sacramental United Methodist Church worship

Hope for the UMC

Note: This post is a reflection on the 2020 (in 2024) General Conference of the United Methodist Church. If this is not relevant to you, you might want to skip this one. If you want news on General Conference, you can find commentary on Pastor Jeff’s blog, or some brief highlights and my thoughts integrated into a sermon in yesterday’s worship service.

I’ve been feeling them for almost 2 weeks: birth pangs. Let me be clear: this simply metaphorical. And yet, it feels remarkably similar to when I was actually on the verge of giving birth. Something is coming, a new thing is being birthed in the United Methodist Church. Hope is alive. Joy is in the air.

As we approached this General Conference, the only thing I was pregnant with was anxiety. After a series of frustrating and disappointing General Conferences, I had high hopes and admittedly low expectations for this General Conference. I prayed fervently for a more inclusive church. I prayed that we would take steps as a denomination that would enable us to do contextual ministry, that we would remove the harmful and restrictive language regarding LGBTQ+ individuals, that we would affirm social principles that would honor the diversity of our denomination, that we would come out of this General Conference with greater unity. I hoped for all of it, but I don’t know how much of that I believed would happen. After all, I have been conditioned to be disappointed by General Conference. 

I began to feel the birth pangs, at first farther apart, more mild, as legislative committees approved legislation moving us toward being a more inclusive church, but I didn’t get too excited. I knew there was plenty of room for things to change course. But the birth pangs began to get closer together and stronger as the entire body, vote after vote, often with overwhelming majority, began to move the church toward inclusion.

My experience in the last 2 weeks bore some similarity to the day our second child was born. She was overdue by several days, and I was beyond ready for her arrival. But here’s what you need to know: for nearly 2 months, I had been having contractions daily, and they weren’t “practice” contractions; they were productive. For a period of time, I was being watched for premature labor, and every doctor I saw (due to complications, I had appointments 2-3 times/week in my 3rd trimester) was convinced our daughter would be born early. Many times in those final months of my pregnancy, I thought “this is it…she’s coming today” and then the contractions would stop. When I reached my due date and she stayed put beyond it, I had also been conditioned not to get my hopes up that contractions meant “real” labor. So, when I awoke to contractions early on the morning of our daughter’s birth, I noticed them, and then went about my day. However, this time, they didn’t stop. Still not believing that I was actually in labor, I kept myself busy doing things like folding laundry and organizing things in the nursery. I couldn’t sit still; I had to keep moving. Eventually, I began to realize that this might be the day we would finally meet our daughter, and I called my doctor, and prepared to go to the hospital.

I’ll spare you the details from there, but the point is that in the last two weeks, at first, I wasn’t sure if I should pay attention to the birth pangs I was feeling as General Conference began to unfold. But when I found myself unable to sit still, moving around with nervous excitement, as the votes became more and more significant, as vote after vote affirmed what I had been praying for, I saw a theme emerging: breaking down barriers for the sake of love. While the 2019 General Conference built up walls, this one tore them down. I began to realize that something new was coming for the UMC.

Let me be clear: General Conference was not perfect. There were missteps and challenges because it was a gathering of imperfect humans. And I lament that too much harm has been done for too long to our LGBTQ+ siblings, harm we will have to work to reconcile.

And I want to affirm that it was a gathering of people seeking to be connected – to God, to one another – and to share love with one another and the world. It was beautiful to witness through the livestream; I can only imagine what it was like to be in the room where it happened. I am full of hope for the UMC!

Narrowing the focus to something that impacts me specifically, one piece of legislation that passed grants deacons sacramental authority, where contextually appropriate. Deacons are ordained to Word, Service, Compassion and Justice. We are called to serve as bridges, as connectors, between the church and the world, extending Christ’s love beyond the church and into the world through our ministries. Sacramental authority for deacons does not change our ministries; it does not make us “like” elders. Sacramental authority for deacons is about extending the means of grace into the world.

A graphic for describing deacons, created by UM Deacons: Sarah Dierker, Sara L Martin, Barbara Dunlap, and Kris Wise

The order of deacons was created at the 1996 General Conference, as a separate ordained Order. Those who worked and advocated for the Order of Deacons had hoped that deacons would have sacramental authority. After all, sacraments in the UMC are administered by ordained persons, and deacons are ordained. However, compromises were made, and the Order of Deacons was created without sacramental authority. As I was 10 years old at the time, there are numerous other deacons who were part of those conversations and can articulate this with greater detail and clarity than I can. Many of them can also articulate the challenges in their ministries due to the lack of sacramental authority, which is why forms of sacramental authority for deacons have been pursued for decades, as a channel through which deacons can extend the means of grace in their ministries. The 2008 General Conference approved limited sacramental authority for deacons, with permission from the bishop. Until 2012, Deacon were ordained to “Word and Service.” I was commissioned as a deacon to “Word and Service” in 2011 and then ordained under the 2012 Book of Discipline in 2013 to “Word, Service, Compassion and Justice.” The ministry of the deacon is ever-evolving, but our calling and ordination has not changed.

Remember, I said that the theme I saw emerging from General Conference was: breaking down barriers for the sake of love? This is one of those instances. It breaks down the barrier that often prevents deacons from extending the means of grace into the world.

A paten and chalice I received as an ordination gift. Without sacramental authority, it has been merely a decoration. However, after the vote passed at General Conference, I pulled it off the shelf and took this picture because it now has new meaning in my life and ministry.

For those interested in understanding the ministry of a deacon as a whole, here is the paragraph regarding the ministry of a deacon from the Book of Discipline, with the revised language around sacraments. (I have bolded the sentences related to sacramental authority.)

¶ 328 The Ministry of a Deacon – From among the baptized, deacons are called by God to a lifetime of servant leadership, authorized by the Church, and ordained by a bishop. From the earliest days of the church, deacons were called and set apart for the ministry of Love, Justice, and Service and for connecting the church with the most needy, neglected, and marginalized among the children of God. This ministry grows out of the Wesleyan passion for social holiness and ministry among the poor. It is the deacons, in both person and function, whose distinctive ministry is to embody, articulate, and lead the whole people of God in its servant ministry. Deacons fulfill servant ministry in the world and lead the Church in relating the gathered life of Christians to their ministries in the world, interrelating worship in the gathered community with service to God in the world. Deacons give leadership in the Church’s life: in teaching and proclaiming the Word; in contributing to worship, in assisting the elders in administering the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion, or in presiding at the celebration of the sacraments when contextually appropriate ; in forming and nurturing disciples; in conducting marriages and burying the dead; in embodying the church’s mission to the world; and in leading congregations in interpreting the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. For the sake of extending the mission and ministry of the church and offering the means of grace to the world, the deacon is authorized to preside at the celebration of the sacraments. Presiding at the celebration of the sacraments involves taking responsibility to lead the gathered community in celebrating baptism and Holy Communion. As members of the Order of Deacons, all deacons are in covenant with all other deacons in the annual conference and shall participate in the life of their order.

The question I have gotten over and over again in the last few days is: what does this mean? I can only tell you how I understand it, and what it means for my particular context of ministry.

My understanding of this change is that deacons do not have the same sacramental authority as elders. Elders are still responsible for ordering the sacramental life of the church; deacons still assist, and preside when it makes sense, aka “contextually appropriate.” For me, the significance of this is that the responsibility of discernment is moved from the bishop to the individual deacon. This is HUGE! For deacons serving in contexts without elders, it enables them to administer the sacraments according to their own discernment. It is still significant in contexts where there are elders, as even within the ministry of a local church, occasions arise when a deacon will need to preside. The removal of the requirement to ask the bishop for permission is not simply a matter of convenience; it honors our ordination by empowering us to make decisions surrounding our ministries.

In my current context, I anticipate that I will preside over sacraments on occasion, in particular, in scenarios beyond the walls of the church where the focus is on extending the ministry of the church into the world. And at times, it may be contextually appropriate for me to preside within the walls of the church, as well. A primary example is when an elder is unavailable, but it may not necessarily limited to that (however, I anticipate discernment around those situations would always occur in partnership with the elder with whom I serve).

The specifics of what sacramental authority will look like for deacons, and for me specifically, remains to be fully realized. But we have taken steps forward and it feels empowering. It feels hopeful. And it it just one more step that this General Conference made toward breaking down barriers for the sake of love. My heart is full!