Friday, May 28, 2021

Recommended Reading: IAMSCU Declaration on Global Vaccine Equity

While the United States is quickly reaching the point of having inoculated as many adults against the COVID-19 virus as are willing and able to get vaccinated, in many countries, especially in the developing world, access to COVID-19 vaccines remains very limited. Thus, there is a significant vaccine inequality between wealthy nations and developing nations. This inequality presents a host of moral, ethical, political, and public health challenges.

One Methodist group has now responded to that vaccine inequality by issuing a statement calling for greater access to COVID-19 vaccines around the world. IAMSCU, the International Association of Methodist Schools, Colleges, and Universities, along with the Ecumenical Consultation on Protocols for Worship, Fellowship, and Sacrament, Candler School of Theology at Emory University, and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church, has issued a "Declaration on Global Vaccine Equity." The statement calls on Methodist-related college, universities, and health institutions to work with government and other partners to accelerate global access to vaccines.

In addition to the IAMSCU statements, Bishop Ivan Abrahams, General Secretary of the World Methodist Council, has signed on to a joint statement with other world faith leaders calling for more equitable access to vaccines and health care, both with regard to the current COVID pandemic, but also extending into other areas of public health.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

UMC Deacons at 25: Claim the name “Deacon!”

Today’s post is by Deacon enjamin L. Hartley. Hartley is a member of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. In the fall of 2021, he will begin serving as Associate Professor of Mission and World Christianity at Seattle Pacific University. He writes occasional blog posts at

2021 is the 25th anniversary of the United Methodist Order of Deacons. Anniversaries are a time to celebrate and think critically about the past and to look forward to the future. Two years after the UMC General Conference established the Order of Deacon, I wrote a book with GBHEM Section of Deacons and Diaconal Ministry staff member Paul Van Buren, The Deacon: Ministry through Words of Faith and Acts of Love. In 1998 it was the first book to introduce the new understanding of the diaconate to the denomination. In the years since writing that book with Paul, I have written a half dozen scholarly articles on the diaconate that can be found here – along with some other scholars’ work on the diaconate that I have found helpful.

When I was teaching at Palmer Theological Seminary, an American Baptist seminary in Philadelphia, a delightfully bold student asked on the first day of class, “What should we call you?”

Because I teach courses on Christian mission and world Christianity, I sometimes use occasions like this to discuss cultural differences in what scholars call “power distance,” but this time I paused. I decided to ask a favor of my students. I explained how in the academic world professors sometimes derive too much of their sense of self-worth from things like their publication record, faculty rank, and the like.

To counter that tendency in myself I asked my students that evening to call me Deacon Ben. I told them that I needed to be reminded of my ecclesial calling, something I hold most dear. Only a few people did that as the semester wore on, but I so appreciated their kindness. I always smiled in response because I was reminded that my work as a seminary professor was integral to my calling as a deacon.

This year United Methodists are remembering the 25th anniversary of the United Methodist decision to create the Order of Deacon as a distinct, ordained, and permanent vocation in the church. Back in 1998, when I was first writing about the diaconate in the United Methodist Church, I was mostly “taking my cues” from ecumenical sources – Anglican and Roman Catholic scholars mostly since those two traditions had instituted a permanent diaconate decades earlier than United Methodists, and they were doing more theological work on it than United Methodists.

I noticed that deacons in these traditions were referred to as “Deacon” followed by their name. I assumed that United Methodist deacons would follow this example. It seemed an obvious choice to me, as it would invite conversation about what this calling meant. United Methodists had a lot of educating to do about the diaconate, after all, and I thought claiming the title “Deacon” was an easy way of creating “teachable moments” in congregations across the connection.

I was disappointed that did not happen. When UMC deacons use any title – and many don’t – I have observed that they mostly opt for the “Reverend” term to describe themselves. There were several reasons for this, not least of which was a strong desire by UMC deacons who were previously diaconal ministers – a lay, consecrated office in United Methodism since 1976 – to be acknowledged as ordained elders’ equals. This desire was totally understandable since the vast majority of diaconal ministers were women and had struggled for many years (and still do) to be treated as “real ministers.”

For several reasons – my social location as well as my theological and historical understanding of the diaconate – I prefer to be called “Deacon.” I love being a deacon precisely because it is an ecclesial identity and function that is “off-center.” Why use a title like “Reverend” that fails to identify my off-center vocation?

When I was first learning about the diaconate, I drank deeply from the well of stories of early deacons who claimed their role as assistants to bishops and, in one case, had even started a new religious order on the margins. I was fascinated to learn that Saint Francis of Assisi was ordained a deacon but never a priest. In learning the history of the Christian missionary movement, I was amazed at the great work Methodist deaconesses had done (and still do!) among the poor in the United States and around the world, in part because they too were off-center. I remember interviewing a Roman Catholic deacon in the Archdiocese of Boston who taught me about his literally off-center place in his liturgical leadership.

At a 1998 United Methodist deacon gathering in Houston, Texas I began a friendship with another member of the ecumenical diaconate, Episcopalian Archdeacon of the diocese of Chicago Richard Pemble. We met at the hotel check-in line, and he told me that part of his responsibility was to be in relationship with deacons in other denominations. We talked for a long time that night as he filled in gaps in my knowledge of the ecumenical diaconate.

In that same year Richard Pemble wrote an article for the Roman Catholic deacons’ magazine, Deacon Digest, describing the diaconate as “the ecumenical office.” He noted that because deacons were not the ones solely responsible for the well-being of a parish, they had the freedom to make connections across the ecumenical spectrum for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Insights garnered from John N. Collins’s linguistic research on the meaning of diakonia as “emissary” or “go-between” in the New Testament were also germane to Richard’s reflections. Emissaries are off center because they are “on the move” connecting people.

Archdeacon Richard Pemble died at the age of 68 in June of 2001. His funeral in Chicago took place the same day as my commissioning as an ordained deacon by the West Michigan Annual Conference. I sent his widow a sympathy card expressing how important my few meetings with him had been and that I was remembering him on my commissioning day.

As we look forward to the next twenty-five years of the United Methodist diaconate may we all do a better job of not only claiming the title “Deacon” but living like the great deacon saints of the church like Deacon Richard Pemble, Deacon Francis of Assisi, Deacon David Oakerhater, and many others. As we do so, may we also relish our “off-center” ecclesial identity. Claim the name!

Monday, May 24, 2021

Plan Now: Webinar on “Misogyny, Racism and Asian American Women”

The following event announcement comes from Rev. John Oda, Program Manager for the Asian American Language Ministry Plan at the General Board of Global Ministries. You can read a previous UM & Global piece by Rev. Oda about Asian Americans and race here.

The Asian American Language Ministry Plan, the New Federation of Asian American United Methodists, and the General Board of Church and Society are co-sponsoring webinars called "Raise Up Your Voice Against Racism." This month’s webinar will explore “Misogyny, Racism and Asian American Women.” The webinar will be held May 25th at 5:00pm PST / 8:00pm EST.

A report from Stop AAPI Hate found that 68% of the Anti-Asian violence against Asian Americans since March 2020 has been against women. We must never forget that on March 16, 2021, a gunman killed eight people in three Atlanta spas, six of whom were women of Asian descent: Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Xiaojie Tan and Yong Ae Yue.  The authorities recently named these murders as hate crimes. These killings were part of a long history of violence, hatred and misogyny against Asian American women in the U.S and must viewed in this context.

Panelist: Rev. Sung Yeon Choimorrow is an Ordained Clergy person in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Executive Director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF). NAPAWH works to build power with Asian American and Pacific Islander women and girls to create a more just world. Rev. Sung Yeon was born in South Korea and spent her childhood in Singapore and India. She came to the U.S. at the age of 18 to study Political Science and Urban Studies at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL and earned an M.Div from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. She has been featured in and quoted by: the New York Times, NBC, CBS This Morning, CNBC, Yes Magazine, Ms Magazine, Al Jazeera News English and more.

As a first generation immigrant working mom, Rev. Sung Yeon is passionate about building power to create change so her daughter can live in a world that is more just than the one that she inherited.

Moderator: Elizabeth Chun Hye Lee serves as United Methodist Women’s Executive for Economic and Environmental Justice and Climate Justice Lead. Her primary area of work is around advancing climate justice with members, church, and society, through trainings, program development, partnerships, corporate engagement, advocacy, and solidarity. Her approach to climate justice is through gender, human rights, and theological analyses. Prior to UMW, Liz served as the Director for Young Adult Mission Service at Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, spearheading the redesign of the historic US-2 and Mission Intern programs into the Global Mission Fellows program while developing over 100 global and national partnerships.

Friday, May 21, 2021

UMC Deacons at 25: Hopes for the Future

Today’s post is by Deacon Benjamin L. Hartley and Deacon Paul E. Van Buren. Paul E. Van Buren is a retired deacon residing in the Nashville, Tennessee area. Benjamin L. Hartley is a deacon in the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and is living in Seattle, Washington. In the fall, he will be joining the Seattle Pacific University School of Theology as an Associate Professor of Mission and World Christianity. He writes occasional blog posts at

In 1998 Paul Van Buren of the Section of Deacons and Diaconal Ministry in GBHEM and I wrote a book together about the UMC’s new understanding of the diaconate. I was a second year MDiv student at Boston University filled with enthusiasm for what the new diaconate could be.
The Deacon: Ministry through Words of Faith and Acts of Love was the first book to provide theological and practical guidance on our denomination’s understanding of deacons after the 1996 General Conference decision to institute the Order of Deacon as a full and equal order.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Order of Deacon, Paul and I had a conversation about the book, the progress of the UMC diaconate, and our hopes for the future. This post contains the third part of that conversation.

We all know that things are rather uncertain for United Methodists, but what are your continued hopes for the future of the diaconate in the UMC?

Ben Hartley: In recent weeks, I’ve been doing some reading about how the conversation around the ordained diaconate is progressing in other denominations, and I have been encouraged by people who have noted that the permanent diaconate is still in its early stages of formation. For me, I still hope that deacons can really take the lead in ecumenical work. Many deacons are already doing their ministry inspired by the best of the ecumenical movement that seeks to work together for the sake of the Gospel, but there is a lot of work on this remaining to be done. When we were writing this book together, I was drawing so much inspiration from deacons in the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran denominations, but I have been surprised that many other United Methodist deacons haven't done the same. Of course, many UMC deacons have really benefited from participating in the Diakonia World Federation and similar groups, but there haven’t been very much connecting with permanent deacons in the Roman Catholic Church or at least not that I am aware of.

I also hope that United Methodist deacons can continue to inspire creativity and imaginations about what it means to be Church. I love the fact that there are some deacons in the UMC who are involved in new church starts and probably many more who are trying to re-imagine what ministry looks like in established congregations. Deacons’ experiences in these efforts and their theological reflections about what this work means for a theology of the diaconate is something that I hope the church will be eager to listen to in the future. I still think that deacons could really play a key role as a kind of reimagined class leader in Wesley’s terminology. I know of a few deacons who have served churches in that way, but I think there could be a lot more of this! I’ll write about that more in an upcoming blog post.

Paul Van Buren: Ben, I don’t know about the deacon taking a role in ecumenical connections, although it seems to make sense when you consider the world movement of diaconia, especially in European countries.

While I join you in your hopes for deacons taking a role in theological reflection on what it means to be the Church, I have been listening to some of the reports from various conference Orders of Deacons that indicate they are still educating the church that deacons are more about who they are than what they do. There is no defined or detailed job description. This is good, I believe, but it is still confusing to many traditional church members who understand ministry as order, not so much as prophetic. The Order of Deacon is still in its infancy in our denomination.

Our denomination is still working out the relationship between ordination and sacraments and itineracy. There is a recommendation from the 2016 Ministry Study coming up for approval to ordain laypeople who are currently licensed local pastors to become local elders. To add to the complication, a significant portion of our denomination is splitting over human sexuality issues and order that will leave some deacons without a home in their appointment to local churches that identify with a different outlook than the deacons who minister in those churches.

With the shrinking number of local churches as well as the number of ordained elders, we can anticipate there will be the problem of local churches asking deacons to be the pastors or preachers, the same problem being experienced by the Roman Catholics. When I was a Church and Community Worker in Ohio, I helped organize rural cooperative parishes where three to seven local churches were organized as a cooperative parish. At the time, there were 27 such parishes. There was usually one elder, one part-time pastor, and a volunteer choir director and/or educator. It would be the ideal appointment for a deacon to lead the circuit into a joint undertaking of mission and reaching out to the community, bridging the church and the world.

Ben Hartley: I had forgotten, Paul, that you served in Ohio in this form of ministry. I was considering doing something similar with area churches I was preaching at occasionally in Oregon. Everywhere I’ve served I’ve let people know that I would be happy to serve as pulpit supply for elders when they needed a day off. This enabled me to get to know several local congregations a bit and to see how congregations could complement one another in common ministry. I’ve never pushed this to the next level as you did, Paul, in a cooperative parish action. I suppose my draw to the academic life of teaching and writing has so far prevailed. You have given me something to be prayerful about, Paul. Thank you.

It has been a delight to have this conversation with you, Paul. The Order of Deacons across the connection has developed in so many good ways these past twenty-five years, and so much good ministry has happened. It is important to take a moment during this 25th anniversary to reflect about that, be grateful, and be prayerful as we seek a way forward into the future.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

UMC Deacons at 25: The Progress of the UMC Diaconate

Today’s post is by Deacon Benjamin L. Hartley and Deacon Paul E. Van Buren. Paul E. Van Buren is a retired deacon residing in the Nashville, Tennessee area. Benjamin L. Hartley is a deacon in the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and is living in Seattle, Washington. In the fall, he will be joining the Seattle Pacific University School of Theology as an Associate Professor of Mission and World Christianity. He writes occasional blog posts at

In 1998 Paul Van Buren of the Section of Deacons and Diaconal Ministry in GBHEM and I wrote a book together about the UMC’s new understanding of the diaconate. I was a second year MDiv student at Boston University filled with enthusiasm for what the new diaconate could be. The Deacon: Ministry through Words of Faith and Acts of Love was the first book to provide theological and practical guidance on our denomination’s understanding of deacons after the 1996 General Conference decision to institute the Order of Deacon as a full and equal order.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Order of Deacon, Paul and I had a conversation about the book, the progress of the UMC diaconate, and our hopes for the future. This post contains the second part of that conversation.

Ben Hartley: Because my academic career has not been at United Methodist colleges or universities but at American Baptist, Quaker, and (in a few months) Free Methodist ones, it has been hard for me to have a birds-eye view of UMC deacons. You have a better sense of that, Paul, and even followed up with people whose stories we included in our book. Are you pleased by what you see deacons doing now? Did you think the diaconate would look differently after 25 years?

Paul Van Buren: This is a good question, Ben. How are they living out their calling? Initially, most of the deacons were employed by local churches and agencies as Christian Educators, musicians, administrators, and some as pastors of outreach and mission. About three-fourths of them were women with a master’s level of training in some specialization. Today, twenty-five years later, the range of appointments has expanded beyond the local church, especially as opportunities within the local church are shrinking. The gradual trend has been that more candidates are getting a Master of Divinity degree in addition to a specialization which gives them more flexibility for employment. I have been told by some seminary faculty that the students attracted to the ministry of the deacons are as qualified or better than those preparing to be elders.

According to a Lewis Center for Church Leadership Report from 2020, the number of newly ordained deacons is growing and the percent of deacons under age 35 has increased over the last ten years. According to this study, approximately three-fourths of the deacons in the UMC are employed in the Southeast and South-Central jurisdictions of this country. There is also a significant increase in the number of young men entering the United Methodist diaconate, (an increase from 20% in 2019 to 26% in 2020). The gender ratio is still that 27% of candidates in the UMC diaconate are men compared to 73% who are women. It is important, however, to bear in mind that this study is based on data derived from the denomination’s pension program. Many deacons were not included in that study because they are not part of that program. There are currently 1,424 active deacons in the UMC.

Clearly, there are unlimited needs and possibilities for deacons to serve beyond the local church in varieties of service agencies as their primary appointment while still having a secondary appointment in a local church usually without pay. For example, Bruce Maxwell, whom we interviewed for the book, is still doing chaplaincy ministry at truck stops to truck drivers. Randy Lewis is still coordinating outreach ministry of a local church, and Rae Frank is still involved in hospice ministry. But it is not unusual for the deacon to piece together a variety of ministries both for support and new awareness of needs. I would estimate one-fourth of the deacons in our denomination are employed in a secular setting outside a local church and/or a church agency.

Ben Hartley: Paul, you have also been really engaged outside of North America in encouraging the ministry of deacons. How would you say the new understanding of the deacon has been received in different places around the world?

Paul Van Buren: Ben, it was twenty years ago I was provided an opportunity to attend eight annual conferences in four African countries, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although the United Methodist Churches in these countries were still using an outdated Book of Discipline of the Central Conference, the bishops of these countries were interested in the recently approved ministry of the ordained deacon for those persons employed by church agencies in the areas of health, education, administration, and missions. We interviewed a number of young people who had been trained as “missioners” who were interested in and identified with the calling to be a deacon. The primary problem we found was some of them wanted to use the designation of deacon to start their own local congregation and function as a pastor without meeting all of requirements of training and approval of the board for ordination. There was also the problem of the two-step ordination still in practice that shaped the mindset that a deacon was on the way to becoming an elder. That was an outlook for many in the United States to change as well!

Countries that have Roman Catholic permanent deacons are more advanced in having an established Order of Deacon with a well-defined role in the church. The episcopal structure of the Roman Catholic church and several Protestant denominations lends itself to an understanding of the Order of Deacon that is missional, prophetic, and innovative as well as accountable to a Bishop for an appointment. On this basis I would expect to see growth in the diaconate eventually, but at this time there are few and only isolated cases of persons ordained to the Order of Deacon in many of the African countries with which I am familiar.

Ben Hartley: I do wonder what will happen to the ecumenical diaconate when (and I do think it is a matter of when) the Roman Catholic Church decides to ordain women to the diaconate. That will be quite a shift!

In your many years of service as a deacon, what story from your own ministry comes to mind that best represents what the diaconate truly is or could be? Do you have a time when your heart, body, and mind all shouted with delight, “Yessss. This is what it means to be a deacon!”

Paul Van Buren:Your reference to “many years of service” totals sixty years! It is much easier for me to respond to years of identity with servanthood ministry beginning with our General Board of Global Ministry as a missionary. I knew I was a deacon long before the church recognized it!

At the same time our denomination approved the formation of the Order of Deacon in 1996, it also approved the establishment of a world-class university in Africa. The Board where I was employed was given the responsibility, and I happened to have the agricultural training needed in international development to coordinate the creation of the Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Resources. When my boss “sanctified” this appointment as my ministry as a deacon, that is when I proclaimed “Yesss!” That eventually led to me to coordinating the Faculty of Health and later a ministry of rehabilitation of persons in Zimbabwe living with HIV and AIDS. That project was accepted as a model of the ministry of the deacon by our church. Another big “Yesss!”

Ben Hartley:I’ve been inspired, as you know, by the linguistic research on diakonia that Australian Roman Catholic scholar John N. Collins has done.[1] He highlights the concept of “go-between” or “emissary” for the diaconate, and I have tried to embody that in my academic writing on Christian social welfare history, urban history, and my current project to write a new biography of Methodist Nobel Peace Prize laureate John R. Mott (1865-1955). The working title for that biography is one that will make you smile, Paul. It is “World Christianity’s Emissary.” Of course, Mott was not a deacon, but I think he was animated by some of the spirit of the diaconate as it has been understood over the centuries. Working on that biography is a “yes” to my calling as a deacon. Writing a historical article on the history of UMCOR for its 75th anniversary also prompted a heartfelt “Yesss!” But beyond the writing projects, I think where I most feel like I have done the work of the deacon is when I have led my little congregation in Oregon to pray for one of the kids in the correctional facility that I visited or when I’ve pick up the crumbs of bread after communion. Those quiet and even awkward activities are moments when my deacon’s heart whispers a “Yesss!” too.

[1] Research stemming from Collins’s work decades ago continues. The latest scholarly volume in this regard is Bart J. Koet, Edwina Murphy, and Esko Ryokas (eds.), Deacons and Diakonia in Early Christianity (Tuebingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2019).

Monday, May 17, 2021

UMC Deacons at 25: Picking up on an Old Conversation

Today’s post is by Deacon Benjamin L. Hartley and Deacon Paul E. Van Buren. Paul E. Van Buren is a retired deacon residing in the Nashville, Tennessee area. Benjamin L. Hartley is a deacon in the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and is living in Seattle, Washington. In the fall, he will be joining the Seattle Pacific University School of Theology as an Associate Professor of Mission and World Christianity. He writes occasional blog posts at

In 1998 Paul Van Buren of the Section of Deacons and Diaconal Ministry in GBHEM and I wrote a book together about the UMC’s new understanding of the diaconate. I was a second year MDiv student at Boston University filled with enthusiasm for what the new diaconate could be. The Deacon: Ministry through Words of Faith and Acts of Love was the first book to provide theological and practical guidance on our denomination’s understanding of deacons after the 1996 General Conference decision to institute the Order of Deacon as a full and equal order.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Order of Deacon, Paul and I had a conversation about the book, the progress of the UMC diaconate, and our hopes for the future. This post contains the first part of that conversation.

Reading the book after so many years have passed since writing it, what stands out to you the most?

Ben Hartley: For me, I would have to say that I am most pleased by the theme we chose to accentuate – namely, the importance of deacons’ work as interrelating worship and service. I still think that it is critical for deacons to be active in the worship life of the congregation to bring focus to ministries of service, justice, and compassion. That focal attention happens best in worship.

I’m also humbled when I read these words from over twenty years ago. I have failed to live out as well as I thought I would this central dimension of the deacon’s calling. As a deacon who has lived out his calling primarily as a professor in a seminary and then among university undergraduates, I have too often not led my local congregations very well in ministries of service, justice, and compassion. I have been better at working at the Annual Conference level by serving on the Board of Ordained Ministry and other committees.

And yet, I am grateful for small ways I have interrelated worship and service in recent years through volunteering at a youth correctional facility, offering prayers at my local church for young men I had spoken to that week, and in initiating an ecumenical Lenten study program with neighboring Wesleyan congregations in my small town. Covid-19 brought that last initiative to a premature end, but the effort is still important for me to remember as an example of interrelating worship and service in my twenty-year calling as a deacon. As a professor in Oregon, I’ve loved offering “field trips” to a Coptic Orthodox Church, a synagogue, and mosque for my students. This too is an expression of my calling, even if I often don’t see such work as part of some sort of “programmatized” deacon effort. This work grew out of who I was. But that is an important insight. The work of a deacon – as in all callings – should be something that comes naturally if it is truly a manifestation of one’s call.

I am also really pleased by how well we engaged the ecumenical literature on the diaconate back in 1998 when we wrote this book together. Back when I entered seminary at Boston University in 1997, there was very little theological work being done in United Methodist circles about what this new understanding of the diaconate means for our church. The General Conference’s decision was not based on an elaborate “theology of holy orders” as the Roman Catholics would have framed things! Rosemary Skinner Keller, Gerald F. Mode and Mary Elizabeth Moore had written Called to Serve back in 1987 to add some clarity around the office of diaconal minister, but there wasn’t much more than that. I was drawn to scholars on the ordained diaconate in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican traditions because those groups had instituted a permanent, ordained diaconate a decade or more before United Methodists and were actively engaged in ecumenical conversations about the diaconate.

I was fortunate at Boston University School of Theology in 1998 to take a doctoral seminar on the diaconate taught by Professor Carter Lindberg, a Lutheran. He had recently participated in an ecumenical dialogue between Anglicans and Lutherans in Hanover, Germany about the diaconate called The Diaconate as Ecumenical Opportunity. A year later, I took another course by Professor Dana Robert entitled “Women in Diakonia and Mission.” I was elated. It was still another Boston University School of Theology staff member, Margaret Wiborg, Director of the Anna Howard Shaw Center, who is responsible for connecting me to you all at the Section of Deacons and Diaconal Ministry in Nashville. As I recall, she asked me for the papers I had been writing for classes, nearly all of which had something to do with the diaconate. She liked them and told me to send them to your colleague, Jimmy Carr. It wasn’t long before you and I were having conversations about writing a book together! I was so honored to write that with you, Paul. It meant so much to me.

Paul Van Buren: Thank you, Ben, for refreshing my memory on how it came about that we wrote the book. I too am pleased about what we wrote and how we complemented each other in our perspectives. I had years of service as a missionary, church and community worker, and working in GBHEM, and you were just barely starting out! I am especially pleased about our emphasis on the Order of Deacon, an entirely new creation in the United Methodist Church. If we were to rewrite this book, now that we have a bit of history to draw on, I would keep the existing theme and topics but flesh out the reference to Order as a covenant community. Even though most conferences in the Northeast and West lack the critical mass of deacons to have a large community (Order) of deacons, we can now see how critical it is to have the support of each other in the process of bringing change in the structure and ordering of ministry. Drawing on the history of deacons in other traditions was helpful.

Ben Hartley: Your mentioning of the importance of Order brings to mind what I thought was one of the best papers written in those early days by a United Methodist professor on the diaconate. I remember being invited to a small conference that you, Joaquin Garcia, and Jimmy Carr pulled together (maybe other GBHEM staff were there too, I don’t recall). It was held in a rather stuffy Nashville hotel conference room with maybe fifty people there. Dr. Deidre Kriewald gave what I thought was an inspiring paper on “Order.” As the youngest person in the room (28 years old) I was energized by what Professor Kriewald had to say. Re-reading her paper these many years later, her final paragraph still excites me. After mentioning the 3rd century story of Deacon Laurence (you’ll recall I love that story), Kriewald writes:

A rightly appropriated Order of Deacons will promote an effective partnership between laity and deacons and act as a bridge between laity and clergy within the organic ministry of the body of Christ. The order can be a strong communal force to help the deacons exemplify and encourage the servanthood to which all Christians are commissioned in baptism. The order is also a structure for the continuing education of deacons and a visionary vehicle for the formation of the Christian clergy. Let the whole church say “Amen!” and respond with energy and prayerful support.

As you mentioned, Paul, the Order of Deacon has not always and everywhere lived up to Professor Kriewald’s hope that it would be “a strong communal force” to strengthen and encourage deacons, but I’ve been blessed to be part of two Annual Conference Orders of Deacons – in Eastern Pennsylvania and Oregon-Idaho – which have really tried to live that out.

Paul Van Buren: Thanks for reminding me about Professor Kriewald’s paper from that long-ago conference, Ben! The section on “Similarities and Differences of Elders and Deacons” was another critical piece of our book. We received more questions on this topic in our office than any other subject. Even though we stressed that one’s identity is more important than function, our denomination seems consumed with the ordering and ranking of ministry. How a deacon functions varies a great deal depending on the bishop and senior pastor with whom the deacon is accountable. There is some progress over the past decades in involving the deacon in some aspects of celebrating and administering the Sacraments.

I have you to thank for the ecumenical perspective in our book. Would it not be a great idea if the Order of Deacon were more inclusive of some of these other traditions in some of their meetings? We have much to learn from Roman Catholic and Episcopal deacons.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Recommended Reading: How COVID-19 has transformed mission work

Last month, reporter Kelsey Dallas of the Deseret News reached out to me (David Scott) about the impact that COVID-19 has had on mission work around the world. I was one of several people she interviewed for this resulting story. Drawing together wisdom far beyond my own contribution, the story provides an insightful take on how COVID has impacted the practice of mission, both short-term and long-term, thus far and how its impact is likely to continue to last for years to come. It is a worthwhile read for those contemplating the future of mission in the "new normal" of a COVID and post-COVID world.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Why the COVID crises in India and Brazil matter for the church and mission

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

As those who have been following the world-wide progression of the coronavirus pandemic know, recent weeks have not been good for India and Brazil in terms of caseloads and deaths from COVID-19. Brazil has been struggling to contain the virus since last fall, and over the past two months, India has experienced one of the most dramatic spikes in cases of the pandemic, straining hospitals, health care systems, and crematoriums. These two countries are now the top two countries in terms of new cases of coronavirus and the second and third countries in terms of total deaths from COVID-19.

Commendably, many Christians in the United States have been moved with compassion at tales of the pandemic's effects in India, Brazil, and elsewhere and have wanted to help. And The United Methodist Church, through UMCOR and Global Ministries, has been helping, since at least last July in Brazil ([1] and [2]) and more recently in India ([1] and [2]).

Yet to cast COVID-19 in India and Brazil solely as a humanitarian crisis is to miss important dimensions of the impact of the religious impact on the church in those countries (and others).

First, it is important to keep in mind that COVID-19 has been a crisis for the church in India and Brazil. Brazil is home to the second-highest number of Christians in the world, following only the United States. India has nearly 30 million Christians as well, a very sizable number.

I know of no attempts to break down the impact of COVID-19 in either India or Brazil by religion. Still, given that Brazil is a majority Christian population, it is clear that the pandemic is affecting Christian communities in Brazil. And while there are regional variations in terms of numbers of Christians in India, COVID has been present among Christian communities there as well.

Thus, all of the organizational, logistical, financial, spiritual, and theological problems that Christian churches in the United States have had to face because of the COVID-19 pandemic, churches in Brazil and India have had to face as well. And they have not always had the same resources in terms of technology and government financial support that churches in the United States have had to do so. By the time it abates, the pandemic will have taken a significant toll on Christians, Christian communities, and Christian leaders in India and Brazil.

Second, it is important to keep in mind that COVID-19 has been a crisis for mission in India and Brazil. Both countries are not only home to many Christians, but many missionaries as well. Brazil was the #2 sending country for missionaries and the #3 receiving country pre-pandemic, with 40,000 missionaries going out from Brazil and 20,000 serving in Brazil. India was the #8 sending country, sending out the same number of missionaries as Germany or France (10,000).

I do not know of any attempt yet to systematically figure out how these numbers of missionaries sent or received have been impacted by the pandemic. Given the number of Brazilian and Indian missionaries that serve embedded within diaspora networks, many of these missionaries may have been able to remain in their places of service. Yet, with heightened travel restrictions, especially imposed against virus hot spots, the movement of missionaries from Brazil and India must be impacted.

Moreover, not only the movement but the operation of missionaries, both from and within Brazil and India, has likely been significantly impacted. Given the impact of the pandemic--economically, socially, and organizationally--around the world, Brazilian and Indian missionaries cannot have escaped the wreckage that the pandemic has caused.

Consider this another way: The United States is the world's top country in terms of number of Christians, number of missionaries sent, and number of missionaries received. Think of the impact of the pandemic on religion in the United States. Brazil is #2 on all of those measures and has struggled similarly with the pandemic. Thus, the top two Christian countries in the world have also been the most impacted by the virus.

Mexico, Russia, and the Philippines (#3, #4, and #5 in terms of Christian population, with Russia #2 in terms of missionaries received and the Philippines #4 in terms of missionaries sent) have also been majorly impacted by the pandemic. Europe and the Americas generally, which constitute two of the three most strongly Christian areas of the world, have been among the hardest hit by the virus. Africa is the only major Christian population center that has been relatively less affected by the virus.

The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, and much is unclear about what the world will look like when it finally is. But this much is clear: the Christian church and Christian mission will have been deeply impacted around the world.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Recommended Reading: How COVID Reveals the Hypocrisy of the Global Health "Experience"

NPR recently published a thoughtful piece by Abraar Karan, a physician who has worked in global health for his career. The piece reflected on what the coronavirus pandemic had revealed about the sorts of partnerships that characterize global health work between the West and the global South. While the piece is about secular global health work, the moral issues that Karan raises are worth considering as United Methodists and other Christians re-think mission partnerships in a pandemic altered-world. Karan's critique is best captured in the following passage:

"The work that we [Americans and Europeans] do in global health is often done at our convenience – if for any reason we opt not to go, impoverished countries and communities must continue the work either way. The work that to some of us is more academic is a matter of survival for residents of those communities. ...

"Ultimately, some part of the U.S. and European participation in global health is just that: participation rather than equal partnership. Yet the power dynamics have for centuries leaned heavily and falsely toward the Western entity as the commanding leader— or more accurately, the brutal colonizer."

Substitute the term "mission" for "global health" in the above passages and contemplate what the import of this insight is for international mission partnerships.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Perils and Promises of Economic Analysis of Religion

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

One of the distinctive aspects of my writing, both on this blog and elsewhere, has been a focus on the economic aspects of mission and church. Whether that's exploring the impact of different financial models of mission in the early 20th century, determining the relative significance of American vs. indigenous economic support of church work, giving an overview of the assets of The United Methodist Church, or detailing how Methodist mission in Malaysia handled shipping of goods and monetary remittances, attention to the business of mission and church has been a frequent focus of mine.

I am not alone in following this "business turn" in religious studies. While not nearly as significant as the "cultural turn" in the 70s, attention to the intersection of religion, business, and economics has become a noticeable focus for many scholars in the past 5-10 years.

I want to give an account of what I think is at stake in such an approach to the study of religion, at least for me as a scholar. I will do so through two pairs of perils and promises--or, in other words, potential pitfalls and potential payoffs.

One potential pitfall of taking an economic approach to the study of religion is that it become reductionist in nature. While saying that money matters, one must be careful not to imply that money is the only thing that matters when it comes to moving the levers of history or driving people's engagement with religion. Nor is it just Marxist approaches that can make such a mistake. The cultural logic of late stage capitalism can be just as reductionist by seeing events and people only in terms of their economic value or capacity. Such an approach erases people's fundamental humanity and ignores the power of ideas and other forces that shape history.

Yet, while focusing exclusively on economic understandings of religion prohibits a full understanding of religion and humans, so does ignoring the economics of religion. It is easy to assume that religion is all about ideas, or perhaps about ideas, culture, and power, while ignoring the very real economic considerations that go into the practice and propagation of religion. Thus, one promise of including an economic analysis of religion is that it gives us a fuller picture of how people are religious rather than an idealized or sanctified picture that ignores such "grubby" considerations as money. Money is a real consideration, even for the devout, and it must be acknowledged as such.

A second potential pitfall is related to the above remark about the cultural logic of late stage capitalism. There has been an increasing tendency over the past several decades for economic language and economic logic to take over all aspects of life. Even how we think about such things as friendship, citizenship, love, and art has become increasingly structured by a logic of quantified loss and gain articulated through a series of economic metaphors. I think such totalizing of economic reasoning is ultimately destructive of our full humanity. And when we use economic language figuratively in our analysis of religion, such as when I compared mission stations to franchises, we risk furthering this trend of being able to think only in economic terms.

The corresponding payoff, though, of highlighting the economic logic people bring to religion, even when that logic is used in figurative ways, is that by highlighting it, it makes that logic seem less inevitable. If we become aware of how capitalism has shaped our thinking, even about religion, then we are closer to being able to think about religion (and the rest of the world) in other terms. It is made clear that such language and logic is a choice, and we could choose to see the world differently.

Ultimately, my participation in the business turn in religious studies is motivated not by a high valuation or appreciation of what money can do but rather by a suspicion of the distorting and corrupting influences that money can have, whether on individuals, organizations, or cultures.

The cultural turn in religious studies did much to focus scholars' attention on the ways in which power was accumulated and deployed within the practice of religion. This style of analysis is at times a useful tool in understanding religion and highlights important moral and ethical questions. Yet, it tends to ignore the interaction between money and power by focusing instead on culture and politics.

The business turn has the potential to provide a similarly useful tool by raising similar questions about who benefits and why with regard to the economic practices associated with religion. It is not the only tool scholarship needs, but it is an important one to include in the scholarly toolkit.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Recommended Reading: David N. Field on Models of Methodism and the Unity of the Church

David N. Field of the European Methodist e-Academy has published a paper online entitled "Models of Methodism and the Unity of the Church: A European Reflection on the Conflict in The United Methodist Church over LGBTQ+ Inclusion and Affirmation." In the paper, Field outlines six different understandings of church within United Methodism: as a US American denomination, as a European free church, as a connection of holiness societies, as a confessional church, as a generously orthodox church, and as a movement of liberation. While Field's main concern in outlining these six views is to explore their implications for understanding current conflicts over LGBTQ+ inclusion, along the way, he highlights the implications of these views of the church for ecumenism and other aspects of theology. Field acknowledges that his work needs to be supplemented by more attention to African and Filipino understandings of the church. Still, and despite its length (18 pages), Field's piece is well worth reading for a better understanding of the complexities of the current UMC.