UMC Deacons at 25: Claim the name “Deacon!”

This post first appeared on the UM & Global blog.

Deacon Benjamin L. Hartley is a member of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference.  In the fall of 2021, he will begin serving as Associate Professor of Mission and World Christianity at Seattle Pacific University. He writes occasional blog posts at https://missionandmethodism.net/blog/

2021 is the 25th anniversary of the United Methodist Order of Deacons. Anniversaries are a time to celebrate and think critically about the past and to look forward to the future. Two years after the UMC General Conference established the Order of Deacon, I wrote a book with GBHEM Section of Deacons and Diaconal Ministry staff member Paul Van Buren, The Deacon: Ministry through Words of Faith and Acts of Love. In 1998 it was the first book to introduce the new understanding of the diaconate to the denomination. In the years since writing that book with Paul, I have written a half dozen scholarly articles on the diaconate that can be found here – along with some other scholars’ work on the diaconate that I have found helpful.

When I was teaching at Palmer Theological Seminary, an American Baptist seminary in Philadelphia, a delightfully bold student asked on the first day of class, “What should we call you?”

Because I teach courses on Christian mission and world Christianity, I sometimes use occasions like this to discuss cultural differences in what scholars call “power distance,” but this time I paused.  I decided to ask a favor of my students.  I explained how in the academic world professors sometimes derive too much of their sense of self-worth from things like their publication record, faculty rank, and the like. 

To counter that tendency in myself I asked my students that evening to call me Deacon Ben.  I told them that I needed to be reminded of my ecclesial calling, something I hold most dear.  Only a few people did that as the semester wore on, but I so appreciated their kindness.  I always smiled in response because I was reminded that my work as a seminary professor was integral to my calling as a deacon. 

This year United Methodists are remembering the 25th anniversary of the United Methodist decision to create the Order of Deacon as a distinct, ordained, and permanent vocation in the church.  Back in 1998 when I was first writing about the diaconate in the United Methodist Church I was mostly “taking my cues” from ecumenical sources – Anglican and Roman Catholic scholars mostly since those two traditions had instituted a permanent diaconate decades earlier than United Methodists, and they were doing more theological work on it than United Methodists. 

I noticed that deacons in these traditions were referred to as “Deacon” followed by their name.  I assumed that United Methodist deacons would follow this example.  It seemed an obvious choice to me as it would invite conversation about what this calling meant.  United Methodists had a lot of educating to do about the diaconate, after all, and I thought claiming the title “Deacon” was an easy way of creating “teachable moments” in congregations across the connection. 

I was disappointed that did not happen. When UMC deacons use any title – and many don’t – I have observed that they mostly opt for the “Reverend” term to describe themselves. There were several reasons for this, not least of which was a strong desire by UMC deacons who were previously diaconal ministers – a lay, consecrated office in United Methodism since 1976 – to be acknowledged as ordained elders’ equals.  This desire was totally understandable since the vast majority of diaconal ministers were women and had struggled for many years (and still do) to be treated as “real ministers.” 

For several reasons – my social location as well as my theological and historical understanding of the diaconate – I prefer to be called “Deacon.”  I love being a deacon precisely because it is an ecclesial identity and function that is “off-center.”  Why use a title like “Reverend” that fails to identify my off-center vocation?     

When I was first learning about the diaconate, I drank deeply from the well of stories of early deacons who claimed their role as assistants to bishops and, in one case, had even started a new religious order on the margins.  I was fascinated to learn that Saint Francis of Assisi was ordained a deacon but never a priest.  In learning the history of the Christian missionary movement, I was amazed at the great work Methodist deaconesses had done (and still do!) among the poor in the United States and around the world in part because they too were off-center. I remember interviewing a Roman Catholic deacon in the Archdiocese of Boston who taught me about his literally off-center place in his liturgical leadership. 

At a 1998 United Methodist deacon gathering in Houston, Texas I began a friendship with another member of the ecumenical diaconate, Episcopalian Archdeacon of the diocese of Chicago Richard Pemble.  We met at the hotel check-in line and he told me that part of his responsibility was to be in relationship with deacons in other denominations.  We talked for a long time that night as he filled in gaps in my knowledge of the ecumenical diaconate. 

In that same year Richard Pemble wrote an article for the Roman Catholic deacons’ magazine, Deacon Digest, describing the diaconate as “the ecumenical office.”  He noted that because deacons were not the ones solely responsible for the well-being of a parish, they had the freedom to make connections across the ecumenical spectrum for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Insights garnered from John N. Collins’s linguistic research on the meaning of diakonia as “emissary” or “go-between”in the New Testament were also germane to Richard’s reflections.  Emissaries are off center because they are “on the move” connecting people. 

Archdeacon Richard Pemble died at the age of 68 in June of 2001.  His funeral in Chicago took place the same day as my commissioning as an ordained deacon by the West Michigan Annual Conference.  I sent his widow a sympathy card expressing how important my few meetings with him had been and that I was remembering him on my commissioning day.  As we look forward to the next twenty-five years of the United Methodist diaconate may we all do a better job of not only claiming the title “Deacon” but living like the great deacon saints of the church like Deacon Richard Pemble, Deacon Francis of Assisi, Deacon David Oakerhater, and many others.  As we do so may we also relish our “off-center” ecclesial identity.  Claim the name! 

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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