The (Mis)Understood Deacon

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Anita Wood, West Ohio Annual Conference

By the action of the 1996 General Conference, The United Methodist Church established the order of deacon. This Order, which follows the lay position of diaconal minister and is distinct from the order of elder, seeks to revive the biblical understanding of deacon by focusing its ministry on serving those on the margins, namely, those whom others tend to forget. In Acts 6:1–8, deacons are instructed to serve the marginalized who are widows and orphans; today deacons lead others to serve whoever has needs.

According to the 2008 Book of Discipline, “deacons are called by God to a lifetime of servant leadership.”1 Deacons, authorized by the Church and ordained by a bishop, lead church members to relate their lives as gathered Christians to ministries in the world. While giving leadership within the life of the Church as they teach, proclaim the Word, and contribute to and assist in worship, they are called upon to embody the Church’s mission to the world to neglected and marginalized persons. They lead the congregation in its servant ministry by equipping and supporting all baptized Christians in their ministry. The ministry of deacons is a faithful response of the mission of the Church to meet its present and future needs.

In meetings with elders, I have heard a variety of views expressed that indicate a misunderstanding of the present order of deacon. Some who were ordained as deacons, when the office of deacon was understood as a transitional office permitted in the 1992 Book of Discipline (and earlier), profess that they are still deacons, even though they are now ordained elders. In this way, they admit that they do not clearly understand the distinction between elders and deacons. Others suggest deacons choose that order rather than the order of elders because they do not wish to itinerate. Still others say all church members are called to servant ministry, so they question the need for the order of deacon.

In 2007, ten years after the first deacons were ordained, Michelle Fugate, director of Research and Data Management, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, developed a study to look at the role of deacon.2 The study examines where deacons are serving, in which areas they are engaged in ministry, how they are understood and perceived in The United Methodist Church, and how satisfied they are with their work. The results of this study give us insights into the order of deacon.

The study affirms that deacons are predominantly female.

According to this study, deacons are moving their focal place of ministry. Whereas in 2000, 71.9 percent of the deacons were serving in local church settings, this 2007 survey indicates 60 percent of the deacons are in local churches.3 Deacons whose primary focus is in the local church serve as associates and ministers of Christian education, faith formation and discipleship, music, and youth. The remaining 40 percent of deacons who work beyond local churches serve as social workers, advocacy and social justice leaders, health professionals, chaplains and counselors, teachers, administrators, and consultants.4 This growth in the number of deacons working beyond the local church demonstrates that the role connects the local church with the world, and affirms the hope of many that when the order was created, deacons would lead people out from church buildings to ministry in the world. Many young people see this focus as making ministry more relevant to the present world.5 The percentage of candidates in 2007 for the order of deacon, who are under thirty-five years of age (7.10 percent), is greater than that in the same age group of candidates for the order of elder (4.92 percent).6

The study affirms that deacons are predominantly female. More precisely, among the deacons of The United Methodist Church, 77 percent are female and 23 percent are male.7 Many of these women may have become deacons because they are living out some traditional paradigm of the role of women. Those entering the order of deacon in the last five years have demonstrated creative approaches to ministry as they move beyond the walls of the local church. Surely, women have a place in all forms of ministry, whether in traditional roles or because of ministerial opportunities new to the twenty-first century. Gender does not determine the gifts we bring. The Holy Spirit within us calls us to be faithful to God’s call. Women and men have answered a call to commit to the role and identity of the deacon.

Deacons in The United Methodist Church also have a higher level of education than their counterparts in other denominations. Seven percent have PhDs, and 80 percent have master’s degrees.8 The average salary of $40,000 for deacons, however, is below the denominational average for elders.9 Ninety-five percent of deacons reported joy and fulfillment in what they do, indicating a very high level of satisfaction.10 Deacons think the Church values their roles but at the same time believe the order is often misunderstood.

Deacons continue to articulate a call that carries a focus on service. They are not elders and are not called to be elders. Presently, the focus of elders’ ministry is based more on leading congregations and providing liturgies than on service in the same way evidenced by deacons. The world needs the two ordained orders to be in ministry together. May God lead us to a greater understanding of each other’s ministry!


1 Book of Discipline (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2008), p. 230 ¶ 328.

2 Michelle Fugate, “The ‘New Order’ of Deacons” (Nashville: The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2009),www.gbhem.org/research. See also her article “Deacons: Ordained, Commissioned, Candidate” (Nashville: The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2008), www.gbhem.org/research.

3 Fugate, “Deacons: Ordained,” 14.

4 Ibid., 17.

5 David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity . . . and Why It Matters(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007).

6 Fugate, “Deacons: Ordained,” 4.

7 Ibid.,” 3.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., 19

10 Ibid., 26.

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