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.

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