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Today's deacons trace their ministry historically to Stephen, shown at bottom right in this Fra Angelico painting of his consecration by the Apostle Peter.
Ordained and commissioned deacons in the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference issued a letter Jan. 31 to General Conference delegates asking them to oppose changes that they say would impede their servant ministry.
Proposed changes to the duties of deacons marks the latest upset in an unsettled history for United Methodist deacons.
Instituted by the 1996 General Conference, deacons are ordained clergy who specialize in servant ministries such as Christian education, music, worship leadership, social services and the like. Their vocation as ordained clergy is modeled after the earliest deacons mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, in which certain designated people took on roles of witnessing to the faith and caring for the faithful. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was a deacon.
While United Methodist deacons are authorized to preach, their ordination stresses service, and they are not permitted to preside at sacraments as are elders. Controversy has arisen over the past decade regarding instances in which some deacons performed sacraments, either with temporary authorization from a bishop or in unusual circumstances when an elder was not or could not be present.
Deacons also differ significantly from elders in terms of compensation and appointment. Unlike United Methodist elders, deacons are not subject to the itinerant, or traveling, ministry. Deacons secure their own positions within the denomination, subject to approval by a bishop and cabinet.
In addition, deacons typically are paid far less than elders, although the educational and professional investment for deacons often equals or exceeds that of elders. These issues of compensation and appointment lie at the heart of proposed changes to Paragraph 331 in the Book of Discipline, according to the following letter issued to General Conference delegates from Eastern Pennsylvania deacons. [The letter has been edited and reformatted to improve readability].
Dear General Conference Delegate:
As ordained and commissioned Deacons in the Eastern PA Conference, we acknowledge the tremendous commitment and sacrifice you are making on behalf of all the people of the United Methodist Church in our Annual Conference and we thank you. While you have many constituents asking for your attention and consideration on a great number of issues and a great variety of important concerns, we, too, request your attention regarding a matter of utmost importance to the essence of our ministry as Deacons in your midst.
We have recently become aware of and are quite disturbed by the GBHEM resolution to General Conference 2012 titled Appointments of Deacons and Provisional Deacons to Various Ministries, which changes Paragraph 331 in the Book of Discipline. This recommendation eliminates secondary appointments for Deacons whose primary work is beyond the local church. Doing so would effectively abolish the "bridge" we deacons are called to be – bridging the church and the world!
This change [further] will eliminate the expectation of developing a "partnership in ministry" with elders and local pastors in the local church and equipping the laity for the ministry to which God is calling them unless the Deacon is working in and appointed to that church. The proposed change eliminates the opportunity for Deacons Appointed Beyond the Local Church (ABLC) to live out their call “to a lifetime ministry of Word and Service to both the community and the congregation in a ministry that connects the two” as stated in Discipline Paragraph 329.1.
Paragraph 329.1 of the BOD goes on to say, “in the congregation, the ministry of the Deacon is to teach and to form disciples, and to lead worship together with other ordained and laypersons.” The recommended change eliminating secondary appointments for Deacons working in settings outside a local church simply requires Deacons to designate a charge conference in a local church and submit a yearly report. There is no language about any leadership or teaching role within the local church. There is no expectation the Deacon's ministry in the local church would be guided or overseen by the pastor or the Staff Parish Relations Committee. This puts Deacons in the same category as Elders in extension ministry but without sacramental authority.
Even now under the current Paragraph 331, we have Deacons in secondary appointments who are not being recognized and utilized for the gifts they bring to their appointed local church. The new language further diminishes the value of the Deacon as the bridge builder from the world to the church and back again. The linkage of the church and the world IS the unique call and ministry of the Deacon.
Does the UMC truly want Deacons doing ministry out in the world without an active connection with and accountability to a local congregation? The latest statistics gleaned from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry show a larger percentage of young adult clergy are pursuing ordination as Deacons rather than Elders. And a significantly larger number of Deacons are now working in ministry settings beyond the local church than reported just one decade ago. We are told that the rationale for the suggested change is to effectively eliminate a practice of exploitation of Deacons who are in secondary appointments from being expected to offer "free" leadership in the local church. There are advocacy, education, and appropriate boundary-setting measures [that] can be taken to address the problem of "free" labor expectations without dismantling our ability to be and to model ministry connecting the church and the world.
Economic justice is a very real concern and it needs to be treated as such. That being said, Deacons as a group are especially entrepreneurial, developing ministries where they see needs and currently they are doing this in consultation with the local church, their Bishop and District Superintendent. When Deacons appointed to a ministry setting in the world are placed in the same administrative category as Elders in Extension Ministry, how can any viable leadership function in a local congregation ever exist or be forged? Currently, Elders in Extension Ministry are not encouraged to assume any role in the local church. Some may if there is a welcome to do so by the lead pastor or an opportunity in the local church, but in most cases, the charge conference report is the sole connection made between the clergyperson and the congregation. To think Deacons in "Extension Ministry" will be any more engaged with a local congregation under the proposed disciplinary language is highly improbable.
We fully accepted the vow made at our commissioning and ordination "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." We grasp the equality and justice issue of compensation as a clergyperson compared to that of an Elder. And, who we are as called, commissioned, and ordained Deacons guides our servant ministries as the UMC grows into, embraces, and fully practices economic justice. Our entrepreneurial spirits and our trust in our Lord’s provision have us uniquely positioned to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ in a secular and sometimes hostile world. Deacons are the pioneers, the advance scouts in these trying times where the Church's relevance is seriously questioned by our society.
The "bridge" we Deacons are and provide, along with the prophetic voice we bring to the church, is the lifeblood for the revitalization and return to relevance of the Christian message in the world. As with any bridge [our role] carries a lot of traffic and gets walked on and walked over. Our work within the UMC in the future is to advocate for the proper maintenance and upkeep of the bridge (i.e. just financial support for the gifts we bring to the church) – not to eliminate the bridge altogether.
For these reasons we ask you, our General Conference Delegates, to understand how the recommended change to ¶331 will drastically impede Deacons appointed beyond the local church to live out their call to the ministry of the ordained Deacon. We ask you to vote “No” when this proposal is presented at General Conference 2012.
The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference Order of Deacons