Although many of us are accustomed to deacons serving in our communities, a permanent diaconate is a very new experience for those of us in the Western Church. Despite references to deacons in the Christian scriptures, and the profound witness of the deacons of the early Church such as St. Lawrence whom we remember today, men called to ordained ministry were often prepared for the priesthood and not for the diaconate.
Ever since I went public a few weeks ago with the news that I would be returning to school in the fall at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, I’ve been getting a lot of questions. The conversation usually goes like this:
- Q: “What are you going to be studying?”
- A: “I’m working on a Masters in Spiritual Formation and Evangelism.”
- Q: “Oh...what are you going to do with that?”
“So, now that you’re ordained, are you going to go serve a church full time?”
It has been very interesting over the years to be growing into my identity and vocation as a deacon in the United Methodist Church who is primarily called to service beyond the local church. Oftentimes, when we think about ministry, we imagine people standing in a pulpit, preaching and leading worship. We imagine pastors serving within a local church. Or if that imaginary person in ministry is beyond the local church, they are in an easily recognizable role – serving as a chaplain in a hospital, perhaps, or working alongside children at Vacation Bible School.
Deacons in the United Methodist Church can serve within or beyond the local church. It’s interesting because you can clearly see deacons at work within the church or out in the world. Over the past few years, as I moved towards ordination, I was growing into my identity as a person called to ordination AND called to serve beyond the local church in the role of deacon. I am the Director of Admissions at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, one of the thirteen United Methodist seminaries. I’ve been serving at MTSO for over five years, and I was ordained in 2011. As I approached ordination last year, it was very interesting to note how many people asked me if I planned on leaving the school immediately and serving a church full-time.
Some of those questions may have come from the fact that people don’t often think of deacons when they think of ordination – they think of elders. The Order of Deacon was created in 1996. In 2012, we had 56 deacons ordained in annual conferences and 41 commissioned. As of today, we have a total of 1935 ordained deacons and 256 commissioned deacons within the United Methodist Church.*
I don’t mind confusion, especially since the Order is somewhat new, and I love having conversations with people and sharing that there are two orders within our denomination. Some of the questions come from the assumption that local church ministry is the pinnacle of all ministry paths – or that all persons are striving towards local church ministry as a primary appointment.
Now, that, my friends? That is very, very interesting. While elders can and do serve in extension ministries outside of the local church walls, deacons are sent to be the bridge between the church and the world. I value the role of deacon precisely because it empowers persons called to ordination to serve as bridges and to apply their specialized knowledge and ministry to a particular ministry field where there is need for leadership, service and expertise. I think that the recent change at General Conference 2012 to the roles in which deacons are ordained to sums it up well. Deacons were previously ordained to Word and Service; now we are ordained to Word, Service, Compassion and Justice. (Source: General Conference 2012 legislation)
I admit that there exists (for me) a level of anxiety around not serving in a local church as my primary appointment. While I do not feel called to that as a primary ministry, it is tempting on more difficult days – for those in pastoral roles, the roles are more clearly defined, there are more colleagues in similar situations, and, well, when you explain what you do, people *get it.* And I deeply love the local church – I care for the local church so much that I want to entrust the care of congregations to persons who were built for that ministry and who can and will give it their full professional and ministerial attention.
But. The anxiety about not having as clearly defined of a role is superseded by an amazing sense of freedom. I don’t know what jobs I will hold over my lifetime, and I don’t necessarily know what my ministry path (paths?) will look like. But in the call to serve as a bridge between the church and the world, there is the freedom (dare I say mandate?) to be rashly prophetic when needed, to speak truth to injustice, to push gatherings, communities, organizations to accountability – even as I serve alongside my sisters and brothers called to the same service in a variety of ministries across the connection. Deacons are called to a unique and empowering ministry. We hold an array of jobs, and our identities, vocations and work are all intertwined in such a way that we all support to ministry of Word, Service, Compassion and Justice in our distinct contexts.
Right now, I am deeply thankful to be a part of an academic institution that is constantly pushing itself to reach out to the world while providing its students the best education they can receive. It is a privilege to be ordained to a ministry that allows me to be a part of ministry candidates’ lives while being entrusted with their stories of vocational discernment, and I am thankful that the Order of Deacon affirms my ministry.
*Conversation with Rev. Anita Wood, June 2012
Crossposted at justiceandcall
“From among the baptized, deacons are called by God to a lifetime of servant leadership, authorized by the Church, and ordained by a bishop.” ¶328, 2008 Book of Discipline
Once upon a time before one was ordained as an elder, he or she would be ordained as a deacon. In this way, being ordained as a deacon was a “stepping stone” toward the goal of becoming an elder.
The 1996 General Conference changed that. Since the 1996 Book of Discipline, the Order of Deacon is a permanent order of persons ordained to a lifetime of ministry of Word and Service. The important part of the role of the deacon is that he/she is called to ministry in the community and within the congregation in a way that connects the two. The image most used to illustrate this calling is that of a bridge. The deacon builds a bridge between the community and the congregation. In this way, the two can be in ministry together.
Ministry of the Word includes teaching, preaching, and modeling the word of God. In addition, Deacons assist the Elder in the administration of the sacraments, conduct marriages and funerals, and empowering disciples. Ministry of Service includes servant leadership, serving the congregation and the community. Service is often seen in ministry with the poor, the sick, or the marginalized and involvement in mission trips. But it also involves equipping the congregation in interpreting the needs, concerns, and even the hopes of the world, often in their own community.
In contrast the Elder is called to Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service. You will notice that the differences are in a calling to Sacrament and Order. The Elder provides pastor leadership in ordering the life and ministry of the congregation. But, more on those differences later.