by Rev. N. Neelley Hicks

The book of Genesis tells the story of The Tower of Babel, describing how many languages came to be. Paraphrased, it goes like this:

“There once was only one language, but people began building a tower to reach the heavens—serving their own egos rather than God. God confused their languages—creating many out of one. Without the ability to communicate with one another, they could not finish what they had begun.” (Genesis 11:1-9)

Today, we speak in one language again—the global language of “digital communications;” however, confusion and chaos are found everywhere. From Twitter, Facebook, and all forms of social media—separating gossip from fact, propaganda from news—knowing what is real and true can be difficult.

Yet the greatest opportunity awaits: using this one language of “digital” to improve societies throughout the world—with peace-building, education, healthcare, job skills development, gender equality, and so much more. What will you share with the world? The gifts that God has given you, however small they seem, may be the greatest gift to another. You live in a day and age where it’s possible to impact lives everywhere, without even leaving your home. What will you share with the world?”

Excerpt from “Share: Communicating for a Better World,” © Rev. N. Neelley Hicks

Just so you know, I’m 53. My work life began when I became a part-time cashier at the Sears department store in Jackson, Mississippi, at the age of 15. Not really knowing or understanding my gifts, I went to college, then began working in offices, which at the time were transitioning from mainframes to “personal computers.”

I didn’t have a passion for technology, but I had the aptitude needed to solve computer problems and I delighted in implementing innovative solutions. When one of my sisters invited me to work as a trainer with her company, I found joy in helping other women learn things that could improve their chances at career advancement. I also realized that I could hold people’s attention as a public speaker.

Sitting at Galloway United Methodist Church in Jackson one Sunday morning, I felt a call to ministry. It didn’t make sense: I had a good job as vice president, director of interactive media at GodwinGroup Advertising. Certain that others would try to talk me out of going into ministry, I was startled that others weren’t surprised at all!

The education needed for ordination took several years, and in the final year I made my decision. I would become an ordained deacon, as opposed to elder. Push-back on that decision was greater than my decision for ministry, but “connecting the church with the world” described perfectly who I am. I am a connector—a joint in the Body of Christ—and one who wants to convey the very best of church to others who may not even know they are loved by God.

Traveling to Africa in the late 2000s, I met a young girl whose mother died after the United Methodist clinic ran out of the medicine she needed to treat her HIV/AIDS. I remember looking out at the roadway and thinking that surely other clinics along that road would have had the dose she needed for survival. If only they had a communications system with proper points of connection among providers who used it to monitor their stock, a request could have been made before their pharmacy ran dry. Someone could have transported it along the roadway. Communication itself could have served as aid among the faithful—people who care about helping others.

Communicating for a better world became my passion. The digital age offers the means for doing so through mass communications, technology, and faith communities who want to improve lives.

It’s more than telling the story of what happened. It’s sharing information to affect the outcome of the story.

In 2016, I heard about the East Congo Episcopal Area’s response to the rape crisis there. They wanted to build a women’s center for survivors of sexual violence. I volunteered to help lead the effort, thinking that my experience in communications could help raise the funding. Along the way, it became so much more.

The director of communications for East Congo Episcopal Area, Judith Osongo Yanga, and I began developing communications that could be used by the church to help women arise from stigma due to rape. We worked with Firdaus Kharas to produce the animation “A Plea to My Father” and broadcast it on television in East Congo, reaching at least half a million people. This became a catalyst for the church to discuss stigma through local media. It’s now available in nine languages.

Thanks to a grant from United Methodist Women, our team expanded so we could produce more materials: no-stigma text-messages for clergy, a drumming and drama guide, radio program, workshop guide, and a symbol that would be understood by those who can or cannot read. Named “Esther” by Rev. Dr. Betty Kazadi Musau because “she changed the minds of men and saved lives,” she will be printed first on T- shirts, then on fabric to spread messages of hope and courage.

Harper Hill Global has been forming inside me for a long time. God took my life’s experiences and is helping me apply what I learned. God is the Great Recycler, taking all the things (trash and treasure) from our lives and turning them into something beautiful. Nothing is wasted. Nothing.

For us deacons, being responsible for finding our own full-time appointments, starting a non-profit isn’t easy. Health insurance is costly to find on one’s own. The benefits of holidays, vacation, and pension, are lost, at least in the beginning. If successful, these things can come in time.

Fundraising in all its forms is essential, so get ready for grant writing! Doing side jobs that don’t require a lot of emotional energy can help pay bills along the way. To me, it’s all worth it.

The United Methodist Church can continue to grow far beyond sanctuary walls through deacons who reach out in creative and unusual ministries. It takes courage, faith, and a supportive network.

Women arise when our voices are heard and respected and when we live into the image imprinted inside us: God’s own image. What began for women in East Congo is helping women now in Uganda, Northern Nigeria, other parts of DR Congo, and in the United States, for I too have arisen. No matter what comes your way, by God’s grace, you will too.

Rev. Hicks, a deacon in the Tennessee Annual Conference, is executive director of Harper Hill Global in Nashville, Tenn.

Don’t let the church tame you

Deacons —  January 11, 2018

by Rev. Rachel Neer

My eyes, just starting to glaze over, came into sharp focus when my Wesleyan studies professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary addressed the deacons in the room.

“I know that there are a lot of deacons in the room, and that a lot of your course work will address the ministry of the elder.

“But deacons, I have a word for you: Don’t let the church tame you.

“You will go to interviews with your Boards of Ordained Ministry. You will find ministry positions in the local church. Some of you will be incredible leaders in the local church. But don’t let this church tame you.”

My professor went on to say that elders had a particular role, a particular place. Their ministry contexts looked different, but their ministry responsibilities looked the same. Deacons, he said, are different.

Deacons don’t have the same job descriptions. Some are in ministries of education or music in local churches. Others serve denominational boards or agencies, and do that well. Still others are hospital chaplains, doctors, teachers, administrators, advocates, therapists, public policy makers—the list goes on.

None of us have been tamed.

The ministries of compassion and justice that are the particular call of the deacon are not easy. These ministries call us to community with one another, to lift one another up, and to find releases in joy with one another. These challenging ministries call us every day to lean deeply into our baptism vows—to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.

The advice not to let the church tame me gave me permission to step fearlessly into injustice and oppression and to advocate for change.

In a world that is broken and bruised it can be easy to be discouraged. It can be easy to go back to our places of comfort, find a nine-to-five desk job in a mid-range company, and hope that someone else changes the world. It could be argued that you could just as easily resist evil, injustice, and oppression from a cozy cubicle.

However, that is not the call of the deacon. Deacons, by very nature, need not become overwhelmed with the massiveness of the task that is before them. Deacons survey the situation, identify the challenge, and fix it. God has called us to the places where the world’s deepest brokenness and the Church’s greatest hunger intersect.

The call of the deacon is to speak words of truth to positions of power. The call of the deacon is to remember the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

The call of the deacon is to remind the church who the world is—and to remind the world who the church is.

The call of the deacon is to be an advocate for the silenced.

Dr. Bryant was a prophetic professor if ever there was one. I learned much in his courses, but it was his advice to not let the church tame me that gave me permission to step fearlessly into the injustice and oppression and advocate for change.

No institution will ever find in it the power to tame the deacon.

Praise be to God.

Rev. Neer is a provisional member deacon of the Pacific Northwest Conference. She is executive director of Project Transformation in that conference and her secondary appointment is to First United Methodist Church, Vancouver, Washington.

Don’t just do ministry; lead it

Deacons —  December 14, 2017

by Rev. DeAndre Johnson

The privilege of servant leadership in the Church is the call to share in the preparation of congregations and the whole Church for the mission of God in the world. The obligation of servant leadership is the forming of Christian disciples in the covenant community of the congregation. . . . The ordained ministry is defined by its faithful commitment to servant leadership following the example of Jesus Christ, by its passion for the hallowing of life, and by its concern to link all local ministries with the widest boundaries of the Christian community.–The Book of Discipline, ¶¶ 138-139

“Why do you need to be ordained to do that?”

This is one of the questions frequently asked of those who are discerning a call into ordained ministry, especially those considering the diaconate. The question invites the unsuspecting candidate to consider more fully their call to ordination and the distinctiveness of that call over against that of lay servanthood.

One would think that most candidates will have pondered this before beginning the process for ordination. However, it has been my experience that many, in fact, have not considered this or do not have a clear enough understanding of how ordained ministry stands separate and apart from the ministry of the laity.

Some of my fellow deacon colleagues also struggle with this distinctiveness, especially as it relates to how deacons and elders collaborate in ministry. This is no doubt in part caused and further compounded by the strong systemic bias towards the ministry of the elder within the United Methodist Church, which in turn is a direct result of the muddied history of the permanent diaconate in our denomination.

I find myself coming back to the Discipline’s description of deacons’ servant leadership as key to understanding deacons’ role and ministry in the church.

Deacons are called to lead the church in servant ministry, not simply to do servant ministry.

According to ¶328, “It is the deacons, both in person and function, whose distinctive ministry is to embody, articulate and lead the whole people of God in its servant ministry.” I think many of us—lay and clergy as well as boards and committees on ordained ministry—are tempted to equate the obligation of leadership with the certification or affirmation of giftedness. Put another way, I have found that many of those struggling to discern the why of ordination are more so seeking affirmation of their gifts and passion than a call to lead the church. Yet strong diaconal leadership is precisely what the church needs.

If ordained leadership is to be more than a confirmation of giftedness or passion, then deacons serving within the local church must understand that their ministry—whether that be music, worship, discipleship or outreach—is to lead those in their charge toward a more faithful practice of Christian discipleship within their mission field. For example, maintaining the Sunday school program should not be a deacon’s end goal as much as establishing a program or system that forms disciples who understand the basics of Christianity and the Wesleyan distinctiveness, and how to apply these to the contexts in which they live and work.

Deacons serving in ministries beyond the local church must not isolate their work from the local church’s mission and ministry. Again, deacons are called to lead the church in servant ministry, not simply to do servant ministry. So, it is incumbent upon deacons serving in the nonprofit sector or with boards or agencies—even those within the UMC—to intentionally find ways for their ministry to connect back to the local church and to lead that local church into faithful engagement with that ministry.

Train and deploy laypeople

One beautiful example I have seen is from a deacon colleague who serves as a hospital chaplain. She trains and coordinates a team of lay visitors from her church who make monthly visits to parishioners in care facilities. She also works with the church to provide resources for grief and end-of-life care counseling. Thus, she expands her role as a chaplain to leading others into ministries of healing and grace, so that no one suffers or dies alone.

My ministry is primarily in music and worship within a local congregation. I think in terms of how our worship life together shapes our understanding and engagement with the mission of God in our mission field. While I do care about attaining excellence in our musical presentation and in the logistics of worship, the primary questions I’m asking every week are:

Rev. Johnson led worship as part of a team at 2016 General Conference. UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey

  • Were the people invited and prepared well to accept a call to follow Jesus more fully?
  • Were there enough “on-ramps” for people to engage fully in worship, so that no one was left behind or left out?
  • Whose voice is missing, and why?
  • What do we hope the people will know or do now that they may not have known or done before?

Ordination is not simply about the hallowing of my life, but all life. More specifically, it’s about how God in Christ through the Holy Spirit has called me and others to follow the example of Jesus who sent his disciples out into the world to make more disciples. The obligation of ordination calls us into leadership that holds responsibility for the whole of the Church.

How are you being called not just to practice but to lead the church’s servant ministry?

 

Rev. R. DeAndre Johnson is pastor of music and worship life at Christ Church Sugar Land, in Sugar Land, Texas. He served as part of the worship team for the 2016  United Methodist General Conference.

Resource

United Methodist ordination theology and vows (service ordinal)

Jason Ciarlante

by Jason Ciarlante

I am a 40-year-old Sicilian Methodist born, raised, and residing in Staten Island, New York. Being Sicilian I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, but was saved and called to serve in the United Methodist Church.

So I left behind aspirations of law school, supported my wife’s medical career, and became a stay-at-home father for our two boys, Jason and Joshua. I have recently earned my master of divinity degree from Drew Theological School and am seeking to become a certified candidate within the New York Annual Conference toward deacon’s orders.

I have served as a youth pastor for a year at Vincent United Methodist Church in Nutley, New Jersey, and am currently enrolled in a yearlong clinical pastoral education residency at Eger Rehabilitation and Nursing Home, Staten Island, earning my last three credits toward board certification as a chaplain.

It was in these last two years of chaplaincy that I came to the realization that the deacon track reflected a genuine response to my calling. My growing theology of grace and mission in the world are fully actualized for me in the coupling of the diaconal walk and my work as chaplain. One of the revelations that helped bring this surety to fruition was my love of something very dear to Wesleyan methodology: small groups.

Young Adults: For Us—By Us

My time as a youth pastor at Vincent helped me see this more clearly. As the first youth pastor this church I wanted to build on the group’s already solid foundation. They were eight to ten youth, ages thirteen to sixteen, who attended every Sunday with their parents. I wanted to understand the spiritual and emotional context of this group. I began with a series of questions to get honest answers for how they felt about church: what they liked and disliked, what they would change and why. This gave me a better understanding of where these youths “were” within their own spiritual walks.

Three things were blazingly clear by their answers. First, they found it hard to relate to anything in what they referred to as “their parents’” church. Second, the church itself wasn’t really speaking to them, or at least not speaking their language. Last, if they could change anything, it would be the music and the atmosphere.

I found an empty room in the building that we cleaned and painted. We took old couches we found around the church and created a lounge-type ambiance. Here I invited the youth to create their own space for worship and devotion. The name For Us—By Us was inspired by the popular FuBu clothing line.

At a For Us—By Us gathering, one youth brings in a Bible passage and another brings in a song that they connect with. The only requirement was they had to really feel that song; other than that, they could bring ANY song. The group would each read the biblical passage one at a time and then say what they heard, what they felt, and what they found interesting. Then, the youth who brought a song would briefly explain why they picked it and how they felt about it. Then we all would listen to it. Again, we would each talk about what we heard and how we felt. In this way we heard the scripture and music communally, but each of us was then able to say how it affected them individually as well. This is important because it gave each of them a chance to express themselves and be heard.

This created genuine opportunities for them to identify with each other on a deeper, peer-to-peer level. It offered me the chance to more practically apply the scripture to the context of their lives, thus connecting the practical reality they face every day with our scared text. Many of them would often say later that it was in that connection that they found meaning, hope, and a way to express their faith in a more genuine way. Working with these young adults is something that I will never forget.

Men’s Cigar-Shop Ministry

While serving as a youth pastor I became increasingly aware that I was always seeing and talking with mothers. Where are the fathers, I wondered?

I began by telephoning the fathers. Many replied that they were simply too busy on Sunday mornings with work, leisure activities, or other things. All of them, when pressed, admitted that Sunday worship just wasn’t for them: they did not feel at home there and preferred other ways to find fellowship and connect with the Spirit. Most of these other ways were secular activities that had potential for a deeper, more spiritual atmosphere. Yet rarely did anyone see it that way. In fact, many of them get more spiritual nourishment from the comradery and companionship that comes with activities like meeting at a local cigar shop to have a smoke with good friends.

This gave me the idea to start a men’s group Bible study at a nearby cigar shop. For these meetings I carefully selected Bible passages that would directly relate to and tease out many of the issues men face. Issues of love, sex, and violence, such as found in stories of the rape of Dinah, the Tamar and Judah story, Abraham in Egypt, as well as other scripture portions that are rarely discussed in congregational and other communal settings, as Prof. Danna Nolan Fewell noted in the syllabus for her course “Love, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Bible” at Drew Theological School. I envisioned a circle of comfortable chairs, a smoke-filled room, open Bibles and deep discussions about marital stresses, masculinity, and how men relate to their wives, children, each other, and God.

Many of our conversations at the cigar-shop Bible studies addressed the difficult topics that so many of our religious and political leaders keep pushing folks to have.

They talked about privilege, race, sex, and masculinity, all prompted by the Bible passages we read. The comfortable, masculine atmosphere of the location offset the usual discomfort that often accompany these sacred conversations. The collective trust and comfortable setting allowed the men to tolerate a lot of shared unease about such hard topics.

The men gathered twice monthly for the better part of year. Once we incorporated some locals from the shop, one of whom then came to church one Sunday.

Sinatra & Cannoli

Harbor House, the assisted-living facility related to Eger Nursing Home, asked me to begin a group for the male residents. After talking with many of the men I learned that a majority shy away from the usual bingo or craft activities. These just did not seem “manly” enough for them. I also discovered that a large Italian population resides here. Being Italian myself, I knew that two things are always beloved and never balked at by older Italian men: cannoli and Frank Sinatra.

I decided that the medium would be music, and specifically for this audience and context, Frank Sinatra. Sinatra songs have powerful narratives that touch on many of life’s practical issues. “I Did It My Way,” “That’s Life,” and “You’re Nobody Until Somebody Loves You” stir up questions and musings about life, faith, and meaning.

Usually, it would have been an uphill battle to get a group like this to discuss such topics. Here the music made space for them to acknowledge some of the 500-pound gorillas in the room. For example, “I Did It My Way” sparked confessions like “my divorce was probably my fault because I did things my way, the [man’s way], and that’s how I lost my wife.” This led to conversation on emotions, patriarchy, marriage, and compromise. “That’s Life,” which in its own way addresses theodicy and the reality of accepting life on life’s terms. The context was made more intimate and more comfortable by the cannoli I brought. This beloved Italian treat evoked a living-room, after-dinner atmosphere that many of them fondly missed.

In our second year we have moved onto other music they’ve suggested: songs that connect them to their wives, who have passed, or their childhood homes and the love they remember there. Some of these songs are from the 1920s and ’30s. When I find them on YouTube and play them, the emotional connection is so strong that many times we all simply just listen in silence or at times we weep together for the days that have gone by. Here, the spiritual awareness has comes in an appreciation of where they are within this life instead of being resentful and ashamed. Many of them have remarked that this group has given them perspective and on where they have come from, where they are going, and perhaps most importantly, where they are today.

The Power of Small Groups

The sense of community in each of these fellowships has shown me the power of small groups. The feeling of belonging and making genuine connections are miraculous. Here it’s OK to cry, laugh, and feel all the feelings that one might otherwise suppress. While in such a group, participants are free to be their genuinely broken but beautiful selves. Brene Brown says in her book on shame, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t) (Avery, 2007), “Where gratitude and appreciation live, shame cannot exist.” Furthermore, I believe that with a grateful and appreciative heart, anyone anywhere can open up to find a connection with God.

As a chaplain on the diaconal walk, I am called more and more to create sacred spaces outside the church walls for this very reason. In these moments in those shared sacred spaces I have witnessed endless possibilities to nudge the everyday stories of people’s lives into a deeper connection with God and our scripture.

Jason Ciarlante is pursuing certified candidacy toward deacon’s orders in the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

by Rev. Victoria Rebeck

Since deacons lead the church’s ministry to the world–and most especially to people who are usually overlooked or disdained–we are challenged to find new ways to minister alongside them. The old assumption that “if you build it, they will come” to a worship service or church building has long been proven outdated.

Deacons, with our emphasis on building relationships with the oppressed and sending the faithful out into ministries of justice and compassion, are the forerunners of the Good News and the church’s mission (should the church choose to accept it!).

Deacons find they need to develop ever new ways to meet and serve the marginalized, and send God’s people to do likewise. And United Methodist deacons are creating some inspiring new ministries.

The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry provides Emerging Ministry grants every year to new ministries developed by deacons to reach an underserved community and empower laypeople for ministry. We receive a number of excellent proposals and struggle to choose finalists. The agency wishes it had the funds to assist all applicants.

This year’s recipients:

Multitudes Food Truck Ministry
Deacon Christina Ruehl
New Hope Covenant UMC, Savannah, Ga.

Rev. Christina Ruehl

Drawing on the popularity of food trucks, New Covenant UMC will prepare meals in the church kitchen and transport them in a food truck to food-insecure neighborhoods. They aim to feed people where they are and build community among the guests. Christina, along with the church’s elder, will empower laypeople for leadership in the ministry.

They are inviting local chefs, the Chatham Savannah Authority for the Homeless and the Savannah Food Truck Association to partner with them. They will also invite unchurched neighbors who would not enter a church but who want to help others to assist the ministry.

“We hope to create hospitable environments for sharing a meal together with dignity, a value not offered to the homeless population, and with others of different socioeconomic status, also a rare occurrence in modern-day society,” Christina writes in her application. The church anticipates serving 300 meals per month.

The typical soup-kitchen model, Christina notes, “sets up an unfair, patriarchal system that forces participants to obtain transportation as well as swallow their pride in accepting a free meal. I believe the Multitudes food truck ministry can offer compassion and justice with every meal, thus restoring the pride and hope of every homeless person we encounter.”

Reconciler Addiction and Recovery Advocacy
Deacon Adam Burns
UM Church of the Reconciler, Birmingham, Ala.

Rev. Adam Burns

Church of the Reconciler (COTR) assists its impoverished neighbors, including those with substance addiction, to transition from the streets to self-sufficiency. The more well-to-do in the area consider the ministry participants to be “dirty, lazy, and violent,” Adam notes. The Addiction Recovery and Advocacy ministry will use an appreciative inquiry approach to train those in recovery to lead presentations about addiction and teach neighborhood organizations how to support recovery programs.

“The purpose of the ministry is to reveal the beauty, intelligence, and creativity of the COTR community while meeting a need of our local community,” Adam says in his application. “By empowering the men and women of the COTR community to address the hurt caused by addiction and to share the love of God and hope found in Christ Jesus, I will continue to fulfill my call as a deacon.”

The ministry will work with a representative of the National Institute on Drug Abuse to create a 30- to 45-minute presentation that will accurately define addiction, reveal effective treatment options, and identify local services that can help. COTR community members, particularly those in recovery, will receive training to deliver the presentation to churches and downtown businesses.

“I can think of no better messenger of hope than the men and women of COTR,” Adam says. “Through the very act of presenting they will not only educate their audience but the will demonstrate the grace of God and hope found in recovery.

“It will also give purpose to homeless and low-income men and women of COTR who are desperately looking for ways to give back.”

Naivapeace
Deacon Jerioth Wangeci Gichigi
Trinity UMC, Naivasha, Kenya

Rev. Jerioth Wangeci Gichigi

Kenya’s elections are marked by profound conflict that can erupt into violence. This is particularly true in the Naivasha District. Deacon Jerioth Wangeci Gichigi of Trinity UMC is one of the leaders of Naivapeace, which send church leaders to preach and teach peace and reconciliation to gatherings in conflicted neighborhoods.

Though the elections were held on August 8, 2017, Naivapeace has a two-year strategy to reach every ward in the district. Given that on Sept. 1, the Kenya Supreme Court ruled the election invalid and in violation of the constitution, Naivapeace’s ministry continues to be urgent.

“Naivasha constituency has 42 tribes represented, and we all vote differently,” Jerioth says in her application. “In 2007, it was the area affected most by violence–1,300 were killed and many displaced. This year’s election is similar to that of 2007 and the country is as divided as it was.”

Jerioth will be preaching in the wards and training leaders to extend the peacemaking ministry further.

*********

Emerging Ministry Grants are offered annually, Applications are available after Jan. 1 and due July 1. Provisional and full-member deacons as well as diaconal ministers may apply. After Jan. 1, write to the office of deacons and diaconal ministers to request an application.

Victoria Rebeck is director of deacon ministry support, certification programs, and provisional membership development for the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

 

 

 

 

 

A Deacon’s Eye for Writing

Deacons —  June 14, 2017

by Rev. Darryl W. Stephens

How might writing augment your ministry as a deacon, leading congregations in interpreting the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world (Discipline 2016, para. 328)?

Rev. Darryl Stephens

We live in a world awash with words. Facebook posts, Twitter feeds, the 24-hour news cycle, countless websites, and books on every topic imaginable—anyone with anything to say, it seems, can contribute to the cacophony. Why, then, would a deacon choose to write as an expression of ministry?

It is tempting to claim silence as a counter-cultural witness, to hide behind the words so often attributed to St. Francis, “Preach Jesus, and if necessary use words.” Cannot our actions be our witness?

Yet, many of the most powerful influences in our lives come through the written word. The Bible, that theologian you read in seminary who stretched your thinking, a love letter, or a thank you note—written words powerfully express ideas and feelings. Other people’s writings help us interpret our world and God, who created it. Your writing can do the same.

The written word is an exercise of leadership, helping others see what you see as you look upon the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world in light of God’s good future.

As deacons, we share a distinct perspective, seeing the world though what I have called a “deacon’s eye” for compassion and justice. You don’t have to be as eloquent as Annie Dillard (The Writing Life) or Barbara Brown Taylor (The Preaching Life) to make writing a part of your ministry. You just have to be intentional about using the written word to communicate what you see, hear, and experience in your ministry.

I offer four encouragements:

  • Writing is a spiritual discipline. Writing, like prayer and peacemaking, is a spiritual discipline. It requires intentionality and practice. There will be many distractions and impediments. Start small and grow from there. Daily writing time can include personal letters, substantive emails, blogs, newsletter articles, and more. As you write, consider how your perspective as a deacon shapes and is shaped by the words you write. I find that writing helps me better understand my own spiritual journey.
  • Writing is a form of witness. Proclamation is not just for the pulpit. Your words indicate what is important to you. As a deacon, when you write, you write not only on your own behalf but also on behalf of the church that authorizes your ministry. Writing can be a powerful, public proclamation of what motivates you in the ministry of Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice. When you write about your ministry, you can proclaim not only what you do but also why you do it. God will speak through your words. People will be inspired and challenged.
  • Writing is a tool for justice. Words perform. There is no neat distinction between words and actions. When you write, your words have effect. To motivate others for the work of justice, your words do not have to be profound, poetic, or overtly prophetic in their advocacy. Trust your call. Your deacon’s eye gives you a distinct perspective on the world around you, a viewpoint that is inherently suffused with justice. Sometimes, just drawing attention to an overlooked injustice can be enough to stir others to meaningful action.
  • Writing is an exercise of leadership. As a commissioned or ordained deacon, you have a role as a servant leader, both in your congregation and in your community. No matter your area of specialization, writing will enhance your ability to lead, connecting the church and world in ways that only God can fully anticipate or understand. The written word is an exercise of leadership, helping others see what you see as you look upon the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world in light of God’s good future.

Isn’t that worth sharing? Isn’t that worth writing about?

Darryl W. Stephens is a deacon of the Texas Annual Conference and author of many articles and books about the church and its ministry. His most recent book, Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church’s Witness (University of Tennessee Press, 2016), is accompanied by a six-session study guide. Read his commentary “Christian ethics in volatile times,” which exemplifies his use of the “deacon’s eye” in writing.

 

By Rev. Jessica Stonecypher

“The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it.”—Genesis 2:15

I’m a farmer. Well, really, I’m more of a community organizer seeking to bring people together around the idea of farming.

Jessica Stonecypher

It’s an endeavor that I’ve been dreaming of for many years and I’m excited to be actively participating in a growing movement around local foods and urban agriculture in my community. When I discerned my call to environmental ministry, I knew it would be a struggle. There simply aren’t many who can wrap their brains around how or why an ordained minister would devote her life to such a vocation. But as I’ve grown into my role as a deacon, I’ve learned that I would be miserable without engaging in the work that drew me to set-apart ministry in the first place.

As a result, I landed a grant-funded gig with Muskingum Soil and Water Conservation District. I was hired to work primarily in the Putnam neighborhood of Zanesville, Ohio, to create community gardens in an effort to alleviate food insecurity.

Putnam has been deemed a “food desert” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meaning residents don’t easily have access to a grocery store. In addition to this injustice, the neighborhood also doesn’t have a laundromat or a pharmacy. It would be easy to conclude that the Putnam neighborhood has been neglected.

Even so, Putnam is a wonderful place. While it is deeply affected by poverty, food insecurity, and drug abuse, it is also a vibrant community where people are connected and most are striving to make it a better place. Non-profits, churches, businesses, and residents alike are working together to solve these problems. It’s simply amazing!

The place where I do much of my ministry is a local faith-based coffee shop called the Bridge Café. Yesterday, I stopped by to use the restroom and purchase an iced tea (it was a hot day in the garden). What happened during my visit provides a fitting snapshot of the ministry I madly love.

In just a few short minutes I encountered a group of fellow clergy meeting over lunch, two guests of my church’s homeless shelter, a local school administrator, a fellow community garden leader, and the owner of the coffee shop with whom I work closely on one of our garden projects. As a deacon, my love for the world and for my work in common places like gardens and coffee shops bring me the joy and energy I need to overcome the challenges of unconventional ministry.

I’ve learned that I would be miserable without engaging in the work that drew me to set apart ministry in the first place.

My work in connecting the church and the world is a tricky one that requires constant attention to what is appropriate for a clergy person who happens to work for the government. I am constantly thinking of new ways to go about it.

Some of this has been through preaching and teaching eco-theology as well as inviting parishioners into my work in the gardens. Just as exciting for me is the reality that living out my call to ministry is an act of affirmation and encouragement for lay members as they connect the church to the world in their own contexts. My hope is to offer others the freedom to think about ministry as a lifestyle rather than something one does only at church functions.

Community garden plots in the Putnam neighborhood.

Community garden plots in the Putnam neighborhood.

As I look to the future, I’ve been working hard to secure funding to continue my ministry after the grant period is complete in December 2017. This has required imagination and creativity about the future of my work. To date, my agency has applied for a United Way grant that would allow us to teach nutrition and gardening skills in Head Start classrooms and afterschool programs. We have also applied for a USDA Farm to School Grant in partnership with a local school district. Our largest grant application is through USA Today, which required the creation of a promotional video and a public voting period. We are now waiting to hear back about these grants in hopes that at least one of them will be awarded.

In the midst of all of the activity and hustle to make my ministry sustainable, I am learning the importance of relationships and trust in God. In a few short months I may be out of a job.

With that comes a great deal of anxiety. But it has also given me the opportunity to realize that God will not give up on me and most importantly God will not give up on the world. In return, I will not give up on my ministry as a deacon seeking to connect the church and the world around the issues of environmentalism and food justice.

Rev. Jessica Stonecypher, who will be ordained a deacon in full connection in the West Ohio Conference this spring, is Urban Agriculture Specialist at Muskingum Soil and Water Conservation District.

The 2016 Book of Discipline has just become available in print, in Kindle format, and a free online version. Now is the time to renew your acquaintance with some key passages.

If you are an ordained United Methodist clergyperson, you should be familiar with The Book of Discipline. Some parts of it may not be of direct relevance to you. However, there are sections you need to know well in order to advocate for your ministry and educate others about the diaconate.

Here’s your guide to reviewing the Discipline.

Paragraphs 301-304: Ordination

Like many deacons, you may be asked why you don’t become a real minister or why you have to be ordained to do your ministry, or are told that the order of elder is “above” the order of deacon, etc. You need to be able to explain to people (and this may include your district superintendent, Board of Ordained Ministry, and elders) the meaning of ordination in the United Methodist Church.

The Discipline section on the origins of the diaconate is limited, so I recommend you read up on the history of the diaconate. You should also read the ordination ordinal–particularly the vows and the theological and liturgical introduction–which does a fuller job of presenting our theology of ordination. Among other things, it points out that ordination is significantly about the relationship of the ordained to the church:

Ordination of elders and deacons is both to an office and, when the ordained are later elected into full membership, for a lifetime of service. Ordination confers a new role in the life of the church as well as authority for leadership in specific forms of ministry. The new role of the ordained in the life of the church is claimed in relation to Christ and his call to leadership and service among the baptized for the life of the world. The authority given is exercised in stewardship of the mysteries of the gospel and of the church’s mission in the world. Ordination itself is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit. . . . Upon ordination, ordained elders and deacons become accountable to the whole church, to the community of the ordained, and to the order of elders or deacons of which they are a part. [Services for the Ordering of Ministry in The United Methodist Church, 2017-2020, as Revised by Action of the 2016 General Conference (The United Methodist Publishing House, 2016), p. 7; emphasis added]

As you read, identify key words and phrases that define ordination. That will help you in your interpretative work.

Paragraphs 305-309: Clergy Orders

In the United Methodist Church, clergy orders are not just categories, but also covenant communities. Read these paragraphs to learn how you DeaconDiscipline2.best.smare accountable to your order and what your order could be doing to support the ministries of its members.

Paragraphs 310-314: Candidacy

Are you a certified candidate, or pursuing candidacy, for ordination? Are you a candidacy mentor? Read these paragraphs to better understand the process. Do not passively wait for someone to define it for you. They may be mistaken. And you may have to advocate for due process for yourself or the candidate you are mentoring.

Paragraphs 324-327, 330: Education and Provisional Membership

If you are in process toward ordination or are a clergy mentor, read these paragraphs to understand the educational requirements for ordination.

If you are a provisional member, read these paragraphs so you understand the process, how you may be appointed, voting rights, and ordination requirements. Again, do not passively wait for someone to define this for you. They may be mistaken. And you may have to advocate for due process for yourself or for a provisional member you are mentoring.

Paragraphs 328-329: Deacon Ministry, Authority, and Responsibilities

These paragraphs spell out our roles of clergy leadership in church and community as well as voting rights. While elders order the life of the congregation and church, deacons lead the faithful to live out their baptismal vows in their communities, workplaces, etc.

Note that the process for requesting the responsibility to preside at communion or baptism has changed a bit (see paragraph 328). The bishop in the area where the deacon is appointed is responsible for deciding on a deacon’s request for such responsibility. (Note that presiding is a responsibility and not “a right” or “authority.”)

Paragraph 331: Appointment Settings, Pay, Benefits

Read through this paragraph so you are clear about where and how deacons serve in primary or secondary appointments, in congregations or beyond the local church. You’ll find here:

  • Places of appointment
  • Requesting appointment
  • “Secondary” appointments
  • Initiating a ministry
  • Pay and benefits
  • Charge conference membership
  • Process for termination from a church appointment

Paragraph 349: Evaluation Process

General Conference 2016 approved a new evaluation process for clergy. It’s rather detailed so it is worth reading paragraph 349 in its entirety. Your annual conference has three years to develop and initiate a plan, so it may not begin until Jan. 2, 2020. You will want to know, however, what lies ahead.

Paragraph 350: Continuing Education

You have rights and responsibilities to take spiritual growth leaves. Learn how to request and account for fulfilling these opportunities.

Paragraphs 351-356: Leaves

There are a number of voluntary and involuntary leaves. Before you request one, find out what they entail and ask for the one you need. General Conference 2016 limited Transitional Leave to just one year. If you are between appointments, you may want to request a Personal Leave (paragraph 353.2a) instead.

Paragraph 356: Retirement

If you are approaching retirement, read this paragraph to learn when and how to ask for this relationship with the conference.

Paragraph 359: “Ineffectiveness” Remediation

If a bishop believes you are ineffective in your ministry, the bishop is required to follow a process to identify what she or he sees as your shortcomings and develop with you a plan for improvement. Know the process so you can fully understand the steps and make sure they are not overlooked.

Paragraphs 361-362: Complaint Procedures

There is a fair process for discontinuance of provisional membership, involuntary leaves or retirements, and administrative location (paragraph 359–see above). Likewise, there is one for complaints that a clergyperson has violated the sacred trust of the people. Even if you do not anticipate facing any of these situations, it is still worth the time to read through paragraphs. You may one day be on the Board of Ordained Ministry, or find yourself counseling a colleague. Again, know the process so you can advocate for your or others’ rights.

The Social Principles (Part V)

Given that the deacon’s ministry is one of compassion and justice, the Social Principles are among our key resources. It is worth reviewing these to refresh your memory as well as noting if there have been changes since you last read them. Many claims are made about what the Social Principles say; know how to check the facts.

Carve out a couple of hours to read these paragraphs. (It probably won’t take even that long.) Don’t be in the vulnerable position of asking others what The Discipline says and risk being told something inaccurate. And by knowing the Discipline, you will be a helpful guide for others as well.

Caring for the strangers among us

Deacons —  January 17, 2017

By Rev. Stanislav Prokhorov

Stanislav Prokhorov

Stanislav Prokhorov

Samara (Russia) United Methodist Church has opened its doors to the many refugees who have come to that town seeking new lives. Deacon Stanislav Prokhorov has helped that church in its ministries to those sojourners, helping them navigate the city and government systems, find apartments, pay rent and obtain food, and receive the warmth of a caring community. Under Deacon Stanislav’s leadership, this ministry received a 2015 Emerging Ministry Grant from General Board of Higher Education and MinistryStanislav offers these reflections on this vital ministry to the community.

It is difficult to name a single challenge that the Russian church is facing. To my mind, life in Russia in general is one big challenge with constantly changing factors. The limited work of social care institutions

A child tries on new clothing that Samara United Methodist Church helped her family to obtain.

A child tries on new clothing that Samara United Methodist Church helped her family to obtain.

leaves much room for action. We can’t say that we live in the Middle Ages, not by any means. However, the institutions do not fulfil their duties. There are few NGOs, volunteers or churches who work in the spheres neglected.

There is a wide range of activities a church can engage in. For instance, they can reach out to the homeless, drug addicts and alcoholics,

disabled people, single mothers, orphanages, refugees, etc. The former Soviet republics face various social conflicts and there are many people around us who are refugees or immigrants. We also must mention the conflicts in the Eastern Ukraine, immigrants from Central Asia, and victims of real estate fraud—the many who look for help outside of their countries of birth.

One year ago, thanks to the Emerging Ministries Grant from the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, our church has received support to serve people who are aliens in our land, to use the biblical term.

John Wesley spoke about social holiness in action. We see it as a challenge to act, leave the comfort of our churches and help those who are in need. We may not be able to change the whole world, but we can help real people and make their lives far from home a little bit better.

Rev. Stanislav Prokhorov is a deacon at Samara United Methodist Church, Samara, Russia. Learn more about this ministry here

 

by Victoria Rebeck

This year (2016), The United Methodist Church is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the full-member clergy deacon.

But’s it’s not just a 20th anniversary. It’s really more like a 2000th anniversary.

In 1996, The United Methodist Church joined an ecumenical movement by clarifying that it has two distinct orders of ordained ministry: deacon and elder. You might think of deacons as diaconal ministers who transitioned into ordained ministry. However, the diaconal minister and the deacon are different. When the UMC determined to have two orders of clergy—deacons and elders—it recovered the ancient diaconate.

New Testament through Fourth Century

The diaconate goes back to the New Testament. The two offices in the church were bishop (overseer/pastor) and deacon (server/emissary), who worked closely together (see Phil. 1:1, Rom. 16:1, 1 Tim. 3:8-13). Women and men made up the diaconate.

From the first to the end of the fourth century, the diaconate grew and was very active. Historians refer to this as the “Golden Age of the Diaconate.”

  • Number of deacons increased significantly
  • Importance enhanced
  • Functions more clearly delineated
  • Ignatius describes the bishop in terms similar to today’s parish pastor. The presbyters were a council who worked with and advised the bishop in congregational governance. Deacons assisted the church in fulfilling its ministry and at times assisted its leading officer.

Toward the end of this period, deacons could administer communion or baptize in grave or urgent circumstances.

As happens throughout church history, the church became enamored of secular forms of organization and order. In the late fourth century (post-Nicene) era, the church started to restructure similar to Roman government. Bishops became regional. Presbyters became priests. Deacon became a stepping stone “up” to presbyter and then “up” to bishop; it was an apprenticeship to the “higher” role of priest. Deacons no longer formed the bishop’s personal staff as they had up to this point. (Church hierarchy succession became doorkeeper, lector, exorcist, acolyte, subdeacon, deacon, presbyter, and bishop.) The role of archdeacon started to appear; the archdeacon performed fiscal, judicial, legal, and charitable work.

United Methodist elders who were ordained deacon first are thus part of the “medieval” diaconate.

Revival: 16th through 18th centuries

Despite this reduction of the diaconate to the role of junior priest, church leaders and reformers saw in the ancient diaconate such an important ministry that they promoted its renewal.

Some recovery of the early diaconate was proposed during the Reformation. Martin Luther urged returning deacons to what he thought was the biblical function–caring for the poor. John Calvin saw deacons as “ministers of the word” who administer the finances of the church and gather and distribute alms. John Wesley organized some women into “deaconess” roles of ministry among the poor and the sick.

The diaconate experienced a significant revival in Victorian times, particularly in Europe and to some extent, the United States. Victorian era diaconia took the form of lay orders of people in servant ministry—mostly women in deaconess orders, though there were some male communities of deacons as well. It coincides with the social worker-movement and Jane Addams’s settlement house movement. Many of these lay diaconal communities remain active in ministry to this day. The Methodist Episcopal Church participated in this movement in 1888 when it approved the creation of a deaconess office. This branch continues via United Methodist Women’s lay order of deaconesses and home missioners.

20th Century Recovery

The World Council of Church’s Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry document (1982) noted a movement in many churches to “restore the diaconate as an ordained ministry with its own dignity and meant to be exercised for life. . . . By struggling in Christ’s name with the myriad needs of societies and persons, deacons exemplify the interdependence of worship and service in the church’s life.”

Episcopal Church established a permanent diaconate in 1950s, for people who would retain their secular vocations. Vatican II also established a permanent clergy diaconate in the Catholic Church (just for men). These days some are providing pastoral care in Catholic churches where there is not a priest available or assigned. The Methodist Church in Britain established a full member order of deacons in 1993.

The United Methodist Church followed suit in 1996 by establishing two orders of clergy in full membership: elders and deacons, and direct ordination to both. That General Conference also spelled out in the Discipline more explicit expectations of an order, as a Wesleyan community of support and accountability.

This diaconate recovers the ancient/New Testament meaning of the term deacon. While lay diaconal ministers could pursue ordination as deacons, the transition was not automatic.

Diaconal ministers are trained lay people doing important ministries of compassion and justice. Many had served in the office of lay worker as specialized leaders of education, youth work, children’s ministry, music ministry, and others.

In contrast, deacons, as ordained clergy, take ordination vows. The vows are virtually identical to those taken by elders, other than each promises to participate in their respective order. Just before the vows, the distinct ministries of each order of ministry is delineated. The Holy Spirit is invited to pour through the ordinands, to empower them to keep their baptismal and ordination vows and live out the ministry of their order.

It is the taking of ordination vows that sets ordained clergy apart amidst the baptized. Ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church is described by The Book of Discipline as representative. The role of clergy in the United Methodist Church is to enable and support, not assume by proxy, the ministry of the baptized.

The ordinal and the Discipline are clear about these aspects of the ordination and deacons:

  • The diaconate is a lifetime ministry of service and is not a stepping-stone to elder’s orders.
  • The United Methodist understanding of ordination returns to the early church practice in which baptism was the only sacramental prerequisite for ordination.
  • Deacons have worship leadership, congregational leadership, and community leadership responsibilities.
  • As clergy members of a conference and of an order rather than a congregation, deacons and elders have leadership responsibilities and accountability across the connection.
  • The ordinal expresses the equality, connectedness, and distinctiveness of our historic orders and ministries.

The deacon’s ministry is not the justice and advocacy ministry that she does as a baptized Christian. It is the leadership and training she provides to baptized Christians to live out their baptismal vows in the world. It is also a prophetic leadership of the church across the connection—not just in a local setting—that calls the church to the Godly requirements of loving mercy, doing justly, and walking humbly with God.

That’s the ancient diaconate recovered. Those of us who are deacons in full membership are part of the ancient/New Testament diaconate.

It was the wisdom of the early church that we needed leaders to oversee the life of the faith community and leaders to lead the faith community into the world in ministry.

The Diaconate and the United Methodist Mission

Research by Thom Rainer, president of Lifeway Christian Resources, found that “the most common factor in declining churches is an inward focus.” Churches that have an inward focus don’t do much to reach neighbors. Church meetings become arguments about personal preferences. The past is the hero. Culture is seen as the enemy instead of a medium to share God’s love.

The leader who has particular responsibility to help the church focus outside of the church is the deacon.

One way to look at this is to recall the Great Commandment: Love God and love your neighbor.

When Wesley said that “there is no religion but social religion,” he was saying that we do not fully follow God if we try to do so by ourselves. Following God is a group activity and entails group support and accountability. That is why we need the church: to be the gathered community that helps us worship God as a community, clarify our beliefs, hold each other accountable. Ordering that community of faith largely lies in the order of elders, as do the roles of ordering the wider church (district superintendent and bishop). That’s leading the commandment of loving God.

Jesus did not stop there. He said in the same breath that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our gathering as a faith community also should be preparing us to leave the church walls to share God’s love with those we meet, particularly people who are neglected, ignored, disparaged, oppressed. Preparing and leading the faithful into ministry in the neighborhood and largely lies in the order of deacons. That’s leading the commandment of loving neighbor.

The early church was right. We need both kinds of leadership.

Of course, there is overlap in these areas. The lines are NOT drawn in indelible ink. We lead where needed. These overlap with the ministries of the laity as well.

At the same time, when there is clarity of responsibility, it is more likely that those responsibilities will be met.

Just as these two focuses of ministry are intertwined, these two kinds of leadership must be closely collaborative in order for the church to love God and neighbor to the fullness of its ability.

We have an opportunity to bring renewal to the church by exemplifying the collaborative ministry of elder and deacon. Instead of buying into the hierarchical view of ministry, we have the opportunity to adopt Jesus’ teaching that all ministry is humble service. Deacons and elders in partnership can give birth to a renewed expression of a worldwide church that does justly, loves mercy, and walks humbly with God.

Resources

The Diaconate: A Full and Equal Order, by James Barnett. Trinity Press International, 1995

 “The Office of Deacon: A Historical Summary,” by Charles Yrigoyen Jr. Quarterly Review, Winter 1999 (General Board of Higher Education and Ministry)

“Deacons as Emissary-Servants: A Liturgical Theology,” by Benjamin L. Hartley. Quarterly Review, Winter 1999 (General Board of Higher Education and Ministry)

“Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology, Part 3: Ordination and Sacramental Authority,” by Rev. Dr. Taylor Burton Edwards. United Methodist Worship blog.

“The Most Common Factor in Declining Churches,” By Thom S. Rainer. Lifeway/Pastors blog,