Breaking Ranks: Women Elders and Women Deacons in Ministry Partnership

Victoria A. Rebeck, Minnesota Annual Conference 

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Scripture tells us that loving God entails loving neighbor. Piety that does not include advocacy for the marginalized and compassion for the suffering is no piety at all. “Is this not the fast I choose,” we read in Isaiah 58:6-7 (NRSV), “to loose the bonds of injustice, / to undo the thongs of the yoke, / to let the oppressed go free, / and to break every yoke / . . . to share your bread with the hungry, / and bring the homeless poor into your house . . . ?”

The United Methodist Church’s ordering of clergy into two distinct orders, deacon and elder, represents this inseparable combination. Elders lead the people in piety: ordering the life of the church and making sure that God’s people receive sacraments. Deacons connect piety with compassion and justice for neighbors, leading God’s people into ministry outside the walls of the church. When deacons and elders collaborate, the fullness of the church’s ministry is represented and led, in the equal and united manner that is reinforced throughout Scripture.

Evolution of the Diaconate

The partnership style of leadership originated in the church’s first centuries. The earliest leadership offices in the church were bishop and deacon, says James Monroe Barnett in The Diaconate: A Full and Equal Order.[1] Bishops oversaw churches, much like pastors. Deacons led those congregations in ministry to those in need—partners in leading the people in love of God and neighbor. “To think of subordination to the bishops… is largely to forget the character of the Church of the late New Testament period,” Barnett says.[2]

However, by the end of the fourth century, the church began adopting the hierarchical forms of civic society, the Roman Empire. The diaconate was reduced to a step up in the clergy hierarchy. The days of equality among clergy and laity faded. This pattern persisted in The United Methodist Church until 1996.

Denominations that did not retain some form of clergy diaconate eventually recreated it in various lay forms. In Protestant churches, it is mostly women who have retained the purpose of diakonia, rebirthing this ancient Christian office as a central expression of Christian ministry.

Even John Wesley promoted the role of deaconess, though I have found no references to its being an official role. In a Nov. 5, 1788, letter to Adam Clarke, John Wesley recommends that Mrs. Clarke “fulfill the office of a deaconess.”[3] Without a record of a description of the deaconess’s function, we can only speculate. We might guess that it entailed service and leadership, perhaps among the women faithful.

Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin called for renewal of the deacon as minister among the poor. Theodor Fliedner and his wife, Friederike Münster, led the formation of a deaconess community through the founding of a motherhouse in Kaiserswerth, Germany, in 1836. Living in community, the deaconesses focused on community ministries, particularly health care. Such vocational opportunities for women grew during the industrial era of the late nineteenth century, along with urbanization and immigration in England and North America. The United Methodist lay deaconesses (and their spiritual brothers, the home missioners) are heirs to this movement.

The United Methodist Church developed the office of lay worker in 1968, which comprised, to a significant extent, congregational directors of Christian education. In 1976, the lay worker was succeeded by the diaconal minister. (Despite an effort to unite the different forms into one diaconia, deaconesses remained separate.) Ordained clergy were predominantly male; many women who were called to congregational leadership found access via the role of Christian educator.

Thus the ministries of compassion, justice, and empowerment of laypeople became the women’s work of the church. “Men’s” work—congregational and denominational leadership as the pastor—enjoyed greater respect in a patriarchal, hierarchal church. Women with the call to order the life of the church were often blocked from ordination, or even licensing. The ordained diaconate was mostly reserved for men, a pastoral role and transitional step toward elder.

Full Clergy Status

In 1996, The United Methodist Church followed ecumenical partners and evolved in its understanding of diaconia by forming a full and equal clergy order of deacon. No longer elders-in-the-making, deacons in The United Methodist Church are now more like deacons from the second through seventh centuries, who “oversaw the pastoral care of the Church… were administrators of the Church’s charities… were assistants of its bishops, often succeeding them in office… had a major role in the Church’s liturgies… were the great symbol of the servant ministry to which the Church has been called by Christ.”[4]

The 1996 General Conference chose to discontinue the commissioning of new diaconal ministers. Current diaconal ministers (some of whom may have been lay workers) had the opportunity to transition to the ordained office of deacon. However, the language of the Discipline makes clear that deacon is not simply a new name for lay worker or diaconal minister.

Deacons fulfill servant ministry in the world and lead the Church in relating the gathered life of Christians to their ministries in the world, interrelating worship in the gathered community with service to God in world. Deacons give leadership in the Church’s life in teaching and proclaiming the World; in contributing to worship, and in assisting the elders in administering the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper; in forming and nurturing disciples; in conducting marriages and burying the dead; in embodying the church’s mission to the world, and in leading congregations in interpreting the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.[5]

For many deacons, “forming and nurturing disciples” means serving in congregational staff positions as Christian educators, children’s and youth ministers, pastoral-care providers, and family or age-group ministry leaders. As United Methodist congregations shrink and can afford to employ fewer people, particularly clergy, deacons’ ministry in The United Methodist Church is increasingly a ministry outside the walls of the church. Deacons serve as truck-stop chaplains, prison ministers, directors of peace-and-justice ministries and compassion organizations, to name only few. The diaconate was and is most of all ministry of “interrelating worship in the gathering community with service of God in the world.”[6]

Ecumenically and around the world, diakonia takes lay and clergy forms. Among the churches that have non-transitioning (not a step toward presbyter or priest) deacons are the Methodist Church in Britain, the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church. United Methodist deacons are active in the United States and Europe. The Lutheran communion churches have active lay orders of diaconia.

Obstacles to Partnership

Full-member clergy deacons strengthen The United Methodist Church. However, the evolution from lay worker to diaconal minister to deacon has put United Methodist clergywomen at odds with one another. Many women who found leadership opportunities as committed and trained lay Christian educators eventually discerned the call to the ordained diaconate. Other women who heard the call to the pastorate slowly but persistently pursued ordination as elders and eventually gained full clergy rights for women (1956). Unfortunately—having worked hard for recognition as ordained, full clergy members—some of those early pioneering women elders look on their sisters who pursued Christian education (or other age-group leadership) as having made a lesser choice.

This attitude pits women clergy leaders against women clergy leaders. It is a capitulation to patriarchal hierarchy. It takes away the very respect for clergywomen’s leadership that the pioneering women elders worked to obtain.

It also devalues Christian education and other deacon ministries. At the time of this publication, The United Methodist Church in the U.S., is wringing its hands over the aging of the church membership and the dearth of young adults in congregations. If we truly value young people, we would consider Christian education and youth ministry among the most important ministries the church undertakes.

Further, many young people report that the church fails to attract them because they are more interested in healing brokenness and injustice in the world than they are in sitting on committees, often the church’s first choice for engaging laypeople. Given that the deacons are to “relate the gathered life of Christians to their ministries in the world,” deacons are particularly well positioned to engage young adults in Christian discipleship. This is particularly true of deacons serving appointments in congregational outreach, as mission coordinators for conferences or jurisdictions, and for those leading social-service agencies beyond the local church (and in secondary appointment to congregations).

For example, the Rev. Donnie Shumate Mitchem’s primary appointment is as a school psychologist in Western North Carolina. She also leads the parishioners in her secondary appointment to pack book bags for children of limited means, clean classrooms, and pray for students and teachers.[7] The Rev. Scott Parrish, mission specialist for Connectional Ministries for the North Georgia Conference and a mission strategist for General Board of Global Ministries, explicitly guides churches to help young adults to find their place in the United Methodist global mission movement.[8]

Embracing the Both/And of Clergy Partnership

Women elders and women deacons have an opportunity to lead the church away from hierarchical patterns and back to the organic, horizontal understanding of the whole church’s ministry. This includes leading laypeople back into active discipleship that includes both piety and compassionate action.

When asked the most important commandment, Jesus said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’… And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).

The ministries of the elder and deacon embody these two commandments. To paraphrase Isaiah, this is the piety God chooses: both the spiritual development that takes place in worship and the active, selfless service that takes place outside the church’s walls.

Women clergy can revitalize ministry in The United Methodist Church by restoring the mutually empowering, mutually serving discipleship described in the Gospels and epistles. Not everyone has the same gifts; and, through practice of the varying gifts and passions, the realm of God is built.

United Methodist clergywomen—deacons and elders—across the international connection can strengthen the United Methodist witness in the world by supporting and advocating for each other’s ministries. On an international scale, this entails learning about each other’s cultural contexts. The careerism that has crept into ministry in the United States may not be the practice in other nations. The role of women in society varies from culture to culture as well. As United Methodist clergywomen learn one another’s contexts, hopes, and callings, they can work toward rebirthing in The United Methodist Church an understanding of ministry as mutual and empowering of all the baptized.

The Rev. Doris Dalton is a deacon in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference who has served in partnership ministries with elders in both primary (district office) and secondary (church start) appointments. “I have found that successful partnerships between deacons and elders require the following factors: alignment of calling and vision, establishing communication agreements, understanding and respecting roles, and knowing thyself, she says in her blog post “How deacons and elders can partner in ministry.”[9]

Dalton encourages elders and deacons to engage in intentional conversation on deepening ministry partnerships between deacons and elders. “Many elders are reluctant to engage in a deacon-elder partnership because the details and responsibilities can seem daunting,” she observes. “Demythologizing assumptions and sharing concrete details can provide for a smoother beginning to ministry partnerships.”[10]

Elders can start by sharpening their understanding of the historic ministry of the deacon. Margaret Ann Crain’s book The United Methodist Deacon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014) is a good start. Women elders in a conference might demonstrate genuine interest and respect by inviting deacons, including those appointed beyond the local church, to join them in discussing ministry challenges. Elders may discover deacons who are doing exciting, innovative ministry and who can enhance the elders’ congregational ministry through training or secondary appointment.

Deacons should step up in leadership and not wait to be noticed. Volunteer for ministry discernment events, lay ministry trainings, annual conference leadership, and more. Devise ways to share your ministry expertise across the district or conference. Raise your profile through leadership. Build relationships among elders, help them perceive the deacon/elder ministry wholeness, and propose partnerships (including short-term ones).

Perpetuating the hierarchical ranking of ministry we inherited from a patriarchal church continues to hold back all women as well as the gospel’s countercultural ordering of ministry. Women clergy have the perspective and perhaps the working preferences to renew the church through egalitarian ministry partnerships—if we have the courage to do so.

 



[1] Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1979; 36–37.

[2] Barnett, 41.

[4] Barnett, p. 43.

[5] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012 (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2012); ¶328; p. 246.

[6] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

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