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:
- 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)