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A 40-year deacon shares his thoughts about what it takes

Oct. 11, 2017

By Deacon Fred Oberst
Ordained Oct. 4, 1980Oberst

When new deacons by the thousands across the country become ordained they begin their real education.  New men who were not yet as fortunate to become deacons may continue their arduous journey from layman to become ordained.  In both cases, some will be highly successful and some will not. 

What differentiates those who reach the pinnacle and those who struggle?

The path to becoming an exceptional deacon is not automatic.  Deacon leadership is not randomly assigned simply because an individual has a degree or because he has invested the time and gained seniority. 

The skill set that defines a successful deacon is different from that of an accomplished pastor, different from a graduate with a high grade point average, different from most anyone else in the world of Roman Catholic Clergy.

To be a deacon, a really exceptional deacon requires a breadth of knowledge, that spans the gamut from a full understanding of ministry, a heart that cares beyond a single cause, a broad biblical knowledge of church history and practice, a psychologist’s understanding of what makes people tick, a keen eye on current events, an ability to deliver prayers to suit countless environments and needs, the communication skills of a TED presenter, and the business savvy of a company CEO.

With this in mind, the ordained deacon or member of a formation program is faced with developing a path to his future.  This will take a significant amount of planning, a methodical timeline, and loads of hard work.
But make no mistake – anyone with the foundational skills, the desire, the determination, and the right path - can reach the goal of becoming an exceptional deacon.

So, what are the stops along the way to becoming an exceptional deacon?  This is a partial list from observations of deacons who are truly exceptional at what they do.

Have patience
The first rule of thumb in developing your way to become an exceptional deacon is to understand that reaching your goal will take time. 

To the newly ordained, your ordination is the price of admission.  It will, and should take years before you are ready to take on the role of exceptional deacon. 

To the graduates of the school of hard knocks – you are on a level playing field with graduate scholars as long as your way to the goal reflects what your current training lacks.

Align yourself with the best
A common denominator of very successful deacons (this is almost 100% true of everyone that I know) has included working with the very best clerics. 

There may be only one skill from another’s bag of tricks that you want to assimilate, but working without aligning yourself with that individual, your skill set will be lacking. 

Know who these individuals are, research why they are successful, make contact and humbly ask for the opportunity to learn from them.        

Seek to learn something new
Look at every day as an opportunity to add something important to your toolbox.  It might not always involve religion, but rather a chance to learn something important about people management, cultural influences, business management, current events, famous people, geography, language, even political influence on our faith.  Don’t waste any opportunity to learn and grow.

Experience other cultures
You might say that you can’t afford to travel.  Your way to become an exceptional deacon requires that you find a way.   There are countless superb places and opportunities to learn from coast to coast and abroad.  If you have solid foundational skills, there are always opportunities to join an educational tour group.  Those same opportunities may not exist in your hometown. 

Moving is scary and challenging, but invigorating at the same time.  You can always return to your roots at a later date. 

Be daring – seek opportunities to work with a diverse team of religious groups.  This cultural immersion will help to build your skills and, even more importantly, your understanding of other people. 

Dorothy Day, with no intention of being a saint, lived with the poorest of the poor when she oversaw Catholic Worker Houses in the Archdiocese of New York.  Matthew Kelly, best- selling author, brings witness to the power of God’s Mercy in “Beautiful Mercy” an invitation to rediscover God’s unconditional love so you can share it with others.

Re-discover your heritage
To a degree, you serve best from an understanding of your heritage.  Take the time to discover where you came from, where your relatives called home.  What did religion mean to them, how they worshiped and the connections to their location and your family values?

Give more than you receive
From my informal study, exceptional deacons are generous with their time, and when they are able, with their money.  Start early on by offering your time and expertise to others who might benefit.  This giving attitude is what allows you and others to grow professionally and personally as well as spiritually.

Study the successful, passionate
Don’t limit your education to the study of deacons, priests and Religious.  What can you learn from other successful people about dealing with others, running a business, dealing with The Church, negotiating, communicating with different groups, writing articles, or training your peers?

Find those people you admire for their skills and dig into their methods.

If you associate with energetic, passionate, focused, and hard-working individuals you will find a constant source of inspiration and drive.  Associate with people who make you work with a renewed level of determination.

If you don’t know, found it out
There is no excuse anymore.  If you do not know the answer to a question,  then do the research.  When you find inspirational people to emulate read about them.  If you want to increase your vocabulary and in turn your ability to effectively communicate with others. then read anything and everything.  Read fiction, non-fiction, church history, bible studies, journals, magazines, newspapers, studies and reports – anything and everything.

Great deacons understand that they can never know everything and others may very well have the answer that they are looking for.  Listen to employers, employees, friends, adversaries, church experts, and Sunday visitors. Good listeners are better decision makers.

Work harder than others
Be the example to others in ministry – always.  Your parish team will work hard to emulate what they see in you.  You will get ahead by demonstrating how important work ethic is to success.

Work smarter
At the same time you don’t want to waste your time or lose sight of your unique skill set.

Spending 15 minutes every day helping out the secretary or the maintenance staff is a great investment in teambuilding.  Spending more time each day at this task is a failure to understand that your skill set is needed elsewhere. 

Delegate, teach, train, critique and demonstrate how to improve, inspire and recognize if you want to be an exceptional deacon.

Learn something new
Early on and even later in your ministry – taking a step back and working with a peer or an accomplished deacon or even a new candidate, deacon in a formation program is time well spent.  Working for short stints for the sheer fun of it, to focus on learning a particular skill or even a new ministry is something that even the most accomplished deacon can benefit from.

Never forget where you began
As you travel down your roadmap in the position of deacon, always remember how hard it is to be an exceptional deacon and how others preparing to start as you did will need your support, patience, and encouragement.

Check your ego at the door
Now that you are a deacon, whether it was a path that took a few years or a lifetime, no matter how hard you worked to get to this point, regardless of the obstacles that came your way, and in spite of the massive number of skills that are part of your toolbox – you are only effective as a deacon if you respect everyone else for who they are and where they are.

Be proud of what you have accomplished but leave those inflated egos at the door.  Leaders need followers who are willing and excited about doing just that – following.

No one has any interest in succumbing to a person who feels that they are more important than anyone else.

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