The book of Acts tells the stories of how the early church sought to understand its purpose, clarify its audience, and organize people to carry on the work and message of Jesus. From the dozen closest followers of Jesus to the growing movement of thousands of Jewish and Gentile believers, the first-century church soon realized that they needed leadership systems to ensure that there was room at the table – literally and figuratively – for all people. Early in that work, seven community leaders who were “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” were identified to coordinate food distribution to those in need and to make sure it was carried out in a just and inclusive way (Acts 6:1-6). These seven because known as the first deacons, from the Greek word diakonos, meaning servant.
Very early in its history the church,
as an act of worship and praise of God,
instituted an order of ordained ministers
to personify or focus the servanthood
to which all Christians are called.
These people were named deacons.
This ministry exemplifies and leads the Church
in the servanthood every Christian is called to live
both in the church and the world.
The deacon embodies the interrelationship
between worship in the gathered community
and service to God in the world.
The United Methodist Church understands deacons to be “persons called by God, authorized by the Church, and ordained by a bishop to a lifetime ministry of Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice, to both the community and the congregation in a ministry that connects the two” (¶ 329.1). While elders typically have the more public, and more traditionally understood, role of pastor in the local church, deacons fulfill their calling in a wide variety of settings, often working in roles that the average person on the street would be surprised to hear described as ministry. (Of course, some elders serve in extension ministries, and some deacons serve full-time in local churches. But such elders are the exception to the rule, and in much of the U.S., the number of full-time church positions available for deacons is very limited.)
Margaret Ann Crain, Professor of Christian Education at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and author of The United Methodist Deacon: Ordained to Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice, puts it this way: “The UMC has validated the importance of ministries of compassion and justice by creation of the order of deacons. Deacons are embodied reminders of our commitment to love our neighbors. And deacons lead the church in ministries of justice and compassion.”
But even when deacons are appointed to ministry beyond the local church, they understand that part of their calling is to connect that work and ministry to the Body of Christ through a congregation, and weekly corporate worship. We serve the world in the name and spirit of Christ by reminding all who would claim to follow Jesus that service – both out of compassion and for justice – is integral to discipleship.
And we serve the Church by proclaiming that the Word of God may be best understood in the dialogue between what happens within church walls on Sunday mornings, and what happens in the community and around the world throughout the week.
From ¶ 328:
Deacons fulfill servant ministry in the world
and lead the Church in relating the gathered life of Christians
to their ministries in the world,
interrelating worship in the gathered community
with service to God in the world.
Deacons give leadership in the Church’s life:
in teaching and proclaiming the Word;
in contributing to worship, and in assisting the elders
in administering the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper;
in forming and nurturing disciples;
in conducting marriages and burying the dead;
in embodying the church’s mission to the world;
and in leading congregations
in interpreting the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. …
Deacons lead the congregation in its servant ministry
and equip and support all baptized Christians in their ministry.
May and June are annual conference season, when the people called Methodists gather in each region for a time of telling the story of what ministry has happened, and discerning how the Spirit might be leading us forward to perceive where God is doing something new. This year is also the time when annual conferences elect delegates to General Conference, the body that meets every four years to worship, pray, discuss, discern, and vote on the official church law, teachings on social issues, ministry priorities, global organization, funding guidelines, and future direction of our denomination. It’s a big deal, and the decisions that are made next year in Portland will have far-reaching implications.
This year, if you are attending an annual conference as a voting clergy member, I encourage you to consider electing a deacon as one of your conference’s delegates to General Conference.
There are practical and proportional reasons for doing so: deacons face different logistical and financial concerns than elders because they find their own work rather than itinerating under the direction of the bishop as elders do. When legislation is proposed that affects churches’ ability to hire deacons to staff, or that affects elders’ security of appointment, there are ripple effects across the Order of Deacons. Carissa Lick, a deacon in the Minnesota Annual Conference, adds, “of course, there’s the fact that deacons are clergy just as much as elders and should be represented as delegates accordingly.”
But perhaps more importantly, as the Church continues to adapt to an increasingly secular and unaffiliated religious landscape in the U.S., deacons are uniquely positioned to speak to the needs of the world and how they relate to the ministries of the church.
Rev. Lick explains, “Through the leadership of deacons, Christians explore and live out their own unique callings to every form of lay and ordained ministry as they learn to use their own gifts and passions to meet the needs of the world around them. Part of the deacon’s role is also to keep an eye out at all times to those on the margins or the disadvantaged and unheard. The church is missing out on the potential for important and needed ministry if it ignores the perspectives of the deacons whose work makes those voices heard.”
Of course, the ministry of the elder is also vital to the continuation of the institutional church, as they order the life of the congregation and the denomination, preach and teach, and administer the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. But because of the nature of our calling, deacons tend to have daily experience of the gaps and cutting edges where the church needs to adapt and move. We stand as the bridge between the elders who lead the church through order and administration, and the laity who comprise the Body of Christ through daily life in the world.
Leo Yates, serving in Frederick, Maryland, points out, “Our deacon work is related to the apostles’ work. I like… 1 Peter 4:10 about us sharing God’s grace – we just do it in different ways according to the gifts we have and in the forms of ministries we serve (e.g. social justice, education, counseling, chaplaincy, in the community, and other compassion type ways).”
From ¶ 329.1:
Deacons exemplify Christian discipleship
and create opportunities for others to enter into discipleship.
The work of deacons is a work of justice,
serving with compassion
as they seek to serve those on the margins of society.
In the congregation, the ministry of the deacon
is to teach and to form disciples,
and to lead worship
together with other ordained and laypersons.
Donnie Shumate Mitchem, from Western North Carolina Conference, proclaims, “We live in a world where people are increasingly saying they don’t want to fall in love with an institution. They want to fall in love with doing the work of Jesus. It is the deacons that lead us from the church out into the world to do the work of Jesus!”
Victoria Rebeck, Director of Deacon Ministry Development and Provisional Member Support at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, agrees: “The days of the ‘attractional model’ of the church building are past. The growth of the church is going to rely on deacons’ leading the people of the church outside the church walls and into the world, especially the forgotten corners of the world.”
As we seek to learn and discern how God is calling us to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” in the 21st century, let us lift up the ministry of deacons – and by extension, the servant ministries of the whole Body of Christ – by electing them as delegates to join the conversation at General Conference 2016. In the words of early church father, Ignatius of Antioch (d. 115 A.D., emphasis and line breaks added),
“Let everyone respect the deacons as Jesus Christ,
just as they should respect the bishop, who is a model of the Father,
and the presbyters as God’s council and as the band of the apostles.
Without these no group can be called a church.”
Thanks to the members of the United Methodist Deacons group on Facebook who contributed to this article. Hat tip to Deacon Daniel Klawitter of the Rocky Mountain Conference for the quotation from Ignatius of Antioch.
Note: All four members of Sacred Stones Ministries are ordained deacons in full connection, and as such, are eligible to be elected as clergy delegates to General Conference from our respective annual conferences. Rev. Kerry, author of this article, does not wish to serve as a delegate; Rev. Denise has expressed her willingness to serve. However, we are more interested in electing deacons in general than any one of (the four of) us in particular!