More Than “Just a Deacon”: Celebrating 25 Years of The Order of Deacon

“Oh, that clergy person is just a deacon.” This remark is unfortunately heard occasionally when discussing the work and ministry of a deacon. Despite their rich contributions to the church, some deacons report feeling like they are treated as the “lesser than Order” by fellow United Methodists. In reality, deacons have been crucial to the life, work, and ministry of The United Methodist Church for the past 25 years. As we move forward into unchartered territories and unknowns as a denomination, United Methodists can look towards deacons as an example of how to move forward in justice and compassion.

2021 marks the 25th anniversary of the creation of The Order of Deacons within The United Methodist Church. In 1996, United Methodists had gathered in Denver, Colorado for that quadrennium’s General Conference session. During this session of General Conference, The Order of Deacon was established, allowing those who were called to bridge the church in the world to be ordained within our denomination.

With 66% of ordained deacons being women, the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women has often walked alongside deacons in their unique ministry settings. In 2019, we dedicated our Women’s History Month series to highlight the importance of deacons within The United Methodist Church because during our travels, we had heard stories of how often deacons were being told they were the “lesser than Order.” Where does some of this conflict and misunderstanding stem from? Some of this conflict arises because deacons are not able to administer the sacraments except under special circumstances. Elders are ordained to the ministries of word, sacrament, order and service. Deacons are ordained to the ministries of word, service, compassion and justice. While an elder is leading a congregation full time, a deacon will be in an appointment that bridges the church and the world.

For example, an ordained deacon may serve in an extension ministry setting or nonprofit and be associated with a local church. A deacon may also work full-time in a church, but will have a specialized focus in an area such as youth ministry or music ministry. A deacon may serve in a role at an annual conference or a general agency. The work of a United Methodist deacon is diverse, but with that comes misunderstandings on what exactly the purpose and role of a deacon even is in ministry settings.  

Since the Order of Deacon is a relatively new Order within the denomination, there are still individuals who remember the older process of ordination for elders. Before the 1996 General Conference decision, before someone was ordained an elder in full connection, they were first ordained as a deacon. There are still many elders today who went through that process, being ordained a deacon as a step before elder.

During these past 25 years, we as United Methodists have been striving onward to perfection to understand and celebrate the Order of Deacon. For GCSRW’s own celebration of this important milestone in our denomination’s history, we interviewed board members and colleagues of board members that were either connected to that historic 1996 General Conference decision or who have answered their own calls to become deacons.

Dr. Sandra Lutz has served in multiple capacities across the connection. She has served on Judicial Council, been a first-elected lay delegate from East Ohio Annual Conference for General Conference, served on the original East Ohio COSROW, and currently is serving as Board Governance Chair for GCSRW’s Board of Directors. “It’s been a wonderful journey!” Lutz stated.

Lutz’s first general church service was being part of the Board of Directors for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM). While on the board, she was assigned to the Division of Diaconal Ministry. She was introduced to the legislation that would go to the 1992 General Conference that first proposed the Order of Deacon. That legislation was defeated, but it taught Lutz how the general church functions.

Lutz was a delegate at the 1996 General Conference and a series of events led her to chair the legislative committee that would be taking on the creation of The Order of Deacon legislation. Lutz recalls that she was considered because supporters of the legislation thought “someone who might not have a personal fight in The Order of Deacon would be a good fit as chair.” She was more than happy to serve her denomination in this function. While reflecting on this role, Lutz remembers that the main concern in 1996 coming from former Methodist elders was the two-step ordination of process of first being ordained as a deacon and then later as an elder. Former Evangelical United Brethren clergy helped shift this perspective because before the merger to become The United Methodist Church, the EUB did not have a two-step ordination process similar to the Methodist Church before the two denominations merged. The creation of The Order of Deacon eventually came out of the legislative committee and onto the plenary floor of General Conference. When the legislation passed, Lutz recalls the excitement on the floor. “What a gift it was from the Church that I was able to be part of that,” Lutz shared.

Lutz sees the role of the deacon to be critical as we head into whatever is in store for The United Methodist Church after General Conference 2022. “Deacons and everything they stand for are what this denomination needs because they embody what it means to be community.”

Rev. David Dodge was part of the first class of deacons that was ordained in 1997 after the creation of The Order of Deacon and attended the 1996 General Conference as a first-time delegate. Dodge remembers the buzz regarding the creation of The Order of Deacon legislation leading up to when it appeared on the plenary floor. This piece of legislation was not put on the Consent Calendar for the day which Dodge gathered meant this legislation was a big deal. After the motion passed, the creation and logistical work of The Order of Deacon started, and Dodge started his journey towards ordination as a deacon.

Leading up to the 1996 General Conference, Dodge had served as a diaconal minister for Trinity United Methodist in Gainesville, Florida as the Minister for Program and Administration for fifteen years. Dodge never saw his calling to fit the elder role. When The Order of Deacon was established, Dodge said, “It seemed to me that the Church had finally caught up with my call.”

In January 1997, Dodge joined the staff of the Florida Annual Conference as the Executive Director of the Division of Ministry, later the Office of Clergy Excellence, by Bishop Cornelius Henderson’s invitation. Up to this point, the role had always been staffed by an ordained elder.

Dodge recalls that many on the Florida Board of Ordained Ministry were very collegial. There were a good number of deacons on the board. Both the elders and deacons respected one another and their respective calls, but Dodge did hear of other deacons struggling in other annual conferences being seen as almost as lesser than within the ordination circles.

In Boards of Ordained Ministry, the question came up over and over again, “Why do you need to be ordained to do this? Can’t you do this as a lay person?” Dodge noticed this came up more with more untraditional paths for deacons, having their dominant foot more in the world than in the church. But for Dodge, his hope for The Order of Deacon is seeing more deacons serve in roles where the church is not present. “The need of bridging the church and the world is greater than it’s been before,” Dodge stated.

Rev. Cathy Jamieson is currently an ordained elder and District Superintendent for the Columbia District in the South Carolina Annual Conference, serving alongside GCSRW board member Rev. Cathy Mitchell. Jamieson graduated seminary in 1989 and was ordained in the previous process before The Order of Deacon was established. She remembers shortly after The Order of Deacon was established in 1996, there was confusion and tension amongst clergy understanding one another’s roles. “There was always this uncertainty of what exactly is the new deacon role and how does it fit with the elder role.”

Even today as a District Superintendent, she finds that she has to help clergy understand both the new ordination tracks because they are familiar with the previous process and helping clergy understand the roles that deacons can play in an annual conference in conjunction with the roles of elders. From her experience, she hears a lot of tension coming from elders not understanding why a deacon needs to be ordained. During those conversations, there seems to be a misunderstanding of deacons pursuing this ordination because they want all the benefits of an elder in salary and insurance, but do not want the itinerant life, even though deacons are not guaranteed salary and health benefits. Jamieson believes that this can be helped if deacons and elders had more intentional conversations with each other set aside by each annual conference, and more visibility and sharing of deacon’s call stories and ministries. She expressed the power of representation. She had never seen a woman in ministry until she saw Rev. Susan Henry Crowe as Furman University’s campus minister. This set in motion Jamieson finding her own call into ministry. Jamieson believes that if there were more visibility of deacons, other young people may see and understand their calls in line with that of the deacon.

Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain was recently ordained as a deacon in the North Alabama Annual Conference. Chastain recalls that she has always had a servant heart and a call towards justice and advocacy. While working as a layperson within the church, she started to realize after spending some time within the denomination, she could continue the work that she felt called to, but there would be a little bit more knowledge and authority if she pursued the ordination process. She is currently pursuing PhD work at Boston University School of Theology and was ordained by Bishop Debbie Wallace Padget in the North Alabama Annual Conference in mid-June. “I will have been commissioned and ordained by a female bishop which means a lot to me as a clergywoman,” Chastain shared.

Chastain pointed to how Margaret Ann Crain and other deacons have been sharing how being a deacon is an identity, not just a role. People decide to be ordained as a deacon not because of the jobs they are doing, but rather, because it fits their identity as people. Chastain encourages the church to have a conversation with a deacon and listen to how they talk about justice, advocacy, service, and compassion. In those conversations, deacons are doing the crucial work in modeling that there is not just one way to serve. “Now, more than ever, we are seeing more expanded ministry,” Chastain said. Ordination to the Order of Deacon is a continued affirmation and trust from The United Methodist Church put into deacons to show leadership in those expanded ministry roles. Since being a deacon is more of a way of being versus just a role to serve, deacons are bringing their full selves into bridging the church and the world.

With so much uncertainty facing the denomination at this time, Chastain recommends that the church turn to deacons as an example of how to navigate these uncertain waters. “If being a deacon has taught me anything, it really has taught me how to embrace the difference compassion can take,” Chastain said. Compassion is something that deacons are specifically focused on and something they as an order can model for the rest of The UMC. Chastain thinks with the deacons’ example, the church can step back, putting our individual needs of control aside and let compassion run forth as the denomination wrestles with how together we will move forward in this uncertainty.

Katrena King grew up in the church with a father who was an ordained elder. Growing up, she didn’t feel called to ministry. While she was attending law school, she started feeling a call to something, but didn’t quite know exactly what that call really meant at first. As she pursued her career, she recognized that the call she was feeling was more external, more outside of her home congregation and “to the people of the world.” King is a regional planner in Louisiana working on community, economic, and transportation development. In her work, she empowers communities to see, “that they have their own value in where they are and what they do.” With her calling to the Order of Deacon, King would like to empower those in the church to see their value and how that connects to everyday life, their careers, and their spiritual wellbeing. “I’m really trying to make that bridge happen,” King shared in reference to how deacons are often described as being the bridge between the church and the world.

King is now a certified candidate for ministry in the Louisiana Annual Conference. She believes the work of the deacon is crucial for building the future of the church. “I see the Order of Deacons more and more fully as part of kingdom building because of the inherent need of tying into the outside world. The majority of the work is outside of the church. How can we guide some of those people in? And if they don’t want to come in and they are not ready, how can we connect with them on a level that makes them feel acknowledged and valued anyway? I see the role of the deacons growing more and more in this capacity.”

During this 25th Anniversary of The Order of Deacon, GCSRW would like to uplift and celebrate all of the deacons and individuals who laid the foundational work to make this milestone happen. The ministry and life that deacons have given our denomination are abundant and as a denomination, United Methodists must celebrate alongside deacons. GCSRW would also like to uplift and celebrate the future generation of deacons that are coming up through the process. They will build upon this foundational work and continue to develop new, innovative ways to bridge the Church and the world.

Author’s note: I would like to thank GCSRW’s board members, Dr. Sandra Lutz, Rev. David Dodge, Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain, and Katrena King for contributing to this piece by sharing their connection to the Order of Deacon in interviews. During our spring board meeting, we learned of the connections that Dr. Lutz and Rev. Dodge had to the 1996 General Conference session and wanted to uplift their stories. We also wanted to lift up all of the deacons on our board because they are bringing the future of the Order. Thank you all for your time and your willingness to share your stories with me. I am truly honored that I was able to speak to each one of you about your calls and the love and hope you have for our denomination.