By Lu Stanton León
For most of her adult, life Susan Walker has been a servant leader—feeding the hungry, serving the sick, working with the marginalized and underserved. Yet despite all the work with her church and community, she felt a deeper call to service. In 2012, she was ordained a deacon.
Now, Walker works during the week as resident services director and leasing agent at St. Mary’s Court, an apartment community for seniors with low-to-moderate-income, and at 8 a. m. on Sundays she serves as a deacon at St. Stephen and the Incarnation in the District. She is also helping guide the diocese’s first class of people seeking ordination to the diaconate.
Under the leadership of Bishop Mariann Budde, diaconal training has become a priority. Last March, the bishop called the Rev. Sue von Rautenkranz as the diocese’s first archdeacon. In this role, von Rautenkranz, a deacon and Christian formation coordinator at St. Dunstan’s in Bethesda, oversees the discernment, formation and deployment process for deacons in the diocese.
“In my favorite shorthand,” von Rautenkranz says, “the priest (pastor and teacher) invites people into community for feeding and nurture while the deacon pushes you back out into the world to do mission.
“We currently have 18 persons officially in the process toward ordination to the diaconate,” von Rautenkranz says. “Five of those are now candidates and, if all goes as planned and God is willing and the people are consenting, these five will be ordained in the fall. Thirteen are postulants and will begin the diocesan deacons school this month. They have been taking academic classes for the last year.
“The canons require that deacons receive academic training in scripture, theology and the traditions of the church,” von Rautenkranz says. “Our diocese is requiring basic survey courses in Old and New Testament, church history—including Anglican and Episcopal Church history—ethics and systematic theology.”
The candidates who will be ordained in the fall already have master of divinity degrees or “equivalent master’s level work in religious or theological studies,” Rautenkranz says. The postulants are taking classes locally as well as participating in an online classes through the Center for Anglican Learning and Leadership, a program of Church Divinity School of the Pacific, an Episcopal seminary in Berkeley, California. CALL works with partner dioceses around the country to develop curricula and online courses that support local formation for ordained ministry. Students are taught by experienced instructors.
“The diocese has a special agreement with CDSP to provide the classes we need every calendar year if we have at least four to five students in those classes,” von Rautenkranz says. “This group [of postulants] will go before the Standing Committee in the fall of 2017. If all things proceed as expected, then members of that cohort will be ordained one year later, in the fall of 2018.”
Von Rautenkranz says the 18 people in the process now “are a very diverse group with skills and passions for ministry from chaplaincy with the elderly to jail ministry. They bring years of work in many social service settings and jobs, and many have waited a long time for the diocese to commit itself more fully to nurturing vocational deacons.
Walker, who serves as spiritual formation advisor to the diaconate program, says “We are supposed to model servant leadership so others can say, ‘I want to do that in my life.’ It’s helping people own their own ministry.”
Sandra Bramble, a part-time parish secretary at St. John’s, Mount Rainier, Maryland, says the diocese’s new diaconate program is just what she has been looking for. A native of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, an island in the Caribbean, she’s been active in her parish more than 20 years “doing the work I actually love.” She’s the head verger and a member of the altar guild, the Episcopal Church Women, Daughters of the King, Mothers’ Union, and St. John’s social and cultural committee. She also works with the youth and volunteers in community feeding and service programs.
“What I feel about this program for deacons is that a person might be involved in a lot of things and want to be a part of what happens in the church, but they may not feel that call to be an ordained deacon or priest,” Bramble says. “I think it is a call that you hear from God. I felt this call. I finally had to realize that God was calling me to this type of ministry, to serve in the church in this way.”
A deacon, she says, is “the go between of the people out there and the priest. It’s about serving others. This is why I like the community work that I do, because I am able to be a servant of the people, servant of the Christ, servant of the church.”
The Rev. Joseph Constant, rector of St. John’s, Beltsville, testifies to the value of deacons. The Rev. Tyler Jones, who was in a diaconate program that the diocese piloted under Bishop John Bryson Chane, was ordained with Walker and the Rev. Terri Murphy, who now serves at Church of the Ascension in Silver Spring, in 2012, served as deacon at St. John’s until moving out of the area.
“I think the services that Tyler provided to St. John’s were invaluable,” Constant says. “Especially for a parish that can only afford a full-time rector and nothing else, to have another ordained person is so valuable.” Most deacons are non-stipendiary.
Deacons wear a clerical collar, and Constant says that makes a particular difference hospital visits. “As you know, we can all do ministry and pastoral care,” he says. “We are all ministers of the church. But when it comes to death and dying, it certainly helps to walk in there in a collar. It also helps to actually have someone who is ordained at the end of life service.”
“I think being ordained brings with it, for me, this inner sense of being, this identity as a person of God who is called to be with people in a loving relationship no matter who they are,” Walker says. “Wearing a collar when at I’m at St. Stephen’s … that identifies me as a person of God. So perhaps that gives people some more accessibility to me in terms of their spiritual needs.”
Walker says she’s excited about the upcoming group of deacons.
“With so many deacons being ordained in the next few years, it will be an eye opener,” she says. “We’re not junior priests, and we’re not taking anything away from priests or laity. It is a calling, not just what I want to do but what God is calling me to do.”