Editor’s note: The March issue of response featured the story “To Celebrate and Sanctify” by Mary Beth Coudal outlining United Methodist Women’s proposed new additions to the The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, one on lay order and one on ecclesiastical support for deaconesses and home missioners. This is an extension of that article so that you can learn and know more about deaconesses and home missioners—their history, present and future and why this covenant community as it is and as it is becoming is so important for our church and world. All legislation United Methodist Women is bringing to General Conference 2016 can be found at www.unitedmethodistwomen.org/gc2016.
In Community, In Ministry
Many people are called to ministry, but not everyone is called to a pulpit. Within The United Methodist Church are avenues to become clergy or to serve as lay ministers, but there is also the unique lay servant ministries of deaconesses and home missioners.
The lay diaconate is a long-standing tradition in Methodism in the United States. In 1888 the Methodist Episcopal Church recognized and established the Office of Deaconess. Today, the Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner is one of the few avenues available for laity called to ministry.
The Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner of The United Methodist Church in the United States enables laity to respond to a vocational call to be Christ in the world through consecration for lifetime servant ministries of love, justice and service.
It is both an office and an order, according to Sarah Heaner Lancaster, professor in the Werner Chair of Theology, Methodist Theological School in Ohio. “The word office indicates that deaconesses and home missioners have been authorized to do work on behalf of the Church. The word order does not refer to ministerial order in the ecclesiastical structure … but rather indicates that these persons have entered into a covenant community with one another so that they may support one another and hold each other accountable in their authorized work.”
Women could not become ordained ministers in The United Methodist Church until 1968. Becoming a deaconess was one way women could answer their call to mission when other roads were blocked. Although the deaconesses were always connected through the church, they maintained independent and autonomous work on behalf of people on the margins of society, a kind of missionary service.
“Hospitals, old people’s homes, orphanages, homes for incorrigible children—such are the institutions that we need to found and to maintain. But the deaconess is the best agent that the church has yet found to care for such helpful, remedial agencies,” wrote Jane Bancroft Robinson in April 1908 in The Christian Advocate. “Then again, all deaconess work is in essence missionary work. A deaconess may be said to be a specialized missionary, with ecclesiastical recognition, privileges and limitations.”
Deaconesses and home missioners are called to a servanthood rooted in Scripture in which Jesus modeled mission partnership with God by emptying God’s self of divine status, taking the form of a servant and accepting the struggles, risks, challenges and satisfactions of servanthood. It is in this common call that deaconesses and home missioners connect in community with a shared vision and commitment to the ministry and mission of the church.
“It is the shared love, commitment to justice, and call to service that knits us into community,” write Deaconesses Becky Louter and Myka Kennedy Stephens in the paper Living the Vision: How United Methodist Deaconesses and Home
Missioners Understand and Embody the Lay Diaconate. “Together, deaconesses and home missioners form a covenant community providing support, mutual accountability and care for one another while we all strive to fulfill the calling we have received to lay diaconate ministry.”
Deaconesses and home missioners are a lay order. They also deserve ecclesiastical support, or official recognition by the Church that a deaconess and home missioner is in good standing and has the appropriate professional training and equipping for ministry in specialized settings, such as chaplain or counseling. Such recognition offers greater employment and mission opportunities and outcomes.
To learn more about deaconesses and home missioners, visit the “Addressing Our Identity: Deaconess and Home Missioner Papers” page on our website to read the papers prepared for the September 2014 conference on deaconess and home missioner lay order identity and theological themes.