Some people are surprised to find out they are ministers. Aren’t ministers supposed to wear robes and never have fun and talk an additional ten minutes after they say, “So in conclusion…”??? But the truth is, all baptized believers are ministers. When you sign up for the church, you commit to represent Christ through service – both in church and in your everyday life. All Christians are called to discipleship, the ministry of following the God of compassion and justice into the world, of making the invisible love of God visible in our communities, of sharing the word of hope we have in Christ. Laity (non-clergy) are all of the Christians everywhere, who do the work of the church and are equipped by the clergy who lead the charge. As the body of Christ, we together follow Jesus into the world.
Most denominations (but not all) set aside certain members to help focus the ministries. These people are ordained after demonstrating a personal call to this serve the church in this way, as well as the approval and authorization of the larger church body. Deacon and Elder are terms taken from the New Testament to describe people in these positions of ministry leadership. Not all ordinations ordain deacons (Baptists for example), and some ordain deacons only for a period of time, before they become elders. In The United Methodist Church, deacons and elders are both orders of ordained clergy with different roles. This denomination has rigorous requirements for ordination, including seminary and lengthy periods of discernment with the community that involve intensive paper-writing to answer questions set in the Book of Discipline regarding theology, call, and practices of ministry.
I’ll explain the orders, but get ready to be confused… Elders, Deacons and Local Pastors have a common calling to lead the church in proclaiming the Word through preaching and teaching, and in biblical Service of sacrificial love for all.
Each has distinctive callings as well… Elders are also ordained to administer the Sacraments of Holy Communion & baptism, and to Order the structures and worship life of the church on the local and denominational levels. Elders are typically understood to be pastors of churches. Elders are appointed by the Bishop (an elder who has been specially chosen to order an entire conference of the denomination), and elders go where they are sent. This is called itinerant ministry.
Along with Word & Service, deacons are additionally ordained to ensure ministries of Compassion, and of Justice that build bridges between the church and world. Deacons are typically understood to be in specialized ministries, within the congregation as ministers to youth, children, music, or missions, and outside of the congregation in almost any job where they can bring theological depth and raise issues of compassion and justice in the world. Deacons are also appointed by the Bishop, but they are required to find their own employment and then ensure it meets the Bishop’s approval.
Licensed Local Pastors (LLP’s) are not ordained. Early in the Methodist movement, John Wesley broke the rules (so to speak) by ordaining men (when he had no authority to do so) in order to ensure the sacraments could be provided to Methodists in America. LLP’s break the rules (so to speak) in that they are granted special permission to administer the sacraments in the church where they serve. LLP’s are often bivocational or second-career ministers, typically serving in small rural congregations that cannot afford the salary requirements of an elder. They are appointed by the Bishop, are not guaranteed employment by the church, and only have sacramental authority in the location they are appointed.
|MINISTRY ROLES||ELDER||DEACON||LOCAL PASTOR|
|COMMON MINISTRY||Word & Service||Word & Service||Word & Service|
|DISTINCTIVE MINISTRY||Sacrament & Order||Compassion & Justice||Witness & Mission|
|CONNECTS CHURCH TO||Denomination||World||Individual|
So that’s what it looks like on paper, but the reality is that our denomination is remarkably inconsistent in implementation. You have ordained elders serving in roles that would best be defined as deacons (i.e. chaplains, campus ministers, seminary professors and administrators, even many Associate Pastors are so specialized that what they are doing looks like deacon’s work). These are called “extension ministries,” and I believe this provision makes absolutely no sense if you are going to ordain deacons. You have deacons not being hired for jobs (like chaplains or campus ministers) because they don’t have sacramental authority, and deacons whose work in the local church begins to look so much like an Associate Pastor that it becomes difficult to distinguish them from an elder. You have LLP’s appointed to large congregations with a large staff, hardly extraordinary circumstances that would require sacramental authority, especially when an LLP is working alongside a deacon and elder at the same church.
There is a gap between our theology and practice of ministry as a denomination that will most likely never be solved. Instead of head-butting and struggling against one another, the deacon in me says, “Let’s build bridges and work together…let’s be the body of Christ for the world.”
Read the Study of Ministry Commission Report & Recommendations 2009-2012 to learn more about the pro’s and complications of United Methodist ministry. It’s where a lot of the above info came from.