UMC Deacons at 25: Picking up on an Old Conversation

By Benjamin L. Hartley and Paul E. Van Buren

This post originally appeared on UM & Global in May of 2021

Paul E. Van Buren is a retired deacon residing in the Nashville, Tennessee area. Benjamin L. Hartley is a deacon in the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and is living in Seattle, Washington. In the fall he will be joining the Seattle Pacific University School of Theology as an Associate Professor of Mission and World Christianity. He writes occasional blog posts at https://missionandmethodism.net/blog/

In 1998 Paul Van Buren of the Section of Deacons and Diaconal Ministry in GBHEM and I wrote a book together about the UMC’s new understanding of the diaconate. I was a second year MDiv student at Boston University filled with enthusiasm for what the new diaconate could be. The Deacon: Ministry through Words of Faith and Acts of Love was the first book to provide theological and practical guidance on our denomination’s understanding of deacons after the 1996 General Conference decision to institute the Order of Deacon as a full and equal order.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Order of Deacon, Paul and I had a conversation about the book, the progress of the UMC diaconate, and our hopes for the future.

Reading the book after so many years have passed since writing it, what stands out to you the most? 

Ben Hartley: For me, I would have to say that I am most pleased by the theme we chose to accentuate – namely, the importance of deacons’ work as interrelating worship and service. I still think that it is critical for deacons to be active in the worship life of the congregation to bring focus to ministries of service, justice, and compassion. That focal attention happens best in worship.

I’m also humbled when I read these words from over twenty years ago. I have failed to live out as well as I thought I would this central dimension of the deacon’s calling. As a deacon who has lived out his calling primarily as a professor in a seminary and then among university undergraduates, I have too often not led my local congregations very well in ministries of service, justice, and compassion. I have been better at working at the Annual Conference level by serving on the Board of Ordained Ministry and other committees.

And yet, I am grateful for small ways I have interrelated worship and service in recent years through volunteering at a youth correctional facility, offering prayers at my local church for young men I had spoken to that week, and in initiating an ecumenical Lenten study program with neighboring Wesleyan congregations in my small town. Covid-19 brought that last initiative to a premature end, but the effort is still important for me to remember as an example of interrelating worship and service in my twenty-year calling as a deacon. As a professor in Oregon, I’ve loved offering “field trips” to a Coptic Orthodox Church, a synagogue, and mosque for my students. This too is an expression of my calling, even if I often don’t see such work as part of some sort of “programmatized” deacon effort. This work grew out of who I was. But that is an important insight. The work of a deacon – as in all callings – should be something that comes naturally if it is truly a manifestation of one’s call.

I am also really pleased by how well we engaged the ecumenical literature on the diaconate back in 1998 when we wrote this book together. Back when I entered seminary at Boston University in 1997 there was very little theological work being done in United Methodist circles about what this new understanding of the diaconate means for our church. The General Conference’s decision was not based on an elaborate “theology of holy orders” as the Roman Catholics would have framed things!  Rosemary Skinner Keller, Gerald F. Mode and Mary Elizabeth Moore had written Called to Serve back in 1987 to add some clarity around the office of diaconal minister, but there wasn’t much more than that. I was drawn to scholars on the ordained diaconate in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican traditions because those groups had instituted a permanent, ordained diaconate a decade or more before United Methodists and were actively engaged in ecumenical conversations about the diaconate.

I was fortunate at Boston University School of Theology in 1998 to to take a doctoral seminar on the diaconate taught by Professor Carter Lindberg, a Lutheran. He had recently participated in an ecumenical dialogue between Anglicans and Lutherans in Hanover, Germany about the diaconate called The Diaconate as Ecumenical Opportunity. A year later I took another course by Professor Dana Robert entitled Women in Diakonia and Mission. I was elated. It was still another Boston University School of Theology staff member, Margaret Wiborg, Director of the Anna Howard Shaw Center, who is responsible for connecting me to you all at the Section of Deacons and Diaconal Ministry in Nashville. As I recall, she asked me for the papers I had been writing for classes, nearly all of which had something to do with the diaconate. She liked them and told me to send them to your colleague, Jimmy Carr. It wasn’t long before you and I were having conversations about writing a book together!  I was so honored to write that with you, Paul. It meant so much to me.

Paul Van Buren: Thank you, Ben, for refreshing my memory on how it came about we wrote the book. I too am pleased about what we wrote and how we complemented each other in our perspectives. I had years of service as a missionary, church and community worker, and working in GBHEM, and you were just barely starting out!  I am especially pleased about our emphasis on the Order of Deacon, an entirely new creation in the United Methodist Church. If we were to rewrite this book, now that we have a bit of history to draw on, I would keep the existing theme and topics but flesh out the reference to Order as a covenant community. Even though most conferences in the Northeast and West lack the critical mass of deacons to have a large community (Order) of deacon we can now see how critical it is to have the support of each other in the process of bringing change in the structure and ordering of ministry. Drawing on the history of deacons in other traditions was helpful.

Ben Hartley: Your mentioning of the importance of Order brings to mind what I thought was one of the best papers written in those early days by a United Methodist professor on the diaconate. I remember being invited to a small conference that you, Joaquin Garcia, and Jimmy Carr pulled together (maybe other GBHEM staff were there too, I don’t recall). It was held in a rather stuffy Nashville hotel conference room with maybe fifty people there. Dr. Deidre Kriewald gave what I thought was an inspiring paper on “Order.” As the youngest person in the room (28 years old) I was energized by what Professor Kriewald had to say. Re-reading her paper these many years later, her final paragraph still excites me. After mentioning the 3rd century story of Deacon Laurence (you’ll recall I love that story) Kriewald writes:

A rightly appropriated Order of Deacons will promote an effective partnership between laity and deacons and act as a bridge between laity and clergy within the organic ministry of the body of Christ. The order can be a strong communal force to help the deacons exemplify and encourage the servanthood to which all Christians are commissioned in baptism. The order is also a structure for the continuing education of deacons and a visionary vehicle for the formation of the Christian clergy. Let the whole church say “Amen!” and respond with energy and prayerful support.

As you mentioned, Paul, the Order of Deacon has not always and everywhere lived up to Professor Kriewald’s hope that it would be “a strong communal force” to strengthen and encourage deacons, but I’m been blessed to be part of two Annual Conference Orders of Deacons – in Eastern Pennsylvania and Oregon-Idaho – which have really tried to live that out.

Paul Van Buren: Thanks for reminding me about Professor Kriewald’s paper from that long-ago conference, Ben!  The section on Similarities and Differences of Elders and Deacons was another critical piece of our book. We received more questions on this topic in our office than any other subject. Even though we stressed that one’s identity is more important than function, our denomination seems consumed with the ordering and ranking of ministry. How a deacon functions varies a great deal depending on the bishop and senior pastor with whom the deacon is accountable. There is some progress over the past decades in involving the deacon in some aspects of celebrating and administering the Sacraments.

I have you to thank for the ecumenical perspective in our book. Would it not be a great idea if the Order of Deacon were more inclusive of some of these other traditions in some of their meetings? We have much to learn from Roman Catholic and Episcopal deacons.

Because my academic career has not been at United Methodist colleges or universities but at American Baptist, Quaker, and (in a few months) Free Methodist ones, it has been hard for me to have a birds-eye view of UMC deacons. You have a better sense of that, Paul, and even followed up with people whose stories we included in our book. Are you pleased by what you see deacons doing now?  Did you think the diaconate would look differently after 25 years?

Paul Van Buren: This is a good question, Ben. How are they living out their calling?  Initially, most of the deacons were employed by local churches and agencies as Christian Educators, musicians, administrators, and some as pastors of outreach and mission. About three-fourths of them were women with a master’s level of training in some specialization. Today, twenty-five years later, the range of appointments has expanded beyond the local church, especially as opportunities within the local church are shrinking. The gradual trend has been that more candidates are getting a Master of Divinity degree in addition to a specialization which gives them more flexibility for employment. I have been told by some seminary faculty that the students attracted to the ministry of the deacons are as qualified or better than those preparing to be elders.

According to a Lewis Center for Church Leadership Report from 2020, the number of newly ordained deacons is growing and the percent of deacons under age 35 has increased over the last ten years. According to this study, approximately three-fourths of the deacons in the UMC are employed in the Southeast and South-Central jurisdictions of this country. There is also a significant increase in the number of young men entering the United Methodist diaconate, (an increase from 20% in 2019 to 26% in 2020). The gender ratio is still that 27% of candidates in the UMC diaconate are men compared to 73% who are women. It is important, however, to bear in mind that this study is based on data derived from the denomination’s pension program. Many deacons were not included in that study because they are not part of that program. There are currently 1,424 active deacons in the UMC.

Clearly, there are unlimited needs and possibilities for deacons to serve beyond the local church in varieties of service agencies as their primary appointment while still having a secondary appointment in a local church usually without pay. For example, Bruce Maxwell, whom we interviewed for the book, is still doing chaplaincy ministry at truck stops to truck drivers. Randy Lewis is still coordinating outreach ministry of a local church and Rae Frank is still involved in hospice ministry. But it is not unusual for the deacon to piece together a variety of ministries both for support and new awareness of needs. I would estimate one-fourth of the deacons in our denomination are employed in a secular setting outside a local church and/or a church agency.

Paul, you have also been really engaged outside of North America in encouraging the ministry of deacons. How would you say the new understanding of the deacon has been received in different places around the world? 

Paul Van Buren: Ben, it was twenty years ago I was provided an opportunity to attend eight annual conferences in four African countries, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although the United Methodist Churches in these countries were still using an outdated Book of Discipline of the Central Conference, the bishops of these countries were interested in the recently approved ministry of the ordained deacon for those persons employed by church agencies in the areas of health, education, administration, and missions. We interviewed a number of young people who had been trained as “missioners” who were interested in and identified with the calling to be a deacon. The primary problem we found was some of them wanted to use the designation of deacon to start their own local congregation and function as a pastor without meeting all of requirements of training and approval of the board for ordination. There was also the problem of the two-step ordination still in practice that shaped the mindset that a deacon was on the way to becoming an elder. That was an outlook for many in the United States to change as well!

Countries that have Roman Catholic permanent deacons are more advanced in having an established Order of Deacon with a well-defined role in the church. The episcopal structure of the Roman Catholic church and several Protestant denominations lends itself to an understanding of the Order of Deacon that is missional, prophetic, and innovative as well as accountable to a Bishop for an appointment. On this basis I would expect to see growth in the diaconate eventually, but at this time there are few and only isolated cases of persons ordained to the Order of Deacon in many of the African countries with which I am familiar.

Ben Hartley: I do wonder what will happen to the ecumenical diaconate when (and I do think it is a matter of when) the Roman Catholic Church decides to ordain women to the diaconate. That will be quite a shift!   

In your many years of service as a deacon, what story from your own ministry comes to mind that best represents what the diaconate truly is or could be?  Do you have a time when your heart, body, and mind all shouted with delight, “Yessss. This is what it means to be a deacon!” 

Paul Van Buren: Your reference to “many years of service” totals sixty years! It is much easier for me to respond to years of identity with servanthood ministry beginning with our General Board of Global Ministry as a missionary. I knew I was a deacon long before the church recognized it! 

At the same time our denomination approved the formation of the Order of Deacon in 1996, it also approved the establishment of a world-class university in Africa. The Board where I was employed was given the responsibility, and I happened to have the agricultural training needed in international development to coordinate the creation of the Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Resources. When my boss “sanctified” this appointment as my ministry as a deacon, that is when I proclaimed “Yesss!”  That eventually led to me to coordinating the Faculty of Health and later a ministry of rehabilitation of persons in Zimbabwe living with HIV and AIDS. That project was accepted as a model of the ministry of the deacon by our church. Another big “Yess!”

Ben Hartley: I’ve been inspired, as you know, by the linguistic research on diakonia that Australian Roman Catholic scholar John N. Collins has done.[1]  He highlights the concept of “go-between” or “emissary” for the diaconate, and I have tried to embody that in my academic writing on Christian social welfare history, urban history, and my current project to write a new biography of Methodist Nobel Peace Prize laureate John R. Mott (1865-1955). The working title for that biography is one that will make you smile, Paul. It is “World Christianity’s Emissary…”  Of course, Mott was not a deacon, but I think he was animated by some of the spirit of the diaconate as it has been understood over the centuries. Working on that biography is a “yes” to my calling as a deacon. Writing a historical article on the history of UMCOR for its 75th anniversary also prompted a heartfelt “Yesss!”  But beyond the writing projects, I think where I most feel like I have done the work of the deacon is when I have led my little congregation in Oregon to pray for one of the kids in the correctional facility that I visited or when I’ve pick up the crumbs of bread after communion. Those quiet and even awkward activities are moments when my deacon’s heart whispers a “Yess!” too.

In recent weeks I’ve been doing some reading about how the conversation around the ordained diaconate is progressing in other denominations, and I have been encouraged by people who have noted that the permanent diaconate is still in its early stages of formation. We all know that things are rather uncertain for United Methodists, but what are your continued hopes for the future of the diaconate in the UMC?   

Ben Hartley: For me, I still hope that deacons can really take the lead in ecumenical work. Many deacons are already doing their ministry inspired by the best of the ecumenical movement that seeks to work together for the sake of the Gospel, but there is a lot of work on this remaining to be done. When we were writing this book together, I was drawing so much inspiration from deacons in the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran denominations, but I have been surprised that many other United Methodist deacons haven’t done the same. Of course, many UMC deacons have really benefited from participating in the Diakonia World Federation and similar groups, but there hasn’t been very much connecting with permanent deacons in the Roman Catholic Church or at least not that I am aware of.

I also hope that United Methodist deacons can continue to inspire creativity and imaginations about what it means to be Church. I love the fact that there are some deacons in the UMC who are involved in new church starts and probably many more who are trying to re-imagine what ministry looks like in established congregations. Deacons’ experiences in these efforts and their theological reflections about what this work means for a theology of the diaconate is something that I hope the church will be eager to listen to in the future. I still think that deacons could really play a key role as a kind of reimagined class leader in Wesley’s terminology. I know of a few deacons who have served churches in that way, but I think there could be a lot more of this! I’ll write about that more in an upcoming blog post.

Paul Van Buren: Ben, I don’t know about the deacon taking a role in ecumenical connections although it seems to make sense when you consider the world movement of diaconia, especially in European countries.

While I join you in your hopes for deacons taking a role in theological reflection on what it means to be the Church, I have been listening to some of the reports from various conference Order of Deacons that indicate they are still educating the church that deacons are more about who they are than what they do. There is no defined or detailed job description. This is good, I believe, but it is still confusing to many traditional church members who understand ministry as order, not so much as prophetic. The Order of Deacon is still in its infancy in our denomination.

Our denomination is still working out the relationship between ordination and sacraments and itineracy. There is a recommendation from the 2016 Ministry Study coming up for approval to ordain laypeople who are currently licensed local pastors to become local elders. To add to the complication, a significant portion of our denomination is splitting over human sexuality issues and order that will leave some deacons without a home in their appointment to local churches that identify with a different outlook than the deacons who minister in those churches.

With the shrinking number of local churches as well as the number of ordained elders we can anticipate there will be the problem of local churches asking deacons to be the pastors or preachers, the same problem being experienced by the Roman Catholics. When I was a Church and Community Worker in Ohio, I helped organize rural cooperative parishes where three to seven local churches were organized as a cooperative parish. At the time there were 27 such parishes. There was usually one elder and one part-time pastor and a volunteer choir director and/or educator. It would be the ideal appointment for a deacon to lead the circuit into a joint undertaking of mission and reaching out to the community, bridging the church and the world.

Ben Hartley: I had forgotten, Paul, that you served in Ohio in this form of ministry. I was considering doing something similar with area churches I was preaching at occasionally in Oregon. Everywhere I’ve served I’ve let people know that I would be happy to serve as pulpit supply for elders when they needed a day off. This enabled me to get to know several local congregations a bit and to see how congregations could complement one another in common ministry. I’ve never pushed this to the next level as you did, Paul, in a cooperative parish action. I suppose my draw to the academic life of teaching and writing has so far prevailed. You have given me something to be prayerful about, Paul. Thank you.

It has been a delight to have this conversation with you, Paul. The Order of Deacons across the connection has developed in so many good ways these past twenty-five years and so much good ministry has happened. It is important to take a moment during this 25th anniversary to reflect about that, be grateful, and be prayerful as we seek a way forward into the future.


[1] Research stemming from Collins’s work decades ago continues. The latest scholarly volume in this regard is Bart J. Koet, Edwina Murphy, and Esko Ryokas (eds.), Deacons and Diakonia in Early Christianity (Tuebingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2019).

About Ben Hartley

From 2005 to 2016 I served as Associate Professor of Christian Mission at Palmer Theological Seminary, the seminary of Eastern University in Philadelphia. From 2016 to 2020 I served with the same title at George Fox University. In 2020 I moved to Seattle, Washington where my spouse, Laura Hartley, will be serving as Provost at Seattle Pacific University. The best email with which to reach me is now hartley.benj@gmail.com
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1 Response to UMC Deacons at 25: Picking up on an Old Conversation

  1. Connie Quan says:

    Very informative!!
    Now I know what direction you have been and are going as to the call of being a deacon.
    Serve the Lord wholeheartedly. You are making a difference and it is an inspiration for me as well.

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