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The United Methodist Deacon
Ordained to Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice
By Margaret Ann Crain
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
A DEACON IS CALLED AND SENT
To claim that God has called you into a particular vocation is humbling and terrifying at the same time. Nearly always, the call is resisted for a while. "Surely you don't mean me?" we cry out to God. Many who experience a call do not feel qualified or worthy. Yet God continues to call people into ministry, and some hear the call and respond. As a seminary professor I have heard many call stories. Often the call comes in an affirmation of fruitful leadership or in a time of life transition. April McGlothin-Eller experienced a call to ministries of justice while on a campus ministry mission trip to Venezuela:
When I was in college, my campus minister, Ken, asked me to be part of a mission team going to El Renuevo, Venezuela, to provide medical services to barrios in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. I was thrilled to be a part of this team and eager to use my limited Spanish. Driving from the airport, we approached a river with an incomplete bridge hovering over it. I wondered how we would cross as our driver plunged into the water. He explained that their bridge was never completed because of political lying; the government would resume construction on the bridge during election time and stop whenever they had been elected again. He reminded us that we were lucky that the rainy season had not yet arrived.
The scales were ripped from my eyes as I witnessed the daily injustice faced by these children of God. Many had no shoes, much less running water; children and adults came into our makeshift clinic with parasites from drinking unclean river water. The people walked many miles just to wait in line to see a doctor, and many were turned away. The mission team returned to camp each night exhausted, physically and emotionally. Yet we leaned on God and one another for the strength and encouragement to continue our service.
On our last evening in Venezuela, our team had a foot-washing service. We were under a thatched roof on a dirt floor, and it had rained the evening prior. Ironically, everyone was becoming muddy while washing feet and having their feet washed. I realized two things about the service of faith. First, servant leadership is the key. Jesus took off his cloak, knelt, and washed the feet of his followers. Second, it is not always going to be a neat and clean job. Jesus did not vacuum the floor and have the disciples pre-wash their feet. He was willing to get dirty, get a little funky. I knew God was calling me to take off my cloak of privilege, kneel in the mud of poverty and oppression, and get a little funky, and I wept with excitement for the opportunity.
"I knew God was calling me to ..." Those are the words that each one who is ordained deacon in The United Methodist Church have dared to voice. The call comes in many forms, but it is often accompanied by some trepidation and ambiguity. April "wept with excitement for the opportunity."
We are all called to ministry, of course, by our baptism. All baptized Christians "must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced" (BOD, ¶130) by our way of living in the world. We take on that vocation as disciples of Jesus at our baptism and live it out in myriads of ways in our families, places of work, and community. Yet, some people receive a call that requires a new relationship to the church and a lifetime commitment to the annual conference. When April recognized that God was calling her to "take off her cloak of privilege" and work for justice, she did not yet know what that call would mean. She knew that she was called and sent to "kneel in the mud of poverty and oppression." As she interpreted it within the structure of The United Methodist Church, it became clear to her that she could best respond to God's call on her life by seeking ordination as a deacon.
According to the Book of Discipline, "Deacons are persons called by God, authorized by the Church, and ordained by a bishop to a lifetime ministry of Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice, to both the community and the congregation in a ministry that connects the two." (¶329.1). One newly commissioned deacon said, "I feel like the work of a deacon is not to do things alone, but together with the church." To lead and equip the people of God through Word; service, or diaconia; compassion; and justice is the focus of a deacon's ministry. The duties of a deacon are also described in the ordinal:
is called to share in Christ's ministry of servanthood,
to relate the life of the community to its service in the world,
to lead others into Christian discipleship,
to nurture disciples for witness and service,
to lead in worship,
to teach and proclaim God's Word,
to assist elders at Holy Baptism and Holy Communion,
to interpret to the church the world's hurts and hopes,
to serve all people, particularly the poor, the sick, and the oppressed,
and to lead Christ's people in ministries of compassion and justice,
liberation and reconciliation,
even in the face of hardship and personal sacrifice.
These are the duties of a deacon.
The future deacon experiences a call to diaconia, the service that Jesus modeled when he fed the five thousand, welcomed the children, taught the Scriptures, healed the sick, or released those who were captive to oppressions of one kind or another.
Dr. Ted Hill's call came in midlife when he experienced a call to change the way he practiced medicine. He witnessed to this in a worship service: "I ... heard a summons to a special task.... I reclaimed my calling, to minister to the whole person—not just the physical but also the spiritual, relational, and emotional components—that was part of my real calling. Just as important was that I felt compelled to remind the church that it also was called to participate in the healing ministry initiated by Jesus." Hill's call to ministry as a deacon clearly illustrates the dual nature of the ministry of deacons. He knew from the first that part of his work would be in a medical clinic for the poor but that he was also called to help the church claim its healing ministry. He discerned a call to serve the uninsured working poor by using his medical skills, and a corresponding call to lead the church in its ministries of healing.
What Is a Call?
Biblical narratives recount many stories of God calling people to special leadership. Abram and Sarai are some of the first to be called. They are asked to leave home and travel to a distant place. "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you" (Gen 12:1b). Just three verses later we learn, "So Abram went" (12:4). God calls Abram and Sarai to leave the comfort and safety of their family home and go to an unknown place, and they obey. What a remarkable story! Similarly, when Jesus says to Peter and Andrew, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people," they too respond positively. Matthew's Gospel tells us, "Immediately they left their nets and followed him" (Matt 4:20).
God is still calling people into ministry today, and they respond. Some are called to preach and administer a congregation. That is the work of an elder in The UMC. Some are called to be a bridge between church and world. That is the work of a deacon. How do these people "hear" a call? What does that mean?
The call comes in a variety of forms. For some, the voice of God is heard through dreams, prayer, or other discernment processes. The Bible is full of narratives where God literally speaks to people. That was the case with Abram and Sarai. That was the case with Moses, although it took a burning bush that was not consumed to get his attention. Other calls are not as dramatic. Sometimes our life has a moment of heightened awareness of the divine, and a new insight or understanding is the result.
For others, the call comes through people who recognize gifts for ministry and leadership. Perhaps you were invited to teach Sunday school or serve on the worship planning team. Perhaps you visited someone who was ill. Perhaps you went on a mission trip or encountered poverty and experienced a strong impulse to help. Someone recognized your giftedness in this setting and urged you to consider preparing for a ministry vocation. You, too, realized that you have some gifts for ministry and began to discern a call.
Jesus said to Peter and Andrew, "Follow me." They met a great spiritual leader and teacher who invited them to join in his mission. The promise of training or equipping was implied in his words, "And I will make you fish for people." In The UMC, leadership training is often a place where a call to full-time ministry is discerned. My own call to ministry evolved as I joined the staff of my congregation (temporarily and part-time) and took part in leadership training opportunities offered through the denomination. I wanted to learn how to teach young adolescents and attended a jurisdictional lab school sponsored by the General Board of Discipleship. Later I enrolled in a course leading to professional certification. Bit by bit, I discerned a claim on my life that would eventually lead to ordination. The call was affirmed by the fruit of these ministries and by the candidacy processes.
Sharing the emerging call with family and friends is important in the early period of discernment. Family, particularly, will be part of your ministry. Answering the call will affect where and how you are employed or even where you live. The lives of your partner and your children may be changed. In addition, these are the people who know you best. They will be important in your discernment process.
In The United Methodist Church, we believe that the Holy Spirit is active in our lives and in our communities. Some of the examples above detail the inner call that an individual experiences. The faith community must then test the inner and individual call. The Holy Spirit is welcomed into that process too, as the faith community discerns whether the individual's call to ministry is genuine and whether the individual's ministry will bear fruit. When the outer call from the faith community affirms the inner call, the individual begins the journey toward ordination.
This journey becomes formalized in the period called "candidacy." Having experienced a call, one then begins the formal processes of candidacy and preparation for ordination. At any time during those processes the candidate may discern a different call or the faith community may have questions about the authenticity of the call or the future fruitfulness of the candidate. We will look more fully at these processes in a later chapter.
What Does It Mean to Be Sent?
The biblical narratives of call include an imperative that sends the called one into ministry somewhere. Jesus sends us with the familiar words of Matthew 28:19-20: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." The command to "go" is powerful. Deacons have heard that command and have retired or quit their jobs to train for ordained ministry. Others have enrolled in seminary instead of law school or changed their major in college. Dr. Ted Hill testified to this reality as he finished his seminary courses:
I have heard a summons to a special task, part of which calls for special preparation. I am a physician, and about ten days ago now, spent my last day in private practice after twenty-six years. Several years ago, I became increasingly aware of the fact that things could not stay the same as they had been. Sometimes in discernment it is as important to know where you cannot go or where you cannot stay as to where you must go.
The summons creates a direction for your life. Parker Palmer also found that sometimes the call is clarified by conviction about where you can no longer go or where you cannot stay. Palmer experienced doors that closed. Using the Quaker phrase of "way closed," he wrote: "There is as much guidance in the way that closes behind us as there is in the way that opens ahead of us." Both Palmer and Hill remind us that discernment is as much about our limits as about our possibilities.
Dr. Hill is describing the summons that is heard by an individual. In our United Methodist polity, the church must then affirm that summons. The inner call of the individual is tested and authorized through a period of candidacy. As the individual completes the candidacy process, including theological education, the church does the sending in the form of an appointment. The bishop sends the deacon to a specific appointment. Thus, the urgent summons or quiet restlessness that begins the journey of discernment becomes affirmed by the church as the future deacon prepares herself or himself for ministry. A deacon is appointed to a setting where his or her gifts contribute to the larger mission of the church, "to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world" (BOD, ¶120). Dr. Hill's medical clinic for persons who are uninsured "exemplifies and leads the Church in the servanthood every Christian is called to live both in the church and the world" (BOD, ¶305).
The sending agency for those who are called to ordained ministry is the church. What is the church? The trend in The UMC is toward a missional ecclesiology with an emphasis on alleviating poverty, making new places for new people, addressing global health issues, and developing leaders who can help us do these things. Many who write about missional ecclesiology argue that the primary question for the church must be, What is God doing? How do we join in God's activity, the misseo Dei, in the world? Are we being faithful to God? This is a very different emphasis from, How do we build up the church? The decline of Christendom provides an opportunity to do a new thing and to refocus the church from its inward focus to an outward gaze. God is not confined to the church but is active in the world. We should join in the misseo Dei. The church is a sending agency, and deacons are ready to respond to God's mission. As these individuals experience a call to ministry and the church tests that call, both seek the Spirit's guidance to see what God is doing. Eventually, the church may authorize a candidate for deacon to join in the misseo Dei as set-apart clergy.
What Is the Identity of a Deacon?
In the testimonies shared earlier in this chapter, the call was urgent. The call required a commitment to a lifetime of service, and submission to the supervision of the church. As those who were called prayed and listened to the guidance of both the Holy Spirit and the faith community, they sought an appropriate place within the structures of the denomination to live out that call. All of us are called to service through our baptism into the body of Christ: "The heart of Christian ministry is Christ's ministry of outreaching love" (BOD, ¶126). Yet, the call that both April and Ted experienced required them to make a further commitment to serve as ordained leaders in the church.
For Moses, the call came in a dream. Jesus called the disciples in person. The community of those who followed Jesus identified Stephen, and he was authorized by the laying on of hands (Acts 6:6). In each of these biblical stories, the individual responded to a call. Sometimes the call was experienced first by the individual and sometimes it was first identified by the community. The United Methodist Church ordains those "whose gifts, evidence of God's grace, and promise of future usefulness are affirmed by the community, and who respond to God's call by offering themselves in leadership as set-apart ministers, ordained and licensed" (BOD, ¶301.2) with a ritual that also involves the laying on of hands. A later chapter will explore the meaning of ordination.
An important part of the discernment process is identifying the particular office in the structure of The United Methodist Church to which an individual is called. In The United Methodist Church one may be ordained to either the office of elder or deacon. Another option is to be licensed for pastoral ministry and serve as a local pastor. The local pastor is not ordained but leads a congregation in the same way that an elder does. All three categories serve as leaders and are appointed by the resident bishop.
Excerpted from The United Methodist Deacon by Margaret Ann Crain. Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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