This is part five 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 The Rev. Jess Elfring Roberts of the Diocese of Chicago
Previous Series Installments
Part 1: Living with Jesus
Part 2: Interview with Bishop Curry
Part 3: Stephen, the bicycle deacon
The Rev. Jess Elfring Roberts is talking to me with a four-year-old yelling in the background. She is a deacon in Chicago. She wants to be that bridge between young people who see themselves left out of the church and the church as she knows it to be: empowering, supportive, and liberating. When Jess was 15, she met her first deacon at summer camp. The deacon didn’t talk down to the high schoolers and supported them in a genuine way. Jess thought “I want to be like that.” She got more connected in the church. At 26 she was ordained a deacon. Her ministry now is to support young people in exploring their faith and to welcome LGBTQ+ people into the church.
I spoke with the rector at Church of Our Saviour in Chicago where Jess serves and he shared “Since 1985, the Diocese of Chicago has been, I think, a national leader in re-nurturing the vocational diaconate. Back then I was brand new to the diocese but the then-bishop, whose name was Jim Montgomery, asked every parish to do a reflection on how the diaconate might be restored within that congregation. So it was one of my first tasks as a young priest and curate to work on the diaconate, so it’s been exciting over the years to watch the diaconate truly re-emerge into the life of the church. I very much consider it an absolutely equal order with bishops, priests and lay people. I loved that it was a deacon who had modeled this kind of ministry to Jess, and that this was who Jess had then gone on to become.”
Dani: All right. So you told me a little bit about this, but what drew you, specifically, to the diaconate?
Jess: When I was growing up, I went on this youth event, this diocesan youth event called Happening. It’s like a Friday to Sunday retreat that’s led by high schoolers for high schoolers and it’s done by the Episcopal Church. And there was a woman, who I [at first] thought was a priest, who was there. She was a really good listener and she was doing her ministry with young people. And I had heard she was a deacon. I was like, I don’t know what that is, but I want to do that. Because I saw the way she treated high schoolers with respect and like they’re human beings and not children, and that resonated with me. Growing up I served as an acolyte and I loved doing that. We didn’t have a deacon and so I actually got to set the table at my church. And I kind of liked being the behind-the-scenes kind of person, making sure things got taken care of.
And then after I came out, I was struggling with the church and with my relationship to it, but I still believed in God. I finally realized that I needed to change my mindset, that God didn’t need to fix me [or change] who I am. I realized through conversations I would have with friends that a lot of people have been turned away from the church who were under the queer spectrum somewhere and they needed someone to listen to them and talk about their faith. And I ended up just being that person and I felt like there was a ministry there that just kind of happened.
It turns out that a lot of young people, a lot of teenagers, who are struggling with their identity, especially if they’re in the LBGTQ community [need that]. So for me, just being able to be sort of the person in between the church and the world, it says that “You are welcome here and you are beloved,” has really drawn me in.
Dani: So what will it take to make the church truly welcoming?
Jess: That is such a great question and it’s something I think every single church talks about. I’ve spent a lot of time visiting churches and everybody says “We’re really great at welcoming.” And I would disagree with that. It starts with when you walk in the door. Someone saying, “Hello.” And people know within, I’d say, the first five minutes, if they want to come back to that church. Sometimes even before the service has even started.
I think that many churches are good once you’ve come a couple of times. But if somebody’s walking through the doors who’s a stranger, who doesn’t know anything, it’s a big step to walk into a church. They’re looking for something. And to be welcoming is to be at that door welcoming those people in, asking them questions: if they’ve ever been at church, if they need help. And then following up with them. Inviting them to coffee or talk with them.
A lot of people only see their friends at church every Sunday so they really want to catch up with their friends, which is great, and we should do that. However, if somebody’s taken the courage to step through those doors, who doesn’t know anyone, we really want to be welcoming to them. And I think we fall short there a lot.
Dani: What has been a challenge for you, being a deacon?
Jess: When I was preparing for ordination, they were asking me all these questions and I thought they were going to give me a hard time about being gay, and that’s not what they gave me a hard time about, it was that I was young. I was ordained when I was 26 and, to my knowledge, was the youngest vocational deacon in the church. And so for me it was hard to find peers that were like me because I was the only one.
I think deacons sometimes walk a lonely road. And it was hard for me because I didn’t really have anybody that was around my age – not that I don’t connect with people of all ages. But it’s getting easier. There’re more young people that are getting drawn to the diaconate and it’s fun to be able to be there to support them. Because it was hard. People kept saying, “Why don’t you go experience life before you get ordained?” And I thought, “why can’t I do both?” So that’s been a challenge. But it’s exciting now to see more young people. I think we’re making it easier to become a deacon, especially with people who aren’t your cookie cutter typical elderly white person who has got lots of money and can volunteer their time because they’re retired, and they don’t need to worry about it. So, you know, age.
Dani: Yeah. It’s funny because I am having the same experience, even though I’m older. I’m 41, not 26, but in my diocese, I’m the youngest person by a lot. So I’m having that experience also.
Jess: Yeah. I’m 33 now and I’m still the youngest. But a friend of mine, she’s 34 or 35, [has become a deacon] and so that’s kind of fun to have somebody [in my age group].
When you think about it, when you’re in the training, you have to go to school. Sometimes a three-year program. You have to pay for it. You have to do CPE and all of this stuff. And it makes it very hard to do if you have a full-time job. There’s a lot of obstacles in the way. Our diocese had a school and it met on the weekends. And there was a guy who was in school with me who had a job on the weekends and he almost lost his job because he wanted to do the school and work. They’ve changed a lot of it now so that we can work with people individually to figure out what works best for them with schooling, but it’s taken a long time to do that.
Dani: It seems like you have been a part of that process.
Jess: Yes. The Bishop formed a group two years ago to look at the diaconate. Basically we went to the canons and we started there and [evaluated] the process. We don’t have an archdeacon. We have a group of seven … which is kind of funny. I like the seven deacons … that oversee different aspects of the diaconate in the diocese. So there’s a person who works on people in the process, there’s a person who works on formation for people who are also in the process. There’s a person who works with relationship building, with the deacon and the priest and the community. There’s a person who just works with outreach, so figuring out what all the deacons and ministries are and how we can help each other. It’s not perfect but it’s getting better. We have 22 people in the process right now.
Jess: Yeah. And I really think it’s because we’ve started to make it an individualized process. And people still go on retreat together, so there’s some community building. But there’s lots of people who have felt called but were constrained by what [the process used to be].
Dani: So what has been a joy for you, being a deacon?
Jess: Many things. I love working with young people. Trying to give back to them [something] of how I found my way and my relationship with God. I get to live out my ministry daily. I work at a high school. I’m a high school theater teacher. And I can’t talk about God and Jesus, I have to actually live it out, you know, being a public-school teacher. So that’s been a lot of fun, being there for young people daily. And then also this parish is wonderful. I have the unique opportunity at our 9:00 service to be the leader of that service…Our 7:45 service, it’s very typical spoken-word service, and then our 10:45 is very typical organ choir and the deacon’s roles are very traditional there. But at this 9:00 service, Brian, our rector, named me the lead pastor of that service because of my work with families and young people. So it’s been really great to get to work with a lot of those kids I’ve known since they were little, and now I’m doing a confirmation class [with them], and I teach junior-high Sunday school. [A lot of these] kids I’ve known since they were little and so it’s a very unique opportunity to be able to serve them in that way.
Dani: I think that’s interesting that you are seeing serving the youth as bridging the church and the world. I think that’s really unique. I think a lot of people think it’s one or the other. Like, you either have a ministry with youth within the church, or you’re active in the world.
Jess: The church is dying, you know, and we need to rethink things. I think it starts with welcoming, which is a huge piece of it. So how do we bridge that gap between the world and the church. And that’s our job as deacons. So I have two ministries but they both have to do with youth. I get to do one out in the world and one here. A lot of my kids at school go to church and they come and talk to me or they’ll ask me questions, so that’s a really unique opportunity, as well. Yeah, it’s pretty cool.
Dani: It’s really cool. All right. So I have one last question that you touched on a little bit when you talked about the process that you went through and the diocese around the diaconate. But what is your vision for a changing diaconate in a changing world and a changing church? With all this change, what do you want to see happen with the diaconate?
Jess: I would love to see two deacons at every parish. Young, old, all different colors, all different walks of life, different socio-economic [backgrounds], who can reach all different groups of people. My ministry and my style of being a deacon does not work for everybody. I’m a lot more laid back and I go with the flow and some people don’t like that. They like their schedules and all that and that’s fine. How cool would it be to have ministers who are out in the world and in the church, talking about what’s going on in real life? And saying, like, “What can we actually do about this as a church?” And saying, “We need to do something about this in the church.”
You know, in Chicago we have gun violence happening. It’s happening every day to young people. So I’m making our church aware of it. And it’s hard because we’re in Lincoln Park and [people say], “Oh, well, that doesn’t happen here.” Well, it’s like, “Well, then, who’s your neighbor?” Because it’s happening a mile away and we’re not paying attention. So having more voices, more deacons of all walks of life, to be able to minister to the different [people] that come in our doors. Not everybody’s going to resonate with your rector, or if you have an assistant priest. Not everyone’s going to resonate with me. And so it would just be really cool to have a team of people doing that work.
Dani: Is there anything I’ve missed that you want to talk about?
Jess: Being a deacon…you’re not limited like you are as a priest. A deacon can be out there. I can go out. I did the March for Our Lives. I went down to DC and did that. If I was a priest in a church, I would have to find a sub and do all of that. It’s just this unique view of the church and the world that I think is so amazing. People just don’t understand until they’ve met a deacon, or they’ve read about a deacon. And I feel special that I get to be a part of that ministry every day.