Why is this? Part of it, I fear, is that there is too much diaconate theory and not enough pastoral imagination. Ruddy’s article is in some ways an example: as with most conversations about the diaconate, it’s more about what it might be theologically and what it once was historically than about what the church now needs it to be. Deeply symbolic and theological language about both the priesthood and the diaconate sometimes ends up stifling creative thinking about their futures.
There’s another reason too, of course: the parish system in which most deacons now function provides a command-and-control structure that everyone understands. Despite the fact that, officially, deacons are ordained for service to the bishop, in practice deacons report to parish priests who oversee their work; parish priests report to bishops. New forms and settings for ministry often don’t fit well into this traditional arrangement.
But an alternative future isn’t unthinkable. The growth of the diaconate since its revival fifty years ago is already, on the surface anyway, a sign of great health and life. Yet the vast majority of deacons in the United States today are in their sixties and seventies. Can anyone picture the energy that would be released by another 18,000 or 36,000 deacons, many of them younger, many of them women, half of them of Hispanic and Asian heritage, asked by their bishops to open up new ways and places for people to encounter Christ?
For this to happen, some of our bishops would have to feel a little more entrepreneurial, of course, and diaconate assignments would become more creative and perhaps less parish-centric. Recruitment efforts would have to reach beyond the usual suspects. Formation programs would have to become less academic, more pastoral, and offer schedules tailored to the younger working men and women you might want to see attending them.
With the right conditions, it could happen. There is, in a way, a tradition of deacons going off the reservation. Most scholars now agree that the seven men appointed to manage the daily distribution of food in the Acts of the Apostles shouldn’t be regarded as the first deacons, although that tradition lives on in deacon lore. What I have always liked about those seven is how quickly their “minister of charity” job description went out the window once the Holy Spirit and the needs of the world took over the process. Almost immediately after his appointment, for example, Stephen is not doing parish work but bringing “signs and wonders” to the community, while Philip is preaching miles away in Samaria to an Ethiopian eunuch, among others. I would love to see a second fifty years of the revived diaconate that has some of the creativity—and disregard for traditional job descriptions—of those first seven.