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.
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,