Release the deacons!
In October I had the opportunity to spend a day with many of the deacons in this Synod.
There are 25 deacons listed in the Synod directory in a range of placements from prison, mental health, disability and rural chaplaincies through to congregational ministry.
I wonder how many members of the Uniting Church are even aware of this significant ministry of the church.
Some may think of deacons in the Baptist Church who, although ordained, have a responsibility to serve the members of the congregation and generally fulfil similar functions to our members of church council and elders. Maybe some think of deacons in the Anglican and Catholic churches, where traditionally a short term is served as deacon on the way to becoming a priest.
Deacons in the Uniting Church should not be confused with these models.
Becoming a Deacon is not a stepping stone to anywhere — it is a specified ministry of the church which is equal in standing but complementary to that of the minister of the word.
In the Assembly brochure deacons are described as those who:
- hold up service as an inescapable response to the gospel;
- encourage all God’s people in their service of God inside and outside the church;
- are advocates for justice, sharing in the church’s justice ministries, standing beside people who are disadvantaged or oppressed, encouraging others to work for justice and calling the church to costly action;
- are carers who offer support and encouragement, standing beside those who suffer, and encouraging others to use their caring gifts;
- are pioneers serving on the fringes in areas of life where social, economic and political changes are exposing new needs which are frequently remote from the experience of churchgoers;
- are educators whose special task is to educate the church on justice issues and community needs;
- are enablers who encourage other people to recognise and use their gifts of service;
- are called to be prophets prepared to challenge injustice and offer alternatives; and
- are bridge-builders between the church and the community.
The Synod of Queensland’s definition of Uniting Church deacons paints a picture of this ministry:
A deacon is a pathfinder. They go where others have not gone before and light the way for the church to respond to where people in the community are hurting, disadvantaged and oppressed. A deacon is a community builder. Having no congregation, they begin with scattered people and shape them into a community. A deacon is an evangelist. They share the good news of the gospel with people in the community.
Many may wonder why we have deacons. I once wondered about this myself, but I now believe that God was leading those who provided for the possibility of the renewal of the diaconate in the Basis of Union.
I say this because I believe that God is calling us to be a church that is in and for the community providing for the poor, disadvantaged and lost and the deacons in our church are forerunners.
Often it is hard to find funding for the sort of ministry that deacons are called to exercise. But find it we must and most likely it will be found in congregations with a vision for the ministry God is calling us to in the 21st century.
There are deacons in placement in congregations often expected to minister as if they are ministers of the word.
I would encourage those congregations who have the good fortune to have deacons in placement to free those deacons up to be what they have been called to be; to develop lay leadership within the congregation and build teams to support the deacon in developing ministry within the community beyond the congregation.
This may mean relieving the deacon from a significant portion of preaching and pastoral responsibilities. As a consequence, this may require the development of new ways of worshipping, providing leadership in worship and organising pastoral care for the congregation.
It may also mean that new types of communities of faith are developed beyond the congregation; served by the deacon and members of the congregation who have volunteered to be part of that work. For this we should pray and give thanks.
It is important for congregations who have or desire to have deacons in placement to recognise that this is an opportunity to participate in ground-breaking ministry which will be the template for many churches in the future and the means by which God will grow a new church in a new age and in a new post-Christendom context.