This is part eleven of a series on the diaconate we’re calling Diakonia looking at the amazing variety of voices within the ministry of deacons by diaconal candidate Dani Gabriel
In this installment, Dani interviews Deacon Josephine Borgeson of the Diocese of Northern California
Previous Series Installments
Part 1: Living with Jesus
Part 2: Interview with Bishop Curry
Part 3: Stephen, the bicycle deacon
Part 5: Jess, the Bridge Builder
Part 6: The Rev Tracie Middleton
Part 8: Janice the Pioneer
Part 9: The Rev. Courtney Jones
Part 10: Chaplain Hal
Deacon Phina Borgeson is a firecracker. She has ideas bursting forth from her consciousness constantly. I have enjoyed working with her and being her student. Phina serves in the Russian River Deanery of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California. Her current community work centers on food system ministries and related environmental concerns, including interfaith networking and consulting. Phina earned a Master of Divinity from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and was ordained in 1974. She worked for the Diocese of Nevada, helping to pioneer the program known as Total Ministry, and then in the Diocese of Los Angeles as Christian Education Missioner. She moved to Sonoma County, California, where she now lives, in 2000, working with the Redwood Cluster for several years and consulting with other congregations and diocesan committees.
Phina was president of the North American Association for the Diaconate from 1987-1991, and served NAAD and later the Association for Episcopal Deacons on various task forces concerned with the formation and lifelong learning of deacons.
Dani: So you’re involved in a lot.
Phina: Yeah. I’ve wondered recently … I know what my motivators are in some ways. I mean, I love networking and I love learning, and I had a steep learning curve starting starting in about maybe ’07 in terms of food system issues, but it’s not so steep anymore. I don’t know any other place where you have the intersection of environmental concerns, economic concerns, and human health concerns…food system work is an intersection of all those concerns and issues…But besides the fact that I love to eat, I like to grow things and I like to cook. I mean, it just is a natural place for me to sit with an environmental background, and then the diaconal emphasis on concern for those who are poor and those who have been pushed to the margins or disparaged in some way. It’s just where I am. It may be where I die, with food system work.
One of the big challenges with gleaning programs is that you need somebody to coordinate the donors with the recipients and the volunteers. And one of the things we’ve been dreaming for is to have some money to hire some people 10 hours a week to do that in our various communities here in Sonoma County.
I’m not an organizer and I got really tired of it. And one of the things I learned in retirement is I’m a networker, which is different. I can organize and I will because very few people can and I can, but it’s not a gift because it doesn’t bring me joy to organize things. It brings me joy to be with people and to connect to people, and to have food.
Dani: Will you say a little bit more about gleaning, like explain what it is?
Phina: Yeah, sure. Gleaning’s biblical. Ruth did it and met her second husband that way. But the whole concept of gleaning is harvesting food that is post … it’s sort of economic harvest. It’s post- the harvest that is beneficial to whoever owns the farm or the orchard or the backyard fruit tree that you’re gleaning, right? And you harvest it and you deliver it to those who don’t have access to fresh produce. Now, what’s happened is it used to be in many places, and biblically, it was like, okay, so we’ve done the commercial harvest of this apple orchard, now we invite people in. But nobody does that anymore because we live in such a litigious society.
And so instead what we do is we have all these intermediaries. So when I was gleaning in Sonoma, I would make connections with the donors. I developed a cadre of volunteers. We had some equipment, which we were then storing in the shed at the church there or in my car. And we would go and glean. And then we had a network of food programs that we would deliver it to.
Dani: So can you say why is this work particularly diaconal?
Phina: Well, I think because it’s a connector for one thing, but I think more than that, I mean, you can’t belong to a community where a meal is at the center of your life and not give a damn about food, and food and community…I think there are some theological resources, and one of my concerns is that we need more theological resources…which means we need the kind of resources that can provoke theological engagement with a wide variety of faith communities.
Dani: Why did you want to become a deacon? Where did that come from?
Phina: Well, I went to seminary on a dare because I decided I wanted to … I started seminary in 1971. So I had decided that I wanted to continue my general education. The occupational paths for me, for a master’s degree, all required organic chemistry, which is something I swore I would never do. I mean, if I wanted to go to medical school: organic chemistry; if I wanted … I thought about oenology: organic chemistry. Psychiatry, oenology … I wanted to be a forest ranger and discovered in 1970 that women couldn’t be. My life has spanned that arc of all the things women couldn’t do. So I went to seminary and it really … I had a theology class in ecclesiology, which nobody does anymore, which is too bad because it’s really the theology of how we live as church and how we do ministry. And we were reading the proposed ordinal, right? And I was sitting in my room at Parsons Hall and it just leapt out at me, the phrase…”interpreting to the church the needs, hopes, and concerns of the world.” And that was it.
Now what has happened, you’ll die when I tell you this, is that I had been told if that I ever wanted to be a postulant, which I thought I did not when I started, I needed to go talk to the bishop before I started seminary. So it was Labor Day weekend of the fall that I started seminary. And I went to see Bishop Myers [Bishop of California at the time], and the commission on ministry and all that. And I said, “I don’t want to be a postulant. I’m doing this now so that if I apply for postulancy, I’ve met this requirement.”
And when the list of postulants came out, my name was on it. It was a lot easier in those days…I realized that there were theological issues and changes that were involved in women being ordained as presbyters and bishops. And I think a lot of people were campaigning for the ordination of women to the presbyter and the episcopacy, simply on a sociological curve, if you will: women need to be allowed to do this, or women feel called to do this, so we should say yes to them. And they hadn’t thought about what the changes would be in terms of the symbology and just generally the functions of the church. So I had a lot of questions about it and I particularly had questions with the irregular ordinations to the priesthood…because I was already a deacon when those happened in 1974. And I said, but they took a vow saying they’d behave, that they would obey the church tradition and canon, whatever that oath is, oath of conformity.
So I had questions about it, but everyone was so convinced that I really ought to be … I had my seminary degree and I really ought to be a priest, and all this stuff. And there were people who yelled at me because I didn’t want to be a priest.
Phina: Yeah. And I thought it’s because they can only … It was a parish priest who did that. And I thought he’s doing it because he can only understand ministry in terms of his job. And there’s so much more to ministry than being a rector.
Well, people still don’t understand that. I have talked to plenty of people who don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to be a priest, like, “Why on earth would you not want to be a priest?”
Well, there are people who’ve been lost to the church’s leadership because they didn’t want to be a parish priest, and they were in a diocese that didn’t have any other categories of understanding: oh, well maybe you could be a chaplain at a university or a hospital.
My nephew, who’s now 53 or something … Is he older than that? Anyway, when he was a young adult, he wanted to combine youth work in the church with work with youth at risk in the wider community.
And they saw this handsome, 30-year-old man and they said, “No, no. You must go to seminary and be a parish priest,” in his diocese. And so he doesn’t even go to church.
In ’76 I’d been ordained a little over two years and the legislation passed to enable women to be ordained to the priesthood and episcopacy. I had a great sense of relief. I was happy for those who felt that that’s where they were called to be. I was happy that they weren’t going to be frustrated deacons anymore, but I knew I was going to be a deacon. That just was what I was called to do. And I’ve done a lot of church work, but it’s often been with people on the margins of the church. So it’s been supporting the ministry and the laity. It’s been working with small, rural and isolated congregations. It’s been … What else? Well, the whole ministry development package is a lot of work that I’ve done.
Dani: The diaconate is changing. What is your vision?
Phina: My vision is still pretty much the same, because I don’t think we’ve ever arrived close to where my vision is, in that we need much more advocacy ministries. We need many more connective ministries. It’s not that there isn’t a place for the curative and the handholding ministries, but it’s just too easy to get stuck there or to get stuck in bureaucratic charting. And that interpretive piece is still not being done as well as it could be. And the church definitely needs a new face. And I don’t mean a new person, I mean a new way of being in the community. And I don’t know who’s going to lead that if it’s not the deacons…
And we’re abandoning some of the programs that have worked to mobilize the church in terms of having the broadest base of people in the church understand that being a Christian is a vocation and that it has community dimensions. It isn’t just about getting to church on Sunday. So in this diocese, they basically pronounced the death knell of the total ministry program. And I don’t care if they change the name, but it’s a serious transformational process for congregations to develop a broad base of leadership and ownership and not be dependent on paid ministry.
And listen, I’m one of the remaining people who invented it. So I’m a strong advocate of it. But there are other things too, like I notice we had this wave of we were going to have emergent churches, but the rectors all knew what was going to emerge, and that’s not emergent. You know what I’m saying?
Dani: Yeah, I do. I do.
Phina: So I don’t want to abandon liturgical worship that has history and tradition, but I want people to recognize that that is not the only place it happens, and that we need to be talking about…the mission of Christ, is what we need to be talking about, which is much broader than just looking to Jesus as an exemplar for activism. It’s broader and deeper, both.