Home > Proposal for an NALC Diaconate: Support for Mission and Faith Formation

NHY: Revised January 2022

This proposal has emerged from and is indebted to the work of the NALC Task Force on Church and Ministry.

Vision: The flexibility of the historic office of deacon and its potential for bivocational ministry make it ideally suited for assisting the Bishop as chief evangelist in supporting congregations and Mission Districts in faith formation and mission development. The introduction of deacons will be of particular benefit to the NALC’s initiatives of catechesis, discipleship, outreach, mission planting, and congregational renewal. 

Deacons as Commissioned Agents of the Bishop

Historically, the office of deacon exists for the service of the Bishop in furthering the gospel. This association is normative from the early church onwards. Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235) specifies that a deacon “is not ordained to priesthood, but to serve the bishop, that he might do those things which are commanded by him.” In practice, “those things” have varied in the church’s life according to the contingencies of its mission. As the need has arisen, deacons have served in liturgical, administrative, charitable, and educational roles, all for the purpose of aiding the Bishop in building up the Body of Christ. The subordinate character of a deacon’s responsibility is conveyed in the Greek title diakonos and its cognate, diakonia, or “service”: specifically, commissioned service of – or under the direction of – an authority (cf. Matthew 8:9, as one who is “under authority”). “Servants” in the New Testament are accountable and obedient to the one who sends them. With respect to the diakonia of the church as a whole, the authority in question is the lordship of Christ (Matt. 28:18-20; John 20:21). Concerning the historic office of deacon specifically, the authority is that which the Lord assigns the Bishop in overseeing and building up the Body.     

Diaconal commissioned service is not limited to one set of activities – for example, to “external matters” of charity, alone – but is quite flexible, and in principle open to any number of duties that aid the Bishop’s work. Whatever form it takes or particular vocation it reflects, the work of deacons is Christ-centered and mission-driven in that it properly frames the various activities of the church within the ministry of the gospel. As the ecumenical study Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry explains, “Deacons exemplify the interdependence of worship and service in the church’s life.” Their particular commissioned service both mirrors and furthers the mission that all Christians exercise in their personal vocational contexts.  

The diaconate is therefore not the ministry of Word and Sacrament. Properly understood, it is a ministry of support for Word and Sacrament ministry. Deacons are not pastors, and there is no task that a deacon can perform that a layperson should not. The distinction between the diaconate and the laity is that a deacon’s work is undertaken in consecrated service to the office of Bishop, and therefore also to the gospel ministry the Bishop serves. 

This historic relationship between the episcopal and diaconal offices has remained ecumenically consistent in the church catholic, though its particular form has varied according to ecclesiology. In Roman Catholicism, for instance, the office of Bishop is primary, and those of priests and deacons are secondary. Bishops “enjoy the fullness of the sacrament of orders, and both presbyters and deacons are dependent upon them in the exercise of their authority.” Accordingly, Catholic deacons widely operate on the congregational level as liturgical assistants for the priests, who serve in turn as the Bishop’s evangelical/sacramental representatives. 

Lutheran ecclesiology is different, though equally traditional. It holds the pastoral office of Word and Sacrament ministry as primary, and understands the office of Bishop as a derivative, though important, position of oversight for a fellowship of congregations. Lutheran deacons will therefore serve an episcopate that works quite differently from its Catholic counterpart. In order to be ecumenically recognizable, therefore, a Lutheran diaconate will need to be structured differently, as well.  

An NALC Diaconate – Why Now?

Important though they are, historical/ecumenical considerations are not the impetus for this proposal. The Lutheran Confessions lift up the “desire to retain the order of the church and the various ranks in the church—even though they were established by human authority” (AP 14.1); but such retention properly begins with the immediate needs of the church, and then prayerfully looks to the tradition for strategic ways to meet those needs. 

The needs of the NALC are different from those facing Catholicism. Rather than sprawling congregations requiring additional pastoral/administrative support – a task for which Roman Catholic deacons are well suited – the NALC currently has a fair number of smaller congregations with limited resources who need assistance, expertise, and guidance in mission and faith formation. The Bishop serves as “the chief evangelist of the NALC, responsible for ensuring the priority of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) in the life of the church” – and in this capacity, deacons can be of great benefit. The NALC has a profound need for confessional renewal in catechesis and discipleship in its congregations, as well as in outreach and mission planting. 

To be clear: Christ entrusts these responsibilities to the whole church in the Great Commission, and this proposal has no intention of taking them from the laity and making them exclusive to deacons. By the same token, deacons can assist the Bishop in many ways besides serving as catechists or mission planters – for example, as administrators or outreach officers. The point is that the prevalent need now in the NALC is assisting our congregations with mission and faith formation, and a traditionally grounded diaconate will be of significant help to the Bishop in this capacity.  

Ordination and Commissioning

The historic diaconate is ordered ministry, a special form of ministry in the church that is not simply shared by everyone. This is the true meaning of “ordination,” the essential purpose of which is to invoke the Holy Spirit for the requisite gifts to perform the duties of the respective office. “Ordination” is therefore the appropriate historical, ecumenical, and confessional term for the bestowal of the diaconal office. 

Nevertheless, Hippolytus’s distinction should closely accompany the designation. Again, deacons are not pastors, and it will be crucial to specify the historical use of the term “ordination.” It may be for Lutherans that the long-held association of “ordination” exclusively with the pastoral office is insurmountable, in which case “commissioning” will serve just as well. That choice would present its own problems, as incidental deacon assignments are also traditionally called “commissions” (though, as with the language of “call” pertaining to the pastoral office, a deacon could likewise receive subsequent commissions within the initial, once-for-all commission). To an extent, the terminology is flexible; but it must convey that, though deacons are not pastors, they have been called to and set apart for intentional, life-long service to the Bishop in support of the gospel. 

Within the NALC, deacons would appropriately be ordained/commissioned by the Bishop or his/her delegated representative and subsequently commissioned to a variety of assignments – some temporary, others enduring. As the deans and Bishop’s Assistants are also extensions of the episcopal office (NALC Constitution 11.03), albeit in different ways, the Bishop might elect to commission deacons to work with them on the Mission District- or regional level.  

Faith Formation and Discipleship

The Bishop may commission deacons as catechists and evangelists to assist congregations and Mission Districts in implementing the NALC’s CREDO initiative (Confessional Renewal Embracing Discipleship and Outreach). Emphasizing ongoing faith formation for both youth and adults, the initiative intends to develop a (inter-) congregational culture in which the fellowship takes seriously its baptismal calling “to make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28) and to build up the Body” (Ephesians 4:12). This agenda is essentially a continuation of the Reformation’s imperative to make the Word of God and the catechism “the subject[s] of meditation and conversation” (“Luther’s Preface to the Large Catechism,” 9) in the congregation, household, and vocational stations of daily life. Specific areas of faith formation deacons may address as catechists and Discipleship Guides are:

  • Fluency in the Bible, the Creeds, and the Lutheran Confessions 
  • Personal prayer life, including the confidence to lead prayer with others 
  • Raising up long-term baptismal sponsors and mentors for children, confirmands, and adult converts
  • Liturgical involvement and the formation of worship leaders
  • Teaching the Bible and the catechism in the home
  • A willingness to engage in conversation and share the gospel
  • The practice of corporate prayer, such as Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Prayer at the Close of the Day
  • Faithful obedience to Christ in the home and in the world
  • Outreach and service in the community
  • Faith formation for families, youth, women, or men

Deacons commissioned as catechists might be affiliated with a particular congregation for a season (though not as regular pastoral staff), perhaps making it a base of operations for serving multiple congregations in a given Mission District. 

Mission Development and Congregational Planting 

The NALC challenges every congregation to be partnered in mission with one international effort and one domestic mission start. Deacons would be a welcome addition to this dynamic, specifically with respect to the second category.  They could serve as catechists and worship leaders for the new congregation while helping the sister congregation(s) and the broader Mission District support the mission. This model would be similar to that of the Ethiopian Lutheran Church, Mekane Yesus, who send commissioned evangelists out to villages from established congregations.  

The introduction of deacons would therefore cultivate and strengthen lateral bonds of fellowship on the Mission District/Regional level. Deacons would serve as a cadre of domestic missionaries with the flexibility, focus, and accountability of their established office, but without undue bureaucratic baggage. Their efforts will therefore afford the NALC a corporate role in fostering mission without stripping the responsibility away from congregations and Mission Districts. 

Options for – and Limitations to – Worship Leadership

Assisting the Bishop in the liturgy has always been integral to a deacon’s responsibilities, as aiding in worship is prescriptive for the support of Word and Sacrament ministry. In a polity where the Bishop is not the pastor of a congregation, however, such opportunities may be necessarily limited. When the Bishop presides at a Mission District-, regional-, or continental-level service, it would be appropriate for deacons to assist in the liturgy. As the deans are an extension of the office of Bishop (Const. Art. 11.03), it may also be appropriate for deacons to serve in the liturgy when a dean presides at a Mission District- or regional service involving multiple congregations, with the clear explanation that the deacons are doing so at the direction of the Bishop. Likewise, a deacon conducting an official visit with a congregation on behalf of the Bishop’s office might very well be asked to assist in worship, and may do so with the Bishop’s blessing. When assisting in the liturgy, deacons should vest with the traditional cross-wise stole that signifies their office. 

Deacons serving as assisting ministers in an ordinary congregational setting on an ongoing basis, however, would cause confusion and difficulty. By nature of their office, deacons are neither called by nor permanently assigned to individual congregations. They are directly accountable to the Bishop, not to the congregation or the pastor. Furthermore, a diaconal “take-over” of liturgical leadership would inevitably displace the important role of lay assisting ministers. Along these lines, while deacons may freely assist in worship within their own congregations, it should be explained that are doing so as members of their congregations and not in their official capacity as deacons. 

On the other hand, the Bishop may choose to make availability for occasional supply work in a Mission District or Region a part of a deacon’s commission. In this scenario, the deacon would be the equivalent of a lay leader conducting a “Service of the Word,” but as a representative of the Bishop. This would afford opportunities for bringing official greetings and apprising the congregation of the deacon’s current work, especially as it pertains to faith formation and/or mission development in the Mission District.

Deacons might also aid in an extended distribution of Holy Communion between congregations. If a given congregation or mission start does not have the possibility of regular pastoral support and another congregation is relatively close by, the two might arrange with the Bishop to share the Lord’s Supper between them on an ongoing basis (see the CTD proposal “Pastoral Support for Congregations in Special Circumstances,” rev. 9/7/2021). In the event that deacons are commissioned as mission developers or worship leaders, it would be appropriate for them to carry out this distribution.  

Though deacons sometimes preached in the ancient church, they likely did so at the direction and under the authority of the Bishop; not (as in the case of pastors) under an authority conveyed in their ordination. Accordingly, the current proposal does not regard liturgical preaching in the Word and Sacrament assembly as a distinctive function of the diaconate. To reiterate, the diaconate is not a “ministry of the word” in any defining sense. The constitutive ministry of the word – the pastoral office – includes administering the sacraments (AC V), and it would be impossible for a pastor to carry out that ministry without ever preaching or presiding. By contrast, deacons could be faithful to their office without ever receiving commissions involving preaching or teaching.

That being said, the proposal will honor the historic precedent of occasional diaconal preaching at the Bishop’s discretion. To reiterate, this practice depends on episcopal authority and is not a constitutive feature of the diaconate. The Bishop would therefore do well to consider a deacon’s respective gifts and training before making such an assignment, just as he or she should do with respect to deacons serving as teachers of the faith. Apart from formal, liturgical preaching, the possibilities of reading a sermon with Scripture (also an historic practice), leading a Bible Study, or giving a devotional are all consistent with the work of a catechist or evangelist, and may be offered worship as well.   

Suited for Bivocational Ministry 

Depending on the nature of their commissions, deacons are ideally suited for bivocational ministry. Most of the duties described above are feasibly undertaken in a part-time capacity, or even in excess of a full-time job. Some commissions for mission planting may very well be full-time, as may others. Still other diaconal commissions might involve the extension of a given vocation to a broader scope, in much the same way that a full-time pastor might concurrently serve as a dean. For example, upon becoming a deacon, a congregational director of Christian Education might receive a commission from the Bishop to be a catechist on the Mission District level and/or called upon to lead seminars in the broader church. The same might also hold for directors of sacred music, youth and outdoor ministry directors, and so on. Their ordination will convey the possibility of a greater jurisdiction and allow the bishop to target their efforts to meet the needs of the broader church. Financial compensation for deacons will naturally vary according to the particular commission, and individual congregations and Mission Districts/Regions may underwrite those expenses significantly.  

A Note on Congregational Deacons and Licensed Lay Ministers

There are currently lay leaders with the title of “deacon” in the NALC, selected by and serving within specific congregations. There is also a number of former-ELCA licensed lay- and “diaconal” ministers in the NALC who were consecrated to service and made promises to that end – and it would be appropriate for the NALC to work with them and find ways for them to serve on a case-by-case basis. Apart from completing the formal preparation that leads to diaconal ordination (including, perhaps, a colloquy option for licensed lay ministers – see below), neither group will be available for broader commissioned service in the NALC. If congregational deacons or former licensed lay ministers discern a call to serve the broader church with greater accountability, then they should seek certification through the formal process.   

Initial Training/Curriculum Recommendations

Members of an NALC congregation who sense a call to the diaconate may seek appropriate preparation. Once they have completed the formational process, they will be ordained as NALC deacons. Diaconal coordinators will build up a diaconal community for support, conversation, formation, continuing education, and ongoing review of respective ministries. NALC Deacons will be expected to participate in ongoing enrichments arranged by their coordinators. Possible topics may include planting congregations, spiritual formation, discipleship, ministry in secular culture, etc. 

  • The (pan-) Lutheran Diaconal Association may prove beneficial in providing resources for the formation and continuing training of this community.
  • Apart from their own events, deacons will be invited to participate in any and all NALC clergy-geared conferences.  

Potential Process for Certification 

  1. Coordinators for the diaconal ministry program are appointed by the NALC Bishop to administer the diaconate program, under the oversight of the NALC Candidacy Committee. 
  1. Any lay member of the NALC interested in the diaconate will contact the diaconal ministry coordinators to begin the process. 
  1. Candidates for the diaconate complete a background check with the NALC General Secretary. 
  1. Diaconate candidates meet with the NALC Candidacy Committee for psych evaluation, entrance into diaconate process, for discernment and to assess sense of call, faith commitment and fitness for diaconal ministry, educational background, life experience, willingness to serve, etc.
  1. Candidates complete the initial training for diaconal ministry.  
  • A committee appointed by the Bishop will work with the NALS to determine these requirements. While there will be a core curriculum of experiences and training, there will need to be flexibility to account for the variety of gifts and vocations deacons may use in commissioned service. In putting the curriculum together, the committee should initially consider the aforementioned Lutheran Diaconal Association, as well as the content of the lay-oriented NALS Certificate of Lutheran Studies, appropriate Masters-level courses, and the current curriculum for the ACNA diaconate. It may also be beneficial for deacons to receive the NALC Discipleship Guide training currently in development. 
  • Concerning Masters-level courses: while this proposal does not intend to make the diaconate a stepping-stone to Word and Sacrament ministry (i.e., a “transitional diaconate”), it does not rule out the possibility that some deacons may subsequently become pastors. It may therefore be beneficial for at least some of their coursework to be ATS-accredited.
  • The committee may also consider a colloquy process for former licensed lay ministers that takes prior education and training into account.  
  1. Candidates have approval interview with diaconal coordinators, NALC Bishop and Assistant to the Bishop for Ministry and Ecumenism.
  1. Ordination is conditional upon approval by the bishop and Executive Council. The Bishop will subsequently assign commissions, Commissioned assignments are issued by the Bishop, in consultation with the deacon, deans, and appropriate persons. Commissioned assignments by the bishop may be full-time, part-time, or non-stipendiary.  
  1. The NALC Bishop or his/her delegated representative ordains NALC deacons. At the time of ordination, the deacon may or may not receive a particular commissioning.
  1. Mission Districts, Regions, or congregations may issue requests to the Bishop’s office for diaconal support. 
  1. NALC deacons may request from the bishop to be on-leave from commissioned assignment or availability for a time for varied reasons, including such realities as health, family commitments, etc. 
  1. NALC deacons are expected to adhere to and be accountable to the NALC Standards for Ministry.
  1. At this time, ordained NALC deacons will not be voting members at NALC convocations unless their congregations elect them as delegates. 

Extended Review

After a period of three years from its inception, the NALC Executive Council will undertake a formal review of this process to determine how it might be improved for the good of the church, in conversation with the diaconal coordinators, the Bishop’s office, the deans, the NALS faculty, and the Commission on Theology and Doctrine.