For those new to The United Methodist church or just attending their first Annual Conference, the term “deacon” is just a piece of the standard vernacular. Just twenty years ago, however, the position of deacon in the United Methodist church was more akin to a stepping stone, a path onward to elder, but not a call in its own accord.
As defined currently by our 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).
In practice, the ministry of the deacon can be seen as an active ministry. Once colloquially defined as “ministry in the world,” Margaret Ann Crain, someone who is known for, quite literally, writing the book on the ministry of the deacon, has tweaked this definition. In her book, The United Methodist Deacon: Ordained to Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice, Crain says, “Some are called to be a bridge between church and world. That is the work of a deacon.” Just as everyone’s call story is different, so is every deacon uniquely called to a ministerial field. Even within the Northern Illinois conference, no two deacons calls are alike.
Nick Nicholas, currently serving at Manchester United Methodist church in Missouri, found a calling to deacon while in seminary. “I was a diaconal minister,” Nicholas explains, “during my time [at Garrett-Evangelical Theological seminary], the UMC talked about the permanent deacon.”
Nicholas said he had heard a call to youth ministry in his mid-twenties and he has served in different conferences in youth ministry positions over the years. He worked in Detroit while taking classes in Christian Education at Garrett-Evangelical. Nicholas says that finances were some of the hardest parts of his ministry thus far, as every move thus far has been for better pay and economic reasons. He was even told at one point he was “too old” to be a youth minister. Nicholas was ordained in the first class of deacons in 1997 and his advice to anyone who is discerning ministry is a simple, but powerful one: “Pray.”
Beth Galbreath, a deacon living in the Chicago area, recalls her call to ministry as being somewhat surprising. As Galbreath describes, “I’d been feeling restless for a time,” and she found some healing and amazing circumstances unfolding after a powerful Walk to Emmaus in 2001. “I was reading . . . The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, in which she writes that sometimes blocked artists marry real artists and devote themselves to their careers—and that hit me like a ton of bricks.”
Galbreath began to wonder her forty years as a pastor’s spouse had been a mask for her own call to ministry. The ministry of pastor did not fit her call and it was her husband who said, “You could be a deacon,” to which Galbreath responded, “What’s a deacon?”
Galbreath finds herself working in an intensely digital culture, which began with her education at Lumicon Institute. She attended Garrett-Evangelical, as it happened to be commutable and was known then (and now) as “deacon central.” She was ordained at the age of sixty-two and began struggling to find employment as a spiritual formation/discipleship person, a stark reminder to Galbreath that ageism does exist, even in the church.
Her primary ministry is entrepreneurial, teaching and performing biblical storytelling and leading the local guild of the Network of Biblical Storytellers International, as well as teaching online at beadisciple.com.
This ministry doesn’t always “look like a valid appointment,” Galbreath warns and was something that took some time for her previous bishop to agree to appoint her to do. She advises that anyone discerning a call to ministry should not overlook the family questions, as their spouse may be supportive, but it is still a journey that affects everyone involved, not just the candidate. A support system, patience, and determination are also key elements to the process.
While the ministry of the deacon may not have existed as long as that of the elder, at least in its present form, it is ever-present and constantly shifting. At the 2012 General Conference, the words “compassion and justice” were added to the order of deacon. At the most recent 2016 General Conference, the means under which a deacon can administer the sacraments were more clearly outlined and the restrictions were lessened.
Our church is always changing, always dynamic, and the ministry of the deacon is no different. Anyone who feels called to ministry can and should explore that call. Ministry takes place in more than just the pulpit, as deacons know very clearly. As such, we recognize and welcome ministry in all of its forms and are proud of the ever-growing Order of Deacons and their ministry which bridges the church and the world, or as Margaret Ann Crain once told me at a gathering of deacons at Garrett-Evangelical, “the church gathered and the church dispersed.”
Kimberly Woods is a 26-year-old pursuing ministry for Deacon’s Orders in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, teacher’s aide in resource/special education, writer, and a pastor’s spouse.