Deacons shed light on ‘misunderstood ministry’

Deacon Jim Houston, far left, and Deacon John Stierman, far right, of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa, chatted after a presentation at the National Association of Diaconate Directors convention April 10 at the Galt House in downtown Louisville. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

Deacons from around the country gathered in Louisville last week for a national conference, hearing from speakers, attending workshops and delving into the inner workings of an often misunderstood ministry of the church.

“I think there’s still some uncertainty among the laity and even some priests and ordinaries about the role of the deacon,” said Deacon Denny Nash, director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Diaconate Office.

Deacon Nash also serves on the board of the National Association of Deacon Directors, which held its latest conference at the Galt House Hotel in downtown Louisville April 9-11.

“Everyone agrees our primary duty is service,” he said. “The laity really only see us at the altar, assisting at the altar. Oftentimes, they don’t really understand everything their deacon does.”

The role of the deacon is three-pronged. They are ordained to word (proclaiming the Gospel), charity (living as guides and witnesses of Christian service) and sacrament (through the sacrament of Holy Orders, they are ordained to serve and assist with the needs of the church).

What that means in practical terms is that you’ll find deacons serving in a host of ways. In the Archdiocese of Louisville, deacons minister to people who are homebound or who are in hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and jails. They are chaplains for fire and police departments. They help their pastors by assisting at Mass and presiding at funerals, baptisms and marriages outside of Mass.

Called to serve

Deacons are guided, said Deacon Nash, by the notion of diakonia, a Greek term that literally means “to serve at table.”

“We are an outward sign of the church’s diakonia. That means putting the others’ needs ahead of our own,” he said. “All of our formation is about putting the other first.”

Formation for the diaconate in the Archdiocese of Louisville lasts five years and ordained deacons also have continuing education. 

Given the time and resources deacons put into their ministry, “People in the pews are usually incredibly surprised that deacons are not compensated,” said Deacon J. Dennis Dorner, chair of the NADD board of directors. 

“They have no idea how many years of formation are involved and that most of them have full-time jobs, and a number of guys stay active into their 80s,” said Deacon Dorner.

He and Deacon Nash work for the church in addition to their diaconate ministry. Deacon Nash, who retired from his first career, now works full-time leading the diaconate office here. Deacon Dorner serves as the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Atlanta and as director of its diaconate office.

Deacon Denny Nash

Tapping their gifts

Gradually, dioceses are beginning to tap the professional talents of deacons for professional roles in the diocese, said Deacons Nash and Dorner.

Deacon Dorner said his previous work focused on standardization and processes. That has helped him in his role as chancellor and in his role with NADD, which has made strides to help dioceses around the United States standardize diaconate formation.

Several other dioceses have deacons in key leadership roles. Deacons are also serving as pastoral administrators in parishes and leading a variety of ministries.

In the Archdiocese of Louisville, Deacon Greg Gitschier, who is assigned to St. Patrick Church and previously worked in law enforcement, is a chaplain for the Louisville Metro Police Department. And Deacon Nick Dachille, who is assigned to St. Teresa of Calcutta Church and a firefighter, serves as a chaplain for firefighters, said Deacon Nash.

Deacon Dorner said, “The bishops are seeing the gifts of these men and putting them in these positions in their dioceses.”

He cautioned that the role of the deacon is as a servant leader, with an emphasis on servant.

“We’re not meant to just be in management positions; that leads to more clericalism,” he said. “But many of us have experience that can help.”

Deacons are a bridge

Both the personal and professional experiences of deacons can be beneficial to their ministry, Deacon Dorner noted.

“In most cases, we are family men and we have been in a professional environment,” he said. “It affects the preaching we do — relating the Gospel to real life.”

Deacon Nash said deacons “are that bridge between the ordained and laity. We share the lifestyle of the laity — we have jobs, children, grandchildren, house payments.”

The wives of deacons, who go through some of the formation with their husbands, are a crucial part of their ministry, Deacon Nash said. 

“That’s a very important aspect for the married deacon — wives are involved in ministry,” he said, noting that his wife may do the readings or intercessions at a funeral. She may accompany him on pastoral visits, too. “Sometimes they’re more excited to see her than me.”

To make it all work, he said, the deacon needs to find balance.

“There are times my work takes precedence over my family or when my family takes precedence over ministry,” he said. “You’ve got to learn that balance.”

In August, 10 men are expected to be ordained to the diaconate in the Archdiocese of Louisville. A new cohort of deacons recently began their five-year formation process. 

For more information about the diaconate, call 502-636-0296 and ask for the Diaconate Office.

Marnie McAllister
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Marnie McAllister
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