UMC Deacons at 25: Rethinking Deacons’ Education

This post first appeared on the UM & Global blog.

Deacon Benjamin L. Hartley

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.

Deacons in the UMC are rightly celebrating their 25th anniversary as an Order, but the idea in United Methodism to have a permanent, distinctive, and ordained diaconate in the UMC can be traced back much earlier.   

On July 27, 1973, Associate General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry Robert W. Thornburg gave an address to United Methodist deaconesses and home missionaries entitled “The Permanent Diaconate: A Challenge to the United Methodist Church.” So far as I can tell, that paper was the first time someone in denominational leadership expressed the dream for an ordained permanent diaconate that came into existence in 1996.

In 1998, when I was a twenty-eight–year-old seminarian at Boston University School of Theology, I told Dean Thornburg (he was my preaching professor and Dean of Marsh Chapel at BU) that I was fascinated by the possibilities of the diaconate and wanted to become one. He gave me a warm smile and said, “Well, you know, I have some history on this one.”  He proceeded to rummage through a file cabinet in his office and handed me two papers he had written. The first one I’ve already mentioned above. The other one, written in the mid-1980s, involved personal reminiscing about his efforts to support a permanent diaconate in the United Methodist Church. He entitled that paper “The Story of the Challenge.”

Re-reading these papers as part of my own reflecting on the past 25+ years of the United Methodist diaconate I was most struck by these words from Dean Thornburg in 1973:

[T]here are many other people… who are willing and eager for a part in the serving ministries of the church that we are not putting to good use, because our structures are not flexible enough and our imaginations less than adequate. We seem to be stuck with a tradition that may have had good reason to evolve as it did but which is no longer self-validating. We seem to have forgotten another tradition – the permanent diaconate – that may hold greater promise for revitalization in ministry than most of the other viable options open before us.[1]

These words remind me of how long reform often takes in the church as well as how reform needs to continue. Twenty-five years into the Order of Deacon I wonder how even our understanding of the diaconate needs to be reformed and revitalized. Who are the people today who are excluded from the diaconate because our structures for the diaconate remain inflexible?

At the top of my wish list for revitalizing the United Methodist diaconate is to change the way deacons are educated. Many deacons will not like what I have to say here, but reform rarely happens without disagreement.  

United Methodists departed from the experience of the distinctive, ordained diaconate in Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions when we decided that to be ordained a deacon one needed to have a seminary education (a minimum of 27 credits along with some other master’s degree). As I remember the conversation that took place in the wake of the 1996 General Conference decision, people seemed to arrive very quickly at the assumption that deacons needed a similar educational background to ordained elders in the UMC for their ordinations to be meaningful, or, more precisely, for their status to be recognized.

But why does this have to be the case? Ordination is something we do in the church to set people apart for leadership. Ordination vows are taken, the Holy Spirit is called upon, and a bishop’s hands are prayerfully laid on people whom God calls for this important role in the body of Christ. Having a seminary education is valuable, to be sure, but is it really necessary?

The decades-long experience of ordained Episcopalian and Roman Catholic deacons around the world is one where a seminary education has not been required nor has it proven necessary. The Roman Catholic Church in the United States has crafted an excellent guide for diocesan training programs for deacons. Great diocesan-level deacon training programs in the Episcopal Church exist as well.

When I dream about a revitalized Order of Deacon in the next twenty-five years, I think about expanding numbers of deacons who feel the call to the diaconate “in their bones” and who are integrally connected to poor communities and communities of color. If we are to even come close to keeping pace with demographic changes in the United States, many more future deacons will be recent immigrants or the sons and daughters of recent immigrants. 

But our current requirement for costly seminary education erects too high a barrier for too many people who may be experiencing a call to be deacons. That said, seminary education itself is going through dramatic change with some seminaries offering less expensive pathways for theological education. That could work too, I will admit. But there is something about an intensively contextual deacon training program at the Annual Conference level that I find even more exciting and filled with possibilities for the training of deacons. I think, for example, of the work a friend began many years ago to train community organizers.  Could we do something similar to this alongside Annual Conference deacon training initiatives?

In an article I wrote over fifteen years ago I argued that the office in the Methodist tradition that probably comes closest to what I think contemporary deacons could be is that of “class leader.”  In the past, class leaders visited the sick, encouraged serious discipleship, and were critical to the functioning of Methodist societies. Class leaders had already established themselves as trusted, wise, leaders in communities, and they were not trained in seminaries. The comparison between class leaders of the early nineteenth century and deacons of today is not perfect, I realize. Deacons today are different in many ways. Still, the example of the class leader inspires my imagination. How would our church be different twenty-five years from now if we had as many deacons as we had class leaders in the early nineteenth century? Imagine the possibilities!


[1] Robert W. Thornburg, “The Permanent Diaconate: A Challenge to the United Methodist Church

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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! 

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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).

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Ridge Beauty

A different sort of blog post here written a couple years ago while visiting my home in Eitzen, Minnesota and our family farm a few miles south in Iowa.

A few patches of April snow dotted the Minnesota prairie that was once so familiar.  Now it was just strange enough for me to call it beautiful.  A week of research completed at the University of Minnesota, I drove my rental car three hours south to see my parents in Eitzen.  Population: 243.  Passing the sign at the edge of my once-home town, I noted that it had grown by 35 people since 1980. 

Dad passes that sign twice every day on school bus runs – a retirement job he maintains at the age of 82.  It is work to eliminate the last of several mortgages he has taken out on the farm over the years.  Seeing the kids each morning brightens his day.  So does talking politics with a fellow driver before and after bus runs.

While he was on his afternoon bus run, I offered to drive down to the family farm six miles away and split a load of firewood he had stacked alongside the road.  The trees around the wood pile were just starting to show a subtle tint of green at their fingertips. I imagined the sun ever so gently coaxing the green out of them that day, like a father might coax a one-year-old to take his first few steps.

My father doesn’t swing an axe anymore, but I do – and love it.  The wood pile was mostly white oak.  I picked up one of the first pieces I split and breathed in its aroma.  In Oregon’s wine country, where I now live with my wife and children, I look for oak-barrel-fermented chardonnay, because it reminds me of this smell. 

The twisted hickory in the pile provided a welcome challenge to my splitting skills.  Challenging wood is missing in my life in Oregon.  Douglas fir is monotonous.  Every piece straight and soft.  The hickory’s challenge was also a warm invitation to take off my shirt, revealing my forty-nine-year-old paunch.  I smiled at my roundness.  That paunch wasn’t there when I swung this same axe as a sixteen-year-old athlete.  When we did this work together, Dad was the one with the forty-nine-year-old paunch. 

The splitting job done, I decided to take a walk up the ridge road to our thirty-acre field and adjacent forest.  Ascending the three hundred-foot hill, it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember ever walking up this hill alone.  Dad and I walked this road and the length of our property line fence on many spring days like this one, checking for and fixing breaks in the barbed wire and removing fallen trees.  I am the sixth generation of my family to walk this ground.  I feel rooted here – like the trees. 

The earth was soft under my feet.  It smelled of new life after the frozen winter.  It would soon be dry enough to let cows in to pasture, but we don’t do that anymore.  Years ago, Dad decided to turn most of his 200 acres into a trees-only space.  We had planted a few hundred trees each year during my high school days – black walnut, oak, and ash.  They were beginning to look… respectable.  They are far from seedlings now.  In the human world they most resemble tall, lanky, and rather awkward seventh grade boys, their body parts not yet arranged in right proportion to one another.

Walking awkwardly amidst the corn stalk stubble in the ridge field, I rehearsed the line my dad would have predictably made at this moment.  “It will be oats this year and alfalfa and clover the next.”  That is the typical rotation for cropland like this, too steep to plant in corn every year.  I crossed the deteriorating barbed wire remains of a fence to an adjoining pasture area, and remembered playing on the frozen cow ponds we created thirty years ago.  The ponds were now barely visible.  A tree grew in the middle of one, the beneficiary of run-off silt from the field above. 

I paused in places where we had cut firewood from downed trees on the edge of the field, remembering the temporary outdoor factories that would spring up as we processed a fallen tree into split wood chunks.  It was like an assembly line; me grabbing the pieces of wood as they fell off my father’s chainsaw blade like butter off a hot knife; putting them in a pile strategically located to be accessible for our truck. 

When I was older – around 14 – Dad trusted me with a chainsaw of my own.  This changed our assembly line work pattern.  Now, instead of Dad cutting and me transferring wood, we cut and moved wood together to the next place on the assembly line.

There is a kind of comradery that is built up when doing work – the same work – together.  It feels primal. Common work builds connections that words spoken between people does not.  Trappist monks have known this for a millennium.

The final stage of work involved splitting the wood and throwing it into the pickup.  This was my favorite.  During football season Dad would sometimes turn the radio to an Iowa Hawkeyes game.  I have never been a football fan, but my dad liked listening to the games, and I remember thinking, even as a kid, that this was rather novel.  My first ten years of life, spent on crowded Long Island just east of Queens, gave me an appreciation for this more remote place and the romance of splitting wood to the sound of a football game on the radio.  It was a far cry from the streets of Harlem, the Bronx, and Queens Dad used to walk during his fifteen years as a New York City social worker too. 

The tossing of the wood into the truck brought a feeling of satisfaction of a job almost done… and some playfulness.  While tossing wood, sometimes I “missed,” adding a dent to the 1974 blue Chevy pickup.  It didn’t matter.  Dad would acknowledge my “misses” with a half-smile – an ever-so-subtle warning to keep the additional dents on the side of our truck in the single-digits, perhaps no higher than the Hawkeyes game score. 

The cutting, splitting, and hauling of firewood between August and November was not always something I enjoyed – especially when we ran short of wood and had to go into the woods in mid-winter in freezing temperatures.  I complained.  Sometimes a lot.  But it was work I understood as necessary.  Money was tight and fuel oil was over a buck a gallon.  Wood was free. 

Today, I too loathe to burn fossil fuels as Dad did, although for me it is more for environmental-stewardship than to avoid the buck-a-gallon cost.  My Oregon house also has a wood-burning stove, but it is one that is suitable for display in the living room rather than being banished to the unfinished basement as it was in my Minnesota house, where thirteen pickup loads of wood were squirreled away each year like giant elongated acorns.  The cutting and splitting is easier now too.  A dump truck delivers four cords worth of uncut logs to my suburban driveway each year.  My son helps with the splitting.  I’ve watched his aim improve and strength grow just as Dad watched me.  I smile at his sense of anticipated accomplishment when he hears the wood crackle just before the last swing that splits the wood in two.

It is a smile like Dad’s, and it contains a memory of gratitude for the ridge road, the field, and the outdoor factory assembly lines where we worked together and grew closer.  In quieter moments there is melancholy behind the smile.  My son has far fewer stories from that land, and those stories are in the category of “vacations” rather than “home.”  My distance from this ancestral land is growing too.  When I visit the farm now and see its beauty in the snow, the contours of the land, the trees, and memories of good work, I hope I am learning to better see the beautiful in the familiar and not just the strange.   

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Becoming One, Becoming Holy: A Response to “Sent in Love

This post first appeared on the UM & Global site.

“There has never been a time in greater need of a compelling articulation of the message of holiness.” So begins the 2006 “Holiness Manifesto,” crafted by the Wesleyan Holiness Consortium (now called the Wesleyan Holiness Connection), an ecumenical body comprised of eighteen Wesleyan denominations in the United States, including the United Methodist Church.  At the request of the Council of Bishops, I have been honored to attend a number of annual “steering committee” gatherings with this group. I believe there is much to be learned from our Wesleyan sisters and brothers and much we United Methodists have to contribute – especially at this difficult time in our history as United Methodists.  “Sent in Love,” the recently revised United Methodist ecclesiology statement put forth by the Committee on Faith and Order, is, in part, also a kind of “holiness manifesto,” set forth at a time when there is again a great “need of a compelling articulation of the message of holiness.”

“Sent in Love” (henceforth, SIL) strikes an ecumenical tone at the very beginning, much like the previous draft, “Wonder, Love, and Praise,” did although it does not follow other ecumenical theological statements as explicitly as “Wonder, Love, and Praise.”  As a result, I think SIL portrays our Wesleyan distinctiveness better than its predecessor, and I hope that will aid in its reception by United Methodist congregations.  SIL rightly stresses at the very beginning that ecumenical engagement is no extraneous add-on in our ecclesiological reflection, but is instead integral to who we are as United Methodists.  “We have perspectives to contribute to a wider common Christian understanding of the church.  We also learn about ourselves from other Christians and churches (SIL, paragraph 6).” Our robust ecumenism stems not only from our denomination being a merger of Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist churches in 1968 but also from our global or oikoumene growth since 1968.  In these months before General Conference 2020, it is critical to remind ourselves in our prayers and in our work that we do not stand alone as individuals or as a denomination, but are part of a world Christian movement in which the Holy Spirit is working to make us all more perfect in love.

I believe SIL will be most useful for what it has to say about holiness.  Holiness is an integrating and animating idea and practice too often relegated to the “ash heap” of Methodist history rather than history’s “garden” from which United Methodists may still yield abundant fruit.  In the eighteen years since I was commissioned as a deacon I have been a member of three different Annual Conferences in three different jurisdictions (Northeast, North Central, and Western).  In all of the places where I have served I have been struck by the lack of attention given to holiness as an integrating and animating idea in United Methodist theological practice.  I have seen this lack of attention at Annual Conference gatherings, in Boards of Ordained Ministry, and in local church preaching. I am also convinced that this is not only a problem for North American United Methodism.

I believe SIL portrays an expansive vision of what holiness is and can be in the life of United Methodist people. “Holiness is deeply personal and yet has inseparable public and social dimensions.  It is as intimate as each person’s inner experience of the pardoning and sanctifying grace of God, and as all-encompassing as God’s will for justice, peace, and the integrity of creation (SIL, pargraph 90).” At a time when political movements inside and beyond the church seek to polarize people in various “camps,” I believe a reinvigoration of “holiness” language and accompanying practices in United Methodism has the potential to break down “dividing walls of hostility.”  That said, I am fully aware that debates about holiness have been a source of conflict in our history.  Areas of conflict will doubtless persist as they have in the church from the days of the apostles onward, but I believe that framing our disagreements in light of a common call to holiness can call forth within all of us a posture of reconciling love as we seek to model our lives after Jesus Christ, the Holy One. 

The theme of holiness resonates deeply with all four “marks” of the church discussed in SIL and does so implicitly and explicitly.  I especially like the way these four marks are discussed (in Part Three) in an inverted order such that our missional impulse (apostolicity) is mentioned first and followed by catholic, holy, and one rather than the more conventional ordering.  In the ecumenical movement of the past several decades sometimes Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17, “that they may be one,” has been stressed to the neglect of his prayer “that the world may believe.”  By inverting the traditional ordering SIL sends a different message, one that I pray unifies us around our common missional priorities instead of the issues that divide us.  We are apostolic, catholic, holy, and one.    

Inspired by the ecumenical work of the Wesleyan Holiness Connection and as part of my own celebration of the Methodist missionary society centennial in 1819, I decided to organize a group of five Wesleyan pastors in my hometown to gather our congregations in weekly meetings during Lent to celebrate our common Wesleyan mission.  I look forward to sharing excerpts from SIL concerning the theme of holiness during at least one of these meetings.  I encourage readers to do the same in your own formal and informal efforts at living out Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one… that the world may believe.”  It is our holy calling. 

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Oregon-Idaho United Methodists Celebrating 200 Years in Mission in October

The Methodist movement is at its best when it keeps the mission of God at the forefront of its collective heart, mind, and action.  The older I get (I turn 50 this year, so I can start saying that now) the more convinced I am that this is true.  I am delighted to be participating in a series of three, one-day conferences sponsored by the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference Global Ministry Team to celebrate the bicentennial of the Methodist missionary society’s founding in 1819.  Our Conference theme for these three events is “Crossing Boundaries: Partnership in Mission.”  We will be at Roseburg UMC on October 5th, Tigard UMC on October 12th, and Boise UMC on October 26th

I will be giving the “keynote” address at each of these congregations during the month of October.  For my address, I have decided to follow the lead of my United Methodist mission professor colleague, Dr. Arun Jones, who teaches at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.  He gave the keynote address at the global UMC gathering in Atlanta this past April.  In his address he reflected upon a number of missionary virtues exhibited by the first Methodist Episcopal missionary, John Stewart, who worked among the Wyandot Native Americans in Ohio.  Stewart’s mission virtues were ones he held in tension.  For example, Stewart had tremendous zeal in preaching and teaching the Good News of Jesus Christ among the Wyandot.  This zeal, however, was accompanied by the virtue of compassion such that Stewart recognized the need to be as attentive to the people with whom he worked as he was to the Gospel he sought to proclaim.  Zeal in tension with compassion. That Stewart himself was African American doubtless helped him to connect to Native Americans who were, like African Americans, so often mistreated.  Dr. Jones used the stories of Stewart to connect to our own context and encouraged all of us to reflect on these and other virtues and how we see them present or absent in our own lives and contexts. 

In my talks at Roseburg, Tigard, and Boise I will similarly be reflecting on the lives of early missionaries, but they will be a pair who worked in Oregon rather than Ohio.  I believe Elvira and Henry Perkins (Elvira came to Oregon first so she should be listed first!) were the best missionaries in Oregon in the beginning decade of Methodist mission presence in the Pacific Northwest (1834-44).  Anthropologists today still praise the cultural sensitivity and linguistic insights of the Perkins’s work among Sahaptin and Chinook-speaking peoples in The Dalles.  The Perkins’s are almost entirely unknown among United Methodists today!  What can we learn about “crossing boundaries” and “building partnerships” from their lives for mission today?  Come out to Roseburg, Tigard, or Boise to find out! 

My talk about the Perkins family and what we can learn from them will just involve the very beginning of our one-day conferences in October.  The rest of our time together will involve a half dozen workshops on different dimensions of Christian mission.  Here’s the list!  Disaster Preparation and Early Response Teams; United Methodist Volunteers in Mission; Understanding Current Missionary Service; Connecting Neighbors Program; Abundant Health Initiative; The Advance / UMCOR.  But perhaps more important than all of these workshops is the relationships we all will build as we think, pray, and talk with one another!  You can register for this event by going here on the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference website.  Cost is $20 which includes lunch.  I am looking forward to seeing you there! 

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Opening Up the Church so Wide…

There are now nearly 70 million people living in our world who have been forced from their homes for a whole assortment of reasons.[1]

I have been thinking and writing about refugees quite a bit recently.   November 11, 2018 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I.  The end of that war brought peace to some, but the refugee crisis it spawned and the ensuing famine in Russia that affected millions made life a nightmare for years after the trench warfare ceased.  I wrote an article about this that comes out in the International Bulletin of Mission Research in a couple of months.  Specifically, I wrote about the European Student Relief – the first aid organization to be truly international and ecumenical. It was organized by Christian students around the world to come to the aid of refugee students.

Our refugee crisis today was again brought to my attention this past week at the Oxford Institute for Methodist Theological Studies with a sermon given by Rev. Peter Storey, a Methodist pastor from South Africa.  I met him several days earlier when I spotted his name tag as I trickled into a lecture hall with 150 other attendees for the conference’s first plenary lecture.  I was surprised to see him.  He is not the young man that he was when he bravely fought against the apartheid regime for decades beginning in the 1960s.

As part of his resistance to that regime he would sometimes hold a sign that read,

All who pass by remember with shame the many thousands of people who lived for generations in District Six and other parts of the city, and who were forced by law to leave their homes because of the colour of their skins. Father forgive us.

This so-called “Plaque of Shame” was erected on the outside wall of the local Methodist church in District 6 as well.  I’m told it is still there.  In his sermon this past Sunday, Rev. Storey also described another time in the history of that church – long after he had departed as its pastor – when the building provided a place of refuge for people fleeing the ruthless regime of Robert Mugabe in the neighboring state of Zimbabwe.

A few days ago, on the last day of the Oxford Institute, Peter preached on the story of four friends who dug a hole in the roof of a home where Jesus was teaching and asked (demanded?) that Jesus heal their paralyzed friend.  The church, he said, has to be broken in order to actually be the church.  By serving refugees from Zimbabwe, the church he loved – including the building itself – was literally broken down from the stress of housing dozens of people who lived, cooked, and slept in the sanctuary.

I am reminded of how rarely I have seen this kind of ministry happen in the churches that I have attended and served in for the past several decades.  To be clear, I have been a part of churches – urban ones especially – that did prioritize ministry to their neighbors over keeping the church building in shape.  I am grateful for their witness, but I have not seen this enough.

When Rev. Storey finished preaching I felt compelled to thank him for his sermon. It had moved me to tears.  (Sermons don’t typically do that for me.)  But I knew that kind words and a handshake wouldn’t be enough.  I wanted to hug this man who understood that the Christian life is not primarily about finely nuanced talks or academic papers but about ministering to people where they are at in their fullness as people truly created in God’s image and who reflect that image even in the brokenness of their bodies.  “Too often,” he noted, “we are more concerned about being right than doing good!”

Rev. Storey paraphrased Mother Teresa in his closing words that Sunday morning in Oxford.  I can’t think of a better was to close this blog than to follow his example:

“May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.”  Reflecting on this quotation with respect to the story of the paralytic and his four friends, Peter went on, “Only if the church gets broken open does the world get mended… Open up the Church so wide that the whole world falls in.”

[1] See the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/data.html. This number would be higher if an even broader definition of refugee and internally displaced person were utilized.

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On Really Getting Things Wrong

This summer I am once again in the archives researching world Christian leaders in the early part of the twentieth century: John R. Mott, T. Z. Koo, J. H. Oldham, to name a few.  A more limited project has me reading early Methodist missionary letters who are living among Native Americans in Oregon in the 1830s and 1840s.

In the course of this archival research I occasionally come across letters where the writers are so very blind to the big events that are beginning to happen around them or will shortly happen.  They are sometimes astonishing to read.  Sometimes they are astonishingly boring in light of what – in historical hindsight – we know was about to happen in their world (like World War 1)! But for the most part my reaction to these astonishing letters is not one of self-righteous incredulity where I wonder, “How could s/he think or say that?”  Quite the contrary.  When I come across these letters they frequently give me pause as I wonder to myself, “What am I missing in my own context?”  Am I equally blind to critical matters happening in my world where I am doing very little in response?

It seems important to be especially prayerful along these lines during the summer of 2018 which seems particularly disturbing in the world news events that are swirling about us.  The growth of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and the United States, the rise of right-wing nationalist leaders, the separation of immigrant families, the effusive praise of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un by President Trump… The list goes on.  What will happen next?  What is happening now in other parts of the world that I am not noticing because these events I just mentioned are either closer to home or are more active in the press I am paying attention to?

It is with all of this in mind that I share an excerpt from a two-page, typewritten letter written by an early twentieth century evangelist named Sherwood Eddy.  He was very popular as an evangelist in student circles, and by the late 1920s was getting increasingly intrigued by what was happening in the still-new Soviet Union.  He sent an almost syrupy sweet letter to Josef Stalin in 1932.  What was happening in 1932 that he was clueless about?  Well, here’s a bit of a taste…

In 1932 the first “five-year plan” was wrapping up.  Collectivization of Soviet agriculture was moving forward at a break-neck pace and a devastating famine was setting in causing the deaths of millions of people in the Ukraine and elsewhere.  Some scholars see this as deliberate and thus worthy of the “genocide” label committed by Stalin.

Now read the letter that Sherwood Eddy wrote to Stalin that I came across in my research at the Yale Divinity School archives.  One of the most striking examples of really getting things wrong.

This is my ninth visit to this country in twenty years – twice in Czarist Russia, seven times to the Soviet Union, which has made such astonishing progress especially during the Five Year Plan.  I am counted a friend of this country and have been working for a decade with my friends… for the recognition of the Soviet Union by the reactionary Government of the United States, so much so that in America it is foolishly said I must be supported by “Moscow gold.”  I am not a Communist nor a capitalist, but a Socialist; but I want to see this daring undertaking of a classless society under a new social order succeed, and it is succeeding.

I know you are occupied with much more important questions in collectivization, heavy and light industry, etc.  I do not ask an interview nor an answer to this letter, which may not even reach you, but I have confidence in you as the one man that can bring victory and success in the face of all these difficulties.

Speaking as a friend of the Soviet Union, not by way of criticism but in kindly suggestion, I may say that your tourist business for foreigners is very badly run. I know the difficulties and I do not expect perfection, busy as you are with more important internal problems, but things are worse this year in many respects than in previous years.  Thousands of dollars have been wasted abroad in advertising which was unpsychological and not adapted to foreigners, promising things which could not be fulfilled, and have not been fulfilled.  A few thousand dollars spent in making these hotels suitable for foreigners would have brought better results than tens of thousands in unwise advertising which has not been fulfilled…[1]

Yes, that’s right.  In the midst of a genocidal famine, caused, in large part, by Josef Stalin we have this letter giving Comrade Stalin advice on his country’s hospitality industry!  Astonishing?  Yes.  There are lots of important historical questions that could be posed about this letter and Eddy’s context and worldview that helps us to understand this letter.  But in this blog my question is more personal.  What are we missing?

May we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear what is happening in our world that is at least somewhat better than Sherwood Eddy was able to see in his own day.  That is my humble prayer – for all of us.

 

 

[1] Letter from Sherwood Eddy to Josef Stalin, July 29, 1932.  Sherwood Eddy papers, Yale Divinity School archives, New Haven, CT

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My hope for United Methodism

I was asked some months ago to write a blog as part of a series entitled “My hope for United Methodism.”  It first appeared on UM & Global’s site, but UM Insight picked it up as well.  

“Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem… They looked for Jesus and said to one another as they were in the temple area, “What do you think?  That he will not come to the feast?”  John 11:55-57

The Scripture text above for the day before Palm Sunday ends with a question: Will Jesus show up?  It is a question many people in the United Methodist Church are asking – sometimes with anguish in their hearts, yearning for renewal.  At our best, I think we ask this question not with anxious handwringing but with what Cornel West calls a “blues sensibility” sort of faith.  Our eyes are wide open to the problems in our church and world, but we have faith that Jesus will always show up.  It is the faith and love of Jesus working out in our lives that moves us with hope and a persistent unconditional love for others.  At our best we sing with the pathos of a famous African American spiritual as our model, yearning for the “City Called Heaven.”  It is that ultimate hope expressed with the grit of a blues artist that I pray will animate our life together as United Methodists in the years to come.

Where do I see this happening?  What gives me this kind of gritty hope for the UMC?  I have two stories.

Just before Holy Week I gathered with fourteen people in Portland, Oregon in order to encourage one another in our experiments of living in intentional Christian communities.  Most were folks from Portland, but I drove an hour with my housemate and Romanian missionary friend, David, to see what this might be.  I knew some friends would be there who went through Missional Wisdom training and prayerful retreats with me, but the circle was wider than that with people who have been experimenting for less than a year to one man who had lived in an intentional Christian community for 33 years.  I went to this gathering because I’ll be serving as a faculty mentor next year for two residential houses of university students who want to explore in practical ways what it means to live a deeper life of Christian fellowship that they have been reading about in the “great books” honors program I also teach in.  I need help to dream what those houses could be so that my prayers would not be too small.  Small prayers are a problem for many of us.  On my drive home with David last night we spoke about what we experienced in that Portland living room with other disciples of Jesus.  There were deep wells of wisdom there, experiences of desert wandering, and also a spirit of holy experimentation.  It is the willingness to experiment and yearning to keep re-envisioning church that gives me hope for United Methodism.

My second story is a tad less contemporary.  I’m a historian of the missionary movement, and one of my current projects is to examine one of the earliest and exuberantly hopeful missionary endeavors of American Methodists.  No other missionary venture of early American Methodists more fired the imagination than the mission to share the Gospel of Jesus with Native Americans in Oregon.  Big dreams of mass conversions of thousands of eager Native Americans (whom Methodist missionaries barely knew anything about) were quickly met with discouragement in the years after missionary arrival in Oregon in 1834.  Instead of thousands yearning to become Christians they instead encountered thousands of people being decimated by diseases that had had been transmitted to the region earlier via trading ships.

The Methodist missionaries persisted in Oregon but perhaps the best missionary of the bunch, Henry Kirk White Perkins, has barely been recognized in Methodist mission histories.  His journals reveal that he was probably the leading missionary linguist in the denomination at the time; he translated a good chunk of the New Testament into Sahaptin, a language of eastern Washington.  He was also a man with a heart full of love for others and a belief that the Gospel truly can transform lives.

In a letter to his friend, Daniel Lee, he relays stories of a revival that took place at the Willamette Mission – a few miles south of where I now live – during a few days surrounding a Watch Night service in January of 1839.  Perkins tells stories of the conversion of a half dozen Native Americans.  Most were older children in the school the Methodists were running along with some adults and children of white settlers.  He was especially moved by the emotional conversion of two Native American women – both named Mary.  Mary Sargent had been converted the day before.  She was friends with Mary Hauxhurst who was married to a white settler.  As Perkins tells the story, “Mary S. arose and with joy beaming in her countenance, went and threw her arms around the neck of her friend, [Mary Hauxhurst] and they wept, and prayed together…O, thought I, this, this is religion, and religion is love. God beheld the sight, and he wiped their tears away, and in a few moments they were praising God together.”

At first glance this is not a particularly unusual conversion story.  What makes it noteworthy to me is that it is the first conversion story in Oregon where – at least in the way Perkins tells it – the missionary seems to be more of an observer to one Native American woman introducing another to the saving love of Jesus.  Perkins, it seems, trusted that what was happening to these two women was of God even though so much of their history and culture was unknown to him.  It would still be over a year before he could preach in any language other than a rudimentary trade language the local people used.

This story that Perkins tells illustrates a hope I have for United Methodism in that we too will learn to trust one another across cultural and linguistic barriers.  Perkins made plenty of mistakes in his work, to be sure, but as I have read his journals I am struck by his openness toward Native American cultural practices that were foreign to him.  As he painstakingly translated Scripture day after day he was also willing to question his assumptions about how he interpreted the Bible.  He even wrote back home to ask a friend for help in thinking through some passages.  That letter home embodies another hope and gritty prayer I have for United Methodism – namely, that we would learn to be better friends and vulnerably ask for the help we need – from God and one another.  For where two or three are gathered… Jesus will most assuredly show up.

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Friendship as Incarnational Mission Practice

I wrote this blog a few months ago originally for the American Society of Missiology, a professional society of missiologists for whom I serve as chairperson of the Board of Publications.  I might as well put it here too!  

January 24, 2018

In less than six months we will gather for our ASM annual meeting to consider “interfaith friendship as incarnational mission practice.”  The past two Sundays three serendipitous events occurred which resonate for me with our ASM theme and make me anticipate our gathering even more!   To be clear, the stories I relate here are not about interfaith friendships, but they are about friendship in the midst of difference and thus illustrate the generative nature of the theme ASM President Dr. Bonnie Sue Lewis has chosen.

First, this past Sunday I preached at two congregations near my home.  This is not particularly unusual in itself.  It is something I do every month or two.  I preached on Mark 1:14-20; a few months ago I had written a short commentary on this text for the ASM “missional preacher” website.  But the day before I was to preach, I saw something new in the text that I hadn’t even mentioned in that commentary.  In Mark’s account of Jesus calling disciples by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus calls for three actions on the part of his disciples / eventual friends: Repent, believe, and follow.  I closed my message by lingering with my congregations on the priority Jesus placed on repentance.  Repentance is how our believing and following begins.  Perhaps that is especially the case in our interfaith friendships.  But surely not only there.

With my congregations I also spoke about another event that had occurred the previous week.  I had visited a Coptic Orthodox Church in Portland, Oregon (the only Coptic church in Oregon) with my class of undergraduate students studying the history of African Christianity.  In their ancient liturgy we heard the simple prayer, “Lord have mercy,” well over a dozen times.  I was reminded of the multiple layers of that simple prayer that simultaneously reminds us of our need to repent and the abundant grace and mercy that is poured out for us by our Lord Jesus Christ. While worshiping with these Coptic Christians I was also reminded of how little I pray for Christian sisters and brothers facing persecution in Egypt and elsewhere.  Lord have mercy, indeed!

My third serendipitous event occurred the evening after I had preached on the Gospel of Mark.  I went with a new friend to an evening service at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in a nearby town.  I am still somewhat new to the American West, so I decided several months ago that I needed to better understand the Mormon tradition in my new home.  As I climbed into my friend’s car that rainy evening, I asked again what this service was going to be about.  He said that he thought it was going to be “A kind of revival service.” He is always generous to find words within my own Protestant and Methodist tradition that make sense.  At the end of the service which was indeed “A kind of revival service,” one of the priests from the regional ministry area or “stake” came up to me and asked, with tears in his eyes, if he could give me a hug.  We had met just once before, but we had a meaningful conversation.  As we embraced he said, “Thank you for being so kind to us.”  I recall that I mumbled something along the lines of “But, of course, we’re supposed to love one another.”  He had previously told me of some hurtful encounters he had with evangelical Christians many years ago in our area.  I don’t yet know the history or current reality of Latter Day Saints – evangelical relations in my new home, but I know I need to learn.  I also don’t know what repentance would look like in this case, but if I am to follow Jesus more closely in my new home I need to open my heart in prayer about this. My friend’s tears and words of gratitude, it seems to me, can serve as a kind of icon for my prayers in the months to come.[1]

“Repent, believe, follow.” “Lord have mercy.”  “Thank you for being so kind to us.”  May these phrases resonate for you too in the days to come as we all look forward to our ASM meeting on “interfaith friendships” at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana. I’m looking forward to seeing you there!

[1] To be clear, I don’t see my relationships with LDS friends as an interfaith friendship.  The evangelical – LDS dialogue that has taken place for the past 20 years seems to mostly use the language of “heterodox Christian sect” as a descriptor of the Mormon tradition that LDS Christians themselves are comfortable with.  For now, so am I.

 

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