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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."

About 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.

As 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 options:

· 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.

Approximately 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.

Diaconal 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 conference.

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 Nashville, Tenn.

The Rev. Joaquín García, 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 needy persons.

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.

In 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.

A 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."

As a 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 and service.

"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."

Convocation planners 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.

Between 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.

Listed 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 elders.

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 teaching).

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 may assist.

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.

Differences 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.

That 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."

Regardless 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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