A mosaic in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome depicts Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Shutterstock

The Deacon as Servant Leader

Service should inspire others to follow — and mirror — Christ


Much has been written about the important role of the Catholic deacon as a servant leader in the parish. But as we reflect on this 50th anniversary of the restoration of the permanent diaconate, we should ask: What does it mean to be a servant leader as a deacon?

What is a Servant Leader?

The term “servant leadership” was first coined by Robert Greenleaf, regarded as the founding father of the modern servant leadership movement. In 1970, Greenleaf penned an essay entitled “The Servant as Leader” on the authentic nature of leadership. In that essay he wrote, “The servant-leader is servant first. … It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”

He then characterized the benefits this “servant-first” approach might make in the lives of those who were served, writing, “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

Greenleaf’s essay expressed a perennial philosophy of leadership articulated by many great civil, social and religious leaders of the past. As Catholics, we might hear echoes of these principles in the words Jesus spoke to his apostles: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all” (Mk 10:43-44).

Given the way in which Robert Greenleaf sparked a modern servant-leadership movement by his characterization of the identity and impact of the servant leader, how do we see his insights applying to the ministry of the Catholic Deacon?

The Deacon is a Servant-Disciple First

It almost goes without saying that the identity and ministry of a deacon (diakonos means “servant”) is indelibly marked by the character of service. Yet his vocation is rooted first and foremost in his identity as a missionary disciple of Jesus Christ, exercising his baptismal charisms in service to the Church. Most deacons or deacon candidates cite this experience of serving others in the life and mission of the Church in some capacity as the beginning of their aspirations to be ordained. And the quality of their service as baptized members is part of the Church’s discernment of their vocation.

It is noteworthy that among all Catholic rites and churches, the first vestment a deacon wears is a type of baptismal garment (for example, an alb). Once ordained, however, the deacon also wears the stole signifying the grace of his office. Yet he never loses his primary identity as a servant-disciple, which takes on the added character of being ordered to the service of other disciples. The deacon could rightly appropriate a phrase from St. Augustine, who said, “For you I am a deacon, with you I am a Christian.”

The Deacon Serves the Needs of the Church

Given his role of service, one should ask whom does he serve and how? Since the liturgical ministry of the deacon is the mirror image of his pastoral role, we see that the deacon is ordained to serve the shepherds and the faithful through several very concrete ways:

• Faithful steward — Helps to ensure the good ordering of the Church in the liturgical celebration, including supervising and coordinating the activities of all who serve and fulfilling the requests of the pastor to support the life and mission of the Church.

• Compassionate intercessor — Offers prayers and brings the needs of the congregation to the attention of the pastor, often helping to ensure these needs are met.

• Humble proclaimer — Proclaims the Gospel in the liturgy while helping to teach and catechize the faithful in how to live out their calling as missionary disciples of Christ.

• Persuasive advocate — Advocates for the material and spiritual needs of the faithful, while ensuring their most active participation in the worship and the common life of the Church as guided by her shepherds.

The Deacon Animates the Charisms of Others

It is easy to assume that the role of the deacon is simply to perform acts of service. In reality, his primary task is to build up the common life and edify the Church by coordinating, animating and engaging the charisms of service in others in the name of Christ and the bishop. As in Greenleaf’s essay, the measure of success for a servant leader is found in helping to grow, engage and inspire others to become servants themselves.

May we as deacons strive to be good and faithful servant leaders after the model of Christ and St. Stephen!

FATHER DEACON DANIEL G. DOZIER is a Byzantine Catholic deacon and director of the San Damiano Institute for Catholic Servant Leadership (SanDamianoInstitute.com). He is an associate professor of Scripture at St. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh.

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