Just What is a Deacon? Part 1

Deacons are called to be a bridge between the Church and the world; to be servants; to be sowers of “Seeds of Hope” to a world in need. The Order of Deacons is one of the three ordained and equal Orders in the Episcopal Church along with priests and bishops. Deacons serve under the direct authority of the bishop and are assigned to congregations by the bishop of their diocese.

The word deacon derives from the Greek Diakonia, which can be translated as ministry, service, relief, or support, particularly to the poor, sick, and oppressed. The deacon’s service is a sign or sacrament of Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve. Jesus is the model for the servant leadership a deacon is called to exercise in a variety of ways, including encouraging and enabling others to serve. A deacon has one foot in the world and one foot in the church. Additionally, deacons serve in specific roles in the liturgy, where their liturgical roles are symbolic of their real ministry in the world.

All clergy begins their ministries as ordained deacons. Some find their calling as a deacon while still working in a secular role (oft times referred to as vocational deacon). Others are called to the priesthood and after a determined period of time transition from the Order of Deacons to the Order of Priests (oft times referred to as a transitional deacon). A priest (or presbyter) focuses on shepherding and pastoring the congregation. For those called to be bishops, it is helpful to remember they too, began their ministry journey as a deacon. 

The central role of the deacon is to send the Church out, individually and collectively, to do God’s work in the world. Deacons hold up the needs of the world while they encourage and guide the People of God to live out the promises made in the Baptismal Covenant, thereby transforming the world through works of mercy and justice.

The liturgical responsibilities of a deacon include proclaiming the Gospel, preparing the Table, and dismissing the congregation into the world to exercise their individual ministries. Deacons’ ministries vary based on the individual gifts of the deacon and may vary throughout the lifetime of their calling.

A deacon has a prophetic ministry. Deacons address challenging questions such as: Who is not at the table? How does God ask us to care for others?  Are the decisions of government, business, civic groups, and the Church consistent with Scriptural tradition? How does climate change reflect our care for God’s creation? Who are the marginalized people who crave justice?  

The Deacon’s Council for the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona has been meeting this year to focus on strategic planning for the future.  One desire of the Council is to educate our diocese and our communities about the ministry and role of a deacon. 

In the following articles, we will look historically at (1) Diakonia in the early church, (2) examine how the liturgical role of a deacon reflects their ministry in the world, and (3) how the deacons of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona are ministering in their individual congregations and communities. 

We will raise important questions such as:  How are you being called to fulfill your baptismal promises in the church? Do you see a need that you could help meet in your community? Are you being called by God to consider ministry as a deacon?  

Your questions and comments are welcome as we begin this series of articles.  Please feel free to send them to Deacon Wendy Guyton at

The Rt. Rev. Jennifer Reddall, Bishop of Arizona with Deacon Frances Ryan