The Rev. Nick Nicholas never tires of seeing the result of combining his love of ministry and a passion for justice.
"You just know you've done something right when God, through the Holy Spirit, opens a person's eyes to see things they ordinarily would not see," he says.
Nicholas, a deacon from Philadelphia, serves as coordinator of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (VIM) in the Northeastern Jurisdiction. His secondary appointment is as a deacon for missional service at Arch Street United Methodist Church, where he reads Scripture, assists with Communion "and whatever else they need a deacon to do in either community or leadership," he says.
"As coordinator of VIM, I work with volunteer mission groups from churches," he says. "Through my jurisdiction, they can find out what mission sites are available nationally and internationally – anything from rebuilding on the East Coast after Hurricane Sandy, to cleaning up following the recent floods in the Midwest, to helping in Alaska with the Yukon River cleanup. We are still needed and helping in Louisiana from Hurricane Katrina."
He has also worked with teams traveling to Haiti, several countries in Africa and Asia and to Central and South America.
"Churches don't have to go through me to do mission projects, of course, but our group can certainly help fit a group with a place of service," Nicholas says. "In addition, we can help them get good short-term insurance for their trip at a reasonable cost. That's important."
Ordained a deacon in 1997, Nicholas' first appointments were working with youth and college students in the Northern Illinois Conference. He is certified in Christian education and youth ministry.
"I'd take these kids – good kids who'd always lived in relatively affluent places — to sites they'd otherwise never see," he says. One destination was the Rogers Park neighborhood in Chicago "that most people think is really upscale. Loyola University is there. But there is a lot of poverty in Rogers Park."
In 2006, he and a friend took youth from the Chicago suburbs to lead a mission project at the United Methodist Church of Rogers Park. "We put out a sign that said ‘Free Children's Camp,'" he says. "We had 75 kids show up the first day!"
Many of the campers were children of African immigrants, who often had to translate for their parents. "Most of our kids had never worked in an area with poor kids like that," Nicholas says. "The kids loved it."
Each year since, the Rogers Park church has hosted a children's camp. The vacation Bible school curriculum is in English and Spanish, meeting the needs of a neighborhood now mostly populated by immigrants from Central and South America.
On a trip to London, youth and young adults experienced "this great big, wealthy, world-class city," he says, but also saw that "there is a lot of poverty and a lot of needs there, too. We worked in a food pantry and the kids' eyes were opened to the plight of urban poor.
"It's so important to let our affluent kids see the needs. That way, they know what they need to fight for and what we need to do about it. It's an issue of justice."
Not all deacons serve in ministry beyond the local church as Nicholas is doing. His wife, the Rev. Jane Cheema, is a deacon serving at First United Methodist Church in Evanston, Ill., and as adjunct faculty at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
However, regardless of their places of service, all deacons are "ordained by a bishop to a lifetime ministry of word, service, compassion and justice to the congregation and community in ministry that connects the two," says the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
The Rev. Margaret Ann Crain, a deacon and professor emeritus of Christian education at Garrett, says, since 1996, deacons and elders have been two separate orders in The United Methodist Church. Both are ordained. They are considered equal, but with different roles and calls. Before the 1996 General Conference created the permanent order of deacons, ordination as a deacon was usually a step toward becoming an elder.
"The work of a deacon entails word, compassion and service," Crain says. "They take Christ into the world. Elders are mostly pastors and do most their work inside the church walls."
As a seminary professor, Crain has watched students as they discern their call to ministry as either a deacon or elder.
"They have to look at their gifts and interests," she says. "This helps them determine which area of ministry is their calling."
The Board of Higher Education and Ministry says, "Deacons exemplify Christian discipleship, nurture others in their relationship to God and lead church people to respond to the needs of the most needy, neglected and marginalized of the world."
As clergy, deacons are set apart for a leadership ministry, represent Christ and the body of Christ to the world and are accountable in covenant relationships to The United Methodist Church, the clergy (particularly those in the order of deacon) and to all Christians, says the board.
Outside the walls of the church, deacons share the good news in word and in their advocacy for the poor, neglected, oppressed and discouraged; provide ministries of mercy; and invite Christians into these ministries. Some deacons also serve as chaplains, denominational staff or administrators, among other roles.
In the congregation, their ministries are varied. Among them are teaching, preaching, leading music, officiating at funerals and weddings, offering pastoral care, assisting elders in administering Holy Communion and baptism, leading spiritual formation ministries and helping lay people identify and claim their own ministries.
The Rev. Cindy Yanchury is a deacon in full connection at Advent United Methodist Church in Eagan, Minn. She has served on the church staff as minister of faith formation for 14 years.
She oversees the ministries with children from birth through fifth grade, plus ministry to the children's families. Since the church is currently without a youth minister, Yanchury is helping with confirmation as well.
"At our church we don't use the terms ‘Sunday school' or ‘Christian education,'" she says. "We use ‘faith formation,' because we think that more accurately describes what we do. We help people grow in their faith, touching the heart as well as the head. We don't only educate our people; we also move them to step outside and get involved in loving and helping people."
Yanchury, who was ordained as a deacon in the Minnesota Annual Conference in 1998, is leading the development of church care teams right now.
"We are starting the Ministry of Joy, which will be weddings, baptisms and joyful times," she says. "We are also starting the Ministry of Concern, which will be for hospital visits, funerals and other times when we need to show concern and comfort. The Minnesota Conference is helping us create these teams."
Go to www.gbhem.org/clergy/deacons/exploring to discover more about deacons in The United Methodist Church.
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, March–April, 2014.