This is part nine 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. Courtney Jones of the Diocese of Northwest Texas
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
The Rev. Courtney Jones is a deacon in Amarillo, TX. When I met her we immediately started talking about the dogs in our lives. Courtney and her wife, Michele England, have two large dogs and one cat she describes as “very patient.” Courtney is passionate about her work as a teacher at a residential facility for youth. The way she talks about her work lets you know that she is a skilled advocate as well as instructor. Ordained in 2018, Courtney serves St. Andrew’s Episcopal church along with five other deacons, in a unique formation that offers a possible model to other dioceses and congregations.
Dani: What drew you to the diaconate?
Courtney: Actually I was asked to pursue being a deacon and that kind of got a ball rolling that had been present in my young life as a kid when I was raised Southern Baptist. When I was in seventh grade, I told my youth minister that I thought that I was called to some sort of ministry, which if you’re a woman and Southern Baptist and you say you’re called the ministry that means either children’s ministry or you’re going to be a missionary. And so you know, neither of those things particularly appealed to me. But to my youth minister’s credit he did try to make sure that I was exposed to some of those opportunities you know. And then when I got back into church as an adult in the Episcopal Church it was something that kind of, I don’t know there was just something about watching what the deacons did that said hey maybe that’s it. And then one day the now rector told me hey you really need to consider discerning for the diaconate and so that kind of brought the pieces together.
You know, I actually had a canon to the ordinary ask me when I came in for my first discernment interview almost an identical question. He said, “What is it about what the deacons do up there that interests you.” And I said, “what do you mean by up there?” And he said well you know up at the altar and such, and I told him nothing that they do up at the altar interests me. I said it’s what they do outside of the church that interests me.
Dani: What is different about being a deacon than you thought it would be?
Courtney: How much people expect you to be a priest is the thing that has surprised me the most. You know, they either expect you to be about to be ordained priest, like “hey when is your next ordination?” that kind of thing. But they also sort of expect you to act in those same roles…I think that you can be a deacon in so many different ways…It turns out that I like words and I enjoy putting them together and I studied writing and I enjoy preaching. So does that make me a priest?… I realize [now] there is room at a pulpit for a deacon’s voice. There is a certain style of preaching…that is diaconal preaching and is needed and called for from time to time.
Dani: That’s great. So tell me about the way deacons in your diocese work together.
Courtney: So in our diocese we meet together relatively frequently. We meet once a year and have our own conference and then we also see each other at conventions. So twice a year all of us are together. But in my particular context [five of us] are all assigned to the same parish. Everybody who’s from around here. Amarillo is kind of the big city in the Panhandle…
We split up responsibilities for being at the liturgy here. So on any given Sunday morning there will be one or two of us serving at the table and then there will be one of us doing supply officiating at the parish across town and then sometimes there is also one of us doing supply officiating at a small town about 50 miles from here…We’re a hub.
If there are small parishes who can’t afford to have a full time priest and there’s not a supply priest available then they can ask to have one of the deacons come over to administer the reserve sacrament and preach. And so on any given Sunday that’s what we’re all doing and you know, we meet and we talk and we always try to include each other as much as we can. Like if the bishop is going to be here, we’ll find absurd ways, absurd reasons for needing all five deacons [at] the altar.
And then each of us has a different ministry focus area that we attend to in the parish life…My ministry right now is the youth and we’ve…kind of done a diaconal focus with the youth for the past couple of years. Their youth-specific service is called Youth First Sunday and it’s a service Sunday. And so they come in [during] what would normally be the Sunday school hour. And we have morning prayer and worship together. And I usually do a sermon with that service and then I have some sort of service project set up for them to do during the time when their parents are at the Eucharistic service.
We have another deacon who recruits people to the flower guild and to our hospitality group. And so he makes sure that every time we have a funeral or a wedding or a Sunday service that the church has been beautified and that you know there are flowers there are refreshments. There are those sorts of things. He also coordinates our breakfast ministries. We have an industrial kitchen here and we cook a buffet style breakfast for every Sunday. And so that the parishioners can fellowship together but also so that we can feed our homeless friends who come in usually hungry because on the weekends, on Sunday specifically, our local [social] services are almost all shut down.
We have a deacon who coordinates a lot of our pastoral care ministries and lay Eucharistic visits. So she’s you know keeping track of who’s in the hospital and in hospice and who is home-bound and making sure that they are visited by lay persons from the parish who are Eucharistic visitors…She doesn’t necessarily take it on herself, she trains and enables people to go do that ministry.
We have another deacon who runs a group called Community Company and they do a somewhat related thing but this is for people in the parish who are struggling for whatever reasons. And then we also have the Archdeacon, and he is mostly involved at the diocesan level but also coordinates [where each deacon will be].
Dani: You’ve got really great coverage going there.
Courtney: We do…we’re all involved, getting parishioners out into the world, which is what deacons do. But you know we also then have secular jobs. And to a person, almost, those jobs are also…living our faith in the world.
Dani: Tell me a story about something you worked on together?
Courtney: So…there are two of us who are on this open and affirming congregation board and it’s an ecumenical gathering of LGBT inclusive churches. We just want to make sure that everybody in the LGBTQ community has a place to worship. And so like it’s cool if they want to go to the Presbyterian church but we want to be the ones that help them get there.
That’s kind of a thing that we work on together. So in the context of that, we have been able to get our community involved in some events that they’re not traditionally involved in. Like we got the parishioners this year to go to the Trans Day of Visibility March which is the first one we’ve ever had in Amarillo, Texas. [It’s a] very conservative area of the country. And you know our trans brothers and sisters were telling us that they were kind of afraid to do the march, and would the OAC bring some people…Our parish turned out 50 people. We ended up being like half of the march, which was great.
We got two more Episcopal churches to be involved in that group. So the group has grown from six churches to nine churches since we’ve been involved in it together. And so you know part of that, is we have a relationship with these other parishes because we’re going there. So we were able to present [it] to their vestries. And so we’ve been able to help that organization grow…through our relationships with the other parishes.
Dani: That is very cool how that ends up working.
Courtney: Having all these deacons together has kind of taught me that deacons are really evangelism officers because I think when the church is being the church, people are attracted to the church. So when we are going out and making an effort to make sure that people have safe spaces to be themselves, that people have safe spaces to worship regardless of whether or not it’s our space, [we’re] living into our calling [and that] really is the kind of evangelism that deacons are capable of, and deacons are capable of spearheading.
I think that this is the time. We don’t have to really do anything differently to be evangelists. Part of our whole calling is to train lay people to be the church and to…help them find what it is that is their vocation you know.
And when we start doing that the world is changed by it. I mean I grew up Southern Baptist, so for us evangelism was like, you need to go hand out this many tracts at the Fourth of July parade…or you need to knock on this many doors and invite this many people to church. And whereas those things ARE a form of evangelism, I think this is the time for this diaconal form of evangelism.
Because so many people see absolutely no reason to be involved in a church because it’s like “well what is the church doing anyway?” There are some people who don’t see the purpose of church and don’t really see purpose at all in life. You know, we have this kind of existential crisis in our generation, and the one after us you know post Christian, post faith…whatever. I think now is the time that if we have people who are doing purposeful living, and they’re loving God and they’re loving their neighbors, that is a much deeper form of evangelism than the one I grew up with and a much more effective one for the time in which we’re living.
Dani: What is your vision for the diaconate?
Courtney: So I would really love to see that the diaconate grow. I really do believe that what the world needs now is deacons. I think deacons are such important bridge people between the church and the world. You know, obviously as a Christian there’s a reason that I come to this building, that I come to the church. I’m spiritually fed here. I find family here et cetera. The church feeds me, following Christ has centered my life, has given my life purpose.
But if you are not a person who is inclined to walk through the doors of the church the deacon can bring the door to you. And I think Tracie Middleton was the one who first used that analogy, that the deacon sort of takes the door off the jam and takes it out into their life so that people can walk through the doors of the church without having to get to the parking lot. It’s one of those things where you’re starting to lower the threshold energy that it takes to involve people in that sort of community.
Obviously getting people to church is not my primary concern. You know, I think that we’re supposed to be building the Kingdom of God and building the Kingdom of God does not necessarily look like you your average Sunday attendance going up. Right. Building the Kingdom of God looks like people getting fed, and it looks like people being visited in jail, and it looks like people having their bail posted for them, and it looks like people being liberated from cages on the border, and the Kingdom of God looks like radical hospitality and radical inclusivity and people truly caring for their neighbors and so I think that deacons have such an opportunity at this moment to step into a void that’s been left by so many people migrating away from the church.
You know, deacons can be everywhere, so if we have more deacons now [the church is] everywhere.