope of service identified with diakonia has expanded greatly, especially within Protestantism. In July 1984, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches approved a statement on ‘The Diaconal Task of the Churches Today’, describing ‘diakonia’ as the very nature of the church. German-speaking churches make great use of the term.

John Collins preferred a narrower use of the term ‘diakonia’ more in line with its use in scripture and in the early church. This narrower interpretation is upsetting to some modern deacons whose self-understanding is centred on the image of servanthood; but one cannot expect an institution that has lasted twenty centuries to have remained unchanged. The cultures and societies in which the diaconate existed shaped it over time.

The turn into the twentieth century witnessed the continued growth of the deaconess movement and the foundation of new mother houses, but two world wars and the concomitant societal changes took its toll on that pattern of deaconess organization. In the decades after the Second World War, groups of deaconesses made the garb elective, began to receive a salary, entered into pension plans, and were allowed to marry. Parish work and social work became lively options for deaconesses in certain denominations such as The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Some deaconess groups in Europe and the United States died out, although international organizations of deaconesses began to emerge in the post-Second World War era – many of which came also to include deacons. National and regional organizations of deacons have emerged as well.

The role of deacons in many denominations has been under consideration. There are at least four models alive, co-existing in some denominations: (1) deacons elected within individual congregations to serve at the local level; (2) deacons that transition to the priesthood; (3) permanent deacons of the sort that emerged from the Second Vatican Council; and (4) communities of deacons or deaconesses that came out of the Inner Mission movement. There is historical precedent for these and other possible forms of the diaconate to inform and enrich discussion on the shape of the diaconate.


Copyright Jeannine Olson (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Collins, John N. 1990. Diakonia: Re-Interpreting the Ancient Sources. New York: Oxford University Press.
    • Latvus, Kari. 2017. Diaconia as Care for the Poor? Critical Perspectives on the Development of Caritative Diaconia. Kirkon Tutkimuskeskus: Helsinki.
    • Olson, Jeannine. 2005. Deacons and Deaconesses Through the Centuries. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
    • Rogness, Michael. 1990. ‘The Office of Deacon in the Christian Church’, in Called and Ordained: Lutheran Perspectives on the Office of Ministry. Edited by Todd Nichol and Marc Kolden. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 151–160.
    • World Council of Churches. 1982. Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry. Faith and Order Paper 111. Geneva: World Council of Churches.
  • Works cited

    • Anglican-Lutheran International Commission. 1996. The Diaconate as Ecumenical Opportunity: The Hanover Report of the Anglican-Lutheran International Commission. London: Anglican Communion Publications.
    • Busse, Madelyn Herman. 1999. ‘The Development of Diaconal Ministry in the ELCA’, in From Word and Sacrament: Renewed Vision for Diaconal Ministry. Edited by Duane H. Larson. Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 89–108.
    • Collins, John N. 1990. Diakonia: Re-Interpreting the Ancient Sources. New York: Oxford University Press.
    • Episcopal Church, and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. 2002. The Orderly Exchange of Pastors and Priests Under Called to Common Mission: Principles and Guidelines.
    • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. 1991. The Study of Ministry Study Edition, Report to the 1991 Church Wide Assembly. Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
    • Faith and Order Secretariat. 1966. The Deaconess: A Service of Women in the Church World Today. World Council of Churches Studies 4. Geneva: World Council of Churches.
    • Latvus, Kari. 2017. Diaconia as Care for the Poor? Critical Perspectives on the Development of Caritative Diaconia. Kirkon Tutkimuskeskus: Helsinki.
    • Lazareth, William. 1991. Two Forms of Ordained Ministry: A Proposal for Mission in Light of the Augsburg Confession. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
    • Norgren, William, and William Rusch. 1991. Toward Full Communion and Concordat of Agreement. Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue, Series III Minneapolis; Augsburg.
    • Olson, Jeannine. 1989. Calvin and Social Welfare: Deacons and the Bourse française. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses.
    • Olson, Jeannine. 2005. Deacons and Deaconesses Through the Centuries. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
    • Rogness, Michael. 1990. ‘The Office of Deacon in the Christian Church’, in Called and Ordained: Lutheran Perspectives on the Office of Ministry. Edited by Todd Nichol and Marc Kolden. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 151–160.
    • World Council of Churches. 1982. Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry. Faith and Order Paper 111. Geneva: World Council of Churches.
    • World Council of Churches. 1990. Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, 1982-1990: Report on the Process and Responses. Faith and Order Paper 149. Geneva: World Council of Churches.

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