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:
[T]here are many other people … who are willing and eager for a part in the serving ministries of the church that we are not putting to good use, because our structures are not flexible enough and our imaginations less than adequate. We seem to be stuck with a tradition that may have had good reason to evolve as it did but which is no longer self-validating. We seem to have forgotten another tradition – the permanent diaconate – that may hold greater promise for revitalization in ministry than most of the other viable options open before us.
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”