The Rev. Rebekah Fetzer was ordained as a deacon 20 years ago this summer. As the founder of Susannah’s House for mothers overcoming addiction and the staff member who conceived of the groundbreaking recovery ministry at Cokesbury United Methodist Church, Fetzer has a lot to show for her journey on the deacon path.
Yet she is one of many who feel that, 25 years after the “order of deacons” was instituted in The United Methodist Church, her role as ordained clergy is often misunderstood or overlooked.
“There is a lack of awareness,” Fetzer said. “When you think of the deacon as that bridge between the church and world, imagine what it would do for our conference if we had more of them.”
The deacon is one of two types of ordained clergy in the United Methodist Church. Of 664 currently appointed clergy in Holston Conference, 285 are ordained elders and 14 are ordained deacons, according to Donna Hankins, digital media and database administrator. (Nineteen more deacons are retired or not appointed.)
While elders are ordained to the ministries of word, sacrament, order, and service, deacons are ordained to the ministries of word, service, compassion and justice, according to the United Methodist Book of Discipline.
“We are fully ordained and equal to elders, yet called by God to do different things,” said the Rev. Stephanie Parrott. “Our sole thing is about bridging the church to the world.”
Parrott was ordained as a deacon this year. Not only is she appointed as associate pastor at Central United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. Parrott is also appointed to serve as a registered nurse in the pediatric endocrinology office at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.
For Parrott, serving as a deacon means preaching and overseeing ministry teams in the local church as well as working as a patient advocate in the hospital.
“People want to pigeonhole us,” she says. “But deacons are serving throughout the world in many unique ways, and to me, that is exciting because that means God is working in our communities and not just holed up in a building.”
In Holston Conference, deacons “bridge the church to the world” by serving as missionaries (the Rev. Brooke Atchley), camp directors (the Rev. Mary Thompson), worship and art directors (the Rev. Mike Stallings), counselors (the Rev. Kathy Heustess and the Rev. Diana Brown Taylor), campus ministers (the Rev. Beth Tipton), and youth ministry directors (the Rev. Nathan Irwin).
“Gather 12 deacons together, and you are likely to hear 12 very different forms of ministry,” the Rev. Paul Perez, Michigan Conference connectional ministries director, said recently in a celebration of the order's 25th anniversary.
The Rev. Ila Schepisi is appointed as a senior instructor and director of Adult Day Services at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. She oversees a program providing services for families dealing with aging and dementia while helping to educate future health-care professionals.
“I always knew that whatever work I would be doing would be ingrained in a community, and it would take time and trust to build that,” said Schepisi, who began her ministry as a recreational therapist and also served as a youth director at Grove United Methodist Church for several years. “I am a connector. My job is to try to relate to the community so they can feel connected.”
The Rev. Beth Tipton, a campus minister, said she also feels a strong call to connect people, especially those “alienated from or ostracized by the church.” For the last 18 years, Tipton has served as director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Virginia College at Wise. She was ordained as a deacon in 2010.
“I felt called to ministry as a clergy person but not necessarily with the flock already in the church,” she said. “I feel a sense of urgency to meet people where they are with the news that ‘God loves you, and you do belong in God’s church.’”
Deacons might be uniquely insightful is reaching the disconnected because they often feel disconnected themselves, some said. Prior to the 1996 decision of the United Methodist General Conference, serving as a deacon was a step on the way to becoming an elder.
To this day, people often ask, “Are you going to be an elder?” Schepesi said. For Tipton, the question is, “When are you going to become a pastor?” As a trailblazer for the new order of deacon in Holston Conference, Fetzer remembers that “nobody knew what to do with us. We had to make our own way.”
Jenn Meadows, communications director for the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, recently explained why confusion still surrounds the present-day status of the deacon.
“Since the Order of Deacon is a relatively new Order within the denomination, there are still individuals who remember the older process of ordination for elders. Before the 1996 General Conference decision, before someone was ordained an elder in full connection, they were first ordained as a deacon. There are still many elders today who went through that process, being ordained a deacon as a step before elder,” Meadows wrote.
Margaret Crain, author of the 2021 book, “Advancing the Mission: The Order of Deacon in The United Methodist Church” notes that the 1996 decision to create the order of deacon is still controversial.
“United Methodist deacons, around the world, still struggle with sexism and patriarchal assumptions that hamper the ministries and security of deacons, and they spend too much energy justifying their existence and explaining who they are and what they do,” Crain said.
According to the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, 66 percent of ordained deacons are women.
In Holston Conference, deacons said they have a goal to increase their numbers by educating others about their appointments, which are nonitinerant. They worry that the emphasis is on recruiting candidates with the “gifts and graces” for preaching and leading a church (elder), without including those with the gifts and graces for leading the church and community in the ministries of compassion, justice and service (deacon).
“We need to do a better job explaining the role of deacon, and that it is a possibility for those that want to specialize, stay in one place, or do not feel called to lead a church,” said the Rev. Nathan Irwin, youth ministries director at First United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee. “I think that many people called to ministry do not know that they have options other than becoming an elder and leading a church.”
“We need more deacons,” said Schepesi. “This world is disconnected, and the pandemic has exacerbated that … People are desperate for connection but they don’t know what to do. Someone has got to be the connector, the bridge-builder for that.”
“People are still looking for the risen Christ, and they are not always looking for him in the church building or institution,” Tipton said. “Deacons have a special calling to step outside the institution, the doors of the church, to make that connection a tangible reality.”
For more information about the Holston Conference order of deacons, contact the Rev. Stephanie Parrott at firstname.lastname@example.org or the Rev. Rebekah Fetzer at email@example.com.
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Holston Conference includes 850 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.