by Rev. Doris K. Dalton
I am an ordained deacon serving in the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference. I am currently serving in two deacon-elder ministry partnerships, in a primary appointment beyond the local church and in a secondary appointment developing a community of faith. Both of these appointments speak to God’s vision of ministry for me: extending God’s table of Love so that all can eat and be full.
My primary appointment is to the Central District office in the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference as district resource assistant, and I work in partnership with the district superintendent. Generally, this means I manage the district office in supporting the work and vision of the district superintendent and provide resources to the churches in the District. We have a mutually beneficial working relationship as a deacon/elder team and as colleagues.
In my primary appointment to the district office, my ministry calling is to provide resources to congregations and clergy so they are able to fulfill their ministry purposes. In this way, I am able to fulfill my desire to make disciples and servant leaders through empowering the district superintendent, clergy, and congregations. Together, we are able to model what deacon/elder partnerships are able to accomplish across a district.
First love: economic justice
My secondary appointment is to the creation of a new faith community, Plumbline Community in Philadelphia, where I work with an elder. She is a church planter who is gifted in vision and worship and has a deep sensibility on how to call communities into existence. Together, we are doing the exciting work of foundation-building and planting seeds of a new community.
Here I have many opportunities to live out my “first love” of ministry, which is economic development and justice. In planting a community of faith, I am able to speak directly to my passion to create a ministry that is able to bring positive impact to the disenfranchised and marginalized. In the visioning process for planting a community of faith, I work with the vision team in establishing justice-oriented values and theological touch points that can guide this community of faith to live within the tension of diversity, multiculturalism and interculturalism. My elder colleague in this appointment and I share many common theological starting points, and we are enthusiastic about working together in this season of our ministry journey.
I have worked in partnership with three elders so far (my first deacon-elder partnership was in a local church in an economically oppressed area of Philadelphia). In all three of these partnership experiences, I have found that successful partnerships between deacons and elders require the following factors:
- alignment of calling and vision
- establishing communication agreements
- understanding and respecting roles
- know thyself
Aligning calling & vision
Each person of the ministry partnership must embrace his or her particular calling and vision for ministry. These callings and visions for ministry do not need to match, but they do need to align in order to accomplish the ministry purposes at hand. God brings deacons and elders together for a particular ministry purpose and for a designated ministry season, where these ministry callings and visions align for a time. In each instance where I “found” my ministry partner, it was truly more of a Holy Spirit movement than anything that my partner or I did to produce the partnership.
Deacon-elder partnerships also work best when we have established agreements about the importance of communication. Just like that awkward stage when relationships are beginning to bloom, my elder and I would have that “moment” where we began to be honest with each other about our needs, vulnerabilities, sensitivities, and ministry desires. These conversations can be intentionally done in the beginning or occur naturally over time; however it is important to pay attention to each other and honor communication agreements once they are established. Each partnership is unique and evolving, therefore the parameters regarding communication are different. However, the similarities in communication boundaries are many: maintain open and honest communication, tell the truth, put aside personal agendas and ego, be honest about our vulnerabilities as well as our strengths, and hold each other in love. Good and intentional communication is vital for ministry partnerships.
Another important factor involves understanding and respecting roles. Each partner in the ministry team is very clear on the roles and ministry of deacons and elders, how they are similar and different, complementary yet unique. This helps each person to respect boundaries as well as invite each other to live out their ministry callings to the fullest extent for the universal benefit of the ministry partnership. We are able to celebrate our unique gifts and roles and welcome other deacons and elders around us into that celebration.
Finally, knowing myself and being honest with myself allows me to approach ministry partnerships and collaborations with an elder colleague with confidence in my own power, my own authority, and my own abilities. It also allows me to give myself grace for my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Working with an elder colleague with the same confidences of her own strengths, challenges, abilities and authority means that we are able to work together without fears of being rejected, manipulated, or undermined. One of the best things I ever did was to take a training session with one of my partnering elders on understanding our conflict modes and typical patterns of action and reaction in different situations. It allowed us to finally articulate why we work together so well, giving us a greater insight of how we can continue to effectively collaborate in the future. Once we are able to understand ourselves and each other, we have a better vocabulary for informing, inspiring and inviting others into deacon-elder ministry partnerships.
For deacons who are in the process of developing healthy partnerships with elders, I recommend that you continually develop self-awareness, be your best advocate, and establish good communication practices from the beginning. Also, be forgiving of your ministry partner’s challenges, and at the same time ensure you have boundaries to keep yourself healthy and balanced.
Start shifting the culture
For those who are looking for ways to promote deacon-elder partnerships within a district or conference, there are a number of things that can be done to begin this cultural shift.
- Establish visibility that will allow you to share information about Deacons. One way to do this is to ask Deacons to serve in their roles at communion services and worship services at annual conference or district events. As people are able to visualize deacons and elders in their roles, the ability to imagine the possibilities of deacon-elder partnerships begins to rise.
- Use opportunities to demonstrate the roles of deacons and elders together. Eastern Pennyslvania’s Bishop Peggy Johnson always brings a deacon with her when she visits churches within the conference. This allows her to share information about the roles of deacons in ministry and invite other elders to include deacons in their worship services. District superintendents can adopt this practice as well.
- Hold retreats and training events that focus on deepening ministry partnerships and invite deacons and elders to attend for the purpose of strengthening existing ministry partnerships and creating potential ministry partnerships. Many elders are reluctant to engage in a deacon-elder partnership because the details and responsibilities can seem daunting. Demythologizing assumptions and sharing concrete details can provide for a smoother beginning to ministry partnerships.
- Educate leaders first. Take or make opportunities to share information with district Committees on Ordained Ministry, conference Boards of Ordained Ministry, the bishop, and Cabinet. Sign up to lead trainings at district or conference laity training events, particularly those to target Staff-Pastor-Parish Committees.
A ministry partnership between a deacon and an elder is hard work because it requires collaboration and compromise between each other, and the willingness to understand one another. However, the benefits and rewards of a ministry partnership between the deacon and elder are exponential. We are able to work with mutual support instead of in isolation. Our efforts in ministry have a wider impact because of our collaboration rather than if we were operating on our own. We can share responsibilities that play to our gifts and talents while we develop new skills. Most importantly, our work together demonstrates the church’s capacity to touch and minister to the whole need of the world around us.