Deacons celebrate milestones as their role evolves
Feb. 15, 2007
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A UMNS Report By Vicki Brown*
In the decade since the Order of Deacons was created, ordained deacons have taken The United Methodist Church outside its traditional brick walls and stained-glass windows. They have ministered to the homeless, worked with labor unions and served through fields as diverse as health care, education and even advertising and communications.
"Deacons are trying to put a swinging door on churches, going out into the world and serving and bringing people back into the church," said the Rev. Anita Wood, a deacon who is director of professional ministry development at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
The church created the Order of Deacons to enable United Methodists to answer the call to an ordained ministry that connects the church with the world - both by work outside the church and by involving congregations in ministries that heal the world's hurts. Such a call resounds with both young people in seminary and many second-career candidates for ministry.
According to the board's Division of Ordained Ministry, 1,659 people are currently candidates to become deacons within The United Methodist Church. If most are ordained, the number will more than double. Currently, there are 1,381 active deacons and 213 retired.
Deacons and diaconal ministers will gather April 19-22 in Orlando, Fla., for "Celebrating Diakonia," a convocation sponsored by the higher education board to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Order of Deacons and the 30th anniversary of the Office of Diaconal Ministry.
What do deacons do?
Even as they celebrate, deacons and candidates for the diaconate say the church is confused about their role.
"Folks are still learning what deacons do. I have to educate the people who are mentoring me," said the Rev. David Brown, an associate to the senior pastor at Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church in Philadelphia and a probationary member. "As an African-American man, I've been pushed to become an elder. Could I do that? Sure. Is that true to my calling? No."
The role of deacons has evolved since the 1976 General Conference created the Office of Diaconal Ministry. When the 1996 General Conference created the Order of Deacons, many diaconal ministers were ordained as deacons.
The Book of Discipline provides for ordained deacons "called by God to a lifetime of servant leadership," while elders are "ordained to a lifetime ministry of Service, Word, Sacrament and Order." Both are clergy, theologically trained and have full membership in their annual conferences. However, elders can administer the sacraments of Holy Communion and baptism, while deacons may assist. Elders are appointed to jobs by the bishop, while deacons generally find their own employment and then are appointed by the bishop. Many deacons do specialized ministry within congregations in areas such as music, education or youth work, but a growing number serve in other settings.
The Commission on the Study of Ministry acknowledged confusion over the diaconate role in its recent draft report about the ordering of ministry. The draft recommended further study of the order, saying it now falls short of the work envisioned by the definition in the Book of Discipline.
"The church needs to identify the barriers, challenges, and possibilities for realizing the full potential of this office," the draft report stated.
The Rev. Matt Hunter, who is in his final probationary year as a deacon, said further study of an issue is a typical United Methodist approach to such matters.
"I still think the church does not quite know what to do with deacons," said Hunter, executive director of Shepherd's Way, a ministry to homeless families in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "The order has amazing potential once we figure out how to achieve it."
Hunter concedes he could do his current job without ordination.
"But the schooling I received, the theological training, has been really helpful in what is in many ways a ministry of reconciliation," said Hunter, 36. "I just felt passionate about being committed to the church, and ordination is a very deep commitment." He also believes "the reason for my longevity is that I consider this a calling."
The Rev. Sharon Rubey, a deacon and director of candidacy and conference relations for the higher education board, said the order is "still in its infancy." She notes the commission report is a first draft and that the commission, of which she is a member, is "encouraging and expecting the church to talk back to us" through an online survey at www.gbhem.org/studyofministry/index.html.
"In a sense, we are still living into a new understanding of the ordering of ministry in The United Methodist Church," Rubey said.
Wood said she would like to see the church "fully embrace the order and affirm it." She recognizes that stumbling blocks exist, including fears about lack of accountability. "The structure is there for accountability, and it can be done," she said.
"There is also still confusion about whether it's an order that serves in a local church. We need to affirm that the ministry of the deacon is in and beyond the church," Wood said.
Ordaining a ministry
The Rev. Bob Carlisle, who was a diaconal minister before being ordained a deacon in 1997, said the 1996 General Conference action creating the Order of Deacons "validated the ministry in a way that only ordination could do." He agrees, however, that United Methodists do not know enough about the order.
"We need to work to let people know that they don't have to take the pulpit to be ordained," said Carlisle, who is semi-retired and works part time with Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tenn. "We need to continue to educate people in local churches and annual conferences."
Grace Estell, a retired deaconess and diaconal minister, never saw the need for ordination. Estell was consecrated a diaconal minister in 1978 and served as a church and community worker for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
"I think it's better to remain lay," said Estell, 82, of Asheville, N.C. "You have more freedom. If we remain lay, we are closer to the people in the pews."
Brown, who owns his own advertising and public relations firm, works in an inner-city church in Philadelphia and views his special mission as communication - currently in a cross-cultural setting. His is a primarily African-American church with a white senior pastor.
"Communication helps to bring people to the church. As a deacon, I recognize that there are more people outside the church than there are inside," Brown said.
The Rev. Alice Helfrich, 75, was one of the first three diaconal ministers ordained a deacon in 1997 at the New Mexico Annual Conference. She recalls that many did not welcome the Order of Deacons with open arms.
"Our district superintendent told us he did not approve of what the General Conference had done, but if we wanted to go ahead, he would support us. I was afraid to turn around and see who voted to accept us, but 99 percent of the conference, including that district superintendent, voted for us."
To learn more about Celebrating Diakonia, or to register online for the April 19-22 meeting in Orlando, visit www.gbhem.org/convocation07.
*Brown is an associate editor and writer in the Office of Interpretation, United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, Nashville, Tenn.
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