The Role of Deacons in Worship
Original Version (1999) The Rev. Anne Burnette Hook (deacon)
and The Rev. Daniel T. Benedict (elder)
Updated Version (2016) The Rev. Victoria Rebeck (deacon)
and The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards (elder)
A deacon in the Episcopal Church addressed the group of would-be United Methodist deacons at a formation event held in Nashville. The event included hearing from deacons in other denominations about their understanding of the role and work of a deacon. The Episcopal deacon described for those gathered the role of deacons in worship leadership in his denomination. In addition to reading the Gospel lesson and leading the prayers of intercession and confession of sin, the deacon’s role in celebrating the Eucharist is that of the table server: setting the table for Communion, clearing the table after serving, and, if needed, holding the worship book for the presider as she or he leads the Great Thanksgiving. As one of many considering ordination as deacon in the United Methodist Church, I (Anne) was comfortable until he mentioned holding the worship book for the presider. My reaction was swift and a little embarrassing: I am not going to hold the book for the presider. Yes, I felt called by God to be a deacon, one who serves and leads others to serve God’s people in the world. I was ready to connect the congregation’s worship to service in the community and to participate in acts of servant ministry myself. Or so I thought.
Just as swiftly, I realized that if I were to become a deacon, if I answered what I believed was God’s call for me to be a servant leader, then I needed to model that servanthood in all that I did, including and perhaps especially worship leadership. No one placed that vocational yoke upon me; I chose to embrace that role as an act of obedience to God.
So, what exactly is the appropriate role for a deacon in worship? The role of both the deacon and the elder or local pastor in the liturgy is to reflect their particular vocations in the church and the world.
What is the deacon’s vocation in the church and the world? The word deacon comes from a Greek verb, diakonein, meaning to wait on someone at table, to serve, to care for, to help. The early church drew on these ideas of serving, caring, and helping to formulate its understanding of the vocation of the deacon. Most especially, the church draws on Jesus’ self-understanding as a servant (Mark 10:45 and others).
As United Methodists continue to live into what the two distinct orders of ordained ministry and the fellowship of licensed local pastors mean for our denomination, we need to understand the equally important and distinct roles each plays in all aspects of the church, including worship leadership. Elders, local pastors and deacons each have unique callings and roles. At the same time, all three are called to be in partnership for equipping the baptized for ministry in the world.
The Role of the Deacon and the Ordering of Ministry
All ministries in the church, lay, ordained or licensed, derive from God’s calling and our commitments in baptism and are grounded in God’s mission of redeeming and reconciling the whole creation in Jesus Christ. The baptismal vocation of all ministry is set forth in the section of our Book of Discipline called “The Ministry of All Christians” (2012, ¶ 120-143). Our common baptismal vocation expresses itself in servant ministry in daily life and shared servant leadership. The primary focus is on making disciples of Jesus Christ who share fully in his own “diaconal” work to transform the world.
Through ordination to the diaconate, the Holy Spirit orders the life of the church by empowering some persons set apart by the church to a lifetime of leadership through word, service, compassion, and justice, so all of the baptized may be supported, equipped, and led in fulfilling their corporate and personal vocation of faithful discipleship to Jesus and witness to God’s reign.
Any attempt at stating faithfully what the liturgical role of deacons in relationship to elders and local pastors must be grounded in an underlying commitment to ministry that both builds up and unifies the church in Christ and links and extends its life in service to the poor and marginalized.
Liturgical Practice: Past and Present
Even a cursory look at liturgical history will help us see an evolving collage of images and impressions about the work of the deacon in worship.
The terms deacon (diakonos) and elder (presbyteros) come to us from the New Testament. They are important New Testament terms. However, the New Testament offers no single normative pattern of how these ministries interacted within the ministry in the churches even at the time of its writing in the first century. In some places, it appears deacons served alongside the bishops (Phil 1:1; 1 Tim. 3.8) rather than elders. In the pastoral epistles, deacons seemed to be charged primarily with stewardship of the benevolences of the Christian community. If we understand Acts to refer in some way to the founding of the office of deacon, we see these persons active in leading ministries of compassion and care (serving tables, Acts 6: 1-2), in public proclamation (Stephen, Acts 6 and 7), and in evangelism (Philip, Acts 8:26-40). There is thus evidence of considerable variation and perhaps flexibility in how the various early Christian communities understood the role and functions of a deacon.
The role of elders as primary leaders in early Christian communities derived from the model of the elders in Jewish synagogues, who provided discernment and direction and settled disputes among members of the community. The Greek term presbyteroi means “older men.” The elders of the synagogues were often literally older men whose wisdom and faith had come to be trusted by the assembly over time. However, there is also evidence, such as in Philippi, of “ruling” leadership being posited in the office of an “overseer” (episkopos in Greek, origin of our word “bishop.”) In I Timothy, we see this office made distinct from that of elder (4:14, 5:17-20). In other places, as in Philippi, the two terms may have meant much the same thing.
Overall, then, the specific roles of deacons, elders, and bishops in the church were not clearly defined during the biblical period. Nor does the Bible itself give clear guidance about the particular roles of these persons in worship.
New patterns of church leadership began to emerge by the middle of the second century. These fairly quickly spread to become at least relative norms. The role of the overseer (bishop) was frequently equated with that of apostles. Bishops often functioned in effect as the senior pastor for a region centered in a larger town or city. Bishops in such areas were the primary leaders of worship, including the priestly role of presiding in worship. Elders often came to function both as the council of advice for the bishops and as lieutenant bishops for communities in outlying areas. In many places, it was through their service of extending the ministry of the bishop that elders came to take on a priestly role.
While the Bible does not describe worship leadership roles for deacons, early Christian liturgical texts do, and often with great detail. In these texts, dating from as early as the mid-second century, we see deacons carrying out numerous roles in worship. Deacons chanted or read the Scriptures during worship, and in particular the gospel reading. Deacons led the prayers of the people. They received the offerings of the faithful, both the gifts for the poor and the widows and the elements of bread and wine for the Eucharist. They assisted the bishop in the distribution of Holy Communion both during worship and afterward to those unwillingly absent. Deacons also gave the signal for the penitents and catechumens to leave worship before the prayers of the people (after the sermon) were begun. In two of these early texts (Didascalia, ca. 230 and Apostolic Constitutions, ca. 380, both from Antioch, Syria) we also find deacons serving as advocates or attorneys for laypersons in the church seeking to resolve conflicts with one another in a process that might be called “the bishop’s court.”
What we see earlier on was a rather balanced relationship between deacons and elders. Deacons and elders alike were attached to bishops, each with different, but neither seen as having superior, roles. Over the next several centuries, this began to shift toward a more hierarchical arrangement. Now bishops were at the top, elders “below” bishops, and deacons “below” elders. By the Middle Ages, the diaconate functioned primarily as a stepping stone toward ordination to the priesthood. Deacons continued in some of the earlier liturgical roles at the discretion of the priest. Archdeacons, still attached to the bishop, sometimes had significant administrative authority in a diocese, but that title was often reserved for priests, not deacons. By and large, the fairly short time normally spent in the diaconate and the relative scarcity of deacons meant that the liturgical functions that used to be assigned to deacons were increasingly performed by priests.
From that point forward, deacons in the West had relatively few specific functions in worship. Often, only with special permission from the priest or bishop, was the deacon allowed to preach, to administer baptism, to present the offerings to the presider, to invite the congregation to pray, to chant the “Ite, missa est” (“Go, you are dismissed”) at Mass, and to sing the “Exultet” at the Easter Vigil. The deacon generally retained the role of reading or chanting the Gospel without such special permissions.
In a sense, we might describe the relationship of deacons and elders as a dance in which both were at times moving in relationship to each other, while at other times each moved and developed in ways independent of the other. The evidence seems to be that the specific liturgical roles of the deacon developed very early and have generally persisted despite setbacks due to periods of hierarchical conflict and neglect of the servant character of the church as a whole.
Contemporary Ecumenical Considerations
The most important ecumenical consensus document in modern history is Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, completed and published by the World Council of Churches in 1982. It would be no exaggeration to say this document has become part of the basis of nearly every full communion agreement reached among churches worldwide since that time. Among its many contributions to greater Christian unity is its delineation of ordained ministries of bishop, elder (presbyter) and deacon (pp. 26-27). It describes the roles of elders (presbyters) and deacons as follows:
Presbyters serve as pastoral ministers of Word and sacrament in the local Eucharistic community…Deacons represent to the Church its calling as servant in the world. By struggling in Christ’s name with the needs of societies and people, deacons exemplify the interdependence of worship and service in the Church life. They exercise responsibility in the worship of the congregation: for example, by reading the scriptures, preaching and leading the people in prayer.” (p. 27).
United Methodists understand ordination as an act of the whole Church (Book of Discipline 2012, ¶415.6). This is one reason United Methodists, with few exceptions, no longer re-ordain persons previously ordained within another denomination, but recognize their orders instead. To be consistent with our own understanding of ordination and our ecumenical commitments, United Methodists will be wise to steer a course that is simultaneously attentive to our unique charism within the larger church and to the liturgical practice of the larger church as we continue to learn our way into the partnership of elders, local pastors, and deacons in the liturgy.
In other churches with ordained deacons, such as the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches, the deacon’s distinctive liturgical role is to serve as the primary assistant to the presider, proclaim the gospel reading, lead the intercessions and the confession of sin, set the table in order before and after Communion, and dismiss the people. Deacons fulfill an “iconic” role linking liturgy to life. Ormonde Plater images the deacon’s role in the drama of worship as “angel/messenger,” “master of ceremonies” (as distinct from the presider), and “table waiter” so that the elder (priest) may preside as “pray-er” and represent and lead the gathered community at the feast whose true host is neither bishop, elder nor deacon, but Christ himself.1
The Ordinal as Source for Reflection
Ritual documents of the church are rich sources for understanding its theology and intention. Services for the Ordering of Ministry in The United Methodist Church is the ordinal of our church. It contains both the services of ordination and a theological and practical commentary to inform their contents and practice. You may find the most current version of our ordinal here »
The ordinal clarifies the distinctive roles of deacon in the parts of the services that relate to the ordination of deacons. Specifically a deacon is called
“to lead in worship, to teach and proclaim God’s word… to interpret to the church the world’s hurts and hopes… and to lead Christ’s people in ministries of compassion and justice, liberation and reconciliation, even in the face of hardship and personal sacrifice” (p. 24, emphasis added).
All of these italicized verbs are active and proactive. Not one of them suggests any form of subordination. So when the deacon takes up the role “to assist elders at Holy Baptism and Holy Communion,” it is never as a subordinate, but always as a full partner in ministry and servant leadership in the life of the church for the sake of the gospel of Christ in the world.
The General Examination, which applies to both deacons and elders, underscores the partnership at work. The very first statements of the General Examination are these:
“As ordained ministers, you are to be coworkers with the laity, bishops, deacons, diaconal ministers, deaconesses, home missioners, commissioned ministers, local pastors, and elders. Remember that you are called to serve rather than be served…” (pp. 22-23, emphasis added).
Deacons, elders and local pastors alike are co-workers, with differing roles, none “above” the other. Each is called to serve with the laity, first of all, and also with all other established ministry leaders in the church.
Implications for Worship Leadership
The official ritual of The United Methodist Church was changed fairly dramatically with the approval and publication of The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) and The United Methodist Book of Worship (1992). Our previous official ritual had moved away from its roots in The Sunday Service, given to North American Methodists by John Wesley in 1784, and had more or less come to reflect a 19th century American Protestant pattern of “preliminaries” followed by “preaching.” Various assistants would be in charge of the preliminaries, which may include responsive readings, prayers, congregation or choral songs or “special music,” and the offering. The preacher took over from there, reading the Scripture on which the sermon would be based, preaching, and concluding with an invitation to Christ (revivalist models) and/or a florid final prayer and benediction (20th century “aesthetic” models). Whether revivalist or “big steeple,” this model of worship, encoded in our official ritual beginning in the late 19th century, clearly privileged preaching and the preacher above all other acts and actors of the service. If sacraments occurred, they were an “add-on.”
By contrast, the Basic Pattern of Worship United Methodists adopted in 1984 and included in both The United Methodist Hymnal (1988) and The United Methodist Book of Worship (1992) was grounded in the same early Christian models that informed Wesley’s Sunday Service. (See The United Methodist Hymnal, 1989, pp. 2-5). The Basic Pattern represented a sea change not only in the order of worship, but in the way in which leadership roles are to be distributed. Rather than preliminaries and preaching, we have returned to Word and Table. Elders or local pastors, deacons, and the laity are given leadership roles in a variety of ways throughout the entire service, roles that correspond to their baptismal callings, spiritual gifts, and ordained or licensed ministries in the life of the church.
The reality of how worship is actually designed and led in many of our congregations, however, demonstrates that neither the Basic Pattern nor the distribution of liturgical leadership it envisions has taken effect uniformly among us. In many places, worship is still designed and still led on the pattern of preliminaries and preaching. A deacon, musicians and other assisting ministers lead the “preliminaries,” including a greeting or call to worship, opening prayers, the reading of Scriptures (if any) not used in the sermon, and offering. The preacher may offer a pastoral prayer during the “preliminaries” time, and later reads the Scripture text on which the sermon will be based, preaches, issues an invitation to discipleship and church membership, and blesses and dismisses the people.
We propose a principle for leadership in United Methodist worship consistent with the Basic Pattern that now grounds our ritual, and so that takes us back to our earliest Methodist roots and to the early church: That those who lead worship (elders, deacons, local pastors and other leaders) reflect in the ways they lead in worship their call and vocation in the church and world. Deacons and other assisting ministers (lay or clergy) link and extend the assembly’s celebration of Word and Sacrament to its service (diakonia) in daily life. Deacons live and lead on the margins of human life and human need. They live on the axis of the good news celebrated in liturgy and the tragic news of people who are poor or oppressed. They lead the baptized in Christ’s servanthood. So instead of presiding at the preliminaries of worship, deacons may far more appropriately lead those acts of worship throughout the entire service that best reflect their unique and distinctive call to ministry in the church and the world. The same principle holds true for elders, local pastors, and other assisting ministers.
Who Leads What? Guidelines for Deacons, Elders or Local Pastors, and Assisting Ministers
Given the history we have surveyed, current ecumenical standards, and our current ritual and disciplinary standards for the ordering of ministry as United Methodists, we commend the following guidelines for leading worship as faithful embodiments of our partnerships in ministry in our congregations and ministries.
- Deacons, elders and local pastors serve the church best when they act out their distinctive roles in full. Mutual respect for the office and work of each order or fellowship within the ministry of all Christians enables each to mirror the nature and mystery of the whole church as body of Christ: Christ as priest, Christ as prophet, and Christ as Servant-King.
- Deacons most appropriately embody their distinctive roles in worship in these ways:
a) Reading the Scriptures, particularly the Gospel reading;
b) preaching to interpret the hopes, opportunities and hurts of the world;
c) leading the people in intercessions for the church and the world, wherever these occur in the service, including within the Great Thanksgiving (typically between the two parts of the epiclesis);
d) receiving the offerings of gifts for ministry in the community;
e) receiving the elements and preparing the table for the Eucharist;
f) assisting the elder or local pastor during the Great Thanksgiving in non-verbal ways, such as lifting the bread or cup, or holding the liturgy;
g) assisting in serving Communion and setting the table in order after all have been served;
h) sending the people forth to serve, before or after the blessing (benediction) offered by the elder or local pastor.
- Elders and appointed local pastors most appropriately embody their roles in worship in these ways:
a) Greeting the assembly in the name of God;
b) proclaiming and interpreting the Word of God in preaching;
c) announcing God’s forgiveness to the people (and receiving God’s forgiveness from the people);
d) presiding at the Eucharist, leading the gathered assembly in the entirety of the Great Thanksgiving, except for intercessions, if present, which may be led by a deacon; and
e) blessing the people as they go forth in the world.
- According to their particular gifts, deacons should preach from time to time in the regular weekly service. Not all deacons may be gifted as preachers. Their more particular giftedness may be as evangelists, advocates, educators, organizers, caregivers, musicians or administrators. But as Word is part of the deacon’s ministry, deacons should have opportunities for proclamation.
- Deacons may also assist or lead in weddings, funerals, morning and evening praise and prayer, healing services, love feasts, and other pastoral liturgies. In some cases, because of the close relationship of the deacon to the people involved, it may be more appropriate for the deacon to preside in some of these services.
- In circumstances where there is no ordained elder or appointed local pastor available, the deacon may serve the assembly by presiding in worship without the Lord’s Supper. Presiding at the Table is not appropriate unless authorized by the bishop on a case by case basis under the provisions of The Book of Discipline (¶328, p. 246).
- A deacon may assist an elder or local pastor in a variety of ways with the ritual of baptism, as noted in our official baptismal ritual).
Specifically, a deacon may:
a) Offer the opening address
b) lead the candidates and the congregation in affirming the faith of the church
c) prepare the font or pour the water into the font before the pastor/elder offers the prayer of thanksgiving over the water
d) join the pastor in laying hands on the candidates after the administration of the water for confirmation or reaffirmation of faith,
e) sprinkle the congregation with water at a sign of their reaffirmation at such occasions, and
f) perform or organize other logistical duties as may be needed, such as managing the texts, certificates, candles, anointing oil or towels for such occasions.
Since the ordained and licensed ministries of the church are equally grounded in the baptismal covenant, it may be also reasonable, though not currently specified in our ritual, for a deacon to share with the elder or local pastor in asking the baptismal questions of candidates and sponsors. Presiding at baptism is not appropriate unless authorized by the bishop on a case by case basis under the provisions of The Book of Discipline (¶328, p. 246).
- Deacons should train others to function as assisting ministers across the congregation, district, conference or wider church. The presence of a deacon in worship should not eliminate or reduce the leadership of other members of the assembly. A deacon is not only to model servant ministry for the assembly, but also to equip the baptized for such ministries. Thus it is appropriate for the deacon to train one or more members of the assembly to serve as assisting ministers, in reading the Scriptures, leading the people in prayer for the world and for the church, preparing the table for Holy Communion, and sending the people forth in service. This training is especially appropriate when the service and professional duties of a deacon are needed elsewhere at a particular time in worship, such as when the deacon who is also the music minister leads the congregation’s song or a choir anthem during the serving of Holy Communion. In congregations without a deacon on staff, it is strongly encouraged that elders or local pastors ask a nearby deacon to partner with them to help provide for this important leadership opportunity for those in the assembly gifted and motivated to lead in worship.
When deacons, elders and local pastors each act out their distinctive callings in intentional acts of servant ministry within the context of worship, they positively contribute to the church’s understanding of each order or fellowship as well as to our common baptismal vocation, lay or clergy. They also thereby model the partnerships essential for all the baptized who seek to be engaged in intentional acts of servanthood in the world based on the gifts and callings of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Even now, twenty years on from the historic legislation that established the deacon as a full partner in ordained ministry and in full conference membership, we know there are significant steps we all need to take in our congregations and ministries to embody fully both our polity and our ritual as we now have them. Some of us are still clinging on to past habits of worship design and leadership, or to visions of ministry that see the laity, deacons, and local pastors as somehow “less than” and subordinate to elders rather than full partners in ministry. Some of us may also be over-functioning, seeking to take on roles in ministries that are not given to us by the Holy Spirit and the church in baptism, licensing or ordination. We all have work to do.
So may we continue to work together to find concrete ways forward that honor our whole heritage as United Methodist Christians, lay and clergy, and help us embody our particular callings faithfully in worship and in discipleship in our part of the whole body of Christ.
For Further Reading
Barnett, James. The Diaconate: A Full and Equal Order. (Trinity Press International, 1995). A thorough and ecumenical examination of the history and ministry of the deacon in the Christian church.
Crain, Margaret Ann. The United Methodist Deacon: Ordained to Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice. (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2014). The primer on the calling and work of the deacon in The United Methodist Church.
Hovda, Robert. Strong, Loving, and Wise (Washington, DC: The Liturgical Conference, 1976). This is a very thoughtful text on awareness of our presence and style in leading in the liturgy. It focuses on the character of the worship leader. An excellent resource for all leaders of worship, especially elders, local pastors and deacons.
Plater, Ormonde. Deacons in the Liturgy (Ridgefield, CT: Morehouse Publishing, 1992). A thorough text on the many points at which the deacon appropriately serves in the worship of the church. While written for the Episcopal Church context, it is useful background for United Methodist worship leaders.
------------------ Many Servants: An Introduction to Deacons (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1991) A richly narrative and historical background text on the deacon in the church.
About the Authors
M. Anne Burnette Hook is a deacon in the Memphis Annual Conference. Daniel T. Benedict is a retired elder in the California-Pacific Annual Conference. Together in their former roles at the General Board of Discipleship, they led worship for a variety of occasions and worked carefully to refine their practice and modeling of the partnership of elder and deacon in leading worship.
Taylor Burton-Edwards and Victoria Rebeck, who have edited and updated the original essay, are likewise an elder (Taylor, Indiana Annual Conference, Discipleship Ministries) and a deacon (Victoria, Minnesota Annual Conference, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry). They have collaborated on numerous projects, including the 2015 update of the rubrics of The United Methodist Book of Worship to reflect the appropriate roles of deacons and diaconal ministers.
1 Ormonde Plater, Many Servants: An Introduction to Deacons (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1991, 133.