serving together

Canada: Order of Diaconal Ministries, The Presbyterian Church in Canada

Designation to the Order of Diaconal Ministries signifies the church’s confirmation of Christ’s call to the individual  to this form of Christian service. Designation takes place when the individual has completed successfully the church’s candidacy process, and has been offered and has accepted a call to diaconal ministry.

The standard educational pathway for ordained or diaconal ministry in the PCC is a university undergraduate degree followed by a Masters of Ministry (M.Div) degree from a theological college of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

(Source document: mcv_together_in_ministry)
The Presbyterian Church in Canada has always been engaged in diaconal ministry, particularly through the service of its lay women. In the 1870s and 1880s women missionaries had been sent overseas to do work with women with whom male missionaries were not allowed to mingle. Realizing the need to train women for this overseas work, the Ewart Missionary Training Home was established by the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society in 1897. Its mandate was:
1. to provide special training for young women who are looking forward to foreign missionary work;
2. to afford opportunity of judging by kind and careful oversight as to the physical, mental and spiritual fitness of candidates to enter upon the trials and responsibilities of foreign missionary life.7
By 1907 requests concerning this training reached the General Assembly through overtures from the Presbytery of Toronto and the Synod of Manitoba. The following year the committee reporting on this issue recommended “that the Assembly sanction the institution of the Order of Deaconesses for The Presbyterian Church in Canada.”8 The report mentioned an increasing demand in the church “for the consecrated service of Christian women” for both the foreign field and for mission in Canada. Thus, the Order of Diaconal Ministries (Deaconesses) was organized as a means of giving official denominational recognition and structure
to the work that women were already doing.
Much of the work of the deaconesses in Canada was to aid immigrants, organize charity work in congregations, nurse in remote hospitals and teach in pioneer schools. In the 1930s, social agencies developed and assumed much of the work of the deaconesses and the church. The deaconess’ role shifted to preparing and leading bible studies with children, youth and adults in the congregation. “Many were also called to start ministry in rural areas where they might be the only representative of any church, even conducting worship in areas where there were no ministers.”9 Diversity of deaconess work continued throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Deaconesses who worked in congregations visited the sick and shut-ins, assisted in church school and other organizations in the church, participated in any welfare programs carried out by the congregation, and did secretarial work, which included maintaining the roll of the congregation. Those who were employed in a presbytery did “van work”, travelling to isolated congregations and small communities with no church building, where they visited in homes, conducted services of worship, and led Christian education, where permitted, in government schools. Alternatively, they served as hospital visitors, church extension workers, port workers, downtown workers (including counselling and contacts with social work agencies) and institutional workers. Other deaconesses worked at the synod or national level in the church, in interdenominational positions, or overseas in education, social work, medical or student work.
Since the Ewart Missionary Training Home was established in 1897, the school continued to be a major part of the training for deaconess work in The Presbyterian Church in Canada. In 1969 the primary focus of Ewart College, as it was then known, was changed to provide specialized training in Christian education.
Two factors contributing to this change were:
1. the request of congregations for graduates to give leadership in Christian education;
2. the continual professional developments in the Christian education field.
This major change in the Ewart curriculum had a significant impact on the qualifications the next generation of Ewart graduates brought to their role as deaconesses. “The graduating deaconesses were no longer generalists with some training in a variety of forms of Christian service. This was a significant departure from previous practice and one that changed the role of the deaconess to that of Christian educator almost exclusively.”10 Although most active diaconal ministers held responsibilities in the area of Christian education, some others served in hospitals, inner-city missions and administration.
In the early 1970s, Ewart College implemented a four-year degree-diploma program. Students earned a university level B.A. concurrently with a diploma in Christian Education from Ewart College. A cluster of decisions in the late 1980s and early 1990s has had a profound impact on the place of members of the Order of Diaconal Ministries11 within this church. In 1990, the Board of Ewart College introduced the requirement of a Bachelor’s level university degree, making the college’s three-year diploma in
Christian education a post-graduate certificate. Also in 1990, the General Assembly mandated that all stipend categories must receive the cost of appropriate accommodation; this was the first time the church had required congregations to provide their diaconal ministers with a housing allowance.
In 1991, members of the Order of Diaconal Ministries in active service were made members of the courts of the church, with voice and vote. The reasons given in support of this recommendation by the Board of Ministry can be summarized as follows:
1. The ministry of the diaconate is central to the church’s work and witness, a fully recognized part of the total ministry of the church.
2. Members of the Order already meet the basis for membership in the church courts by making a commitment to the church’s doctrinal standards and to its discipline. In their service of designation, they are asked essentially the same questions as are asked of ministers, elders and deacons.Moreover, other Presbyterian denominations have granted full membership in the courts of
the church to active deaconesses (England, 1965; New Zealand, 1966; Scotland, 1990.) There appears to be no constitutional reason why the churchcourts must always be made up exclusively of ministers and elders.
3. Members of the Order of Diaconal Ministries would bring insights and experience from their serving ministries to the courts of the church.
4. Doctrinally, we understand diaconal ministry to be a distinctive office in the church, complementary to that of the ministry of Word and Sacraments.
5. The Order of Diaconal Ministries has a distinctive place in the law of the church.
6. It is right and just that the place of active diaconal ministers in the church’s practice of ministry be recognized by granting them full membership in the courts of the church.12
In 1991, Ewart College and Knox College were amalgamated, and the gap in educational requirements between diaconal ministers and ministers of Word and Sacraments was eliminated. Diaconal ministers are required to earn a B.A. degree (or equivalent) and a M.Div. at Knox College in the Christian education, pastoral care or social ministry specializations.Minimum stipend requirements for individuals serving in diaconal positions continue to be set lower than for
ministers of Word and Sacraments.
In 1992, the General Assembly approved the establishment of special course requirements by which members of the Order of Diaconal Ministries could qualify for ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacraments. Since then, most of the diaconal ministers in active service have applied for and been assigned such special courses.Many have completed these courses, and been certified for ordination and ordained as ministers of Word and Sacraments, seeking ways to exercise diaconal ministry through this office. A few members of the Order of Diaconal Ministries in active service have chosen to continue within the special diaconal role, without seeking ordination to the ministry ofWord and Sacraments. Today the number seeking entry into the Order of Diaconal Ministries is small.
One of the significant contributions of the Order of Diaconal Ministries is the flexibility with which its members have sought to meet the ministry needs of the church. The story of the Order of Diaconal Ministries is one of adaptation and change: Christians responding to God’s call to leadership and service in changing contexts.

How has diaconal ministry in The Presbyterian Church in Canada evolved alongside the changes to the Order of Diaconal Ministries? The decisions made in the early 1990s collectively could bear the message that the church no longer has need of diaconal ministers.However, diaconal ministry continues to be a vibrant part of the church’s ministry.What differs is that diaconal ministry is no longer carried out exclusively by members of the Order. Instead, congregations are calling associate or assistant ministers of Word and Sacraments to have primary responsibility in the areas of Christian education, pastoral care or social ministry. Like diaconal ministers, these ordained ministers have had their call discerned and affirmed by the church and have been educated for ministry at a theological seminary.
In other cases, congregations are employing gifted lay people to carry out specialized ministries, particularly to children and youth.Most of these church workers have no formal theological education. Even fewer have studied in a seminary of The Presbyterian Church in Canada. None have received the formal guidance of the church in discerning their calling, beyond the decision of the particular congregation to employ them. This is in stark contrast to the rigorous candidacy process for preparation and discernment completed by ministers of Word and Sacraments and members of the Order of Diaconal Ministries. In most
cases, presbyteries have not reviewed the position description, the qualifications of the individual or the terms of the contract, as stipulated in the Book of Forms.13 Contracts for these workers frequently offer part-time level remuneration at rates
much less than set by the General Assembly for either diaconal ministers or untrained lay missionaries.
The current context is particularly challenging for the Order of Diaconal Ministries and for The Presbyterian Church in Canada. It is clear that our denomination recognizes the call of people to a variety of ministries. It is also clear that congregations require help to work with the youth and to develop leadership skills of volunteers.However there is considerable diversity of opinion about whether the church needs to provide structure for all who are engaged in diaconal ministry.14 There is concern that the current educational requirements are a deterrent to individuals considering designation to the Order. One solution would be to revisit the educational qualifications for designation. For instance, the present requirements of a Master of Divinity degree could be changed to a university undergraduate program that includes a specialization in diaconal ministry.
The church is favourable to employing lay people to give leadership in Christian education, pastoral care and social ministries. To support these leaders and to give guidance to congregations, the church needs to take seriously a number of issues.
How can the church work with the lay people providing diaconal ministry to discern their gifts, calling and suitability for service in this Church? Should the church’s role in such discernment take place at the level of the congregation or the presbytery? What educational qualifications, if any, should be set? How should these lay leaders relate to the courts of the church? How can appropriate position descriptions that include adequate remuneration be developed?

Diaconal ministry by its very nature remains fluid, flexible and responsive to the grace of God. The church has before it the question of how formally it wants to regulate those serving in diaconal ministry. Even as the church addresses this question, God is calling individuals to a wide variety of specialized ministries, thereby giving the church new opportunities to share in Christ’s servant ministry.

7. Irene Dickson and Margaret Webster, To Keep the Memory Green: A History of Ewart College, Ewart College,
1986, p. 8.
8. A&P 1908, p. 313.
9. Karen Timbers,“A History of the Deaconess Movement within The Presbyterian Church in Canada”,
unpublished paper, 1985, p. 12.
10. Ibid., p. 16.
11. Diaconal Ministers were called members of The Order of Diaconal Ministries prior to 1991.
12. A&P 1991, p. 346-47.
13. Book of Forms sections 112.7.1-112.7.4.
14. Responses to the study paper ranged widely on this question. Some respondents favoured a comprehensive candidacy process for lay people performing diaconal ministry, while others preferred to leave discretion over these matters to the individual and the employing session. Similarly, a wide range of educational “requirements”were recommended, from the current university undergraduate and M.Div. degrees required for designation to occasional, short-term workshops chosen by the individual.

Information to be collected includes (but is not limited to) the following questions.




A brief history (may include links to documents and websites) – how did it all get started? What are the key dates and events? Are there documents that are part of the history (please specify)?

Denomination/church/agency/institution of which diaconal ministry agents are a part?



Diaconal ministry agents: consecretrated/commissioned/ordained/other?

Title: Sister, Deaconess, Deacon, Rev, etc




Historical information and dates re formation/recognition of diaconal ministry agents in the denomination/church agency.




Does the diaconal ministry agent wear a distinctive uniform? Are diaconal ministry agents able to be married? Are they remunerated? Do they live in community (eg motherhouse) or independently? Etc.




What kind of training/formation do diaconal ministry agents receive before formal recognition in their church. Are there expectations of ongoing training, or professional development? If yes, what is expected and how often does it happen?




How many diaconal ministry agents are there currently in the denomination or church agency? Any comment on trends in numbers?




Are there key people (historical or current) in the organization who have provided significant leadership. Any weblinks to their story, or a short write up?




Who are the current leaders in the diaconal association? (photos, ‘blurb’).




Relationship of diaconal ministry agents to a denomination/church agency




An overview of main responsibilities for diaconal ministry agents (past and present). Are they located within a church, a particular facility or agency, or community based? Are diaconal ministry agents appointed to individual placements or work together on projects or in institutions?




Are diaconal ministry agents able to preside at sacraments (communion, baptism, weddings etc)?




Who makes the appointments for diaconal ministry agents eg they apply for positions, they are appointed (eg by a Bishop, by the conference office, or another body/committee).




Is there a length of time for appointments (eg usually less than 5 years, usually between 5 and 10 years, at the discretion of the diaconal ministry agent or at the discretion of the appointing body), appointed to and remain with a particular mother house, etc.




Do diaconal ministry agents organize conferences, seminars, gatherings for professional development, pastoral peer support etc? How often and what is the nature of these events?




Key issues and challenges in the contemporary ministry context




Do the diaconal ministry agents have ‘code of conduct’ or ‘code of ethics’ that inform ethical and behavioral expectations for ministry?




Key documents (historical, vision and mission etc) – links or PDF or Word files








Links to relevant articles, websites etc




Other areas of interest……




(information to Rev Sandy Boyce, President, DIAKONIA World Federation,, to upload to this website)