This is part six 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. Tracie Middleton, Vice President of the Association for Episcopal Deacons
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
Tracie Middleton was ordained a deacon in 2009 in the Diocese of Texas, a graduate of the Iona School for Ministry. She currently serves at Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Worth and as the Vice President of the Association for Episcopal Deacons. She has a particular interest in reducing barriers to younger people choosing a vocation to the diaconate. Tracie has worked as a newspaper reporter, public relations specialist, English as a Second Language teacher, college adviser, and communications specialist, among other things. When I met her, Tracie’s excitement was contagious. She was immediately engaged, with a calm presence and an easy laugh.
Dani: What led you to become a deacon?
Tracie: Well, I’ve been kind of interested in some kind of service to the church for a while, off and on, since I was a kid. I didn’t really become a clear arrow to the diaconate until after college…I did a discernment group, and most of the folks in the discernment group were saying, “Oh, this makes a lot of sense for you. We can see that type of thing making sense for you.” I still wasn’t really sure, and even through the formation process, I think I kind of had that imposter syndrome kind of thing, where it’s like, I don’t know that I fit in here. I’m not sure. But after I got ordained, I started to see, oh. This really does make sense. There are some things that I’m able to do as somebody who’s visibly connected to the church, that weren’t really as easy when I was kind of incognito church person.
Dani: So what were some of those things?
Tracie: The instance, or the moment I suppose, when it really clicked with me, was I was serving as a chaplain for the fire department in the town where I was living. I had known the folks in the fire department for ten years prior to that, because I worked at the newspaper, and I had gotten to know them. We had talked about God, or spiritual things, every now and then. They knew that I was connected to our church, and that sort of thing. It wasn’t until I got ordained that people in the fire department sort of saw me as…a way that they could access the church officially.
Dani: Why are deacons important?
Tracie: Oh, okay. Well, there is that linking function, of connecting. I feel like deacons help connect people to the church, help connect people to God, and help connect people to each other. Especially, I feel like, deacons are really good at making bridges and links between communities that wouldn’t normally intersect. That, I feel, is really valuable, but also in their going back and forth kind of function.
I mean, I think about…the Exsultet, and the idea that the deacon is the one that makes this sort of first proclamation of Easter, where it’s like the very first sign that something has changed, or something is changing. I think that is a really powerful idea, for me, of what a deacon is. Deacons are going out to the places where…it’s not already known that there is life there, kind of a thing. Just poking around, and getting involved, and digging in the dirt. Then they might be really well placed to notice the very first signs of new life.
To say, “Oh. Here’s something poking up out of the ground. Oh my gosh, how exciting. There’s something growing here.” And then kind of run back and tell the community, “Hey! Come look over here. This is something that God is doing, and this is really cool. Let’s try to connect with it.”
Dani: What is the focus of your ministry right now?
Tracie: That is a good question. I feel like it’s starting to shift, possibly, over into things related to trauma. That’s really interesting to me right now, and I do have a little bit of background related to that, from when I served with the fire department, and that sort of thing.
I was listening to something on the radio yesterday, where they were talking about ecological grief…the sadness that people feel about losing environmental habitats. With climate change and all that sort of thing, physical places are changing drastically. Some of the attributes in those places are disappearing, and people feel grief about that, but it’s really hard to kind of figure out how to articulate that, or process it, or what to do.
I think that might be something that the church could really be helpful in coming up with. I think the Episcopal church in particular is really great at liturgy, and helping people move through spaces of transition in an orderly way that helps people to process the change that they’re going through. Also to have containers to put things that are too big.
Sometimes, one of the things that I’ve come across in some of my reading about how the body holds trauma, and how the mind processes trauma, it kind of says if you don’t really have a category for something, then you don’t really know what to do with it, and it stays sort of stuck. It’s kind of like your brain is going, “I don’t know where to put that.”
Even just the process of putting words to an experience that people are having, or to a circumstance that people are experiencing. Even just creating a category to put it in, that can be really helpful in part of the healing process. If you don’t even know what to call it, it’s hard to know to what you might do about it, or what you could even pray about it, or ask related to it. I don’t even know what it is.
I think deacons are out there on the edges of things and running across people struggling with stuff that is maybe not already labeled. I was listening to something on the radio yesterday, too, about these two guys that were part of starting the hospital unit at San Francisco General that was specifically dedicated to patients with AIDS in the early eighties. They’re just talking about the life cycle of that hospital wing, and how people were trying to figure out what is even going on here? What is this? We don’t have a name for it.
I think deacons could play a part in helping identify things that the church needs to respond to or could respond to.
Dani: How did the young deacons group start?
Tracie: In 2015 there were a few younger deacons who attended the triennial gathering in Minneapolis. There were, I think, six or seven of us who made it. In the process of meeting each other, we were trying to figure out how can we mobilize? We had met for lunch, and we had talked about what are some of the barriers to younger people choosing the diaconate as a vocation.
We came up with a list of several that we had experienced, or that we had witnessed other people experience. Then we had a workshop the following day where a lot of other people came, and in that workshop we tried to brainstorm some solutions to some of those barriers. One of the ideas that came up that somebody…came up with, was, hey, we should form a task force, so that we have some kind of structure to keep working on these topics. I mean, we’ve identified lots of things, and brainstormed a lot of potential things to do about them, so maybe creating something structurally would keep our momentum going.
The Facebook group was something that we did while we were standing around in the lobby. We took a little group photo, because one of the things that we had identified as a barrier was, I mean, most people probably have never met a younger deacon, or even know that they might exist. One of those things that we thought we could more quickly do, is just take some pictures of ourselves and put them up on the web, and say like, “Look! Here’s the deacons.” So they can be young, you know, that’s a possibility.
Then we thought we could make a Facebook group, and that way people could connect to it remotely, or virtually, and even if, because our experience has been none of those of us who were there at that meeting had ever met another young deacon. By that time, I had been ordained already for seven years, and I hadn’t ever met another deacon that was within 20 years of my age. That was the experience of everybody else too, so we were like, “How can we make it less likely that newer people coming into the deaconate have to wait such a long time to meet a peer?” We thought a Facebook group might be a super easy thing to do. It’s grown quite a bit, and people are connecting on there and engaging a lot with each other, so it’s really exciting to see that.
Dani: Two questions. How many folks on the Facebook group, and how many young deacons are in the Episcopal church?
Tracie: Not everybody on the Facebook group is in the category of young, but they’re all trying to be supportive to younger folks. A lot of the people that are on there are young. 153.
And then how many young deacons in the Episcopal church? At the last count, the last time that we pulled that data, which was maybe a few months ago, it was fewer than twenty in the entire Episcopal church who were under the age of 45.
Dani: You know what’s kind of amazing? Based on my experience at this triennial, we could almost double that in a few years.
Tracie: I know, isn’t that great?
Dani: That’s pretty phenomenal. So what do you think is the key to recruiting more young deacons, in your opinion?
Tracie: I don’t know that I’ve distilled it down to a single thing. One of the big things is just asking them. You know? That’s part of it, but I think there is, realistically, there is an opportunity cost in accepting a non-stipendiary position. Especially when economics are kind of not real strong at the moment, and so I think it’s a challenge for people to contemplate that kind of a role. One of the things that I think would be really important is to come up with some creative structures for people to be able to do diaconal work, and also potentially connect it to something that will allow them to make a living.
A lot of people have a totally unrelated job as their day job, and then they do their deacon work on a volunteer basis. Some people have a somewhat related job that they’re paid for during the week. I just think that might be one thing that … that would be a little bit of a more difficult challenge to work on, but I mean, I think there could be a lot of potential creative solutions.
One of the really important things for recruiting is for younger people who might have a call to the diaconate, or an interest in work that’s basically diaconal, is to have some way of running across someone who is a deacon. Whether that’s online, in a video, something that’s written in a blog, just some kind of account or image of a deacon that they can more directly identify themselves with; and see themselves in some of those images. Say, “Oh, yeah. That’s kind of like me. Maybe that’s what I am, or who I am, or what I should do.”
If you don’t have very many images, or very many versions, of a deacon to encounter, then it might be a lot harder to realize that there’s a connection between the things that you’re passionate about, and the things that a deacon might do.
If you see a lot of representations of a lot of different kind of deacons, then I think it would be a lot easier to encounter one of those images that really resonates, and then maybe start to explore that question for yourself. Maybe that’s what I’m called to.
Dani: What is your vision for the diaconate in the next ten years?
Tracie: Well, I would really love to see deacons out in the world, in the church, doing the things that they do, but trying new things, and inventing stuff that maybe hasn’t existed before in response to the needs that they’re encountering, now that they’re empowered by the church to go out into the world, and say, “What’s going on out there? Come back and tell us about it.” I would really love to hear what kinds of things deacons would get a vision for, that they could call the church to respond to.
Also, people who are really in touch with different communities, because there’s lots of subcultures, and that’s one of the things that I think is really exciting about the idea that deacons go out into the world, and they build bridges back to the church from the places that they hang out in. I don’t know. Some of the things that are exciting to me to imagine in the next ten years are like, to empower people who are passionate about connecting people with God. To have the authority to build those sorts of bridges back into the church from the places where they already hang out. Then the church might more directly be linked to lots of new places.
Dani: What is your favorite part about being a deacon?
Tracie: I love having conversations with people about things that are really, deeply, important to them. I think sometimes that, you know, when I was a newspaper reporter, that type of job also gave you sort of a license to be curious about things, sort of an automatic “okay” for people to talk to you. I think, in some ways, being a deacon, or being a visible church representative, gives people permission to talk to you about things that really matter to them. That’s important.
I also like … as far as liturgically, my favorite thing to do is read the gospel. I love to read the gospel, because part of my background is as an English major, and I really like poetry. I think the language in so much of the bible is just really beautiful, and I love having the privilege to interpret that with my voice, and just to try to make the story a little more accessible by voicing it in a way that people can more easily understand what’s happening in the story.
I’ll just add this other story in case I haven’t told you this part before, because it was really helpful to me, in thinking, “Oh, maybe I could be a deacon.” I went to this discernment conference in Diocese of Texas, when Diocese of Texas was just starting to create their vocational diaconate program. People were asking questions about “what are deacons,” and “what would that be like?” Somebody asked, “What do deacons do?” And Mary McGregor, she’s one of the canons in Diocese of Texas, I just loved her response, because she said, “Well…we feel like we know what deacons are, and so we need to find some, and ordain them, and then watch what they do, and then we’ll know what deacons do.”
Dani: That’s so great.
Tracie: Yeah. It’s like, we need to find some deacons, empower them to do their thing, and then watch them, and see what they do. And that will tell us what deacons do.
That was such a powerful statement to me, and so empowering. I was like, “Oh.” I mean, it could be anything.
Dani Gabriel is a poet, writer, and teacher. Dani is a Candidate for the Diaconate in the Episcopal Diocese of California, aspiring to ordination and service in the church and community. Dani is the current Poet Laureate of El Cerrito, CA. Learn more about their work at www.allthepossible.com.