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United Methodist diaconate celebrated, challenged

Processors bring light into the darkness to open worship at the "Celebrating Diakonia" gathering in Orlando, Fla. UMNS photos by Kathy Noble.

By the Rev. Kathy Noble*
May 9, 2007 | ORLANDO, Fla. (UMNS)

The Rev. Debby Fox, a deacon in Ohio and co-chair of the convocation, welcomes participants.

Images of light entering into dark places and calls to affirm and use the varied gifts of God permeated "Celebrating Diakonia," a convocation bringing together the United Methodist diaconate.

The April 19-22 event, sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, marked the 10th anniversary of the creation of the Order of Deacon and 30 years of diaconal ministry in The United Methodist Church.

Deacons and diaconal ministers comprised most of the 350 participants. Others joining the celebration were deaconesses and home missioners – also part of the United Methodist diaconate – as well as laity, bishops and elders. Together, they celebrated the ministries of leading, equipping and serving the church for service in the world.

The 1976 General Conference created the Office of Diaconal Ministry – lay people consecrated to ministries of love, service and justice. In 1996, the church's top lawmaking body passed legislation to create the Order of Deacons to enable United Methodists to answer the call to an ordained ministry that connects the church with the world. The first deacons with full clergy rights were ordained in 1997.

Speakers at the convocation stressed the importance of connecting the church and world, celebrated different ways of leading servant ministry, alluded to difficulties in accepting varied forms of ministry and encouraged seeing the different roles as complementary and equal.

"This call to ministry that you and I share, embodied by love and service, belongs to the whole church," the Rev. Barbara Garcia said in the opening service.

The Rev. Barbara Garcia preaches at the opening worship service.

Diaconal ministers, deacons, deaconesses and elders "share this primary representation of God’s love, (but) there simply is no way to separate service from the ministry of any person who claims to follow Jesus Christ, be it in baptized, consecrated, commissioned or ordained leadership. The distinctions are revealed in the different gifts God has given us and where we find our primary identity in ministry.

"There is sufficient need for ministry to go around – and no human being has all the gifts needed for every ministry," said Garcia, a deacon and assistant to the bishop of the Nashville Area.

Worship and Bible study leaders stressed connecting the world and the church, both by caring for individuals with a myriad of needs and by confronting systems that contribute to pain and suffering.

When the 1996 General Conference voted to establish the permanent Order of Deacon, it reclaimed "the visible manifestation of the servant ministry of Jesus Christ in the world," said Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker of the Florida Area.

"Your ministry, your leadership, your servanthood and your equipping say over and over and over and over to the baptized, ‘Turn your faces outward toward the world ... not the world as you wish it was, but as it is," said Bishop Gregory Palmer of the Iowa Area, president of the church's Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

"Through your leadership," he said, "we stand a chance of being the church not hunkered down in fear, not hidden behind locked doors, but the church seeing and hearing the Risen Christ" and having "fresh courage to run our faces toward the world."

Shining the light of love

The Rev. Joaquin Garcia, a deacon, and the Rev. Janet Wolf, an elder, lead Bible study.

"Celebrating Diakonia" opened with a procession of light as candles were carried through the darkened room to the altar and held aloft by participants sitting around their tables. It ended two and a half days later with women and men agreeing in song to carry the light of Christ's love, symbolized by mini-flashlights, into the world. In between, the assembly:
  • Celebrated the diaconal ministry and Order of Deacon anniversaries;
  • Practiced Sabbath keeping;
  • Offered more than $45,000 in gifts and pledges to launch efforts to build a rehabilitation center in Zimbabwe for people living with HIV/AIDS and their families;
  • Heard about the current Study of the Ministry; and
  • Participated in professional development workshops.

The theme first voiced by Garcia and echoed throughout the gathering was one of shared responsibility "to bring the light of love to people who suffer."

Garcia suggested John the Baptist – and St. Bernard dogs – as models for the diaconate.

John the Baptist "was honest, obedient, self-aware; he knew his role as being a God-revealer," she said. "Is that not our role – to share in the revelation of who God is through Jesus Christ by leading and equipping others in Christ’s ministry of service?"

"There is sufficient need for ministry to go around—and no human being has all the gifts needed for every ministry."
– The Rev. Barbara Garcia

Garcia drew laughter when she offered St. Bernard dogs – named for the founder of a hospice in the Alps in the mid-10th century – as another role model. The dogs are members of the community who spend most of their lives in the mountain passes, guiding lost travelers or bringing aid to those who are injured.

The deacon is a member of the Christian community whose territory is primarily outside the church, she said, who "serves those within and outside the church who have lost their way and are in need of a pathfinder and reliable guide to help them find the way to Jesus Christ."

She cautioned that thinking the diaconate does "all the servant work" is a trap. "The deacon is to serve the congregation by giving the alarm, interpreting the needs, concerns and hopes of the world and then guiding a rescue party from the congregation to get involved," she said.

Scriptural guidance

Times of Bible study focused the church as the unified Body of Christ, using God's gifts to tear down walls of division in both the church and society – walls that create "others."

The lessons were led by the Rev. Janet Wolf, an elder, college professor and social justice advocate from the Tennessee Conference, and the Rev. Joaquin Garcia, a deacon now serving as a chaplain at the Veterans’ Administration hospital in Nashville, Tenn.

Bishop Gregory Palmer reads the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Summarizing Ephesians 3, Wolf said that "God is lavishly and extravagantly blessing us with gifts."

Wolf said gifts and calling are given to all people regardless of race, class, gender, nationality or sexual orientation.

"We are altogether in the household of God," she said. "We have been given power to love when loving is hard to do; power to dream in defiance of death; power to hope in face of despair; power to dismantle injustice one piece at a time; power to restore, reconcile, renew and revive, gifts for the sake of the world."

God gives gifts and calls "us to use them," Garcia said. "There is no gift without a task, no calling without being sent out for service."

While disagreement about roles and tasks may be inescapable in both the church and society, Garcia said it also can be "energy-producing as long as we maintain our unity in the spirit of Christ" and become reconcilers in a divisive world.

"We have become new creatures with the Holy Spirit as the new driving force," Garcia said. "We have been building walls, but God keeps tearing them down and calling us to reconciliation."

Wolf said that dismantling walls of racism, gender and nationality "is the work of every congregation."

"We need to embody our stuff in larger and riskier ways … (to) provoke and prod congregations to confront systems" of injustice, she said.

"What might it mean to move Christian education from the sanctuary to the streets, to listen to Jesus talk about wealth and mammon in a shopping mall or in front of a for-profit health care corporation? The number-one form of violence in the world is economic. What would it mean to gather the stories of those struggling because of no access to health care and to incorporate them into the Sunday morning moment?"

Confronting injustice

Palmer repeated the call to confront unjust systems in his closing sermon based on the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Participants hold up glowing flashlights and promise to carry the light of Christ's love into the world.

He wondered if the "innkeeper is a symbol and metaphor for the church … an ongoing institution providing proper care for the broken and wounded and also raising questions of systems and advocacy and justice."

The Body of Christ as the innkeeper, Palmer said, cares for the broken and beaten traveler even when "there might be a gap in the denari and the realities of the day," but the innkeeper "also asks the city when it will do something about lights on the road.

"This world is full of folks on the Jericho Road who have fallen among robbers and thieves. Life, systems, darkness, robbery, pride, greed and arrogance have robbed them and beat them and left them for dead."

Key to the story, Palmer said, is the Samaritan seeing the man who has been beaten and asking what will happen to him "if I don’t stop." He also overcame fear "of robbers and thieves who may be present or of the priests and Levites who believe he is less than human."

"In the busyness of church work and living our days, we’ve stopped seeing. We don’t see because we are moving too fast; we don’t see because we are numb to all of the pain around us and feel an inability to make a difference."

He closed, "As the wounded are brought to us, we must make sure the place is a balm in Gilead. God, make us that kind of servant, justice-seeking church."

*Noble is editor of Interpreter, a publication of United Methodist Communications and the official ministry magazine of The United Methodist Church.

News media contact: Kathy Noble, Nashville, 615-742-5470, or newsdesk@umcom.org .

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