HOT TAKE: The United Church of Christ should have an ordained diaconate.

The United Church of Christ, over the past few years, has had a number of discussions and debates about revising and “fixing” the Manual on Ministry.  The proposed changes have been controversial, particularly in the collapsing of the categories of licensed and commissioned ministers into one ordained minister category.  This has been met with concern, and some derision.

I’m going to propose an alternative: an ordained diaconate.

My proposal is to create one order of ordained minister with two forms: the presbyter and the deacon.  The presbyter (or elder?) would probably look like what most of think of when we consider a Protestant minister serving in a church today: primarily called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament within a local church or chaplaincy.

In my vision, an ordained diaconate would be intentionally bivocational, focused on the intersection of church and society, and be tied intimately into the life of our local churches

Let me expand on what I envision…

  1. Deacons would be intentionally bivocational

Bivocational ministry is a hot topic in the (White) Mainline Protestant church, but it has been with us since the earliest church.   Paul, famously, was a tent maker, while our neighbors and kin in Historically Black and Latinx churches have lived with bivocational ministers for decades, if not centuries.

An intentionally bivocational diaconate would serve a few purposes.  It would ensure that folks going into this form of ordained ministry would have financial and vocational support and skills which could both enhance their ministry, and subsidize their ministerial work.

I could see this spanning the range of blue, pink, and white collar jobs; imagine a deacon carpenter who helps rebuild homes in disaster hit areas at cost while offering emotional and spiritual support.  Imagine an accountant who helps poor folks with their taxes, while offering services to churches (shoutout to my buddy Jerrod who inspired this example!). Imagine an administrative assistant who helps organize events for justice -oriented networks and connects them to churches.

  1. Deacons would be focused on the intersection of church and society

I’ve heard the frustration over and over again, especially from (progressive) millennial clergy colleagues: “Why is the church not more involved in the struggle for love and justice in the world?”

As pastors serving in churches, our first duty (other than of course, the Gospel of Jesus Christ) is to shepherding our flocks, caring for our congregations.  Sometimes this means being strategic (or wise as serpents…) in balancing our pastoral and prophetic duties.  I don’t mean not taking a stand, but rather, not being at the forefront of a movement, but from within a congregation or from behind.

This is where an ordained diaconate could shine.  Deacons, serving at the intersection of church and society, would be the perfect frontline leaders, organizing, networking, and being chaplain to social and political movements. Our presbyters could work in concert with deacons, caring for our sheep who are left behind or lost, while deacons lead from the front.

  1. Deacons would be tied intimately into the life of our local churches

The other side of deacons living their faith in society, is that it must also be lived out in our local churches.  Ministry is not something we can alone.  Ordained Ministry in the United Church of Christ is on behalf of, and in conjunction with, local churches. Ministers cannot rise alone, nor can they stand alone.  An ordained minister who is disconnected completely from the church is no minister at all.

Thus, an ordained diaconate would have to be tied intimately into the life of our local churches.  This would be tough, especially at the beginning, but I believe that it could enliven many of our churches, giving them purpose, and enabling innovative partnerships in many different areas of congregational life.

Smaller congregations, unable to financially support an ordained presbyter, could probably support a bivocational Deacon in much the same way they support licensed ministers currently, while also tying them more intimately into the ministry of the deacon.

Some congregations might choose to support the work of a deacon through fundraising, their mission budgets, or through collaborating with other local churches in the area.  Imagine a deacon supported financially by a small association or cluster of churches, bringing those churches into mutual ministry over a local issue.

So much fun to imagine! Unfortunately, I don’t see this happening with this revision of the Manual on Ministry (it’s a little late for that), but I think it could happen with the next one…