Hope for the Future and Work Yet to Finish: Deacons in The United Methodist Church

by Shelby Ruch-Teegarden
In 1996, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church created the order of the ordained deacon. Before this, deacons were ordained as a step in the ordination process to elder, instead of as a stand-alone order. Since 1996, the number of ordained deacons in The United Methodist Church has continued to increase. But despite the increase, deacons still only comprise a small percentage of United Methodist clergy: in 2018, 5% of our total clergy (including licensed local pastors) were deacons in full connection or provisional deacons. Of our ordained deacons, a significant majority are women. 76.5% of our deacons in full connection and our provisional deacons in The United Methodist Church in the United States are women. This should give us joy for the progress that has been made and hope for the future of the church. Another statistic that should give the church hope is that 271 out of 1581 provisional clergy are provisional deacons. This means that 17.4% of provisional clergy are provisional deacons, which suggests that those seeking ordination as deacons in full connection are rapidly increasing in numbers.

While the church may rejoice in the high numbers of women deacons, the church must also lament the lack of racial diversity among the order of the deacon. Unfortunately, the order of the deacon is the most racially homogenous group of clergy. Deacons are overwhelmingly white: 91.3% of deacons in the United States are white. Comparatively, 85.1% of elders are white and 78.8% of licensed local pastors are white. But at the same time, progress is possible because the fact that 91% of deacons are white is an improvement from previous years. To contrast, in 2011, 94% of deacons were white.[1]

Of all orders of clergy in The United Methodist Church, deacons have the highest percentage of women. Because of this, it is important to understand where deacons are and are not serving. In both the Central Texas and North Texas Annual Conferences, 13.9% of clergy are provisional deacons or deacons in full connection. The Rocky Mountain Annual Conference’s deacons make up 11.6% of its clergy. Thirdly, the Tennessee Annual Conference’s deacons make up 10.8% of its clergy. These four annual conferences are the only conferences in the United States whose deacons make up ten or more percent of its clergy.

Similarly, there are some conferences in the United States that have significantly lower or nonexistent numbers of deacons. The Red Bird Missionary Annual Conference and the Alaska Missionary Annual Conference both have zero deacons throughout the entire annual conference. The Yellowstone Annual Conference and the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Annual Conference both had one deacon each. In 2018, the only conferences that had zero provisional deacons were the West Michigan Annual Conference and the Yellowstone Annual Conference, both of which have since merged with other conferences. The West Michigan and Detroit Annual Conferences have merged to create the Michigan Annual Conference, and the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference merged with the Yellowstone Annual Conference to create the Mountain Sky Annual Conference.

Curiously, the conferences with the lowest percentages of deacons are also the missionary conferences of The United Methodist Church in the United States—Red Bird, Alaska, and Oklahoma Indian. Our missionary conferences are places with specific opportunities for mission, limited resources, few pre-existing United Methodist Churches, language barriers, and/or unique leadership or ministerial needs.[2] This means that missionary conferences are then the places where the mission of The United Methodist Church is most readily enacted. Our mission is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”[3] In The United Methodist Deacon, Rev. Dr. Margaret Ann Crain writes that “Deacons are specially positioned to contribute to this mission because of their location in the liminal space between church and world.”[4] Because deacons are called to bridge the church and the world, deacons are specifically vocationally equipped for ministries of mission. The United Methodist Church needs deacons building these bridges between the church and the world, specifically in our missionary conferences. Hopefully, deacons continue to become an order that reflects the broad diversity of The United Methodist Church.

 

[1] https://www.gcsrw.org/MonitoringHistory/WomenByTheNumbers/tabid/891/post/part-time-local-pastors-most-diverse-clergy-group/Default.aspx.

[2] http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/glossary-missionary-conference.

[3] The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, paragraph 120.

[4] The United Methodist Deacon: Ordained to Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice, 45.