Response: March 2016 Issue

To Celebrate and Sanctify

Deaconesses and home missioners offer cutting-edge lay ministries and love on the margins. Proposed legislation for 2016 General Conference supports them.

To Celebrate and Sanctify
United Methodist Bishop Violet Fisher consecrates Elizabeth Graham as a deaconess at the United Methodist Women's Assembly in Kentucky, 2014

During the dozens of General Conferences that have taken place since the deaconess movement was founded in 1888, delegates have sought support, oversight and even expansion of the work of deaconesses, a lay order. This upcoming General Conference in May 2016 will be no different. It will feature a blessing of the deaconesses and home missioners, during which 27 people will be consecrated, bringing the total number of active deaconesses and home missioners to nearly 200 individuals in the United States and 450 in the Philippines. There are also United Methodist deaconesses serving in Germany.

The work of deaconesses and home missioners globally is vast, and their numbers are growing. In the United States alone, nearly 50 individuals are in a discernment process, engaged in a time of listening to God's call and fulfilling candidacy requirements, including theology classes.

The deaconess and home missioner community is proposing two new paragraphs to The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. The first upholds the community as a lay order, a global acknowledgement, and the other is a request for ecclesiastical support, a U.S.-based affirmation for deaconesses and home missioners who serve as chaplains.

Affirmation as a lay order

This first proposed legislation affirms the global nature of lay ministries of service.

"Individuals consecrated and commissioned to the Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner in The United Methodist Church form a covenant community in service as a lay order," begins the new paragraph to be added after 1314. "Like other orders in the church, they respond to a calling from God. In their distinct tradition, they commit to a lifetime vocation in full-time ministries of love, justice and service. In covenant with one another, they nurture and care for each other in their individual ministry calls and in community. They share a common study and are prepared based upon their unique gifts."

The rationale: "This legislation reflects the findings of the Lay Order study that deaconesses and home missioners are rightly understood as a lay order."

This legislation affirms that God's call to lay service is as meaningful as a call to clergy service. Deaconesses and home missioners respond to a call to love, justice and service.

Ecclesiastical support

The ecclesiastical legislation is an affirmation of the calling of deaconesses and home missioners who meet all professional training requirements for chaplain certification though are not called to word and sacrament.

"I have yet to find a denomination in the United Statesthat does not have an avenue for laity to be supported as chaplains," said Deaconess Becky Louter, executive for the Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner. "But in the United Methodist tradition, deaconess women have founded hospitals yet are not supported by the church, which is required for professional certification. We are not asking to administer the sacraments; we are simply asking for support so that those called to chaplaincy can receive professional certification, thus expanding the places in which they may serve and providing access to the support that comes from being part of a professional organization.

"As I think of my own experiences with stage four cancer," Ms. Louter continued, "I don't care if the person who visits me in the hospital administers the sacraments — it's her or his presence that matters."

This added paragraph to The Book of Discipline affirms the presence of deaconesses and home missioners already in chaplaincy service. Ms. Louter calls the adding of this paragraph a justice issue.

"Ecclesiastical support," the proposed new paragraph states, "is an affirmation provided by The United Methodist Church to employers and professional certification organizations that a deaconess or home missioner is in good standing and has the appropriate professional training and equipping for ministry in specialized settings."

The new paragraph asks for official church recognition for ministries deaconesses and home missioners are already trained for and engage in.

This petition creates a path for consecrated/commissioned deaconesses and home missioners serving in chaplaincy or counseling ministries to receive ecclesiastical support as required for professional certification. It acknowledges the contributions of deaconesses and home missioners already serving as chaplains in the United States, like Deaconess Jeanne Roe Smith, campus minister at the Wesley Foundation at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Deaconess Lee Manns, who maintains the pastoral care office at Virtua Hospital in Marleton, New Jersey. As chaplains, these deaconesses would like to be able to receive professional certification.

Employed by her annual conference, Ms. Smith explained that her campus ministry work is acknowledged as a chaplaincy by the UCLA system and the Internal Revenue Service. She calls the addition of this paragraph to The Book of Discipline a "no brainer." The legislation would strengthen The United Methodist Church, the community of home missioners and deaconesses and those who are called to the work of chaplaincy.

"We would be a bridge to so many people," said Ms. Roe Smith. "Being a deaconess resonates with my call to justice — creating a space for justice and grace, making us the beloved community Jesus intended," said Ms. Roe Smith.

"It would mean a great deal to me if it were to pass," Ms. Manns said, speaking about her pastoral care work at Virtua Hospital and the impact of the General Conference legislation. "At this point in my life, with my doctorate and board certification, it would allow the church to recognize that I am no longer just a volunteer in a hospital but a professional doing God's work in an area in which most do not feel comfortable: dealing with illness, sadness, anger, pain and death on a daily basis."

Legacy of prophetic ministry

Deaconesses and recently home missioners walk the walk of Jesus, ministering with the poor and the marginalized not only as chaplains but as teachers, journalists, nurses, refugee workers, lawyers and activists.

"Being a deaconess is very important to me because it celebrates a lifelong commitment to serve God with the special gifts God has given me," said Ms. Manns.

Throughout the history of the Christian church, women's ministries have often been overlooked. The deaconess story has been a women-led movement since its founding by Methodist predecessors in 1888. In the Methodist tradition, starting with known historical resources, deaconesses have been referred to as an order as early as 1852.

The legislation on behalf of the Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner is a call to celebrate and sanctify the work done and to recognize what has always existed as an order.

"If we get out of our own way, we could do a lot more good for God in this world," said Ms. Roe Smith. "We have many ways of expressing God's love."

Neither of the additions to The Book of Discipline require additional funds or changes in structure. The passage of the legislation would be a small step in a covenant community of women and men who ask very little from the church and give quite a lot — providing love, justice and service in the world on behalf of our church for more than 127 years.


Mary Beth Coudal is interim managing editor of response.

Posted or updated: 3/2/2016 11:00:00 PM
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