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.