For the good of the order

Categories: Bishop's Column

Every year the Order of Elders and the Order of Deacons are required to meet. These are separate gatherings of each respectively as “a covenant community within the (annual conference) to mutually support, care for, and hold accountable its members for the sake of the life and mission of the church.” (Par. 306, Book of Discipline 2016)

The Order of Elders met on January 10 under the leadership of Rev. Dennis Langdon and his team. To be honest, I believe most elders in the three conferences I’ve been a part of have all had ambivalent feelings about the Order of Elders (and in full disclosure, I have also been one them, too). Just what are we suppose to do? We’re a large group, including retirees, and so it sometimes lacks focus.

This year the Order had an interesting design and it seemed to be well-received by many who attended. The Landscape survey that we did over a year ago said that we need to build better relationships among the clergy.

So the design for the day was “speed dating.” Well, not really. We randomly talked to another elder that we didn’t know very well for 30 minutes. Switched and did it again and again and again. By the end of the morning, we had gotten to know four elders that we didn’t know so well before. Reactions varied, but I heard comments suggesting tweaks to the process—maybe 30 minutes was too long, maybe 4 were too many—but overall there was a positive buzz about it.

The Order of Deacons is always a very different gathering. We met on January 30 under the leadership of Rev. Gregory Gross. It’s a smaller group of people and usually, we meet over dinner, since many deacons work in agencies or other institutions besides the church. It’s a much more intimate setting and more conversational.

As part of our conversation, I reported on the changes to the Discipline in relation to the deacon. The major paragraph, 328 in the 2016 Discipline, begins with a beautiful description of the ministry of a deacon:

From the earliest days of the church, deacons were called and set apart for the ministry of Love, Justice, and Service and for connecting the church with the most needy, neglected, and marginalized among the children of God. This ministry grows out of the Wesleyan passion for social holiness and ministry among the poor. It is the deacons, in both person and function, whose distinctive ministry is to embody, articulate, and lead the whole people of God in its servant ministry.

The role of the deacon is to extend the mission and ministry of the church into the world. When you go around the table and the deacons talk about where they serve, a few serve local churches in spiritual formation but most of them serve in justice or mercy ministries of all kinds.

The deacon has existed now for over 20 years (1996). But there is still much confusion, especially on the part of elders, as to the role of the deacon. Also, deacons have advocated over the years— and most recently at General Conference—for changes in their responsibilities, including sacramental responsibility.

The Rev. Victoria Rebeck, Director of Deacon Ministry Development and Provisional Membership Support at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, has outlined the changes in the 2016 Book of Discipline. Mostly the changes have to do with the granting of permission to the deacon for sacramental responsibility because the deacon’s role is in “assisting the elders in administering the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion.”

While many elders may not have a deacon in the local church, it’s still important for elders to know that when communion is being offered and there is a deacon present, the deacon should be invited to assist. Elders often plan worship for a district or annual conference event and deacons are available to assist.

I wanted to describe the context and process of requesting permission for sacramental responsibility on the part of a deacon:

  • The deacon asks the bishop directly for authorization for sacramental responsibility.
  • It doesn’t matter if there is an elder present or not; it’s the context of ministry that matters. The context of ministry is an extension of the church into the world.
  • The context can be in the deacon’s primary or secondary appointment; a secondary appointment may be the context in which sacramental authority is needed (for instance, if the primary appointment is a local church and the secondary is a homeless ministry).
  • Presiding over the sacrament must be done in a gathered faith community.
  • Requesting permission for sacramental responsibility should be done ahead of time and in writing (email is fine).

As we explore appropriate contexts for sacramental responsibility—taking the church out into the world—I would hope that all of us—laity, elders and deacons—would become more creative in our ministries.

It’s not about rights or responsibilities; it’s about extending ourselves through our witness of justice, mercy, peace and love!

~Bishop Sally Dyck

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