Over the last few years, in working with young adults, seminarians, and those considering ordination, a few things of note have emerged.
First, there are many, many people looking to have their faith be not something apart from the rest of their life or a distraction amidst a panoply of distractions. They are seeking a way for their faith to form their life and for their life to matter in the deepest ways possible. Second, many of these people have been told “you should become a priest” or the like because they enjoy serving others or they have a way with people or because they are kind – all good traits in a priest. Third, the Church does not have the capacity to employ, full-time, the many, many caring and wonderful people who feel a call to ministry. Fourth, our communities are longing for a relational model of Church that blends depth of tradition with the strength of real relationship and authenticity.
It seems to me that we might be entering a cultural moment in which we should consider the Religious life (monastic vocations) and the diaconate as the ideal means to form leaders equipped to engage the realities of contemporary society.
There are models for bi-vocational ministry being explored around the Church – encouraging priests to serve as priests while employed in other work as well. This is a fine thing yet I am not sure that it is the only answer to the needs of both the Church and the culture around us.
I firmly believe that intentional Religious Communities and a robust Diaconate are key to the rejuvenation of a vibrant Christian presence all across the country. The need is for missionary communities of prayer, service, and sacrificial giving.
In a culture in which fewer and fewer people will simply wander into our churches to check us out, it is vital that we build up and equip a generation of missionaries whose work is to make the Gospel known as a lived experience of joyful offering and not simply something to be read or heard. This may be a way for the world to see and know that Christ is raising up a Church that will find its locus and heart in the communities all around us.
This work begins with daily prayer and the Sacraments – but the churches that serve as the heart of this kind of disciplined approach to engaging the Holy would not be the final destination but the launching point for those trained and equipped to be the presence of Christ for those they meet and serve. I imagine local Churches serving as a sort of mother ship where people are fed and trained for missionary service.
We need two deacons for every priest in every Church – at least. We should be finding those people who have a passion for proclaiming the Gospel and for serving those whom society would ignore and making them deacons whose mission is not full-time employment but is full-time ministry. These deacons would become the leaders and catalysts for evangelical and missionary service in our communities. Moreover, they would be the conscience of our churches as they ever call us to deeper companionship and self-offering.
These deacons would serve at the heart of local communities of those taking religious vows. Whether full-time, professed monastics or part of neo-monastic communities we should also be looking for those in our communities who are yearning for a deeper connection to other faithful people and are longing for their faith to ground their approach to work, relationship, and service. These kinds of communities could then become the heart of congregations longing for connection to the communities around them but fearful or unsure of taking the next step.
There are many for whom the full-time ordination process and seminary are not the appropriate route. There are also those being fast-tracked to the priesthood who have little sense that they want to preach, teach, and administer the Sacraments. They do, however, have a powerful and holy desire to live and serve with faith and passion. We do them a disservice by funneling them into the priesthood because we have falsely equated ministry with priesthood.
We need passionate and powerful advocates for Christ in the communities around us – we need deacons and lay religious equipped for holy living. They can be, in our communities, the kinds of Christians that people never knew existed whose concern is not institutional maintenance or Church membership but is a faith lived so eloquently and authentically that their very being is evangelical.
This kind of work will require that we shift the heart of our congregational leadership from our vestries and priests to our deacons and lay religious leaders. These communities must not be projects of parishes but the heart of them. They will have to have voice and vote and serve as a voice for the community in parish deliberations and as the prayerful heart of any parish’s discernment and growth in discipleship. They could be an inspiration for the congregation’s deepening sense of their own vocation as evangelists and servants.
When we talk about the “discernment process” in our dioceses, I hope that we’ll consider discernment for the Diaconate and for religious orders to be as high in our priority list as we do candidates for the priesthood. Ultimately, it will be these servant-leaders who are creatively making Christ known in the communities around us who will re-center the Church and draw others to come and see.