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Deacons, diaconal ministers find connections in work

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Sharon Rubey

Diakonia World Assembly participants leave Durham Cathedral after a world celebration worship.

Aug. 17, 2005

A UMNS Feature

By Vicki Brown*

Some 400 deacons, diaconal ministers, and deaconesses from 31 countries struggled with language barriers and financial differences but still managed to find a common thread in their work of servant ministry during a worldwide assembly.

“Diaconal ministry is about the church itself being on the margins, looking at what it might mean to be a marginalized church, instead of seeking out people to work on the margins on behalf of the church,” said the Rev. Sharon Rubey, director of candidacy and conference relations at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.  “I think it is a challenge that we as deacons are called to communicate to the whole church.”

Deacons from at least 10 denominations, including United Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians and Presbyterians, found inspiration for their work during the 19th World Assembly of DIAKONIA World Federation in Durham, England, July 20-27.

The theme of the meeting, “Diakonia at the Margins — Challenge and Hope,” spoke to some of the challenges of the meeting itself, as well as the bombings that took place in London and Egypt in July.

Deaconess Louise Williams, a Lutheran who is president of the World Assembly, named five priorities for the group, beginning with overcoming language and communication difficulties, Rubey said.

“There are five or six major languages spoken, not to mention tribal dialects,” Rubey said. This year, materials were translated into German and English, but a pledge was made to have translations in five languages at the next world assembly in 2009.

Other priorities Williams cited were addressing the uneven financial status of deacons from different regions, helping young people capture the spirit of diaconal ministry, recognizing the history of the diakonia and fostering grass-roots connections, Rubey said.

The Rev. Anita Wood, the agency’s director of professional ministry development, said deacons often feel they are working alone, and she believes the assembly gave those who attended a sense of unity and support for the work they are doing.

“There’s a great contrast in the type of diaconal workers,” she said. “For instance, you have deaconesses in Germany who still dress in habits, almost like a nun, and they pledge to be celibate. That’s one end of the spectrum. At the other end are deacons who work outside the church, like an Australian who drives an all-terrain vehicle around to visit people in the bush country of the outback.”

Despite the wide variety of diaconal workers across countries and denominations, Wood said deacons still find they have a great deal in common.

“They are serving the same kinds of needs in health care, education, community involvement issues, although the needs may be unique to the setting,” Wood said.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Sharon Rubey

Participants at the Diakonia World Assembly celebrate Holy Communion at the ancient ruins of a monastery on Holy Island in England.

Both Wood and Rubey said the group spent time in prayer for victims of the July 7 terrorist bombings and that many of those at the meetings had relatives or friends who lived or were visiting in London.

“Here was a worldwide gathering going on, talking about how to build up trust with people at the margins. It was in total contrast to what was happening with the bombings,” Wood said.

Diane Wasson Eberhart, deacon at Grinnell United Methodist Church in Grinnell, Iowa, said she was impressed by the resurgence of the ministry of diakonia in several denominations.

“It was amazing to hear about the variety of ministries provided in over 30 countries represented,” Eberhart said. She, too, was struck by the differences between the people from different countries and denominations, including the fact that some were laypeople and some ordained clergy.

“All feel called to live out the servant ministry of Jesus Christ,” she said. “People serve in major cities and rural villages, but all work with those whom society has sometimes forgotten.” 

*Brown is an associate editor and writer in the Office of Interpretation at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

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