Archives For leadership

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.


United Methodist ordination theology and vows (service ordinal)

By Rev. Amy Aspey

In his blog Do Less, Live More, Terry Hershey recounts this memorable Communion moment:

As Alan Jones celebrated Eucharist one Sunday, in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, he couldn’t help but notice a young man standing at the very back of the sanctuary. His clothing (atypical of “church attire”) and his uneasy demeanor gave him away. Alan could not tell if the visitor was entering, or wanting to leave.

Even so, the young man stood against the back wall for the entire service. As members of the congregation processed to the altar for the bread and wine, the young man waited, unmoved, at the back wall. His curiosity piqued, Alan made a point to seek out the young man. In conversation he learned that this young man lived on the city streets, that life had been unforgiving, and is now fighting a most formidable foe, AIDS. “We’re glad you are here,” Alan told him. “But why did you stay in the back of the church? Why didn’t you come down to the table for communion?”

“I didn’t think I would be allowed in,” the young man replied. (“Where Do We Hear the Voice of Grace?,” July 22, 2014).

Haven’t we all been there? An outsider looking in. Unsure if we belong. Feeling left out. Longing for an invitation. Playing the comparison game (me/them) and always coming up short. How many people in our communities and world are wondering, “Are we allowed in?”

Rev. Amy Aspey

Rev. Amy Aspey

Some of our predecessors in servant ministry (perhaps in a way the start of the Order of Deacon), Stephen and his co-workers, invited people in by extending Christ’s table out (see Acts 6:1-7). You may be thinking, where is the Table in this story? There is no specific mention of the Eucharist. I don’t believe, however, that when the Church responds to those in need, this can ever be separated from the holy feast. Perhaps, we could think of the seven’s ministry as being charged to become “living table leaves,” living extensions, in and of the Communion table.

When I was growing up, whenever our family had a large family meal, my mom always asked my dad, “Did you put the leaf in the table?”

It was critical to be sure that the extra space was added so that there was room for our guests. The leaves, those extra sections, extended the existing table so that others could join the feast.

Similarly, the heart of a deacon’s call is to live sacramentally. Ministry to those in need within the church and into the world can’t be separated from Christ’s ministry to us around his Table. Acts of compassion and justice are not separate from the Table; they are best understood as an extension of the Table.

In the text, it’s telling for our understanding of servant ministry that the seven are chosen to serve in a compassionate response to injustice. There was a growing racial tension within the church, which resulted in neglect of the poor. The Message phrases Acts 6:1-2 this way: “As the disciples were increasing in numbers by leaps and bounds, hard feelings developed among the Greek-speaking believers—“Hellenists”—toward the Hebrew-speaking believers because their widows were being discriminated against in the daily food lines.” People were being left out. Differences were becoming divisive. Leaves were needed in Christ’s Table because people were having trouble living the connections between the Communion table and the kitchen table.

While proclaiming the Word was not initially an aspect of this ministry, it didn’t take long before Stephen and others were known for preaching and miracles. Perhaps, this was because it is impossible to care for the poor, to love the neglected, to offer hope to the marginalized without proclaiming the Word. The Gospel of Jesus is always good news to the poor.

In our culture that kowtows to VIP titles, celebrates climbing the corporate ladder, clamors to be part of exclusive clubs, and measures worth by material possessions, the values of Christ’s table are confusing. Extravagant grace, radical love, transforming forgiveness and open-to-all are counter-cultural. When I began to understand deacon ministry as a means for extending Christ’s Table everything changed. All of the many beautiful ways of “doing”–creating community partnerships, leading teams in mission, serving in clothing rooms, sitting at a bedside in a mental hospital, preaching in prison, connecting our community to a Freedom School, equipping people in endless ways to live out their commitment as disciples of Jesus, when my heart bridged the serving with the sacrament–these acts of “doing” became a means for being and re-presenting Christ in the world.

When we understand our ministry as living leaves, which extend Christ’s table, acts of compassion and justice become the bread of life and the hungry are fed. Works of mercy and dignity become the cup of hope for those who are thirsty and the parched are renewed. Living out the vows of Word, Service, Compassion and Justice become the means by which additional places are set and each place card reads the name, beloved child of God.

May our servant ministry forever extend Christ’s Table out so all may know they are welcomed and invited to join us.

Rev. Amy Aspey, a deacon who is director of clergy leadership development for the West Ohio Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, preached this sermon to the Provisional Member Deacon Formation Event in October 2014.