One of the joys of my call as Nebraska Synod Director for Stewardship is to be out in the 245 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) congregations across the state. I do this simultaneously with my consecrated and rostered ministry as a Deacon in the Church, one called to “Word and Service” ministry.
I love this call, and I love this ministry. Being able to: see ministry and stewardship in action, point to and uplift those stories, and invite people and communities to go deeper in their understanding of being stewards of God’s love, and responding to all that God has done, continues to do, and promises to do for them, is really a great responsibility, but also a dream which I hope I never take for granted.
In my many visits to congregations over my first 18 months in this role though, I almost always found myself receiving and answering the question, “What’s a deacon?”
I love receiving this question and jumping into conversation about ministry together. But to be honest, it’s not a question that I expected to receive so much when I started in this call. It makes sense though. Even though the title of “deacon” has its roots in the Greek term for service “diakonia,” and it’s a title that can be traced straight back to scripture, it’s not a title that many people in congregations are familiar with, because the vast majority of ELCA congregations have not had much experience with ministers of Word and Service.
This ministry of Word and Service is one of connecting the dots of the Gospel message and sacraments and the life of the worshiping community, with daily life and the needs in the local and larger global community. Deacons often seem to show up at these points of intersections, or at the margins of where the church meets the world.
As ministers of Word and Service, this is very public ministry. Deacons show up in the world responding to needs and serving, because that’s what we’re called to do.
Over the past year and a half though, it occurred to me that something might be a bit off. About half the time when I preach and help serve and lead in worship across the synod, I wear an alb. I will often wear a cross that was a gift from a pastor friend of mine for my consecration. The other half of the time, I’m usually in a suit, or if it’s a more relaxed worship setting, a tie and sweater over top.
This is all fine, and I have no problem with this. You see, there is no standard vestment or symbol for a Deacon in the ELCA, yet. However, when wearing my alb and cross, it occurred to me over time that when I was in congregations I was often less vested than even the teenage acolytes who assisted in worship by lighting the candles, and helping with communion. For example, in my congregation where I worship regularly now, Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle, the acolytes always wear a vestment over their alb that is the liturgical color of the day.
It led me to look around across the church and to wonder. Many deacon friends and colleagues in other synods had begun showing up in my Facebook feed in photos at worship or ordinations and consecrations wearing deacon stoles. A deacon stole is kind of like a sash. Whereas a pastor’s stole, marking ordination is like a yoke that goes around the neck and on both shoulder’s, a deacon’s stole crosses one’s heart, and rests on the left shoulder, while being held together near the waist on the right side.
This led me to ask some questions. Is there a policy in place? Why wear this stole? And what would my bishop think?
I wasn’t going to just jump into this, casually wearing a stole and seeing how I felt without doing some deep thinking. Being on a synod staff, I know how important communication is, and how important it is to help create and foster healthy policies and decision making.
The answer to the first question I already mentioned above. There is currently no policy in place for Word and Service ministers regarding symbols of the office and vestment in worship. The common practice is to wear just an alb, though some deacons who were formally (or maintain the title of) Deaconess, may have a liturgical colored towel hanging from their cincture (basically a rope belt) around their waist.
Added to all of this, is the confusion across the 65 synods of the ELCA related to synodically authorized ministers, deacons, or as they are known in Nebraska, “Parish Ministry Associates.” Many synods seem to have some local version of equipping leaders to serve in congregations locally in their context, and these leaders may have different symbols or vestments to signify their role. But there is no widely held identifier across the whole ELCA.
Which begs the question, why wear a deacon stole? For me, it is a public reminder of the calling that I serve in, not just for myself but for others. It’s a sign of affirmation of the church, but also a sign of the responsibility for word and service ministry. And it also can be a part of the conversation when out and about in congregations, when someone might ask, “What does this mean?” Or “what’s a deacon?” To receive these questions, are opportunities to tell the story of ministry, and to even uplift others’ curiosity while also uplifting and raising up new leaders, deacons, and pastors in the church.
Philosophically, liturgically, and theologically, I feel confident in the reasons for wearing a stole. But I certainly wasn’t going to do this without support from my bishop. For the better part of a year, Bishop Maas and I wondered about what would be a way to raise up awareness around deacons and word and service ministry, recognizing that I am out about in congregations so often. There was no early idea and conviction that this would lead to a stole, and even though I had concluded that I would be okay with it, I still wasn’t sure it was necessarily the right approach for me. But after months of conversation, Bishop ultimately said, “I think you should start wearing deacon stoles when you preach. See what happens.”
I certainly don’t need a stole to feel called or accepted. But having one, perhaps at least until there is some widely-accepted sign of the office, gives me a public sign of ministry. So, whether I am in worship leading and preaching, or out serving, showing up in the community in solidarity, marching, etc., people will know that I am there because of my faith and living out my call to love and serve my neighbor.
Which brings me to today. The biggest cheerleader in all of this for me, has been my wife Allison. She of course is an ordained pastor (or a minister of “Word and Sacrament”) who just about always wears her stole and collar in worship. Since day one, she has pushed me to figure out what a public sign of my ministry might be. So, as soon as Bishop said to go for it, she made it my Christmas present, giving me a starting set of Deacon stoles to cover the liturgical year. They arrived in mid-January, and I have since worn a stole twice in worship to preach- once in green for one of the weeks after Epiphany, and once in purple, for one of the weeks during Lent.
As the year progresses, I’m sure there will be more to share on what I think, feel, and experience with a stole on. But for now, I am grateful for the support in this ministry, humbled by it, and excited to continue serving as part of God’s church. I am also curious to see what kind of questions and wondering might come from it.