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What is a Deacon?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A deacon is a official in the Christian church. The exact definition of this position varies, depending on which branch of Christianity is under discussion. In some cases, this person is a member of the clergy who has undergone religious training and been ordained. In other instances, he or she is a member of the lay public who wishes to assist his or her church. The job descriptions and role vary widely, although the diaconate is generally viewed as a group that assists the church and serves the community.

The word is derived from the Greek diakonos, which means “servant” or “minister.” Deacons have been an important part of Christian tradition since early times. They traveled among the laity to spread the word of the Church, and assisted the Apostles and later priests and other representatives of the Church. In many cases, these early individuals took over the duties of distributing alms to the poor, traveling to homes and offering words of comfort, and other tasks that involved community outreach. In this way, they allowed priests, bishops, and other officials to focus on more Church-oriented tasks.

In the Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox traditions, the position of a deacon is a clerical office. People in this role undergo religious training, and they serve in a church under a priest. Some view their offices as a step on the way to priesthood, while others prefer serving in the slightly more secular realms that they inhabit, and they do not pursue further religious qualifications. Deacons often have more opportunities to directly interact with people, although they also take part in Church ritual.

In other branches of Christianity, a deacon is a member of the laity who may undergo some training. He or she may work part time, helping out a minister or pastor with various church tasks, often with a team of others who work together to distribute their duties. Because this person is not ordained, he or she cannot give sermons or communion, but may offer religious counseling, handle church records, and help organize meetings, events, and church outreach.

The position is one of service to the church and the lay community. This person may be entitled to wear certain vestments and perform various tasks, depending on the branch of Christianity in which he or she serves. Many establish close personal relationships with the people in the communities where they serve, and they also tend to become close with the church officials that they work with.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By oasis11 — On Mar 14, 2011

@Sunny27 - I am glad that he found another church. I can imagine that it must have been a hard thing to have to face. I know that many people within the church have very hard-line views with respect to the Catholic Church but I do see them moderating a bit.

I don’t know if they will ever let priests marry or allow women to be priests but I do know that they are sometimes faced with modern dilemmas that were not a problem years ago.

I think that for now becoming a church deacon is as close as many men will come to becoming a priest.

By Sunny27 — On Mar 11, 2011

@SurfNTurf - I imagine that with the impending shortages of priests there must be a rise in Catholic deacons. I think that the issue of not allowing priests to marry really turns off a lot of men that want to serve in this capacity.

As a matter of fact there was a scandal a few years ago in Miami regarding a Catholic priest that fell in love with a woman. He was forced to leave the Catholic Church and is now an Episcopal deacon.

He felt that he wanted to serve God, but did not feel that making the sacrifice of celibacywas the way to do it. He felt that as a married man he can offer even more depth when counseling couples because he is also married.

By surfNturf — On Mar 10, 2011

I know that in order to become a Catholic deacon you have to have been baptized in a Catholic church and been an active member of the Catholic Church for at least five years.

The interesting thing about this position is that it allows the deacon to perform some functions of a priest but they are allowed to have a spouse if they had one at the time of their application.

They cannot get divorced and serve and if their wife dies and they become a widower they would not be allowed to get married again.

In addition, if they had a pervious divorce they are expected to apply for an annulment. Deacons can preside over baptisms and other sacramental ceremonies. I had one for my daughter’s baptism, but I preferred when the Pastor performed my son's baptism. His sermon was better.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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