This was originally published in the April 2016 issue of the Virginia United Methodist Advocate. The focus of this issue was the 20th Anniversary of the Order of Deacon.
A group of church leaders had gathered for a meeting. The district superintendent mentioned the possibility of hiring a deacon to help the congregation reach beyond the church walls. A woman sitting across the table looked back at the DS with a quizzical expression. “Wait,” she said, “What’s a deacon?”
It’s not the first time that question has been asked. For twenty years, the United Methodist Church has been struggling to articulate the answer, “What’s a deacon?”
I welcome these questions. When I first experienced my call to ministry and I was told about the ministry of the deacon, that was my response. I had never heard of an ordained deacon. While I felt a strong call to ordained ministry, it did not look like the pastor of a church. But, I had no words to express what it did look like.
I felt called to be with those whom society had turned away. I felt a call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. The call I was experiencing was to something beyond the church walls.
My mentor at the time, the Rev. Mary Sue Swann, and I spent a lot of time discussing this. She recommended to me the book A Deacon’s Heart. It would be a year before I would read the book. Once I did, the words of Margaret Ann Crain and Jack Seymour were telling me who I was in a way I had never experienced. I finished the book and knew that I was a deacon. These words affirmed my call to ordained ministry as a servant leader in the life of the church, being a bridge between the Word and the world and connecting the needs of the world to the resources of the church.
Mary Sue showed me that the image of clergy that I had – the solo pastor who preached every Sunday and “ran” the church – was not the only image the church had of clergy. I learned that I have a deacon’s heart, longing for the healing of creation, plus mutual and connecting ministries that reach the poor and the hungry, the sick and the imprisoned, the lost and the lonely.
The question is not, “What is a Deacon?” The question is, “Who is a deacon?”
The Order of Deacon is a permanent order of persons ordained to a lifetime of ministry of Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice, drawing on a long tradition of deacons in the church. The earliest deacons were Stephen and the seven in Acts 6, who were commissioned to see the needs of those in the community who were without.
The Rev. Margaret Ann Crain, an ordained deacon and professor of Christian Education at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, writes in her book The United Methodist Deacon, “The identity of a deacon, fundamentally, is that of one who has experienced a call to lead ministries of compassion and justice. Deacons are passionate about the particular area of service to which they are called. They seek to lead and equip the church for that service.”
Whether the deacon is serving in the local church or outside the church, the deacon equips, empowers and encourages the church in going beyond its own walls to connect the church to the world. They help the community identify its needs and the church to identify the resources it has to meet those needs.
This connecting effort is done in partnership with the elder and the laity. Even if a deacon’s primary appointment is outside the church, he or she has a secondary appointment in a local church. One of the ways in which this connection is made is through the worship leadership of the deacon. In assisting the elder in administer the sacraments, the deacon models what this connection looks like.
The work of the deacon is grounded in compassion and justice. It is more than just a Band-Aid fix for a problem. It is working with others to seek long-lasting solutions to racism, poverty, hunger, etc. A deacon whose work is centered around the compassionate care of children, for example, is also concerned with advocating for the rights of children. To show compassion is to offer hope and love to the marginalized among us. To show justice is to call attention to injustices in our society and world. This can be done through teaching and preaching, hands-on service, telling the stories of those on the margins and advocating for justice.
The ministry of the deacon calls to mind the compassionate and just acts of Jesus. From touching the lepers to healing them, to washing the disciples’ dirty, dusty feet, Jesus’ acts exemplified what servant leadership looks like. The deacon is called to extend those acts to the least of these among us; to extend the Table of hospitality and reconciliation in a way that builds community within our communities.