What it means to be in deacon ministry
Rev. April Casperson, MTSO's director of enrollment management and scholarship development, spoke at the campus chapel service Oct. 29, 2013, about her path to deacon ministry and the unique role of deacons alongside laity and elders in the United Methodist Church. Here are highlights of her sermon.
Serving at MTSO is my primary appointment. As a deacon called to ministry outside of the local church, I find myself privileged to have a multitude of conversations with people not connected to a church or seminary setting. It is very interesting to see how people who profess a faith describe what it means to be a good person. When asked, their answer is usually somewhat related to, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." But rarely do I hear them continue and say that they should be so generous as to give up their own comfort to tend to the needs of another.
For me, one of the transformational aspects of the Christian faith is the call to social justice, to social holiness, to the mandate to transform the world in the name of Jesus Christ.
A couple of weeks ago I was at a small gathering with some trusted, close clergy colleagues. We were talking about issues of justice within the United Methodist Church. In the midst of the conversation, one colleague told the table, "Remember – and this is for all people, elders, deacons and laity – our baptismal vows call us to 'accept the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.'" I sat back in my seat, speechless. I knew these words well – I've assisted with baptisms for years, I've heard these words over and over again – and yet, in that moment, I re-remembered how transformational these words are. What a mandate. What a charge. What a blessing to be asked to transform the world and fight injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
I'd like to share with you a little bit about my personal ministry journey over the years, and then talk about what it means to have a call to deacon ministry.
When I was in high school, I received a call to ministry, a call to pastoral ministry. I realized that this call gave me both clarity and direction – and was an overwhelming, humbling responsibility. So, I ordered my life, met with ministry leaders, went to college and in my sophomore year took a position in my local church as an associate pastor. It was nerve-racking and holy, and I am still thankful for those opportunities I received at that time.
I came here to MTSO immediately after graduating from Otterbein and began the M.Div. program. I loved my coursework, especially theology and ethics, and I loved being with people pursuing a multitude of calls in a variety of denominations and traditions. I ended up adding a fourth year of study in order to take a specific cross-cultural trip, adding the MTS. Right before my final semester, I received the opportunity to serve here. I still felt called to pastoral ministry – I had been serving as an associate for seven years, in fact – and yet there was something important about the opportunity to serve in an academic institution. I told myself that I would pray, discern, try on this position, and if it wasn't the right next step in my ministry journey I would leave gracefully after six months and request a full-time church position in July.
Within just a few days of starting to serve here in the admissions office, I knew I had found my call. Over the next few months, I realized that while I loved the local church, I tended to preach and teach about a couple of key themes over and over again:
- Education – the need to learn in order to grow in one's faith.
- Vocation – what is it that God is calling you to be and to do?
- Justice – what does it mean to seek God's justice and to transform the world?
I struggled for a while – I still felt called to ordination, but I no longer saw myself as a pastor. I was called to ministry, but it had a different flavor – one of justice and compassion, beyond the local church. And then I started learning about the order of deacon.
In the United Methodist Church, some people are called to ordination – a set-apart life of ministry and service. There are two orders within ordained clergy – elders and deacons.
Elders are ordained to Word, Order (the ordering of the Church), Sacrament and Service. Elders are primarily pastors; while elders can and do serve in extension ministries outside of the local church, an elder's identity is rooted in the pastoral role, and being a pastor.
Deacons are ordained to Word, Service, Compassion and Justice. Deacons are not pastors – we are ministers. We can certainly be pastoral! But our identity is based in being a minister rather than being a pastor.
Deacons are called to specialized ministry. We have a specific area and skill in which we connect the people of God, the church and the world with compassion and justice. This is a challenge and an opportunity at the same time.
It can be a challenge because we may see other deacons in ministry, but we don't see other deacons doing what we are doing or what we want to do. It is an opportunity because it allows our ministry to move outside of the church and make connections between the people of God, the church and the world in new – or newly visible – ways.
I joke sometimes that elders are everywhere – you see them at conferences and gatherings, and visible on Facebook doing churchy things all the time! It's a joy to have the opportunity to represent this school in a multitude of settings across the connection, at events and workshops and annual conferences and the like. But, wow – sometimes I come home and I think, goodness, I just spent a lot of time with a lot of United Methodist pastors! Elders are essential to the health and vitality of the United Methodist Church. Elders also present one model of ordained ministry.
But deacons can fly under the radar sometimes. When I first started meeting deacons in person, I felt like all deacons were "stealth deacons" – they were individuals working across the connection. I knew they were clergy, but they also seemed really, really good at what they did, to the point where I could see the United Methodist Church having a lack if that person weren't in that particular place in that particular ministry.
In the UMC, we have elders, deacons and laity. It's common to be asked why someone needs to be ordained if they want to be a deacon. After all, the "work" and "ministry" would still get done by a layperson. My response to that question is threefold.
First, the ministry of the laity is crucial, and any statement that refers to "just a layperson" is deaffirming. Laity are in the world, committed to a life of ministry as described in baptismal vows. Laity are the church embodied in mission to the world.
Second, a call to ordained ministry is a call to a set-apart life. Ordination doesn't make someone "better than" a layperson. However, with ordination comes a level of commitment for the person to order their energy, their knowledge, their gifts and graces to a specific ministry. For elders, that's pastoral ministry. For deacons, that's specialized ministry.
Third, ordaining the order of deacons means that the United Methodist Church is affirming the work of the deacon in the church and the world, and making a commitment to support ministries of compassion and justice. When the denomination makes the commitment to ordain a deacon, the denomination is saying that there is a specific ministry need out there that needs filled. There is the need for a person to go forth and co-collaborate with God and the UMC in matters of compassion and justice – and that credential gives deacons – just like elders – access to places and spaces and gatherings where God is already present! But adding the ministry of the deacon to that setting can be the spark that ignites a ministry of servant leadership.
For me, ministry as a deacon is lived out by focusing on the recruitment and cultivation of leaders for the church and the world – within and beyond the United Methodist Church. It is a joy and a privilege to serve in a way that allows me to break barriers and intersect with different groups: ordaining bodies, recruiting bodies, academic institutions.
But my path is not your path. I am astonished by the narratives many of you have brought to this place as you have discerned a call to ministry as a deacon. When some of you sat down at the table in my office over the years and shared who you are and how you are called to ministry, I have been humbled! You put pieces together in a way to show where the church is needed outside of our buildings, our cohorts, our congregations, and your call is worthy. It may take a bit of additional work to articulate your unique path, but that's OK.
And throughout all of your narratives is this key theme of compassion and justice. Your calls are not related to compassion and justice – they are compassion and justice, out in the world.
Currently, there are about 2,000 ordained deacons within the United States and about 2,000 registered candidates in the process. Over 80 percent of our current deacons are female.
I confess that when I finally realized that while I had been called to an elder-type of role for several years, my call had solidified as deacon ministry, I was concerned. When I was on the elder path, I was quite aware that as a younger, multiracial female, it was very likely that I would be entering into churches over my career that would really truly prefer an older, whiter clergyman. And then when I realized I was called to deacon, I thought, "Shoot! Is deacon where the United Methodist Church puts all of the clergywomen who don't fit as pastors?"
I don't think that's true, friends – but I am aware that sometimes women who are exploring deacon ministry are exploring it because of perceived appropriate gender roles. If you're thinking about deacon ministry, please be sure to explore the role of elder as well, and understand your motivations. And if you're male and exploring deacon ministry – good news! Over a third of all deacon candidates are male. And while most of our United Methodist candidates for ministry are white, deacon candidates are becoming more diverse each year.
But no matter what your background is, no matter what your gender identity may be, if your call aligns with the work of the deacon, the UMC has a place for you. When I think about the identity of a deacon, I sometimes think of the image of a rope. Individual strands within a rope are strong, but they become amazingly resilient when they are bound together to form a rope.
When your vocation, your call to ministry, your ministry setting and your job are all intertwined into a life devoted to service, compassion and justice, then you're living out the call of the deacon.
Methodist Theological School in Ohio prepares leaders of many faith traditions for lives of significance in service to the church and the world. The school offers master's degrees in divinity, counseling ministries, theological studies and practical theology, as well as a Doctor of Ministry degree. For more information, visit www.mtso.edu.
Danny Russell, director of communications