Archives For Social Issues

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.

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 Rev. Lois Rogers-Watson

Many thanks to the Board of Higher Education and Ministry for the financial help I received toward attending the DOTAC 2015 meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil! What a rich experience it was!

Lois Rogers-Watson

Lois Rogers-Watson

Highlights of the Conference for me were several. First of all, the worship was deeply spiritual. It was well planned and executed. Our music leader was exceptionally fine and the chosen music was not only beautiful and easy to sing but it was theologically sound, in my humble opinion. Naturally, we servant leaders identified with the call to serve and to work for justice about which both the music and the liturgy spoke.

The evening worship services led by Lutherans were truly beautiful. We United Methodists could learn from the liturgies of other denominations. Our Anglican heritage speaks to me and I yearn at times for the orders of the day. In our personal devotions, my husband and I have a somewhat “order of the day” that is both challenging and satisfying.

Another highlight was the fellowship. To sit at a table with the same people for the entire conference was very special because one felt that you became a community and I appreciated each of my tablemates very much. They were diverse and yet we had so much in common. I came to love these people! Each is obviously a devoted disciple of Christ and each works in different but wonderful ways in their home communities. We only had one Portuguese person at our table and it would have enhanced our fellowship to have another but our dear sister was so lovely and I came to identify with her at a deep level.

Likewise, to interact at meal times with conference participants was special as well. Those of us who did the site visits together also had the opportunity to develop relationships through our shared experiences there.

The site visits were, indeed, a highlight. Our first site was similar but not the same as Ronald McDonald Houses in the USA. This site was more modest but certainly faith-based and that came through in several ways. Operated on a shoestring, it is providing housing for those awaiting transplants and/or checkups following transplants. The director is loving and enthusiastic about her work. The second site was the “Bread Project,” which is also exciting. Youth from distressed neighborhoods spend half a day three days a week at this project. They learn to bake and they learn computer skills. In addition, they take far-reaching field trips which expand their horizons beyond their neighborhoods and city. The staff at this site is very fine and well-skilled. They receive government funding and I pray that will continue because it is making a huge difference in the lives of these young people. While we were there a mother came to enroll her child because she has seen the results of the program in the lives of youth she knows. It, too, is faith-based and it is located in a church which gives not only space to it but also spiritual support.

The speakers were also inspiring. It happens I have not been in many situations where I needed translation and I found that to be an excellent experience. My language skills, despite some language study, are very, very poor outside the English language and I am humbled by those who are fluent in various languages beyond their native ones.

Lois Rogers-Watson stands by the UMC Deacons banner used in the opening processional at the DOTAC conference.

Lois Rogers-Watson stands by the UMC Deacons banner used in the opening processional at the DOTAC conference.

The content of the talks by these able speakers spoke to my heart. They underscored readings that I have recently done and just reaffirmed my commitment to justice activities. So many are eating bread crumbs in our world today! So many don’t even get the crumbs. We must take back the Kingdom in our churches and help our churches see that our call is to be counter-cultural. Fortunately, my current pastor gets that to some extent and I know I am looked to as the speaker for social justice. But, I need to be even a stronger voice and this conference helped equip me in that role.

It was my privilege to present a workshop on Israel and Palestine at the conference. Though attendance was light at the workshop, I pray that attendees saw the injustices of the occupation of Palestine and left with a determination to learn more and to speak out for the Palestinian people while at the same time praying for the Israeli government to change its ways.

Finally, while in the country of Brazil, friends and I took advantage of some travel after the conference. We went to Iguacu Falls, Salvador, and Rio de Janeiro. Since Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, we hardly saw a speck of it but nonetheless we learned a great deal from the various guides we had and the other people with whom we interacted. It was our privilege to meet Diana, a lovely young Methodist woman, in Salvador. All with whom we talked were discouraged by the corruption of their government and some of the stories they shared were not unlike things happening in the United States. It is time for the crumbs to become full communion in Brazil, the United States, and the world at large!

Many thanks again for helping make my pilgrimage possible. It was deeply spiritually, culturally, and socially enhancing and I thank God for it.
Rev. Rogers-Watson is a retired deacon and retired home missionary serving in East Lake United Methodist Church, Palm Harbor, Florida. She is a Stephen Minister and is involved in justice ministries on the local level and also an active advocate for ending the occupation of Palestine. She is a member of the Indiana Conference and an associate member of the Florida Conference.

By Rev. Rick Tettau

You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy.—Psalm 16:11

Porto Alegre, Brazil, hosted the 13th Diakonia of The Americas and Caribbean (DOTAC) conference. Porto Alegre means “Happy Port” or “Joyful Harbor” in English. According to the Portuguese translator on our bus tour, the city was named after a couple who were happily married.

Extending a joyful welcome to visitors is a characteristic of those who live in Brazil. After we got settled on the bus, our guide said, “Welcome to Brazil!” His welcome to us was sincere and authentic. He went on to explain that when somebody welcomes you to Brazil it means you are always and forever welcome in Brazil. I found his words to be true throughout the conference. I gratefully received a joyful welcome with lots of hugs everywhere that I went.

Rick Tettau (far left) examines the Bread Workshop facilities in Brazil, a site that educates at-risk youth.

Rick Tettau (far left) examines the Bread Workshop facilities in Brazil, a site that educates at-risk youth.

DOTAC is one of three regional organizations in the World DIAKONIA Federation. World DIAKONIA is an association of diaconal communities around the world. At our conferences brothers and sisters in diakonia from different countries come together to share stories about servant ministry, to learn from leading educators, share best practices, and fellowship in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The regional meeting of DOTAC is a smaller version of our world gatherings.

The DOTAC Conference in Brazil opened with a worship celebration at Igreja da Reconciliação (Church of the Reconciliation IECLB). I was honored to carry the banner for the United Methodist Deacons and Diaconal Ministers. Our theme for this conference was “The diakonia of Jesus—from crumbs to full communion,” based on the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30. The conference aimed to help us see those who are feeding off the crumbs under the table and welcome them into full communion at the table of abundant grace, where Jesus Christ sits himself.

We had three speakers for the conference: Dr. Felipe Gustavo Koch Buttelli, a professor of religion at the Municipal University Center of São José, who studied in Brazil and South Africa; Dr. Rodolfo Gaede Nero, a professor of practical theology at the Faculdades EST in São Leopoldo; and Deaconess Irma Schrammel, who serves at the Heliodor Hesse Social Center in Santo André.

Overall, the speakers spoke about how Jesus’ ministry is shaped by the heavenly banquet. At the heavenly banquet we will share table fellowship, food, and an abundance of blessings. At the heavenly banquet there is a seat at the table for all. Since an open community meal is indicative of the heavenly banquet, Jesus acts accordingly in his ministry on earth: God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Since the heavenly banquet makes sharing at a table one of the main characteristics of Jesus’ ministry, it is no surprise that Jesus relates to all sorts of people at the table. There are feeding stories, dinner parties, weddings, breakfasts, and suppers noted in the Bible. All are welcome at the table with Jesus. Jesus is so closely associated with eating and drinking with people the Pharisees accuse him of being a glutton and a drunk (Matthew 11:19). On example of Jesus’ teaching on the heavenly banquet comes from the story of a father who throws his prodigal son a party upon his return home.

A challenge in Jesus’ time was the struggle against those who wanted to privatize the table. In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Lazarus begs to eat at the rich man’s table, but the rich man denies him the opportunity. Likewise, the Pharisees want a closed, private table (Luke 7:39). In the early church the apostles worked to deconstruct the barriers to the table, so the blessings of the kingdom of God were not particularized. The Christian church became a place where Jews and Gentiles could eat together (Acts. 10).

The speakers pointed out how the Syrophoenician woman in the story was different than Jesus. She was a woman, non-Israelite, and a pagan worshiper. Yet, Jesus heard her story. He heard the pain in her failed attempts at receiving healing for her daughter. She admitted as much that the crumbs of Jesus’ abundance were good enough for her. Through his conversation with the woman Jesus comes to welcome her to the table and grant her request for the healing of her daughter. In this act of mercy Jesus unites the community. The community is made whole when those who eat from the crumbs under the table enter into full communion at the table with Christ.

The speakers encouraged us to consider those who survive off crumbs under the table today. They pointed out that people who feel marginalized, suffer violence, are abandoned, and hunger and thirst are all living off crumbs. Each speaker challenged us to seek a new paradigm of sharing God’s abundance. Mark 7 is an example of how an open table overcomes the fragmentation of human community. At God’s table there is plenty to care for the well-being of all people. Jesus eats with all and all are satisfied. This is authentic reconciliation. Diakonia works toward authentic reconciliation. An open table overcomes a fragmented human community. When all sit at the table of grace in the midst of cultural differences and diversity we will gain a wholistic perspective.

I saw the practice of an open table in action at two mission sites in Porto Alegre. The first mission site I visited was St. Luke House (Casa de Pasagem São Lucas). St. Luke House provides free housing to those waiting for medical treatment. Porto Alegre is recognized for being a leader in health research and services and this attracts from the countryside and even from other states in Brazil. Many of these people do not have a place to stay while they are waiting for medical treatment. For these people, the Evangelical Lutheran Church (IELCB) created in 2002 this residence alongside of a church. All are welcome to stay, eat, rest, and recover from their medical treatments at St. Luke House.

The second mission site I saw was the Bread Workshop. The Bread Workshop was created by St. Mark Lutheran Church in 1993. Its goal is to educate at-risk adolescents coming from local and neighboring communities offering them the possibility of generating income through working in cooperative and commercialized bakery production. The Bread Workshop teaches the art of baking bread while promoting faith and citizenship.

To help us unwind after a busy week we enjoyed a cultural celebration at the Churrascaria Galpão Crioulo, a Brazilian barbeque that offered live entertainment. The celebration of this culture night was dedicated to Nazgul “Naz” William, a United Methodist lay deaconess who was tragically killed in a random act of violence in China two years ago.

Brazil is a wonderful place with many wonderful people. From the beginning of the conference until its close after Sunday worship I felt the warm welcome of the Brazilian people. This experience of hospitality along with the teachings on our theme reminded me of what it means to be fully included as a guest. As we are all guests of Jesus at the table, this conference gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation for hospitality in the church. As our tour guide explained about the meaning of “Welcome to Brazil,” we need to live into a vision of the church where all are forever and always welcome, because the church is a place where all are loved by God and God’s love never changes. The church is a place where those who are living off the crumbs can enter into full communion with Christ at the table of grace.

Rick Tettau serves as a deacon at Faith Community United Methodist Church in Xenia, Ohio. He is an alternate on the DOTAC central committee.

 

By Rev. Gregory D. Gross

On Nov. 2 I joined the latest Moral Mondays Illinois rally and action. Over 1,000 people gathered for a rally at the state building in downtown Chicago and marched through the streets of the Loop to the target of that Monday’s action, the Chicago Board of Trade.

Moral Mondays

Rev. Gregory Gross takes a stand for the poor in protest of a proposed Illinois state budget.

For over four months, we have been rallying, protesting, and acting while the state of Illinois has been without a budget since July 1. The Illinois General Assembly has passed a deficit budget, which the state’s new governor has vetoed because it is not a balanced budget. The General Assembly has suggested balancing the budget with additional revenue but has not yet approved any new taxes. The governor has refused to even discuss new revenue unless the General Assembly passes his pro-business legislation, which restricts union bargaining. In short, state bills aren’t being paid.

In the meantime, the most vulnerable in our state are suffering the consequences of all this political maneuvering. State programs serving those on the margins, like subsidized childcare program, have been cut. Social service agencies with state contracts aren’t being paid—if they still have contracts. The new governor had already ended other contracts that were awarded under the previous administration.

As a result, social service agencies providing services for Illinoisans have begun closing their doors, some permanently. The most vulnerable, those experiencing poverty, severe persistent mental illness, unstable housing, chronic disease, and homelessness, many of who are children and people of color, are bearing even more of the brunt of the state budget than they already are.

This summer a group of clergy and community activists began organizing Moral Mondays Illinois to draw attention to the budget impasse and to raise awareness of those most affected. Our movement is based on the Moral Mondays social justice movement that started in North Carolina as a response to actions of their state legislature. Moral Mondays Illinois has focused upon inequality in taxation and revenue for the state.

And so we rallied at the Chicago Board of Trade. The governor and others have said that there is no alternative to the state’s fiscal problems other than to make further cuts. They say there is nothing else that that can be done than to eliminate these vital services.

We went to the Board of Trade to say otherwise; to bring attention to other options. We chanted, we raised signs, we yelled. We gave voice to the voiceless. Services don’t need to be cut. Instead, the state can tax corporations and big banks that do business on the Chicago Board of Trade and Mercantile Exchange. We called for the governor and state legislature to support the “LaSalle Street Tax,” which would be a $1 to $2 tax on every transaction done at these entities. This translates to a .002% tax on these financial transactions, but could in turn generate an estimated $10 billion dollars for the state each year. Since the chairman of the Board of Trade had failed to respond to requests to meet with him, we went to him.

Once at the Board of Trade, I joined a group of 60 clergy and other community leaders in engaging in civil disobedience. We split up and covered all 25 doors leading in and out of the trade building. We then blocked them, stopping people from leaving or entering the Board of Trade. For over an hour, we shut it down to bring attention to this unjust system. Some people sat in the revolving doors. Others of us stood in front of the doors to stop others from trying to enter. When traders and others approached us seeking to enter the building, we explained that the building had been shut down in order to get corporations to pay their fair share through the LaSalle Street tax.

Moral Mondays 2

Rev. Gregory Gross sits in a police wagon after being arrested for blocking entrance to the Chicago Board of Trade, as part of a demonstration for justice for the poor.

Traders who were prevented from entering were not happy. I was pushed and shoved. Some taunted us to, “get a job” or “go back to your parents’ basement where you live.” One trader kicked in and shattered a glass door to get inside. A group of seminarians had hot soup thrown on them. The love of money makes people do shocking things. But we did not back down.

As a deacon, I am called to serve those on the margins of our society; to use my voice to advocate for those who have no voice; to use my whole self to call for justice. And yes, to call for a fair and just budget, for we know a budget shows what we prioritize. It is a moral document, and when it is immoral, we must speak up. Is this not what the incarnation calls us to do?

I stood my ground. I did not move. A trader asked me, “What makes this legal?” I said, “No one is saying our actions are legal. That’s what makes it civil disobedience.”

I stood my ground, chanting, until the Chicago Police officers told me I was under arrest. I was handcuffed and led to the paddy wagon. And as a police officer helped me into the back, he said, “Thank you for being here and doing this.” To which I replied, “Thank you for doing your job.” This was the common refrain throughout my twelve hours in police custody. As I was booked and processed, fingerprinted and mugshot, one by one the officers asked me what the protest was for and then thanked me for raising awareness.

I used my whole self to call for justice and compassion, even risking arrest. As I sat in my cell I wondered if it were worth it. But then I looked around at who else was being booked: all were young African American men and women. They are the ones who will continue to be most negatively impacted by our states policies. Just before midnight, I was released and given a court date for Dec. 21. What better time to stand before a judge for advocating for the forgotten: mere days before the celebration of the one who was told, “There’s no room for you here.”

Rev. Gregory D. Gross is the chair of the Order of Deacons in the Northern Illinois Conference. He was elected clergy delegate to the 2012 and 2016 General Conferences. His primary appointment is as the community health manager at The Night Ministry, a social service agency that seeks to provide housing, healthcare and human connection to those experiencing poverty, housing instability or homelessness in Chicago. His charge conference is Berry United Methodist Church in Chicago.

By Rev. Amelia Boomershine

Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom of God. One time he asked a rhetorical question: What is the kingdom of God like?

He answered with the parable of the mustard seed. So we named our emerging ministry project “Seeds of Grace.” The Seeds of Grace team leads a weekly Circle of the Word program called “Sacred Stories” for women at the Montgomery County (Ohio) Jail in downtown Dayton. In these Circles I experience the kingdom of God when stories of a deeply personal nature are shared in the safe place that our Sacred Stories Circle becomes as we creatively engage biblical stories.

Amelia Boomershine

Amelia Boomershine

We had a full room for our first Circle of this past summer: three of us from Grace United Methodist Church (Dayton) and eleven from the jail. The two suggestions for connecting to the story of “Hagar Conceives a Son” (Gen. 16:1-6) were invitations to tell about “someone you know who couldn’t have a baby, or a time you were treated with contempt.” I started with a story about a friend who couldn’t have a baby. Then all but one of the others chose to speak on that connection. Every situation described was unique, including recognition that sometimes the issue is with the man and a story to illustrate. The woman who chose the contempt theme shared an experience much like that of Sarah and Hagar. Some of the stories were sad; some had happy endings; all were poignant.

In these times of sharing I sometimes feel like Jesus reaching out to touch a leper, getting in touch with deep sorrow, pain, shame.

Monday Morning Prayer Group supports Circle of the Word participants through prayer.

Monday Morning Prayer Group supports Circle of the Word participants through prayer.

But I am not Jesus, and initially was not sure I could shoulder the burden of these troubles in a helpful and healthy way. As Gregory Boyle asks in his book on ministry with gangbangers in L.A., “How do those who ‘sit in darkness’ find the light? How does one hang in there with folks, patiently taking from the wreck of a lifetime of internalized shame, a sense that God finds them (us) wholly acceptable?” I’m convinced that internalizing certain stories from the Bible in a creative, safe atmosphere is one approach to answering these questions.

Another approach developed as I considered how church members might participate in the Seeds of Grace project besides those who join me as Circlekeepers in the jail. Out of this came the prayer card activity. At the close of each Circle the women are invited to write prayer requests or just their names on an index card, if they would like Grace’s Monday morning prayer group to pray for them. Most accept the invitation and write with sincerity and concentration. Sometimes they write their own prayers or express gratitude for the prayer group. Occasionally a request will be dictated to a Circlekeeper if writing is too much of a challenge.

After reading and praying with the cards myself, I pass them on to the Grace prayer group. On Monday morning prayer group participants begin their hour of prayer by reading aloud each prayer card. They conclude the reading of each card with, “Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.” The person who reads the card will take it home and pray over it daily during the week. The prayer group has been doing this ministry for over a year—every week Sacred Stories Circle is held. It is a boundary-crossing spiritual experience for members of the prayer group, as well as for those of us physically going into the jail. Several Circlekeepers are also in the prayer group.

Grace’s senior pastor, Rev. Sherry L. Gale, is a member of the prayer group and has observed how the cards have impacted it: “Through the prayer ministry for the women, our Grace prayer group has connected with a world outside themselves. This connection has brought a growth in the prayer group participants’ understanding and experience of God’s love and God’s people.” For myself, I have learned as never before the importance of local church spiritual practice. I am grateful to have been shown a way to mobilize that practice in response to the needs of women in the jail.

Rev. Amelia Cooper Boomershine is appointed to GoTell Communications, Inc., and Grace United Methodist Church (Dayton, Ohio). Seeds of Grace received an Emerging Ministries grant through the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry for projects developed by deacons. Visit Circle of the Word to follow the Sacred Stories jail ministry and to learn how to start one in your community.

Doris Dalton E PA

Doris Dalton

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.

District ministry

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.

Communication agreements

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.

Respecting roles

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.

Know yourself

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.

Rev. Doris Dalton is a deacon in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, serving in the Philadelphia area. She is called to extend God’s table of Love so all can eat and be full.

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

By Sue Zahorbenski

Death and taxes. Two things we can’t avoid, no matter what, no matter where.

In Germany, the churches and their many agencies and institutions are mostly supported by the government through taxes. About 8 to 9 percent of income tax supports the churches, although this may translate to only 2 percent of a taxpayer’s income. (Example:  $50,000 income, taxed at 20 percent, equals $10,000; church tax comes to $800-$900.) This allows unique and comprehensive caring for many people, as we witnessed during the World Diakonia Assembly in Berlin in July 2013.

Sue Zahorbenski visits a remaining part of the Berlin Wall on July 4, 2013.

Sue Zahorbenski visits a remaining part of the Berlin Wall on July 4, 2013.

For example, an old city church had dwindled to only 20 people in the congregation, so they went on a European search for a new model. A Swiss pastor and his wife were recruited to import their community model, including several families, to create the “Stadtkloster Segen” (City Cloister Blessing) in Berlin. After two years, they now offer Bible study and prayer, worship, breakfasts, counseling, spiritual mentoring, and more, for all who come, including visitors in their guest accommodations.

On a larger scale, the Evangelisches Johannesstift, which hosted our conference, is a huge community that offers a variety of ministries. Located on 187 acres with over 60 buildings, the campus accommodates both those who need help and those who provide help, employing about 1,900 people. The handicap-accessible bus stops at the front gate, so it is not isolated even though it’s on the outskirts of Berlin in the Spandau Forest.

At the Berlin Wall, I was touched by the story told in the Reconciliation Chapel service about a young West Berlin man who accidentally fell while peering over the wall. He was shot and killed by the East Berlin police, who told no one about the death of this innocent man. It was not until the wall came down in 1989 that this and other deaths were revealed to the public. His friends and family didn’t know what happened to him for years!

Elizabeth, one of our tour guides, may be the best example of the vim and vigor of the German deaconesses. She met our group at the train station and led us all around the city. The youngest person in her community was introduced at age 72, so we guessed that Elizabeth is probably closer to eighty. There were no golf carts on the Johannesstift campus to shuttle people from one end to the other. In the U.S., our lack of exercise may shorten our lifespan—another sobering lesson from Germany.

I was grateful for the opportunity to travel to Berlin to represent the diaconal ministers and deacons of the United Methodist Church. As one of the few diaconal ministers still working in New Jersey, it was great to meet so many from other denominations who still go by the name “diaconal minister” (though they may pronounce it “dia-KON-al”). Having attended many United Methodist Women jurisdictional and assembly meetings, I thought I had a global view of the church. The UMC is global, but now I see even more broadly. Thank you!

Sue Zahorbenski is diaconal minister at the United Methodist Church at New Brunswick (N.J.). This is a contribution to a series of reflections on the World Federation of Diakonia Assembly held in July 2013 in Berlin.