We first hear of deacons in the New Testament in Chapter 6 of Acts. Members of the fledgling Jesus community are sharing their property; among other things the members use their common resources to provide food every day for the widows and orphans among them. The new Greek converts are concerned, however, that, with the growth of the community, their widows are getting short-changed. The Apostles want to concentrate on spreading the message and praying. So they meet with the other leaders and ask them to select “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task” of taking food and possibly the word to the widows every day. In a sermon given by the Rt. Rev. Kirk Stevan Smith, Bishop of Arizona, at an ordination to the diaconate, he told this story about early deacons: One of the earliest mentions of deacons that comes down to us in church history is a passage from the writer Eusebius who describes the scene in Rome on a Sunday morning, when, he says, the streets resounded with the steps of the deacons running to bring Holy food and drink to the poor.
Now Luke doesn’t really use the Greek word diakonos in his Gospel or Acts, possibly because it was the title for Hermes and other Greek messenger gods. But he does use other forms of the word, which has a somewhat complicated history of interpretation. Starting in the 19th century, it was interpreted to mean “servant” and to refer solely to ministries to the poor. The early church used the term in a different way — as one writer, Ormonde Plater, puts it, “they had more in mind than the service that all Christians are obliged to perform” to the poor, sick, and neglected of the world. Deacons were messengers, agents, and attendants of bishops. Plater says that the word may have come from a phrase meaning “dusty ones,” people on the road traveling to carry out the desires and commands of a superior. This was ministry to the Lord, not just ministry to the poor and widows. Plater provides this definition: deacons are “appointed and given grace to be thoroughly active and dusty in the service of the church, which necessarily involves care of the poor.”
The most famous deacon, at least in the Bible, was Stephen, who clearly did more than “wait on tables.” He began preaching and “did great wonders and signs among the people,” which led to his martyrdom. Few contemporary deacons expect to be martyred. But deacons are often called the “nags” of the church, because we are to remind the church of the needs of the world. We also bring the church to the world, in our community work. As Bishop Smith also said in a deacon ordination sermon (Deacons on the Run):
We also know that it is part of the ministry of a deacon to raise the awareness of the rest of the people of God to the plight of the needy, and to serve as an advocate for them as a kind of social conscience for the folks in the pew. Part of a deacon’s job is to remind the rest of us constantly of our baptismal vows by pointing out, sometimes to the point of being obnoxious, that there are poor people right on our doorstep. Our own Archdeacon, Veronica Ritson, summed it up well when she stated famously that a deacon was called to be a holy pain in the ass.
The ordination examination for deacons says “God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.” Deacons “are to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship. You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. You are to assist the bishop and priests in public worship and in the ministration of God’s Word and Sacraments, and you are to carry out other duties assigned to you from time to time. At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.” Deacons are also asked whether we will “look for Christ in all others, being ready to heal and serve those in need.”
Deacons as we now know them are relatively new in the Episcopal Church, having developed in the past 100 years. Each diocese has their own process in determining who should be ordained and the process deacon candidates must follow. Some dioceses require seminary or other school certifications. The Diocese of Arizona has one of the largest number of deacons in the Church, with over 50. In Arizona, the process starts at the parish with a discernment committee. The Diocese of Arizona’s Commission on Ministry’s A Guide for Discernment: The Ordination to the Vocational Diaconate states:
Listening to God’s call and the discernment of a diaconal vocation always takes place within the context of community. Deacons are called as “one who serves” within Christian congregations and therefore the community must recognize not only an authentic voice that resonates with a Godly call, but also a person who has the possibility of having a gift for leading others into service as defined in “The Baptismal Covenant.”
Once a candidate is accepted, there’s about a 2-year process of study, writing, and meeting at the Cathedral in Phoenix with the other candidates. There is also an externship at another parish, now lasting 6 months.
As alluded to, technically deacons serve under the Bishop of their diocese. Here in Arizona, we enter into Letters of Agreement with our rectors to set out what we will do in terms of ministry and service, including a rough estimate of the hours per week we will serve. We process in and out of the services with the Gospel, proclaim the Gospel, set the table, and serve communion for services week in and week out. We also have various ministries in the world.
We have eight deacons at St. Philip’s — it’s a good bet you know at least one of us: Bev Edminster, Ruthie Hooper, Tom Lindell, Sally Stevens-Taylor, Anne Strong, Ralph Taylor, Brigid Waszczak, and myself. I think I can speak for all of us in saying we’d be glad to share our ministries with you and listen to what you’d like to do.
—The Rev. Leah Sandwell-Weiss
The Rev. Leah Sandwell-Weiss
I was a relatively new Episcopalian when I came to St. Philip’s, so one of the first things I did was participate in Quest. Quest and its related programs, MissionQuest and ReQuest, which I also attended, were programs designed to help parishioners develop their interior spiritual life, recognize the relationship between spiritual life and outward action, and discover our mission in life. Quest helped me learn about the Episcopal Church, St. Philip’s, and the different leaders here; I re-wrote my original spiritual autobiography while in the class. But the most important impact on my life from attending Quest came afterwards, when David Richardson, a former priest here, asked me to be a facilitator for the next class.
As surprising as it may seem to some of you who know me, this was the first time I had been asked to do anything other than sing or pledge at church. I was in my mid-40s and had never thought of myself as a leader, as a facilitator, or as having the skills to something like this. I secretly wondered whether he asked me because he couldn’t find anyone else. But I did it, I was relatively good at it, and I enjoyed it. And I got good feedback from David and others who participated in that session of Quest.
Around the same time, I started getting involved in the Outreach Ministries program at St. Philip’s, eventually becoming co-chair and then chair. We were starting to think about the border and immigration and what we as a church could do. Julie Johnson and others from St. Philip’s set up a trip to Naco, Arizona, to meet with folks from both sides of the border, as well as other Episcopalians, to discuss what the needs were there. The consensus was the biggest need we could help with was healthcare and the decision was to set up a wellness clinic. As I listened to the discussion, I clearly remember thinking, “Nice idea; it’ll never happen.”
And I was wrong. Around 6 months later, we were holding our first Naco Wellness Initiative clinic at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Naco, Arizona, where folks from Cathedral Health Services and other medical folks saw over 150 patients, testing for high blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol, glaucoma, stroke, heart, and dental needs, and referring many for immediate health care needs. St. Philippians through Outreach and individually not only contributed funds for the Initiative for many years, but also served on its board, volunteered many hours of time, and provided support for the Border Missioner in Bisbee who helped coordinate the Initiative.
The mission of Naco Wellness Initiative has changed over the years, given the crackdown at the border, but it is still active in setting up clinics in the neighborhoods of Naco, Sonora, which provide all sorts of wellness testing and services; the Initiative is now also focusing on a diabetes prevention and treatment program. Without St. Philip’s and St. Philippians, the Initiative wouldn’t have gotten off the ground, at least not as soon as it did. And lives would have been lost.
Crazy, but true, this was the first time I actually saw with my own eyes what committed Christians could do directly to make a difference. And slowly, I started to see what I could do as part of a group of committed Christians to make a difference. Folks at St. Philip’s encouraged me, pushed me, pulled me to become more involved. I saw folks taking action and realized I could, too. I became a leader in Pima County Interfaith Council (PCIC), working with others of different faiths to advocate for the needs of our families in Tucson, in Arizona, and in the country. Through PCIC training, partially supported by St. Philip’s, and my experiences here at St. Philip’s in Outreach, on the Vestry, and in choir, I finally learned the importance of relationships in developing my faith and my work as a Christian.
Besides my work with PCIC and Border & Immigration Ministries, this year I am also co-facilitating the JustFaith program at St Philip’s, where 10 Christians are building relationships and learning how to live in justice in the world. We are working to bring to fruition what Paul writes about in Ephesians, where we “are no longer strangers and aliens, but … citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”
The story of my journey to ordination is way too long to go into here, but needless to say, St. Philip’s and St. Philippians, parishioners, staff members, and clergy, past and present, made it possible for me to grow and to discern my calling to the diaconate.
The Rev. Beverley Edminster
My ministry is children. Aside from having two of my own, my work has always been with children. I began as an elementary teacher with TUSD, received my Master’s in counseling and worked with middle school children as a counselor, then as a Dean at Catalina High School, and then as a principal of Wheeler Elementary until I retired. In 1995, I became an Oblate with the Benedictine Monastery here in Tucson and a fellow of SSJE in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 2000, I was ordained to the diaconate.
I was confirmed at St. Philips in 1966, so have been a part of this community for a long time in many different areas. Helping children will always be my primary focus. Other areas include serving on the Foster Care Review Board which studies all children in foster care and makes recommendations to the court as to their best placement (12 years); mentoring the Education for Ministry group (University of the South), which is a life-changing program (19 years); and preparing meals once a month for the 30+ residents in recovery located at Five Points (20 years). I am fortunate to have been part of St. Philip’s exceptional Altar Guild.
My ministries have expanded over the past 10 years to include making blankets for children living at Tucson Metro Ministries (who provide assistance to abused women and children); ”Sweater Nanas,” which provide sweaters and hats to all first grade and K children at Borton; and the After-School Music Program at St. Philip’s. I have been teaching piano the last 3 years, and it is a joy to watch the children develop.
My most recent venture has been in training my dog to be a therapy dog. Since she graduated, she has gone with me to make nursing home visits. She is a joyful companion on visits, and adults and children love her. My ministry also includes pastoral care and the newly formed Garden Guild, whose purpose is to fill our campus with beauty and present a welcoming space to all who enter.