by Rev. Kerry Greenhill
Within the sometimes ambiguous and occasionally mysterious world of the Ordained Deacon in Full Connection, I find myself straddling two camps in more ways than one.
As has been noted previously on this blog, Deacons are, generally speaking, called to serve as a bridge between the church and the needs of the world. Deacons can be appointed to ministries within or beyond the local church; most Deacons can quickly tell you in which of those areas their primary appointment falls. For the past five years, I have been appointed to both.
I serve as an associate pastor in a small, progressive, urban congregation in northwest Denver, and I also work part-time for a non-profit organization that advocates for improved access to and quality of health care for children with special needs.
Don’t you want your own church?
While I was going through the ordination process, a total of about six years, I was asked repeatedly – by the District Committee on Ministry, by the interview team on the Board of Ordained Ministry, by clergy colleagues and seminary classmates – if I was sure that I was called to be a Deacon. “Don’t you think someday you’ll want your own church?” one friend asked me on more than one occasion.
My answer, admittedly a bit of a hedge, was usually along the lines of, “I’m open to the possibility that God will call me to lead a church at some point, but that doesn’t feel like the right fit for me right now. I just don’t feel called to order the life of the local congregation.”
I appreciate that many of these people asked the question out of a desire to affirm my gifts for leadership. And each time I was asked, I would again direct some time and energy into prayerful discernment, to figure out whether the question itself was God at work through those close to me. Pursuing the kind of ministry that everyone understands has its appeal, and there are advantages to being an Elder (even with the possible removal of security of appointment) that the ministry of a Deacon does not offer.
But over the years, I have come to believe that this question of Order is really the sticking-point in my sense of call. Yes, I can (and do) preach, and teach. I love the sacraments wholeheartedly and would treasure the opportunity to offer baptism and Communion directly to whomever asked, whether an Elder was present or not. I attend Finance Committee and SPRC meetings, and Trustees when time allows (I am part-time, after all); for five years, I have been privileged to have a very collegial relationship with the senior pastor and have been included in almost every major decision-making process and vision-setting discussion. I participate in the administration of the local church in varied and significant ways.
But I do not desire to be the person in charge.
Leadership vs. Order
This intuitive conviction was affirmed this summer, when the alignment of the planets – or God’s wicked sense of humor, if you prefer – meant that a pastoral transition at my church and an executive transition at the non-profit where I work took place at exactly the same time. And I was asked to fill the gap in the interim period in both places. So for one month, I was both the Acting Lead Pastor (the title I came up with) and Interim Executive Director, both part-time. Never mind that both of these are full-time roles, or that I hadn’t sought out either one. There was a need, and I was asked to serve as a bridge, connecting the past with the future.
I think I did fairly well. I received positive feedback from the congregation, and from my coworkers, about my efforts during that time. And I could not be more relieved that I am not in either of those roles any more. There are people who relish being in charge, who have gifts and graces that equip them to discern a vision, make decisions, and guide the whole congregation toward a goal. I appreciate having opportunities to lead, and to have a voice in planning and decision-making, but I prefer to work with or for others most of the time.
The thing is, I don’t believe I need to be in charge of a congregation to be a leader. My sense of call is more about helping others connect their story with God’s story than it is about guiding the people of God toward a goal. My leadership comes through writing, teaching, and preaching, developing personal relationships, planning and leading worship, coordinating the work of committees and teams in the church, and directing the choir. I am striving to live out the Deacon’s call to ministry as a set-aside servant leader, one who embodies the service to which all Christians are called, and invites the followers of Jesus into their own ministries of compassion and justice.
Christ has no body now but yours
Sometimes God calls us to work for which we don’t feel qualified, but we find in stepping up that we are capable of more than we realized. Sometimes doors close and windows open in unexpected ways. But I was moved and persuaded by Parker Palmer when I read Let Your Life Speak in seminary, that how God calls us is generally in harmony with how God has created us.
And – at least right now – I don’t believe I am created for, or called to, ordering the life of the church.
But I believe the church needs Deacons – and Elders, committed laypeople, local pastors, certified lay ministers, and all the other names we give to the ways in which people intentionally choose to serve God – to support and strengthening the functioning of the Body of Christ in important ways. The head is of course important, with eyes for vision and mouth for communication, but so are the hands and feet and heart of the Body, reaching out to touch those in need, being stirred by compassion and courage to guide the work of the whole. Together, we serve God in the world through many ministries, with many gifts, but guided by one Spirit. May it be so for you and for me.
Rev. Kerry Greenhill is Associate Pastor at Highlands UMC in Denver and Communications Manager at Family Voices Colorado. You can follow her on Twitter or read her well-intentioned but mostly neglected personal blog.