It happens rarely, but often enough that I should know to expect it. Twice a year I coordinate an Orientation to Ministry event for people who are sensing a call to ministry, but still trying to work out what that might mean. Heather (not her real name) had signed up since she was “going to be in the area that day anyway”, but with no specific course of action in her mind at the time. I encouraged her to come and just listen to our speakers talk about the various avenues of set-apart ministry available within the United Methodist Church. I had speakers representing local pastors, certified lay ministry, elders… and then it happened. The deacons showed up.
I had invited the provisional deacons who were being ordained that year to come and share their journey with the group. As deacons are prone to do, they went above and beyond the request and spoke with passion and energy about how they were being blessed by being in ministries of assisting women being released from prison, coordinating mission trips to Latin America, and using technology and media to help to share and preserve the faith stories of a congregation. I watched Heather, and as she listened her face lit up, she was literally bouncing in her chair, and she was nodding vigorously. I could almost hear the rush of a mighty wind.
During the break, Heather leaped across the room in a single bound and told me, “THAT’s it! That’s what I’m being called to do! God wants me to be a deacon! How do I start?” I reassured her that I would walk beside her and get her started on the path, and that God would take it from there. I have watched in amazement as God has worked in her life, equipping her with necessary resources, confidence and spiritual maturity. I will rejoice with her as she begins seminary this fall.
Since the establishment of the Order of Deacons in 1996, there has been continued confusion about the unique call and role that deacons fulfill in the life of The United Methodist Church. Some of this arises from the memory of ordination as a deacon being a transitional step to becoming an elder. Even though this step was replaced by provisional membership, some deacons are still asked, “When are you going to become an elder?” Another factor is that in the early years of the order a large number of previous (lay) diaconal ministers transitioned rather seamlessly into the new clergy order. Many of these diaconals had been faithfully serving for years in specialized ministries such as music, youth, or Christian education. Their legitimacy as clergy was viewed by some as a bit suspect, and that unfortunately continues today despite virtually identical educational requirements.
Since around 2000, however, people who have chosen to answer God’s call upon their lives by pursuing deacon’s orders have helped to develop the order into the unique role it historically fills within the Christian community. As stated in our Book of Discipline, “From among the baptized, deacons are called by God to a lifetime of servant leadership, authorized by the Church, and ordained by a bishop. This ministry grows out of the Wesleyan passion for social holiness and ministry among the poor. It is the deacons, in both person and function, whose distinctive ministry is to embody, articulate, and lead the whole people of God in its servant ministry.” In the early church, deacons were set aside to care for the equitable distribution of food to Greek widows who were being neglected (Acts 6).
While there are as many different expressions of diakonia as there are deacons, my observation is that they share a few things in common:
- God has gifted them with a passion for serving particularly neglected segments of society such as at risk children and youth, people with disabilities, immigrants, women experiencing abusive situations, and the elderly. The list expands daily in response to the needs of the community.
- Deacons may also be called to service to particular segments of the gathered community in areas such as music ministry, children and youth ministry, Christian education, camping and retreat ministry, or administration.
- An entrepreneurial mindset is common among deacons, either by nature or by necessity. Since deacons are not guaranteed appointment, they must seek out their own places of service and negotiate their own salary/benefits packages. The bishop approves the service assignments. If not serving within a local congregation, the deacon must maintain a secondary appointment within a local church and serve in a visible way to connect that worshiping community with the needs of the world.
- Deacons also share, in most cases that I have observed, a preference for working behind the scenes to accomplish great things. They may sometimes go out of their way to not be the center of attention, preferring instead that the people they are serving be the recipients of much needed and often overdue attention.
In the almost 20 years that I have been a deacon, I have been amazed at the ways God has taken my willingness to serve and shaped it into a ministry that encourages and helps people to develop their gifts to their fullest potential. My initial goal was to become a diaconal minister, remain laity, and gain a deeper theological understanding for the worship music that I was preparing each Sunday. In the middle of that process the opportunity to transition to the Order of Deacon was made available to me. I struggled with that decision. I was a single mother, working full-time in order to have health care for myself and my son, caring for aging parents, and directing the choir and playing the organ at the church where I had almost been born during a Sunday morning service. I had no intentions of ever leaving there. But God, as usual, had a bigger and better plan for me. As a result of hundreds of small decisions to say “yes” and mean it, I have now served three different congregations in music ministry, as well as using my organizational and administrative gifts in various capacities, currently as the Coordinator of Ministerial Services (board of ministry staff) for our conference. As a single deacon, I have also needed to maintain my “tent-making” ministry of working full-time outside of the church in order to maintain health benefits.
The concept of “accompaniment” has been the building block of my ministry in all settings. Obviously, as a church musician I accompany congregational singing, choirs, and soloists on a weekly basis. But there is a huge difference between being a skilled pianist and being a solid accompanist. My purpose is to enable whoever I am accompanying do their best. In an ideal situation, the accompanist almost disappears.
I do very much the same thing in my role with the conference. People attend the orientation to ministry when they are first sensing that God may be calling them to set apart ministry. I help them to see the various ways in which remember might work itself out within our system. I provide a ministry of presence with them as they work through the initial steps of the candidacy process and connect them with others who can shed light on the journey. As candidates prepare for provisional and later full membership, I become their guide, encourager and, at times, disciplinarian as they prepare their work for presentation to the board. I listen to their struggles, provide help where it is needed, and attempt to set a level playing field where all are as treated equally as they make this important vocational journey.
Does that sound like “typical” deacon ministry? Maybe not. But remember, that there are many types of ministry settings as there are deacons. The call to service is the same; how that call works itself out is gloriously varied.
By Janet Lord
August 9, 2019
The Rev. Janet Lord is a Deacon serving as the Coordinator of Ministerial Services for the Western Pennsylvania Conference while also serving on the staff at Central Highlands United Methodist Church where she is privileged to offer piano and organ music weekly to accompany the congregation into the presence of God. As a Certified Specialty Medical Coder she is also employed full time by a major health care corporation in Pittsburgh.