What’s the difference between the Ministry of the Word and the Ministry of Deacon in the UCA?
Quite a while ago I blogged on the meaning of ordination in the Uniting Church. I want to add to that here by making some comments about the two UCA ministries that people are commissioned to by ordination: the ministry of the Word and the ministry of Deacon. There’s a lot of overlap, but there’s also a significant difference between the two. Let’s see if I can explain that.
The Ministry of the Word
The understanding of the ministry of the Word begins with a particular understanding of the work of Christ: Jesus Christ, the Word of God, personally calls people to life and gathers them together as one body through human witness. As it says in paragraph 4 of the Basis of Union:
The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church is able to live and endure through the changes of history only because its Lord comes, addresses and deals with people in and through the news of his completed work. Christ who is present when he is preached among people is the Word of the God who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise could not exist. Through human witness in word and action, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ reaches out to command people’s attention and awaken faith; he calls people into the fellowship of his sufferings, to be the disciples of a crucified Lord; in his own strange way Christ constitutes, rules and renews them as his Church. (Basis of Union para 4)
The church’s utter dependence on the Word (on “Christ who is present when he is preached”) makes us look to God for those whom he has called to be servants or ministers of that Word. Paragraph 14 of the Basis of Union puts it this way:
Since the Church lives by the power of the Word, it is assured that God, who has never failed to provide witness to that Word, will, through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, call and set apart members of the Church to be ministers of the Word. These will preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments and exercise pastoral care so that all may be equipped for their particular ministries, thus maintaining the apostolic witness to Christ in the Church. (Basis of Union para 14(a))
So what do ministers of the Word actually “do”? In broad terms, ministers of the Word provide leadership for the life and mission of a gathered Christian community – a congregation. And that can be a rich diet of preaching, teaching, worship planning and leading, mentoring people in their discipleship, exercising pastoral care, strategic planning, organisational leadership, community outreach and service.
A minister of the Word might be called upon to exercise their ministry in relation to several congregations, as a kind of “resourcing minister”. There’s still plenty of preaching, teaching, worship leading etc., but the focus is more likely to be on encouraging and resourcing congregations and lay leaders to provide the core elements of leadership for the life and mission of their community themselves.
Minsters of the Word do many other things as well. Many spend some part of their life in chaplaincy. Some focus on teaching the faith. (That’d be me, I guess.) Many accept roles in administrative or executive leadership in the church. (Same.)
The Ministry of Deacon
When the ministry of Deacon was formally established in the life of the Uniting Church by the Sixth Assembly, in 1991, this renewed specified ministry was described like this:
Deacons in the Uniting Church are called:
- to be, along with the scattered members of the congregation, a sign of the presence of God in the everyday world;
- to be especially aware of the places in the community where people are hurt, disadvantaged, oppressed, or marginalised and to be in ministry with them in ways which reflect the special concern of Jesus for them;
- to recognise, encourage, develop and release those gifts in God’s people which will enable them to share in the ministry of caring, serving, healing, restoring, making peace and advocating justice as they go about their daily lives. (Report on Ministry in the Uniting Church, 1991 Assembly)
When I look at what Deacons actually “do”, a lot of it is similar to the daily work of ministers of the Word but with this particular focus on the wider world which “God so loved”. If the ministry of the Word has a focus on leadership of the gathered body of Christ, Deacons are focussed on leadership of the dispersed body of Christ – in the daily life of the world and especially among the vulnerable and hurt.
So even Deacons in congregational placements generally have a ministry specialising in some particular aspect of service and witness in the community. Many other Deacons serve as chaplains in, e.g., education, health care, or the defence forces. Some serve in one of the many community service agencies of the Uniting Church.
The Duties of a Minister
It is significant that the “Duties of a Minister” listed in the Regulations (2.2.1) are identical for ministers of the Word and for Deacons.
DUTIES OF A MINISTER (See Para 3, Constitution)
2.2.1 (a) Within the ministry of the whole Church, Jesus Christ calls men and women to proclamation of the gospel in word and deed through the ministry of the Word and the ministry of Deacon. This calling is exercised by:
(i) preaching of the Word;
(ii) presiding at the celebration of the sacraments;
(iii) providing for other persons to preside at worship and/or preach within the pastoral charge in which the Minister is in placement;
(iv) witnessing in the community to the gospel of Jesus Christ;
(v) guiding and instructing the members of the Church and equipping them for their ministry in the community;
(vi) nurturing candidates for baptism and confirmation;
(vii) pastoral oversight and counsel wherever needed;
(viii) serving in the community, especially among those who are hurt, dis-advantaged, oppressed or marginalized;
(ix) careful attention to administrative responsibilities;
(x) due observance of the discipline of the Church;
(xi) the enhancement of the Minister’s own gifts for the work of ministry;
(xii) pioneering new expressions of the gospel and encouraging effective ways of fulfilling the mission of the Church.
(b) Every Minister shall participate fully and regularly in the public worship of God and the mission and fellowship of the Congregation with which the Minister is enrolled (See
(c) Every Minister shall report annually to the Presbytery with which the Minister is enrolled on the ways in which the duties of a Minister as prescribed in Regulations 2.2.1(a) and (b) are being exercised.
The duties may be the same, but they are fulfilled in very diverse ways by ministers of the Word and Deacons. However there is a difference of emphasis, or orientation, or focus that helps the church discern whether a person is called to the ministry of the Word or to the ministry of Deacon:
The person called to the ministry of the Word has a particular passion for the gathered church, the body of Christ. He or she loves the congregation and longs to spend their whole life serving Christ as Christ personally gathers that body, attends to its health and uses it in his own mission in the world.
The person called to the ministry of Deacon has a particular passion for the dispersed body of Christ, scattered throughout the neighbourhoods and workplaces and institutions of the society. He or she loves the world that Christ loves and gave himself for. The person called to the ministry of Deacon longs to spend their whole life serving Christ by leading the dispersed Christian community in the daily life of the world and by meeting Christ in the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick, the prisoner, and in any of “the least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46).
Of course these are not mutually exclusive passions. You can love the church and love the world. (We know that Christ does!) But there is an emphasis or focus which distinguishes whether a call is to the ministry of the Word or to the ministry of Deacon.