Archives For Leadership

Our sacramental ministry

Deacons —  June 16, 2014

Often we hear that the difference between the ministry deacons and elders (and by extension, between elders and lay people) are the sacraments. We’ve heard it said that elders have “sacramental authority.”

The Rev. Sharon Rubey assisted with Holy Communion during opening worship at the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.  A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

The Rev. Sharon Rubey assisted with Holy Communion during opening worship at the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

To some, this phrase suggests that elders have a special relationship (perhaps even ownership) of the sacraments; that elders somehow care more than others do about the sacraments.

Maybe the sacraments do NOT constitute the dividing line between elders and all other Christians.

Rev. Taylor Burton Edwards, director of worship resources for the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Discipleship, challenges the accuracy of the term “sacramental authority” as applied to United Methodist ordination:

“The Ordinal of The United Methodist Church, true to our biblical ontology and understanding of the Spirit’s work in the world, in baptism, in Holy Communion and in ordination, nowhere posits the ordination of elders somehow transmits to these persons some sort of “substance” (Greek!) that brings with it what is often commonly referred to as ‘sacramental authority,”‘ Taylor notes in his blog post “Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology, Part 3: Ordination and Sacramental Authority.”

He adds, “Perhaps it’s time to reclaim the fullness of what the Ordinal provides. ‘Take authority as an elder . . . to administer the Holy Sacraments . . .’ The work of presiding is not a right, but a service to the body, a solemn and joyous responsibility the body entrusts principally to the elders the Church has ordained.”

The sacraments (baptism and Eucharist) are God’s gifts to the church. They belong to all of us. We all practice them. Elders are responsible for administering them with care and providing the people of God frequent opportunity to practice them.

The deacon has a role, by Discipline, to assist the elder in the administration of the sacraments. The deacon’s ancient, early-church role of representing the church’s servant ministry (in worship and elsewhere) is as crucial as the elder’s role of representing the church’s priestly ministry. The two are interrelated aspects of Christ’s ministry (see Matt. 20:28, for example).

And of course, lay people, no less than clergy, have an essential role in sacramental practice. The liturgy—the work of the people—is essential to both sacraments. We have not practiced the sacraments when we have excised the crucial work of the people.

Deacons’ leadership both in these acts of worship and in ministries of compassion and justice connects the two. Deacons “interrelate worship in the gathered community with service to God in the world.” This service is one of love, justice, and service, “connecting the church with the most needy, neglected, and marginalized among the children of God” (United Methodist Book of Discipline, para. 328). By equipping the worshiper for compassion and justice ministries done in Christ’s name, we help the church live sacramentally in the world.

Rev. Dr. Dwight and Rev. Linda Vogel remind us that, according to Augustine, a sacrament is a “sacred sign” or a “visible word.” “In a sacrament,” the Vogels say, “a reality beyond our immediate apprehension is perceived by our senses. What we perceive is a sign of something more than what is immediately at hand. In them, a mysterious and transcendent reality comes into the world of our experience through signs/acts we perceive” (“Deacons as Sacraments of the Table,” by Dwight W. and Linda J. Vogel, © 2006).

“Deacons are ‘sacred signs’ and ‘visible words’ of the unity of service and justice with the ministry of grace,” the Vogels say. “Through embodying that unity in their own ministry, the Church can perceive in and through them a reality beyond our immediate apprehension.” (They encourage a similar analysis for the ministry elders and all the baptized.)

I urge deacons to claim their responsibility to act as sign/acts of God’s grace through Christ’s service. Teach elders what this means in the context of the partnership of worship leadership. Demonstrate it through the ways you follow the ordination charge to “take authority as a deacon to proclaim the Word of God and to lead God’s people in ministries of compassion and justice; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Take responsibility for living and interpreting these sacramental ministries. In so doing you challenge the perception that sacraments are the property of a group of clergy. You equip all believers likewise to live sacramentally, to point to God’s grace, through their own worship and ministry.

Deacons who are appointed beyond the local church also have appointments to a local congregation, where they are to take missional responsibility for leading other Christians into ministries of service. The Discipline does not say much about what such secondary appointments look like (¶331.5), leaving a lot of flexibility for the deacon and congregation to shape the appointment.

Plan your secondary appointment to meet your gifts, interests, and availability. If, like many deacons, you serve a demanding primary appointment beyond the local church, you certainly need not consider the secondary appointment an additional part-time job. Offer reasonable ways you can provide leadership.

Also consider entering into a secondary appointment covenant. This can confirm agreement on matters such as time commitment, office space, continuing education funds, worship participation, and more.

Here are just a few suggestions to get you thinking. Again, customize your ministry to fit your gifts, the church’s ministry priorities, and your availability.

  • Preach on occasion
  • Conduct weddings or funerals on occasion
  • Facilitate a seasonal study group (Lent, Advent, other)
  • Lead a spiritual formation group or a retreat on reflection/action
  • Assist in worship leadership/lead worship on occasion
  • Assist elder in the administration of the sacraments
  • Extend communion to those who cannot be present (see This Holy Mystery)
  • Inform the congregation about opportunities to participate in and support United Methodist missions
  • Share with the congregation (in worship, newsletter, other) prayer requests for needs in the community and world
  • Lead laypeople into a community ministry (one-time event or ongoing): food drive, disaster-relief kit drive; school-supplies drive, public-policy advocacy (contacting legislators about policy that affects those on the margins), environmental stewardship, clothing drive, mission trips, promote volunteer outreach opportunities
  • Train lay people in worship leadership practices (reading scripture, assisting with communion, etc.)
  • Serve as a chaplain at a shelter or community meal
  • Mentor and guide laypeople as they explore where God may be calling them into ministry (lay or ordained)
  • Mentor a confirmand
  • Lead a confirmation session/new membership session on discipleship & compassion ministries

While district superintendents supervise clergy, including deacons, they tend to get pulled to emergencies and urgent tasks. Sometimes they don’t find time to meet with the clergy who do not pose a problem!

Given that district superintendents are the “chief missional strategists” of the conference (¶419.1), assist them by helping them think about how they can make use of deacons in their strategy. Demonstrate how you and other deacons in your conference connect people outside the church to the church’s ministry. This is one way to keep the ministry of deacons before the cabinet.

Here are some ways some deacons are taking initiative:

Initiate meetings: Contact your district superintendent and ask to meet with them quarterly or semi-annually for a lunch or other convenient time.

Group meetings: If your district has three or more deacons, consider group rather than individual meetings with the district superintendent.

Agenda: Take initiative on preparing what you’d like to discuss with the DS. Possibilities:

  • An update on your ministry, particularly how you are equipping the baptized to address the needs of the world.
  • An update on what your order is doing to lead the conference’s ministry to equip the baptized and lead the church’s mission to the marginalized.
  • Suggestions on how you and/or the order would like to assist the district or conference in meeting the UMC mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Examples: Lead the conference in a hands-on mission project at annual conference session; create and train churches in using a curriculum to address poverty in your region; design a training for churches in developing discipleship systems; consult in your area of expertise, etc.
  • Information refreshers: The Disciplinary description that the deacon assists in worship and what that looks like; appointment and severance processes for deacons; Disciplinary paragraphs on compensation and benefits for deacons; appropriate deacon appointments; how deacon ministries enhance a congregation’s ministry to the community; helping Staff-Parish Relations Committees understand their responsibilities related to deacons; etc.
  • Ask how you can hold the DS in your prayers