In the past several decades Episcopal deacons have increasingly focused more attention on social ministry in their communities rather than traditional duties at the church altar.
Few have had a closer view of the ministry’s evolution than Sister Pamela Clare Magers of the Community of St. Francis, who has worked at the School for Deacons in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1982 and started teaching a course on “contemporary social issues” in 1984. Prior to the introduction of that course, the curriculum for the school focused on the educational topics required of priests, and the liturgical role of deacons serving at the altar.
But the early to mid-1980s saw a shift toward “practical” issues such as visiting patients at nursing homes, helping people with addictions, and prison ministry. The dean of the school felt that Sr. Pamela’s background as a Franciscan, as well as her PhD in Anthropology, would add significantly to the postulants’ growth. After several years, study of social ministry became a requirement for all students at the school.
“The student body of the School for Deacons began to change in the mid-1990s,” recalled Sr. Pamela. “Students came into the social ministry class already convinced that social ministry was part of their calling. My job was to help them see that they could indeed do social ministry as a deacon, but the unique role of the deacon was to facilitate social ministry for the rest of the church, especially the laity. That means advocating, preaching, teaching, nagging, nurturing, supporting, as well as modeling.”
Second-year students must complete two semesters on leadership in social ministry. “The first semester deals with social issues that challenge society and how the church is/isn’t/could be involved with meeting the challenge,” Sr. Pamela said. “The second semester deals with social ministry in the parish—in other words, getting the congregation more involved with social ministry opportunities in their local community.”
While she does not use formal textbooks that deal specifically with how to become a deacon, Sr. Pamela assigns readings from several books by such notable authors as the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, Marlene Wilson, the Rev. Eric Law, and Robert Lupton.
Another book, Community Ministry, by Carl S. Dudley, forms the basis for a congregational analysis the students conduct of their own congregations.
“It is a very contextual assignment,” Sr. Pamela said. “The students look at church history, the identity of the congregation, the social context of the neighborhood, who is ‘The Other’ for that congregation, and the story of social ministry in the past and present with an eye to the future development and nurture of social ministry in the congregation.”
Her background as a Franciscan heavily influences her teaching.
“The Community of St. Francis (CSF) consists of the Franciscan Sisters, who are part of the Society of St. Francis (SSF), an international religious order in the Anglican Communion. The Brothers SSF, the Third Order TSSF, and the Poor Clares (in England) make up the other parts. CSF began in England in 1905 and is the oldest of the components of SSF,” Sr. Pamela noted.
Beyond her teaching for the School for Deacons, Sr. Pamela works extensively with people in need in several San Francisco neighborhoods.
“My own ministries have been mainly with the Latino immigrant community (for 25 years), then with the Care Through Touch Institute (for 17 years), which provides therapeutic massage for poor, homeless, and marginalized people at various social service agencies in the Tenderloin, South of Market and the Mission.”
Sr. Pamela added, “The Franciscan Charism has a focus on poor, sick and marginalized folks and sees the connection between how we treat one another in society and how we treat the earth and its creatures. For Francis, the love of God was foremost, and this love extended to all people, indeed all creatures, whom Francis considered to be his brothers and sisters.”
To learn more about the curriculum at the School for Deacons, see the school’s website at https://schoolfordeacons.org or contact the Rev. Hailey McKeefry at email@example.com. If you are considering entering the discernment process to study for the Diaconate, contact Amy Cook at the Diocese of California, at firstname.lastname@example.org.