Allyson C. Talbert, Northern Illinois Annual Conference
The anticipation is palpable, the issues transformable— General Conference is about to begin!
The delegations assemble, the Kingdom they resemble. All have studied and caucused and prayed.
There is Opening Worship, singing to Jesus’ Lordship; there is feasting, there is dancing, there is praise!
Once the mantles are placed, the agenda embraced, the creating community is formed.
In Spirit, all deacons gather, so much legislation that matters— where is openness, where is inclusion, where is Grace?
“We see through a glass, darkly; but then . . .” (1 Corinthians 13:12 KJV)
In biblical times, the responsibilities of the distinctive office of the deacon were to attend to those without resources and to handle the material needs of the congregation. In the early church, deaconesses were women whose main duties were to minister to the poor, to widows, and to orphans, and to teach religious doctrine to women preparing for baptism. As the priesthood and episcopacy increased, so did the clerical duties of the diaconate. “The sick and poor were gathered into hospitals, or looked after by the novitiates and other pious workers, and the deacon eventually became a ‘minister’ in the ecclesiastical sense.”1 From its inception, the ministry of the deacon has been a teaching, healing, and equipping ministry—a ministry of Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice.
The Prayer Book dispatched by John Wesley to the Methodist Church in America included the Order of Deacon, and it was determined that this office would be part of the new church at the Christmas Conference of 1784. The Order, in its current form, was established by the 1996 General Conference as a new order of clergy within The United Methodist Church, with a focus of connecting the church and the world. The addition of the words “Compassion” and “Justice” to “Word and Service” in the description of the call of the deacon in The Book of Discipline at the 2012 General Conference offers more definition and clarity to the expansive ministry of the Order (¶329). These words, now highlighted in the deacon lexicon, allow greater flexibility and creativity in the discussion of the work of those who occupy this call.
The conception of the work of the deacon today continues to have diakonia (service) at its heart—service to the neediest and the most neglected and marginalized. Additional changes to the Discipline in the submission requirements to the Board of Ordained Ministry for all candidates for ordination include the mandate to “present a project that demonstrates fruitfulness in carrying out the church’s mission of ‘making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World’” (¶330.4). Deacon candidates will have the opportunity to highlight their unique identity as it relates to the mission of the church, drawing attention to the value of the service provided by provisional and ordained deacons throughout the connection. My prayer is that these project presentations will offer clearer evidence of the creating Spirit at work in those called to the Order of Deacon, shedding light, as our focus scripture intimates, on the specialized ministries that touch the hearts and lives of those with whom we serve.
The creating Spirit moved through General Conference 2012 for deacons and provisional deacons appointed beyond the local church, as well. A subparagraph in the section of the Discipline covering appointments was modified to provide a direct audience for deacons and provisional deacons serving in these capacities to bishops and cabinets. The following language was added to ¶331: “Those seeking such an appointment shall submit a written statement to the Bishop and the Board of Ordained Ministry, describing in detail the proposed setting for their ministry, sharing a sense of calling to that ministry and their gifts and evidence of God’s grace for it, and expressing how the proposed ministry is an intentional fulfillment of their ordination vows.”
The rationale for this addition was to provide parity for deacons with elders in charge conference relationships, but I believe it will also help create more awareness around cabinet tables about the width and depth of the ministry of the deacon, and about the way the ministries of deacons and elders can and do complement each other. Perhaps hearts will be moved, imaginations will be sparked, ministries will be developed, disciples will be made, and the world will be transformed.
Margaret Ann Crain, in her treatise entitled The Promise of the United Methodist Order of the Deacon in the Twenty-First Century: Partners with the Whole People of God, “envision[s] thousands of deacons, Spirit-led and yet accountable to the church, serving in creative and missional settings both in and beyond the church as messengers of the gracious reign of God.” 2 As we, as a church, continue to speak and create partnership language, and develop an ecclesiology that celebrates the worth of all who believe in the risen Christ:
The future can be limitless as partners with God in divine awesomeness. What’s next? Truly open hearts, open minds, open doors!
The Creating Spirit