The psychology of the transitional diaconate II

This is the second of a two-part article. It was originally published in Vol. 31, # 4 of Diakoneo, the journal of the North American Association for the Diaconate (NAAD) and is reprinted with permission.

By Pamela McAbee Nesbit

There is a psychological explanation for why otherwise knowledgeable and sophisticated people become sentimental and careless in their thinking when they talk about the transitional diaconate. The explanation is that they are trying to reduce cognitive dissonance, an experience that comes about when a people behave in ways that do not fit their values or their sense of themselves. The ordination to the transitional diaconate has put every ordinand to the priesthood in exactly that situation. Every priest in the Episcopal Church has stood before a bishop at the examination for diaconal ordination and answered, “I believe I am so called” to the question “My brother or sister, do you believe that you are truly called by God and his church to the life and work of a deacon?” The 1928 Prayer Book used somewhat different language, but included the requirement that the ordinand say that he believes he is “truly called” to the ministry of a deacon. This is a requirement that has been fulfilled by every priest and bishop in the Episcopal Church, despite the fact that our priests are neither called nor trained to be deacons. I have been a member of the Commission on Ministry of the Diocese of Pennsylvania for over 10 years. In my time there, I have never seen any nominee for the priesthood examined for his or her call to the diaconate.

For those who have successfully completed the rigorous and lengthy requirements to become a priest to find themselves standing before a bishop in a solemn ceremony in which they are asked if they are “truly called” to the life and work of a deacon must be disconcerting in the extreme. What are they supposed to say? If they say “No, I’m not called to be a deacon, I’m called to be a priest” they will not be allowed to become a priest. This liturgical requirement of the Church puts ordinands to the priesthood in the position of either saying something they know to be untrue – that they are truly called to be deacon – or of finding a way to make it true. “Yes, I am truly called to be a deacon because I like the thought of being a deacon, or because the diaconate will teach me to be a servant.’ or “Yes, I am truly called to be a deacon because it will give me an understanding of my priestly ministry that I hold precious even as I am seen by the people in the church as what I am – a priest – not a deacon.”

Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling that people have when there is an inconsistency between what they believe and how they behave. For persons called to be priests, for whom liturgy is profoundly meaningful, to knowingly speak an untruth in an ordination ceremony creates enormous cognitive dissonance. Social psychological theory and research predicts that in the face of cognitive dissonance people will unconsciously change their beliefs in order to make the dissonance disappear. They will rationalize – which means they will construct a logical justification for their belief. But, because they are motivated by the desire to believe what reduces the dissonance, the quality of their thinking will be reduced. They are less likely to take all the facts into account. And they will not be willing to engage in real and thorough discussion of the issue about which they are rationalizing.

What I am suggesting is that the reason we continue to have a transitional diaconate, long after it makes any sense to do so, is because every new priest is forced to deal with the cognitive dissonance created by their diaconal ordination and particularly by that part of the examination that requires them to state that they are “truly called” to be deacons. The transitional diaconate is sustaining itself through its own liturgy and especially by the discomfort it creates in the hearts of ordinands required to affirm a call that is not theirs. I believe that if we had a generation of priests who were not required to be ordained as deacons, the arguments for the transitional diaconate would melt away very quickly as the rationalizations they are.

It takes courage to overcome cognitive dissonance. People have to learn to tolerate the discomfort so they can think clearly about the issue that is causing it. Cognitive dissonance tends to lead people to be stuck in patterns of behavior that don’t make much sense. That is how I see the Church at this time about this issue. I believe that part of the call of the deacons of the Episcopal Church is to gently but inexorably challenge the pious fiction of the transitional diaconate and help the church become the whole, organic body of Christ, called in baptism and living out our servant ministry in Jesus’ name.

The Rev. Deacon Pamela McAbee Nesbit, Ph.D. is president-elect of NAAD, organizer of the upcoming Diaconal Assembly and a deacon at Church of the Holy Nativity, Wrightstown, PA.

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