Thursday, April 9, 2009

Elders and Deacons

At University, we have two members of our pastoral staff set to be ordained this year. One is to be ordained as an elder one as a deacon. There were some questions from staff members, so I wrote the following. This was supposed to be short, but the answer is a little complicated. If you are an elder or deacon reading this post and have any helpful comments, please post them or email them to me. This is still a working document and I would love to make it better.

A number of weeks ago we announced the Rev. Leslie Tomlinson and Rev. Kit Tomlinson had been recommended by the Board of Ordained Ministry for election into full connection and ordination at our Annual Conference in June. Leslie has been affirmed in her call to ordination as an elder, and Kit has been affirmed in his call to ordination as a deacon. There have been a number of questions about the difference between elders and deacons and I hope to address that in this piece.

Let me begin by sharing the relevant descriptions of the orders from our Book of Discipline the governing document for the United Methodist Church. First Elders:

¶ 332. Ministry of an Elder – Elders are ordained minister who, by God’s grace, have completed their formal preparation and have been commissioned and served as a provisional member, have been found by the Church to be of sound learning, of Christian character, possessing the necessary gifts and evidence of God’s grace and whose call by God to ordination has been confirmed by the Church. Elders are ordained to a lifetime ministry of Word, Sacrament, Order and Service. By the authority given in their ordination, they are authorized to preach and teach the Word of God, to provide pastoral care and counsel, to administer the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion, and to order the life of the Church for service in mission and ministry. The servant leadership of the elder, in both parish and extension ministries, is expressed by leading persons to faith in Jesus Christ, by exercising pastoral supervision, and by ordering the Church in mission in the word.

Now Deacons:

¶329. Ministry Authority and Responsibilities of Deacons in Full Connection-1. Deacons are persons called by God, authorized by the Church, and ordained by a bishop to a lifetime ministry of Word and Service to both the community and the congregation in a ministry that connects the two. Deacons exemplify Christian discipleship and create opportunities for others to enter into discipleship. In the world, the deacon seeks to express a ministry of compassion and justice, assisting laypersons as they claim their own ministry. In the congregation, the ministry of the deacon is to teach and to form disciples, and to lead worship together with other ordained and laypersons.

Both deacons and elders and ordained (set-apart) ministers in the life of the church. They both require intense theological education and they both require an extensive discernment and evaluation process. These are not levels of ordination; one is not greater than the other; they are just different. Let’s focus in on some of the differences. According the Book of Discipline, Elders are “ordained to a lifetime ministry of Word, Sacrament, Order and Service.” Deacons are “ordained by a bishop to a lifetime ministry of Word and Service…” The words “sacrament” and “order” point out a couple of important differences between the two orders. First of all elders are ordained to the ministry of sacrament and deacons are not. Remember, the two sacraments of The United Methodist Church are baptism and holy communion. Elders are authorized to preside over these sacraments. Second, elders are authorized to “order the life of the Church for service in mission and ministry.” Practically speaking, this refers to the elders’ role in leading the people of God in their mission: organizing, providing leadership for, and casting the vision in our local churches, in our extension ministries, in our annual conference and beyond.

While I have pointed out two differences based on what deacons cannot do, it is very important that this not make it seems as though deacons are somehow “less than” elders. Deacons have some important roles that are not part of the role of an elder. Deacons are ordained to a “lifetime ministry of Word and Service to both the community and the congregation in a ministry that connects the two.” Part of the role of the deacon is to bridge the church and the world. This can be in the context of a church, reaching out, or in the context of a ministry outside the walls of the church, helping people reach into the church.

At University we have three deacons, one ordained (Rev. Linda Smith), one set to be ordained (Rev. Kit Tomlinson) and one in her first year of her probationary period (Rev. Denise Barker.) Let me use two of our deacons to demonstrate how these bridges might look. Kit works for a church (ours) but his main is to reach outside to build bridges with a certain subset of the young people in our community. Kit also works with people inside the church to help involve them in that ministry. Denise works for an outside organization (Magdalena House) to bring hope and justice in the name of Jesus Christ and to draw the church into that ministry.

Some practical issues that come up: Both elders and deacons can be referred to as Reverend. Both can be referred to as pastor, especially if they are functioning in a pastoral role. Both can wear stoles, though deacons have a special stole that gathers at the side. While both ordinations are lifetime, only elders are assured a lifetime of appointments. Deacons seek their own ministry and employment.

This is just a quick overview of the two orders. If you are interested in learning more, I suggest that you talk to one of our elders or deacons. You can be a witness to the ordination of Leslie and Kit at this year’s Annual Conference. The service of ordination will be held Friday, June 5, at 6:30 p.m. in Selena Auditorium at the American Bank Center in Corpus Christi.


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