From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Deacons, diaconal ministers bury a negative church in 'funeral'
27 Oct 1998 15:11:01
Oct. 27, 1998 Contact: Linda Green*(615)742-5470*Nashville, Tenn.
NOTE: This story is accompanied by a sidebar, UMNS #628, and a
photograph is forthcoming.
HOUSTON (UMNS) - Nearly 500 United Methodists celebrated their calling
and showed their readiness to move forward in ministry by conducting a
funeral service for the church.
The deacons and diaconal ministers, meeting for a national convocation
Oct. 22-25, participated in a jazz-style funeral service, laying
numerous aspects of the church that have died or need to die inside a
The service was "a symbol of putting to rest the struggle of trying to
be understood and being ready to get on with the work of ministry," said
Beth Anderson of St. Louis, a diaconal minister and church consultant to
churches in the East Missouri Annual Conference. The convocation gave
her opportunities to hear the stories of others and to tell her own,
which helped her "realize that I've been grieving the death of diaconal
ministry for two years," she said. She will return home with less
resistance to the idea of being an ordained minister, she said.
Uttering "ashes to ashes and dust to dust," three women leading the
service placed into the casket a variety of negative characteristics of
the church. The items included:
* the busyness of the church and that which keeps faithful people from
doing works of compassion, mercy and justice;
* the rigidity of the church, which masquerades as tradition and rejects
change and creativity;
* impediments to the church opening itself to the experience of
ecumenical faith and inter-religious interaction;
* the closed minds that prejudice people from reaching out and bumping
up against neighbors who are different, and the closed doors that shut
out God from worship - with the result that congregations end up
* slavish servanthood that leads by depression and obsession instead of
celebration and love.
The funeral was led by a panel of three -- N. Lynn Westfield, a
professor of Christian education at the Center for Urban Theological
Studies and adjunct professor of Christian education with Lutheran
Theological Seminary in Philadelphia; Mary Elizabeth Mullino Moore, a
professor of theology and Christian education at Claremont School of
Theology and professor of religion at Claremont Graduate School in
Claremont, Calif; and Rosemary Skinner Keller, vice president of
academic affairs, academic dean and professor of church history at Union
Theological Seminary, in New York City.
It was appropriate that these three women led the funeral service
because they have survived in United Methodism, said Annette Vanzant
Williams, a deacon on the staff of the Central Texas Annual (regional)
Conference in Fort Worth.
"To see them talking about death because they've been through hell and
are now ready for a resurrection was truly powerful for me," she said.
She described Moore as one of the first cutting-edge professors of
Christian education. Keller is a leading feminist in the United
Methodist Church, and Westfield is becoming one of the people who has a
grasp of African-American "womanist" theology in the denomination,
"These women have seen so much and undergone so much in the last 25
years," she said.
In a eulogy, the Rev. W. Earl Bledsoe, pastor of Cypress United
Methodist Church in Cypress, Texas, told convocation participants that
the funeral is an opportunity to put things to rest, not only in the
church but also in the lives of people, so that the ministry of Jesus
Christ can grow.
Bledsoe compiled a list of items he believes must die and be buried in
the church for ministry to take place.
First, hierarchical-type ministry must die, Bledsoe said. This type of
ministry focuses on those things that separate us "into the big me's and
little you's." He said all are called by God to be in ministry together,
and everyone must learn new ways of relating to each other as elders and
deacons in ministry together.
"The ministry of the elder is not over against the ministry of the
deacon, and likewise the ministry of the ordained is not over or against
the laity," he said.
Hierarchical ministry should die so that God can "raise us up as
servants of the most high" who preach and teach his word, administer the
sacraments, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and bring
about justice across the world, Bledsoe said.
Other church negatives that must be put to rest are "isms," which build
walls that separate people from God and one another, he said. Sexism,
racism, ageism and elitism are "the visible evils in our society," he
The final category of things that need to die are those that fall under
past hurts, disappointments and failures in life, which cause people to
become cynical about ministry, he said.
The 1998 Convocation was the first time deacons and diaconal ministers
had met since the 1996 General Conference established a new order of
deacon in the United Methodist Church.
That General Conference created two separate offices of ordained
ministry: deacon, one who pledges to serve God and the church through
"word and service" to the community; and elder, who serves through
"service, word, sacrament and orders."
Elders are "members in full connection" of annual (regional)
conferences. They are appointed annually by their bishops and itinerate
(move from place to place). They are the only people authorized to
administer the sacraments. However, deacons may assist.
The deacon does not itinerate but is considered clergy. The deacons seek
to connect the local church in ministry to the world in a variety of
The last time the diaconal ministers met in a national setting was in
November 1995. At that meeting, the atmosphere was charged with fear and
uncertainty about how the 1996 General Conference would affect them, and
resistance to change.
In contrast, the most recent convocation emphasized celebration and
anticipation. The ministers celebrated their history and connectedness
within the United Methodist church and beyond. They rejoiced in the fact
that the denomination has established the diaconate within the order of
the deacon, and they spoke of the significance that deacons can have for
the future of the church.
"In a sense, the diaconate can help the church experience a rebirth
because the diaconate exists to equip and call the baptized members of
the church to serve where they are," said Jimmy Carr, staff executive in
the section on deacons and diaconal ministries at the United Methodist
Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the convocation sponsor.
There have been three national convocations celebrating the work of the
diaconal minister, but the 1998 convocation and its involvement of the
deacon indicates that the diaconate in the church is "coming of age,"
"In the past, I often heard so much complaining about what we could and
could not do and how we were perceived," said Dandy Lewis, a deacon at
Good Samaritan United Methodist Church, Minneapolis. "This convocation
has been a celebration, a letting go of the past and a moving on to
ministry and dealing with needs and hurts, which is what ministry is all
The convocation was filled with symbolism and imagery of stones, water
and servanthood that had helped shape the participants as diaconal
ministers. The challenge went out to change the hearts of people from
stone to flesh, so they could be in covenant with one another.
Today's society is living in the stone age, said Bishop Felton E. May of
the Washington Area, in a keynote address. Society is one breath away
from barbarism, he said. Americans are an addicted people who want to
feel good without living healthy lives, to feel righteous without doing
justice and to feel loved without devoting themselves to loving
relationships, he said.
Referring to the coldness in society, May said there are "people with
hearts of stone." He cited the recent killings of James Byrd of Texas,
who was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck, and Matthew Shephard
of Wyoming, who died after being beaten and left tied to a fence.
The bishop urged the deacons and diaconals to consider their calling.
God chose them and is nudging them toward ministry outside of the walls
of their local churches, May said.
"Humankind will never believe we've been called to serve if we serve
people just like us," he said. "If we don't praise God in the streets,
the stones will cry out." He challenged them to not be spectators in
ministry but to be servants and serve the bread of life.
As the convocation weekend progressed, Suzanne Davis, a deacon working
with Hospice in Tulsa, Okla., realized that she was being led to a
ministry outside the walls of the church.
"I hope I can go home empowered to bring the 'marketplace' to the
church, that they might recognize and accept the many different ways the
church ministers to others, and may I be that model to encourage others
to reach out of the box," she said.
During the convocation, three people who set the foundation for deacons
and diaconal ministers were recognized. They led the diaconate movement
almost 25 years ago. They were:
* R. Harold Hipps, the first staff executive in the denomination's
division of lay ministry and diaconal ministry, serving from 1976 to
* Rosalie Bentzinger, the first diaconal minister to serve as a staff
executive in the division of diaconal ministry, holding that post from
1979 to 1994.
* Jimmy Carr, the first deacon to serve as a staff executive in the
section of deacons and diaconal ministers when the Board of Higher
Education and Ministry reorganized its ordained ministry components into
divisions. He became a staff member in 1994 and currently serves with
Joaquin Garcia, on staff since 1979, and Paul Van Buren, who joined the
agency in 1985.
"This historic moment of recognition represents parts of history that
have culminated in my presence," Carr said. "What the General Conference
did in 1996 would not have happened if not for the work that Hipps and
Bentzinger set as a foundation for today."
For Ernesto Grant, a diaconal minister at Crawford Memorial United
Methodist Church in the Bronx, N.Y, the convocation was an "enrichment"
of his spirituality. He said he returns to his congregation with a new
perspective of his music ministry and how he "can be a true beacon."
# # #
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