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Deacons: Connecting the church to the world

Titus 2 students enjoy a craft party hosted by one of their mentors. Photo courtesy of Cathy Byrd.
Titus 2 students enjoy a craft party hosted by one of their mentors. Photo courtesy of Cathy Byrd.

The plight of refugees is not just a news story to the Rev. Stanislov Prokhorov. It's a reality he confronts nearly every day.

A deacon at Samara United Methodist Church in Russia, Prokhorov coordinates a new ministry that provides resources to people escaping the conflict in Ukraine, as well as immigrants from the Middle East, former Soviet republics, the Caucasus and China.

Called Gostepriimstvo, or hospitality, the ministry helps newcomers obtain food, housing and health and legal services. So far, it has had close contact with seven to 10 people and provided one-time advisory help to about 50.

That is in a city with an estimated 10,000 war refugees and 80,000 immigrants, Prokhorov says. Given those numbers, the ministry also aims to raise awareness among the city's residents about the needs of refugees.

"There are thousands of families from Ukraine who barely have resources to start their life in a new city," Prokhorov said. "Our main goal is to help refugees adapt. ... We also want to show them Christ through our ministry. We understand that it is a challenge and a great responsibility for us."

Prokhorov is quick to note he is not alone in the effort. Church members and other volunteers who are lawyers, counselors and administrators offer expertise. He says the ministry is "a meeting place of those ready to help and those in need."

That is how it is supposed to be, says the Rev. Victoria Rebeck, director of deacon ministry support and certification programs at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

Wherever deacons serve, she says, they are always "pointing people to see where God is calling them to be in ministry to those in the world who are the marginalized and oppressed."

The United Methodist Church has more than 1,100 active ordained deacons in the United States and others in the central conferences who are helping members meet the needs of people outside the church. The evolution of that ministry is helping the church become more relevant, Rebeck says.

Charting a new course

The Samara ministry received $2,500 this year from Higher Education and Ministry's annual emerging-ministries grant program, in part, because it helps laity be the hands and feet of the church. It also met the criteria of addressing an emerging community need.

Thirteen ministries applied for the grant, and Rebeck says the selection team had a difficult time choosing the recipients of the $5,000 available because of the caliber of each ministry.

Their emergent nature "is a growing area of ministry for deacons," she said, and very much part of the historic and current call of deacons to "lead the church into ministry with the marginalized."

That evolution has been decades in the making.

In 1976, The United Methodist Church established the diaconal ministry, a called ministry of laity serving primarily in Christian education and age-level spiritual formation. The 1996 General Conference instituted the permanent order of deacon, stopped accepting candidates for diaconal ministry and discontinued ordination of deacons as a stepping stone to ordination as elder. Elders and deacons are now commissioned and elected provisional members of their annual conference before being ordained and elected members in full connection.

That change, along with a decline in congregational-based positions, has led deacons to "see where God might be calling them to be in ministry outside the congregation," Rebeck said.

Many deacons do serve within the church — in education and music ministries, in spiritual formation or with youth. Others receive appointments beyond it as social workers, heads of social service agencies and legal advocates. There are even more creative appointments, Rebeck says, such as the deacon serving as a truck-stop chaplain in Pennsylvania.

"Any place you can imagine outside the church walls where the love of God is needed, that's where a deacon can be leading the people of God in ministry," she said.

Deacons celebrate 20 years in ministry

2016 will mark the 20th anniversary of the creation of the permanent order of deacon in The United Methodist Church. Since its establishment at the 1996 General Conference, the ministry has evolved, providing unique opportunities for service.

"I do think there are increasingly more people who have that call to be in service and leadership outside the walls of the church, connecting people inside the church to the world," says the Rev. Victoria Rebeck, director of deacon ministry support and certification programs at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

By 2014, there were 1,734 U.S. deacons, according to statistics compiled by the board. Of that number, 1,197 were active and 537 retired. An additional 258 provisional members were commissioned that year.

In 2015, 50 deacons from 27 annual conferences were ordained, while 51 from 24 annual conferences were commissioned provisional members.

Church meets world

The Rev. Cathy Byrd, a deacon in the Alabama-West Florida Conference, felt called to help found Titus 2 Partnership, a residential program to help women overcome substance abuse issues, re-enter society after incarceration, escape human trafficking and exit the sex industry. It also received a $2,500 emerging ministries grant.

The overarching goal of the ministry, based in Panama City, Florida, is "women mentoring women in Christ for life recovery from substance abuse and other life-limiting dysfunctions," says Byrd.

Central to that mission are efforts to assimilate each woman into a supportive faith community, work on spiritual formation and character development and assistance with basic needs, such as obtaining full-time employment and independent housing.

Clergy, laity and community groups together make the Titus 2 Partnership possible. "One of the ministry's unique strengths is in recruiting, training and engaging volunteers in service and providing a welcoming environment for entry-level missions work by youth or families," Byrd said.

With her background in Christian education, mentoring and social justice, she says God has been preparing her to become a deacon engaged in this kind of ministry. "My heart was drawn to people at the margin of society, where one-on-one evangelism and care is required," she said.

Rebeck believes the number of deacons working outside the church to engage laity in active discipleship is increasing. The Rev. Anika Jones says that has always been her calling.

"Since I was in high school, I have always served as a ‘boundary leader,' one who operated on the boundaries to connect people who are marginalized with those in the mainstream," she said. "Professionally, I have done this work through education, working with students of all ages ... who had not achieved success in mainstream education."

A deacon in the North Georgia Conference, Jones is founder of Atlanta-based Alpha and Omega Society Inc. and its Women in Transition program, which received a $2,000 grant from the general board's racial ethnic deacon concerns.

The ministry, Jones says, mobilizes people of faith to help women transition successfully into the community after leaving prison.

"(It) provides an opportunity for a community of women, both those who were previously incarcerated and those who are committed to support them, to learn about themselves and each other and, in the process, grow personally and spiritually," she said. "Everyone gives and receives something from the experience."

That engagement transforms the world and the church, Rebeck says, especially in a denomination concerned about membership decline.

"The way to reach new people is not to hope more people happen to find their way into a church building," she said. "It's to go outside the church to find people, so the deacon is really situated by call to lead the church in making disciples."

It's an exciting movement, Rebeck adds, and one "where we need to be."

Tita Parham is a communications consultant, writer and editor based in Apopka, Fla.


Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, November–December, 2015.

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