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. 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.
 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).