Wednesday, June 30, 2021
Scholars in postcolonial and decolonial theologies as well as recent developments in political theology have insisted that empire shapes religious traditions and imaginaries. In the case of the United States, the entanglement between imperialism and US Christianity runs deep in the powers and principalities of this world. The impact of empire on US Christianity has been most evident among those closest to its levers of power—historically speaking, straight, white, male citizens of the dominant class. Though the impact of imperialism is not limited to this group, the work of resisting imperial Christianity requires attention to communities that stand on the underside of US imperialism.
As significant expressions of US Christianity, Methodist and Wesleyan traditions in the United States have been and are shaped by the imperial practices and mindsets of their US members, even when they aspire to be “global” denominations. US empire has shaped other expressions of Methodism as well, even those that are not historically connected to the United States. Methodism’s relationship with empire is at times ambiguous, and there are ambiguities and ambivalences in how Empire has played out historically. Those on the margins of empire have appropriated the openings created by empire for their own purposes. Nevertheless, the exploitation and injustice that are inherent to empire go against basic tenets of Christianity, especially in its Wesleyan expressions.
Writing from within Methodist traditions, the authors in this volume provide testimonies of a “theological surplus,” as Joerg Rieger has termed it, in the tradition: while imperial forces seek to control everything, God’s work exceeds the grasp of empire. This volume will include historical and theological reflections that elevate these experiences and that showcase Methodism as a denominational tradition that has historically resisted US imperialism even as it often times succumbs to it.
This volume therefore suggests that resistance to empire is a biblical imperative. The Bible makes it clear that God’s power does not stem from domination over but from identification with God’s interactions with God’s creation. These interactions are marked by love, justice, service, and freedom. This biblical depiction of God inspires us to our own work of resisting empire and crafting alternatives to it, especially within the church. These alternatives to empire are indeed the first fruits of God’s new creation. By so doing, we join in partnership with God and others in the work of doing God’s will on earth as in heaven, and we open ourselves to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, who helps us grow in our love for others.
Given the impact of Empire on the American church and on Methodism as a historically and predominantly American denominational tradition, and given the Christian imperative to resist any system that identifies a Lord other than Christ, we intend to develop a book project that will serve as a resource for the work of resisting Empire. We intend that this resource will be primarily geared toward a popular audience, rather than a scholarly one. The goal is to bring along people for whom a critique of Empire does not come naturally but who recognize on some level the problems of imperial Christianity and who are open to trying as Christians to live in a new way.
We envision a collection of writings that draw upon a variety of disciplines: biblical studies, theology, history, missiology, etc., that will help readers better understand how the forces of empire have impacted Methodism (in its various expressions) and its practices and how the church can move towards a non-imperial manner of being and acting. To do so, we anticipate that authors will explore different forms of empire—not just political and military might, but also economics, culture, media, and other forms of “soft” empire. Moreover, we recognize that imperial power is not static but grows, fluctuates, and declines over time. We also anticipate that authors will explore the ways in which empire interacts with other categories of analysis such as race, class, nation and nationalism, geography (rural/urban, for instance), sexuality, the environment, and the body. Again, the goal of this analysis is not primarily to advance conversations in the academy but to use the resources of the academy to help educate and equip the church broadly. Finally, recognizing that the ills of empire cannot be fully cured solely by those at the centers of the imperial system, we hope for contributions from Methodists around the world.
We invite contributions for essays or resources that relate to the following themes:
1. Historical essays tying Methodist missionary activity and the expansion of United States foreign interests. Case studies could include US missionaries in Puerto Rico, Western Africa, the Philippines, the impact of US expansions on the church in the United States, and international structures of Methodism, etc.
2. Theological and ethical reflections on Wesleyan theology, Empire studies, and political theology.
3. Liturgical, worship, and ministry resources (sermons, liturgies, litanies, biblical studies, Sunday school lessons, etc.) for church communities to engage in anti-imperial reflections.
4. Practical resources on activism, advocacy, and mission focused on Methodist communities and contexts.
Essay proposals are due August 31, 2021. Proposals should include 300–400-word description of the project and ought to be submitted as an email attachment to the editors, David Scott (dscott(at)umcmission.org) and Filipe Maia (fmaia(at)bu.edu). Accepted proposals will be communicated to authors by September 30, 2021.
Monday, June 28, 2021
The Foundation for Evangelism has hosted a series of hour-long webinars over the past year featuring conversations between Rev. Dr. Heather Lear of the Foundation and various United Methodist scholars of evangelism. Videos from these webinars are available online and are commended as a resource for those studying or teaching evangelism. The five webinars from the past year are as follows:
Friday, June 25, 2021
The webinar for the Philippines features Bishops Francisco and Juan, presentations by team members about the Christmas Covenant and the Protocol, and a time of questions and answers. Portions of that presentation are in Tagalog, though the majority of the presentation is in English.
There are three webinars for Africa--one each in English, Portuguese, and French.
The English webinar features Bishops Wandabula, Muyombo, Nhanala, and Nhiwatiwa; presentations by team members about the Christmas Covenant; and a time of questions and answers.
The Portuguese webinar features Bishops Nhanala of Mozambique and Domingos of Angola, presentations by team members about the Christmas Covenant, and a time of questions and answers. Some of the presentations are in English, with translation into Portuguese.
The French webinar has not yet been posted to the Christmas Covenant YouTube channel, though readers are encouraged to check back to see if the video is published in the future.
Wednesday, June 23, 2021
I was reminded of a John Wesley quote the other day while reading a FiveThirtyEight piece on (mis)perceptions of the racial wealth gap.
For those who don't know, the wealth gap between White and non-white Americans is striking: one federal government survey found that "the typical White family has eight times the wealth of the typical Black family and five times the wealth of the typical Hispanic family." Yet, as the FiveThirtyEight article points out, Americans consistently and dramatically underestimate that racial wealth gap.
The article, entitled "Why Many Americans Can't See the Wealth Gap Between White and Black America" and written by Neil Lewis Jr., argues that one of the major reasons why Americans do not have an accurate sense of the racial wealth gap is because of de facto residential and social segregation. Lewis argues:
"The nature of segregation in the U.S. means that we only end up seeing and learning about what our own groups experience, making it hard to understand the lives of people outside of our own group. This explains, in part, why Americans have such a hard time understanding just how unequal our nation is, and moreover, the racialized nature of that inequality."
It struck me that Lewis' assessment of the situation mirrors perfectly John Wesley's assessment of the failure of the rich to understand the plight of the poor in 18th century England. In his sermon, "On Visiting the Sick," Wesley wrote:
"One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is, because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is, that, according to the common observation, one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it; and then plead their voluntary ignorances an excuse for their hardness of heart."
One could easily substitute "Whites" for "the rich" and "Blacks" for "the poor," and this quote could describe the problems with making progress on racial justice in the 2020s United States just as well as it did class injustice in Wesley's England. It captures the separation of social networks and the ways in which the privileged are quite comfortable in maintaining that separation, lest their privilege be threatened in some way.
The importance of connection to understanding of racial injustice and motivation to address it is also a major conclusion in Michael Emerson and Christian Smith's landmark study Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Emerson and Smith argue that one significant reason why white evangelicals fail to understand the systemic nature of racial disadvantage in the United States is because they are not sufficiently connected to networks of people of color from whom white evangelicals could learn about the experiences of their lives.
Emerson and Smith are not optimistic about the power of religion to address this form of racial misunderstanding driven by social distance. Indeed, they write that "religion, as structured in America, is unable to make a great impact on the racialized society. In fact, far from knocking down racial barriers, religion generally serves to maintain these historical divides, and helps to develop new ones." (p. 18) By "structured," Emerson and Smith are referring to the racialized nature of most congregations and denominations in the United States.
Emerson and Smith do not examine in depth the role of Christian mission in addressing this problem. But Wesley was convinced that the practice of mission could help build understanding and empathy across differences. That was the point of his sermon. And many missiologists have emphasized that point since Wesley: mission can be a force for building understanding across racial boundaries, understanding that can then be used to work for greater racial justice.
Nevertheless, for mission to be successful in this regard, that increase in understanding must be an explicit goal, and those engaging in mission must have the right spiritual attitude. Wesley preached, "Whenever, therefore, you are about to enter upon the work, seek his help by earnest prayer. Cry to him for the whole spirit of humility, lest if pride steal into your heart, if you ascribe anything to yourself, while you strive to save others you destroy your own soul."
If White people practice mission as charity to Black people in a way that reinforces their own sense of racial pride, not only will it fail to produce greater understanding, it will destroy their own souls! Humility and openness, then, are requisite to this process of learning about and from other perspectives.
There is much in American society that conspires to prevent this type of cross-racial learning, and missiology as a practice and a discipline has not been without blame in this regard, as David Evans and Otto Harris have demonstrated on this blog.
Yet for those who believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of equality for all persons, there are additional resources and practices in the faith to be used to advance that understanding of the gospel. Building cross-racial compassion through webs of relationships is one such important resource.
Monday, June 21, 2021
This book brings together Methodist scholars and reflective practitioners from around the world to consider how emerging practices of mission and evangelism shape contemporary theologies of mission. Engaging contemporary issues including migration, nationalism, climate change, postcolonial contexts, and the growth of the Methodist church in the Global South, this book examines multiple forms of mission, including evangelism, education, health, and ministries of compassion. A global group of contributors (including strong African voices) discusses mission as no longer primarily a Western activity but an enterprise of the entire church throughout the world.
The book contains 19 chapters covering four sections: cultivating global relationships, practicing contextual engagement, educating for missional formation, and discerning the future of mission together. This edited collection builds on papers presented at the Methodist Mission Bicentennial conference held in Atlanta in April 2019 while expanding upon those reflections.
This volume will be of interest to researchers studying missiology, evangelism, global Christianity, and Methodism and to students of Methodism and mission. While this book is quite expensive in hardback form, a paperback version will appear in the fall of next year, and a less expensive e-book version is also available.
Friday, June 18, 2021
La Iglesia Evangélica Metodista Argentina ha compartido algunas reflexiones sobre la práctica del ecumenismo. Estas reflexiones vienen de la obra de Néstor Míguez como presidente de la Federación Argentina de Iglesias Evangélicas (FAIE). Estos pensamientos comparten otra perspectiva de la conexión entre la misión y el ecumenismo desde una perspec Metodista
Wednesday, June 16, 2021
There are a lot of people out there with a plan to save The United Methodist Church. These plans vary, both in the way they identify what the UMC must be saved from and how to do that saving. They range from implementing new managerial techniques and institutional strategies, to adopting certain social and theological positions, to reconfiguring the structure of the denomination, to saving the best parts of United Methodism by establishing them in a new denomination. Though they don't agree on how, there are a lot of people out there that think they are going to save The United Methodist Church.
It's not that I might not like to save The United Methodist Church. As someone who was brought up in a United Methodist congregation, nurturing spiritually and intellectually through a series of United Methodist churches and Methodist-founded colleges, and is currently employed by a United Methodist agency, there are many reasons why I might like to save The United Methodist Church.
And it's not that I don't have any ideas about how The United Methodist Church might be a better version of itself. Anyone who has read this blog long enough knows that I have views on the UMC and some things I think would improve it.
It's more that I have a healthy sense of limitations, both my own and human limitations generally.
First, I take issue with the idea that The United Methodist Church can be saved by any one individual. That notion fits well with the "Great Man" theory of history and with American cultural sensibilities around heroic individualism, but it doesn't fit well with careful study of how social and religious movements actually come to pass.
Renewal movements are just that--movements, which extend far beyond the work or actions of any one person. Certainly, central figures play important roles in movement. Far be it from any religious descendant of John Wesley to say that central figures do not matter to movements. But Wesley did not build the Methodism movement alone. Not only were there many others who worked with him (shout out to Charles!), but he also drew upon ideas that came from outside himself, even if he combined them in sometimes novel ways.
So, if The United Methodist Church is to be saved, it will not be because of the work of some heroic individual, but rather because God has brought about through many contributions the necessary conditions for the denomination's salvation.
Second, while I have some ideas for reform of the church, I am keenly aware of the challenges facing the denomination and my inadequacy to single-handedly solve those problems. Within the United States alone, the denomination is facing a long-term general decline in religiosity, decreasing relevance of denominations, increasing distrust of and antipathy towards institutions, and increasing social and religious polarization. Globally, add to that the challenges of intercultural communication, economic inequality, shifting centers of Christian vitality, and other mega-trends.
While I can list off these challenges, I do not know how the UMC should best steer itself through these stormy waters so as to ensure the continued spiritual growth of its members and organizational well-being for the denomination as a whole. I don't even know how to solve one of these challenges, let alone all of them together.
Third, even if I did have the solutions to these problems, I recognize the limitations of my medium. I write a blog. I have no ability to command the actions of others or the use of resources. The best I can muster is to write something that I hope will be persuasive to the several hundred or couple thousand people that might read it. What they do with whatever ideas they gleam from my writings is outside my direct control. And those people are getting other ideas from other blogs, conversations, podcasts, sermons, etc., most of which probably differ substantially from my ideas.
I have no corner on the market for offering ideas for church renewal. Instead, it's a saturated market, and it is hard for anyone to break through beyond a core audience, let alone to motivate their audience to participate in a movement.
Fourth and finally, I probably come from the wrong social location for someone who will save The United Methodist Church. Historically, saviors come from the margins. They have some connections to the system they reform so as to provide them with enough familiarity with the system and education to think critically about that system, but they're not sitting at the seats of power.
I'm not a bishop or the leader of a large congregation, but I do work for an agency, which gives me some standing in the current system. I am an American, straight, white, well-educated male. I have a lot of privilege. If you were going to look for someone who could save or revitalize The United Methodist Church or the Methodist movement more broadly, that person would probably differ from me in some important part of their identity or background.
So there you go: I'm not going to save The United Methodist Church.
But here's what I am going to do: I'm going to try my best to work faithfully on the task before me with the best knowledge and wisdom I have.
My doing that won't save the denomination. But perhaps my work can make a small contribution toward setting the conditions necessary for Methodism to flourish, in the United States and around the world. Someone else will lead that flourishing, but that's okay with me. I don't need to save the UMC; I just need to be faithful to the work God has given me.
Monday, June 14, 2021
According to the Markan gospel, from the onset of His Galilean mission, Jesus proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the [reign] of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15 NRSV). The imminent extension of God’s love, redemption, salvation, forgiveness, mercy, and justice to a bewildered humanity was and is indeed good news. In the Pardon in response to the Confession of The United Methodist “Service of Word and Table I,” we pronounce, “Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God's love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven!”
Humans do not have to suffer with the deleterious effects of guilt, shame, and estrangement that result from sin-sickness. We declare the mystery of faith, “Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.” God loves you (John 3:16). Jesus is with you (Matthew 28:20). The Holy Spirit dwells in you (Romans 8:9). That news transcends culture, ethnicity, and race. That news is eternal. That news is ubiquitous. That news is good!
The quintessential task of the Church is to vivify and share this good news. This task is not to be relegated to a committee or outsourced to a particular order. This task is to be fulfilled by all who believe in the good news. Notwithstanding, some (such as the American Society of Missiology (ASM)) particularly focus on and represent this task. I celebrate this brilliant collection of minds who offers theoretical frameworks to help the Church more fruitfully fulfill this task.
While I celebrate this brilliance, not one Black person is an ASM officer, on the ASM Board of Directors, on the ASM Board of Publications, a Missiology Editor, on an ASM Editorial Committee, or on any form of leadership listed on the “Key People” page (https://www.asmweb.org/key-people). While this claim would certainly benefit from more scholarly research, I surmise that ASM leadership is ethnically representative of the discipline of Missiology.
To what can we attribute the absence of Black thinkers and leaders in conventional missiological conversations? Is the good news that Jesus embodied and proclaimed not good enough for Black persons to proclaim? Are Black persons perspectives not relevant to the conversation? Perhaps, Black persons are not significantly represented in faith traditions (denominations), including The United Methodist Church, typically associated with the dominant voices of missiology and mission work. According to a 2014 Pew Research Report, Black persons represented less than 1% of The United Methodist population. Black persons cannot be a part of the missionary population if they are not part of the general population.
If the low representation within faith traditions can be overcome, how can Black persons be included in the mission work of the Church? Of The United Methodist Church? How can an institution, who has been racialized as superior, contextualize this good news for Black people, who have been racialized as inferior? Methodism has a history of being able to present the good news to Black persons in a way that it was received and celebrated. Vance P. Ross observes, “Black People gladly joined Methodism because Methodism, in divine obedience, avowed the humanity of Black people.” However, relatively early in the conception, Methodism quickly devolved from this ability.
United Methodism shares this relative inability to appropriate the good news for Black persons with the universal Church. Missiology to “urban” (e.g., softened way of describing undesirable Black spaces) communities has often seemed like toxic charity and/or colonization. Black communities, along with the world community, has recently been overwhelmed with news that has been not so good. Along with pandemic-related news, powerful institutions have been weaponized to discipline Black bodies, poverty and pain endemic to “urban” communities have been criminalized, and access to dignity has been monetized to the detriment of Black persons who cannot afford it. In the midst of all of this, the loudest voices for the Church have sanctified these travesties and voices of lament from the Church have been strangely silent.
What about the Black persons who already believe in the good news? What is, or can be, their role(s)? And how can the Church, The United Methodist Church, contribute to fruitfulness in these roles? Maybe, there is an opportunity to explore a different theoretical framework for missiology, which may be used to transcend other cultural, racial, and/or ethnic spaces.
Perhaps, the good news has not been sufficiently interpreted and appropriated for Black persons and Black communities. The Church would do well to provide opportunity and support to help Black thinkers and leaders lead in presenting and representing a counternarrative to the loud travesty-sanctifying voices and the strangely silent voices of lament. This counternarrative could interpret and appropriate the good news for the disregarded “urban” mission field. The residents of this mission field may receive anew, or new, the good news as it has been contained in and expressed through our liturgies, our litanies, our social principles, and the work of our general agencies.
The Church can find ways to promote these thinkers and leaders as public theologians, as they vivify and share the good news. The Church should include these brilliant minds among the other the brilliant minds who provide theoretical frameworks for all those who believe in the good news to embody and proclaim. God’s love, redemption, salvation, forgiveness, mercy, and justice are indeed imminent in “urban” areas, as they are all the world. God disrupts the sin-sickness of weaponization, criminalization, and monetization, which do not have to be suffered by those who wield them or by those receive them. That news certainly transcends culture, ethnicity, and race. That news is eternal. That news is ubiquitous. That news is indeed good enough to be shared by all to all!
1. Thomas Anderson Langford III, gen. ed., The United Methodist Book of Worship. (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1992), 35.
 Ibid., 38.
 Pew Research Center. "How Racially Diverse are U.S. Religious Groups,” July 27, 2015. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/27/the-most-and-least-racially-diverse-u-s-religious-groups/ft_15-07-23_religiondiversityindex-1/.
 Vance P. Ross, “I’m Black. I’m Methodist. I’m Challenging (To What End)?” in I’m Black. I’m Christian. I’m Methodist, ed. Rudy Rasmus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2020), 141.
Friday, June 11, 2021
1. Submitting examples of collaboration in mission.
2. Completing a survey about your experiences of mission collaboration.
3. Organizing a conversation about missional collaboration and sharing the results.
More details about each of these options can be found on the project overview website.
Wednesday, June 9, 2021
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.
Back in January, I listened to a podcast (which unfortunately I cannot find again) in which the host interviewed a historian to talk about the 1918/1919 Spanish flu epidemic and what it could teach us about the COVID-19 epidemic. The historian argued that despite the staggering death toll wrought by the Spanish flu around the world, it quickly faded from collective memory. People were eager to get back to "normal" life, and thus once they no longer had to worry about the Spanish flu, they stopped thinking about it altogether, at least in direct ways. Indirectly, one could argue that the hedonistic culture of the "Roaring Twenties" was a reaction, at least in the United States, to the death wrought by World War I and the Spanish Flu epidemic.
This example is worth keeping in mind, especially at this point in the COVID-19 epidemic. While persistent global vaccine inequality and the on-going danger of new variants or other unexpected twists mean that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over on a global scale, for those in the United States, where vaccines are readily accessible and infection rates are plummeting, the end of the pandemic seems in sight.
That means, though, that for those in the United States, the pressure to return to "normal," to some semblance of pre-COVID ways of doing things, will be the highest in the coming weeks and months, as restrictions are dropped and more activities become possible again.
The opportunity to resume certain activities, especially those such as church services, family get-togethers, and community events that connect us to God and to one another, is certainly a milestone to be celebrated.
Yet, at the same time, the danger will be that in our rush to embrace the opportunities created by the end of pandemic restrictions, we will fail to learn deeper lessons from the experience of the pandemic. If we are too focused on getting back to our old ways, we will not reflect on what the disruption of those ways over the past year has taught us about those ways and about ourselves.
During the pandemic, especially during the height of restrictions, when there was little else to do besides look for the next buzz-worthy think piece online, a lot of digital ink was spilled in trying to process what the pandemic was teaching us about the church, about mission, about American society, about postmodern culture, etc. Yet those reflections will be for naught if, when given the opportunity, we rush back to doing the same old things we did in January of 2020.
Perhaps rather the risk is not that we return to our old ways, but rather that our actions and our selves will be shaped by the pandemic, but in ways that we are not conscious of and do not fully choose. We may end up in another debauched "Roaring Twenties" (which was, incidentally, generally a bad time for organized religion) if we are only able to process the losses and the learnings of the pandemic indirectly. While I don't mean to cast aspersions on all aspects of the 1920s, and while World War I was a significant contributing factor to the cultural dynamics of that decade missing from our present situation, I do think the church should be interested in avoiding another "lost generation," another generation of disorientation and meaninglessness.
But avoiding a "lost generation" means learning from our losses.
Thus, I pray that we all (and not just those readers in the United States) are soon able to enjoy the warmth of hugs, the fellowship of in-person worship, the conviviality of a gathering with friends, the stability of gainful employment, and the return of all the good things that we have so sorely missed over the past year and a half.
And I also pray, that in the midst of our thankfulness for the return of those good things, we will not turn entirely away from the sorrow and the pain of the past year and a half. I pray that we may face them, process them, and learn from them, that following the practice of Christians for centuries, we may be able to find meaning and spiritual, personal, and social growth from contemplating suffering. That will not be a pleasant prospect. But it may be a necessary one.
Monday, June 7, 2021
This blog has explored the system of UMC assets and how they might be impacted by a separation of the church. In a post in April, the Africa Voice of Unity blog has added an important central conference perspective to that conversation. In a piece entitled, "How UMC 'Trust Clause' and Impending Tussle over Assets Could Collapse the 'Protocol'," the author notes an important different in the legal context between many Western nations and many African nations. The author asserts that there are different understandings of and thus laws around trusteeship. These differences could lead to lawsuits over property in African countries, even under the provisions of the Protocol, which might avoid lawsuits in the United States. It seems that the risk for such lawsuits is greatest in countries in which there are different factions that want to stay and leave and thus control of assets becomes a contested issue. One of the argument of the UM & Global series on UMC assets was that there is a great risk for lawsuits in any division. It is interesting to hear that same concern raised in contexts other than the United States.
Friday, June 4, 2021
Wednesday, June 2, 2021
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.
Deacons in the UMC are rightly celebrating their 25th anniversary as an Order, but the idea in United Methodism to have a permanent, distinctive, and ordained diaconate in the UMC can be traced back much earlier.
On July 27, 1973, Associate General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry Robert W. Thornburg gave an address to United Methodist deaconesses and home missionaries entitled “The Permanent Diaconate: A Challenge to the United Methodist Church.”
When I was a twenty-eight-year-old seminarian at Boston University School of Theology, I told by-then Dean Thornburg (he was my preaching professor and Dean of Marsh Chapel at BU) that I was fascinated by the possibilities of the diaconate and wanted to become one. He gave me a warm smile and said, “Well, you know, I have some history on this one.” He proceeded to rummage through a file cabinet in his office and handed me two papers he had written. The first was “The Permanent Diaconate.” The other one, written in the mid-1980s, involved personal reminiscing about his efforts to support a permanent diaconate in the United Methodist Church. He entitled that paper “The Story of the Challenge."
Re-reading these papers as part of my own reflecting on the past 25+ years of the United Methodist diaconate I was most struck by these words from Dean Thornburg in 1973:
These words remind me of how long reform often takes in the church as well as how reform needs to continue. Twenty-five years into the Order of Deacon I wonder how even our understanding of the diaconate needs to be reformed and revitalized. Who are the people today who are excluded from the diaconate because our structures for the diaconate remain inflexible?
At the top of my wish list for revitalizing the United Methodist diaconate is to change the way deacons are educated. Many deacons will not like what I have to say here, but reform rarely happens without disagreement.
United Methodists departed from the experience of the distinctive, ordained diaconate in Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions when we decided that to be ordained a deacon one needed to have a seminary education (a minimum of 27 credits along with some other master’s degree). As I remember the conversation that took place in the wake of the 1996 General Conference decision, people seemed to arrive very quickly at the assumption that deacons needed a similar educational background to ordained elders in the UMC for their ordinations to be meaningful, or, more precisely, for their status to be recognized.
But why does this have to be the case? Ordination is something we do in the church to set people apart for leadership. Ordination vows are taken, the Holy Spirit is called upon, and a bishop’s hands are prayerfully laid on people whom God calls for this important role in the body of Christ. Having a seminary education is valuable, to be sure, but is it really necessary?
The decades-long experience of ordained Episcopalian and Roman Catholic deacons around the world is one where a seminary education has not been required nor has it proven necessary. The Roman Catholic Church in the United States has crafted an excellent guide for diocesan training programs for deacons. Great diocesan-level deacon training programs exist in the Episcopal Church as well.
When I dream about a revitalized Order of Deacon in the next twenty-five years, I think about the expanding numbers of deacons who feel the call to the diaconate “in their bones” and who are integrally connected to poor communities and communities of color. If we are to even come close to keeping pace with demographic changes in the United States, many more future deacons will be recent immigrants or the sons and daughters of recent immigrants.
But our current requirement for costly seminary education erects too high a barrier for too many people who may be experiencing a call to be deacons. That said, seminary education itself is going through dramatic change, with some seminaries offering less expensive pathways for theological education. That could work too, I will admit. But there is something about an intensively contextual deacon training program at the Annual Conference level that I find even more exciting and filled with possibilities for the training of deacons. I think, for example, of the work a friend began many years ago to train community organizers. Could we do something similar to this alongside Annual Conference deacon training initiatives?
In an article I wrote over fifteen years ago I argued that the office in the Methodist tradition that probably comes closest to what I think contemporary deacons could be is that of “class leader.” In the past, class leaders visited the sick, encouraged serious discipleship, and were critical to the functioning of Methodist societies. Class leaders had already established themselves as trusted, wise, leaders in communities, and they were not trained in seminaries. The comparison between class leaders of the early nineteenth century and deacons of today is not perfect, I realize. Deacons today are different in many ways. Still, the example of the class leader inspires my imagination. How would our church be different twenty-five years from now if we had as many deacons as we had class leaders in the early nineteenth century? Imagine the possibilities!
 Robert W. Thornburg, “The Permanent Diaconate: A Challenge to the United Methodist Church”