Deacons, diaconal ministers connect church to world
3/11/2003 News media contact: Linda Green ∑ (615) 742-5470 ∑ Nashville, Tenn
NOTE: Photographs and a sidebar, UMNS story #133, are available.
A UMNS Feature By John Lovelace*
By John Lovelace*
DALLAS (UMNS) - Seven years ago, the United Methodist Church
abandoned its one-lane route to the ordained ministry and replaced it
with a "Y."
The poet, Robert Frost, might have anticipated the consequences. In his verse, "The Road Not Taken," the poet said, in part:
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
400 of those who chose the new road "less traveled by" to United
Methodist ordination converged on a Marriott motel in Dallas Feb.
27-March 2 for their fourth international convocation.
Theirs is a
permanent order of ministry made up of women and men (predominantly
women) known as deacons. In the legalese of the church's Book of
Discipline, deacons are ordained to "a lifetime ministry of word and
service to both the community and the congregation in a ministry that
connects the two."
After seven years, the church has 1,106 ordained deacons and another 1,085 candidates for ordination.
of Jan. 1, 1997, the primary feeder route to this new ministerial order
has been diaconal ministry. This ministry was created in 1976 for
laywomen and laymen to be consecrated for service within the church and
not be required to pursue the education and evaluation necessary for
ordination. But also as of Jan. 1, 1997, this route was dead-ended; no
new candidates were accepted. Diaconal ministers were given three
¬∑ Complete a program of continuing education that could
demonstrate "an understanding ... of the interrelatedness of worship
and the world" necessary to become a deacon.
¬∑ Retain lay-ministry standing as diaconal ministers.
¬∑ Surrender credentials.
80 percent of the current 1,106 deacons got there through the feeder
route of diaconal ministry. Another 600 diaconal ministers retained
their lay status, and about 50 of them attended the convocation.
Attrition will eventually dissolve that form of lay ministry.
ministers acquired a "neither fish nor fowl" image from their
beginning, misunderstood as clergy in some settings, rightly understood
as laity in other settings. In any given local church, a diaconal, as
they are known informally, might hold the title of "minister of
Christian education" or "minister of music." Regardless of local-church
title, however, a diaconal minister is a lay member of his or her annual
Further, in any given local church, a deacon might
hold titles similar to those of a diaconal minister, such as "minister
of evangelism," or be known as an associate or assistant pastor.
Regardless of local-church title, however, a deacon is a clergy member
of his or her annual conference.
Administratively, all 1,100
deacons and 600 diaconal ministers are related to the United Methodist
Board of Higher Education and Ministry through its Division of Ordained
Ministry's Section of Deacons and Diaconal Ministries, with offices in
The Rev. Joaqu√≠n Garc√≠a, the section's staff
executive, said deacons and diaconal ministers have impacted the church
by making it aware of legitimate calls to specialized ministry both
inside and outside the church. The vast majority of those calls are
lived out inside the church, he added.
Keynoting the recent
celebrative convocation, Bishop James R. King Jr. of the church's
Louisville (Ky.) Area, likened his audience to "a few deacons and
diaconal ministers left at the cross after all the others had gone." He
admonished United Methodist deacons and diaconal ministers to continue
to "take your authority from God and from the church" in their work of
connecting church to world and world to church.
To bring the
convocation's "connecting" theme to life, participants had an
afternoon's opportunity to visit 14 service ministries throughout the
Dallas/Fort Worth area. About half the gathering's 440 registrants did
so. The largest number, dressed for manual labor, went to a site where
the Society of St. Andrew was bagging grapefruit for distribution to
Most other participants visited 20-plus booths in
a "ministries fair" at the motel, including wrapping personal health
kits for distribution by the United Methodist Committee on Relief. A few
others experienced "the world" via free shuttle to the nearby upscale
Dallas Galleria shopping center.
One deacon who remained at her
station was the Rev. Cheryln A. Gates. As registrar and financial aid
director at United Methodist-related Boston University School of
Theology, she answered participants' questions about her school, handed
out literature and consented to a news interview.
Ten years ago,
with an undergraduate degree in liberal arts, a good marriage and
children on the way to maturity, she was a "very active" layperson -
United Methodist Women, Sunday school teacher, etc. She also had a job
in computer sales and service, "and I was good at it," she said.
But she never forgot her baptism and her sense of God's grace in her life.
1993, she crossed paths with a former pastor at a funeral and, a few
days later, received a phone call from the pastor's wife telling of a
job opening in the Boston University treasurer's office. She got the
job, and tuition remission as a staff member enabled her to enroll in
the School of Theology. After that, "God kept opening doors to keep me
in seminary." She received a master of sacred theology degree in 2000.
clergy member of the New England Conference, she says she continues to
be "shifted and shaped" as a deacon. Part of that came with her
consecration as a diaconal minister in 1998, "where I felt I was close
to but not fully in the place I was supposed to be. But ordination as a
deacon in 2000 is exactly where I've been going."
consequence of being a deacon, she feels a shift in relationships with
people she has known for upwards of 27 years at Fisk Memorial United
Methodist Church in Nattick, Mass. "Now I'm the person to offer a prayer
or lead a discussion. Instead of just going on retreats, I organize or
lead them. I find those shifts consistent with my call for proclamation
"I want people to know who and what I am. Every day I
wear a cross. It's my version of putting on Christ, my robing up. I use
the title of reverend in my work so it's clear to students that I am a
deacon. But I also make it clear to each one that 'I am here to serve
you every day.'
"Our Order of Deacons in the New England
Conference meets three times a year," she continued. "We are working
hard to define ourselves. If we don't define who we are, who will? The
Discipline mostly defines who we are not."
seemed to anticipate Gates' feelings. On opening night, participants
were asked to fill out cards, answering, "What is God calling the
diaconate (deacons and diaconal ministers) to be and do?"
A small committee worked virtually all one night to report back with six typewritten pages of responses. The responses included:
Invigorate the people of God, creating change, keeping the church out
of balance so we can see the world as it truly is and respond.
Move with our congregations out and among the communities in which they
live, work and play, and into the communities they haven't even dared to
think about - yet!
¬∑ Implement "subversive" strategies that pierce the places where the church has been or is corrupted by arrogance and ego.
¬∑ Heal separation between clergy and laypeople.
¬∑ Truly serve others and quit griping about feeling overlooked, ignored, forgotten and treated as second-class.
¬∑ Tie our towels together across racial and sexual orientation and wash others' feet.
¬∑ Proclaim our calling as ministers of God, recognizing the equality of all ministries, whether ordained or lay.
¬∑ Lead in reversing the tide of injustice and oppression, even our participation in that oppression.
¬∑ Be a healing catalyst in the church and world.
the opening-night invitation to self-identification and the subsequent
release of the responses, the convocation participants received a
challenging address by the Rev. Jerome King del Pino, top executive of
the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
on the printed program simply to bring a welcome, del Pino instead both
affirmed and alerted his audience. Referring to the "short trajectory"
of the new ordained order, he said, "The seriousness of your claim to
connect church and world is suspect. You must come up with a compelling
and coherent sense of purpose."
That sense of purpose, many
convocation participants agreed, must, among other things, help clarify
relations between deacons and elders. Elders are those within the
church's historic ordained order committed to "a lifetime ministry of
service, word, sacrament and order." The church has about 35,000 active
Personal commitments to ministries of service and word
are identical for deacons and elders. Typically, however, deacons have
emphasized service while elders have emphasized word (preaching and
Elders have exclusive authority, under the
Discipline, "to administer the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion
and to order the life of the church for mission and ministry." Deacons
Other significant differences between deacons and elders:
Deacons secure their own service ministry and request appointment to
that ministry by the bishop and cabinet. Elders are appointed to their
places of ministry.
¬∑ Each elder in full connection and good standing is guaranteed an appointment annually. Deacons are not.
¬∑ Each elder must be prepared to itinerate (be appointed from one ministry to another). Deacons are not subject to itineration.
between deacons and elders are established and reviewed every four
years by the General Conference, the United Methodist Church's top
legislative body. One of 23 workshops during the convocation focused on
"the structure and responsibilities of General Conference and its impact
on deacons and diaconal ministers." The next General Conference will be
in 2004 in Pittsburgh.
Anticipating General Conference, the
convocation buzzed informally with the determination by many deacons to
elect one or more of their number as clergy delegates to the legislative
body and thus have direct representation for their concerns. Clergy
(elders and deacons) and lay delegates will be elected during annual
conference sessions this spring and summer.
self-preservation determination notwithstanding, in their closing
worship for "Renewal of Commitment to the Vocation of Service,"
participants affirmed that "as deacons and diaconal ministers, we are to
be coworkers with the bishops, other deacons, diaconal ministers,
commissioned ministers, elders and all of the faithful."
of the now-divergent paths to United Methodist ordination, service by
all of the above could, in the poet's words, make "all the difference" -
to the church, to the world and to the connections between them.
# # #
*Lovelace is a free-lance writer living in Dallas.
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