Living into Baptism through Diakonia

Diakonia is a strange Greek word. It is often translated as service. But diakonia means much more than simply doing things for others. It is an essential part of Christian identity and discipleship. It is about who we are and what we do as followers of Christ. Through baptism, we join not only the “priesthood of all believers” but also the “diaconate of all believers.”

Caption: Bishop John Schol (center) met with EPA Deacons before a larger meeting with all clergy Nov. 9, 2022, at Hopewell UMC.

Read the entire article on the website of the Eastern PA Conference of the UMC.

What does a politics of peace look like?

I am honored to be one of the presenters for Lancaster Interchurch Peace Witness, Oct 22, 2023, at James Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster. Our topic is “Liberating the Politics of Jesus.” Please join us!

When politics is reduced to statecraft and peace to the absence of war, we miss the radical implications of the gospel message. Through the wisdom of Anabaptist women, we learn that peacemaking must be practiced at home and in church as well as the home front and the front lines. Liberating the radical political ethic of Jesus Christ from patriarchal distortions, these theologians demonstrate that gender justice and peace theology are inseparable.

Dr. Linda Gehman Peachey is former Director of Women’s Advocacy for the Mennonite Central Committee US and a freelance writer and teacher in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Soto Albrecht is a Lancaster scholar, advocate, and pastor. She is former Moderator of Mennonite Church USA, 2013–2015, and served as Global Theological Education advisor at Lancaster Theological Seminary.

The Rev. Dr. Darryl W. Stephens is a professor, writer, and advocate. He is ordained in The United Methodist Church with dual standing in the United Church of Christ and teaches at Lancaster Theological Seminary.

The Diaconate Call

Diakonia is a form of Christian motivated social service. It is originally modeled on Jesus’s insistence on serving his disciples (Luke 22:26–27) and its expressions in Acts and the early church. Today, diakonia is focused not only on serving others but also advocating for others, empowering them, and joining them in solidarity to build participatory community.

Diakonia is a call to all Christians to alleviate suffering and promote justice, peace, and human dignity. One colleague of mine said simply, “Diakonia is Gospel action.” To learn more, join me in conversation by listening to this recent podcast interview.

Ep. 411 The Diaconate Call & Bivocational Ministry with Darryl Stephens, Uncovered Dish Christian Leadership Podcast, September 13, 2023.

A Bivocational Future for Congregations

What is the fasted growing segment of North American Christianity? So many congregations have lost membership over the past twenty years, this question may surprise you.

Faith Communities Today, “Twenty Years of Congregational Change: The 2020 Faith Communities Today Overview” (Hartford, CT: Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 2021),, 11.

If you are wondering if there is a pocket of Christianity still growing, you are halfway to uncovering the trick in this trick question. When larger congregations lose members, they become smaller congregations. Small membership churches are thus the fastest growing segment of North American Christianity.

Sometimes current exigencies force us into a creative future. There is hope for smaller congregations willing to consider a bivocational future of shared mission and ministry. I believe that a bivocational future provides exciting missional potential.

Please join me at the upcoming Henderson Leadership Conference hosted by Pittsburgh Theological Seminary on Sept 24–26, 2023, where I will present an online workshop, “Thriving as a Bivocational Congregation.” This workshop provides lay and clergy leaders with a vision and plan for transformation.

Registration and Information:

Carpenter Foundation Grant for Diaconal Studies

Diakonia is essential to the church’s mission and ministry in North America. Such is the premise of “Revitalizing the Church through Diaconal Studies in North American Theological Education,” a research project of Warburg Theological Seminary, which recently received a grant from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation for this work.

The four-person leadership team consists of Craig Nessan, Man Hei Yip, Darryl W. Stephens, and Lori Mills-Curran. We have met monthly since April 2021 to envision, plan, and carry out this collaboration involving 22 scholars and reflective practitioners spanning five continents

Read more about our vision for diaconal studies, international collaborators, and book project here.

Working around Seminary Education

Do mainline churches find traditional seminary education an obstacle to thriving? “As churches shrink and pastors retire, creative workarounds are redefining ministry,” reported Elizabeth E. Evans recently in Religion News Service. A workaround, by definition, is an alternate path used when the main path is not longer serviceable. Workarounds are required when existing structures no longer meet the needs of the people involved. As someone who works in and around seminary education, I see a disconnect between the traditional Master of Divinity program and the creativity needed for mainline churches to thrive.

Scarcities of money and time are forcing a redefinition of ministry in the mainline. Congregations are smaller, attendance is sparser, and budgets are shrinking. The old model of a fully-compensated, professional theologian in the pulpit is no longer viable for the majority of congregations. Financial and demographic realities have foisted many congregations into the realm of bivocational and multivocational ministry.

Multivocational ministry is an existing and emerging need of the church. To fully embrace multivocational ministry as a strategic priority in their educational programming, seminaries would need to explore and identify various changes and initiatives required to reform their curriculum, extracurricular offerings, programs, structure, and ethos around this priority. However, many schools of theology cling to traditional curricula, becoming the obstacle around which churches must creatively navigate.

What if North American seminaries were to risk reinventing themselves by adopting a multivocational mindset? I explore the this question in my open-access book, Bivocational and Beyond: Educating for Thriving Multivocational Ministry. Theological educators will be especially interested in my concluding chapter, in which I reimagine theological education in conversation with the work of Justo González on the history of theological education and Daniel Aleshire on the future of theological education. If you have read any of the books in the series “Theological Education between the Times,” you will find this discussion an important addition to the conversation.

Mainline seminaries must determine how they will contribute to the thriving of mainline congregations. In the meantime, churches will continue to find creative workarounds.

The Diaconate of all Christians, part 1

During these summer months, I have been teaching and learning about the diaconate of all believers at Otterbein UMC, Lancaster, PA. We started by sharing how each of us volunteers in service in the community. Then, we asked, Where is God in these relationships?

Listen to our podcast about “Diakonia, how and why we serve God.”

This program at Otterbein UMC was funded by a Dewees grant from the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Service is part of discipleship. When a new member joins a United Methodist congregation, the pastor asks, “Will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness?” Each new member affirms, “yes.” Then, as a congregation, we respond by renewing our covenant to do the same. But what does service have to do with our faith?

All of us serve others in some way or another. We might offer a kind word, a friendly greeting, or perhaps a meal for someone recently out of the hospital or someone who does not earn enough money to make ends meet. Sometimes we experience such joy serving others that it does not really seem like work.

“Doing good” is one of John Wesley’s three simple rules. Wesley believed that we love our neighbors as ourselves through good works. When we serve others, we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. In theological terms, Wesley taught that works of mercy are a means of grace. We can experience God by loving each other!

Wesley was careful to say that we do not earn our salvation by serving others. Rather, service is one way that we practice our faith. We grow in faith by exercising our spiritual muscles. When we attend to the needs of others as if they were our own, we grow closer to our neighbors and to God.

At Otterbein, we learned that every Christian is called to participate in service to neighbor, self, and community. “Diakonia” is the Greek word in the Bible for faith-motivated service. From this word we get the titles deacon and deaconess. Diakonia is the gospel in action, through our hands and feet. Diakonia describes our participation in God’s ongoing activity of love and justice in the world.

Where is God showing up in your life? If you are looking for Jesus, look no further than the persons you encounter every day in our neighborhood. What can you do to serve your neighbors? Through service, we not only participate in the work of the church. We also gain a glimpse of the Kin-dom of God.

No Time for Silence

Today’s post is by the Rev. Dr. Thomas Frank, retired, University Professor and Associate Dean of Continuing Studies, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Wake Forest University. His publications include Polity, Practice, and the Mission of The United Methodist Church (2006) and The Soul of the Congregation (2000).

Sometimes it seems like Christians are the worst enemy of Christianity.

If you want to know why so many Americans under 50 are staying away from church, why attendance at Mass has dropped like a stone, I can suggest a few places to look.

Just start by reading the obituary of Pat Robertson. For over 40 years, this “Christian” preacher and TV mogul, this needy narcissist, has dealt with his own guilt over youthful behavior and his feeble self-worth as son of a powerful father by demeaning others. Like too much of Christianity he has manipulated scripture into a gospel of guilt and judgment, mostly about sex. Everything from hurricanes to 9/11 has been “God’s” judgment on America for sexual “immorality.” The viciousness of his attacks on LBGTQ people paved the way for today’s right-wing politics of hate.

Or have a look at anti-abortion propaganda — billboard bombast along our roads depicting an ultrasound and a heartbeat graph, sprinkled among signs that shout “do you know where you’re going? heaven or hell?” The utter cruelty of ignoring the complexities of human reproduction and health, the private relationship of doctor and patient, the personal struggle of women who cannot go through with a pregnancy — this kind of bullying has nothing to do with Christian faith.

Or review the recent history of male clergy, both Catholic and Protestant, who have abused children or harassed women into unwanted contact, and bounced from parish to parish without consequence. Most visibly, both Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist governance has failed to publicly and consistently repudiate this behavior, or bring a reckoning to clergy behavior.

More difficult for me, born and raised Methodist and ordained years ago in the United Methodist Church, has been the disgraceful failure of my denomination (one of America’s largest) to remove language from official documents that denigrates LGBTQ children of God. We have lived with this genteel “mainstream” inhumanity for 50 years, driving out promising young clergy and demonstrating to many of our own members that they have no place to be themselves in this church.

Now we have the spectacle of Christianity taken hostage by right-wing authoritarianism. The religion of guilt and punishment, hatred and exclusion, has commandeered the public stage under the name “Christian”. Little wonder that today’s version of the Republican Party and most of today’s churches gain no traction among young people.

Christians who know that the scriptures are a gospel of love and justice, care for the earth and the well-being of all in the human community, must speak up. I’m tired of going to church and hearing not a word about climate change or gun violence. I’m tired of reading about school board and city council meetings where the only “Christian” voice is the fundamentalist attacking transgender students.

This is no time for silence. We have to show up. We have to meet, write, and call congressmen, senators, state legislators. We have to call or write journalists who depict nationalists and racists simply as “Christians”.

And what better time to get on it, than this. Happy Pride Month!

The Method Matters

Today’s post is written by the Rev. Amy Banka, pastor of Hopewell Church, Downington, PA. Pastor Amy delivered this speech at the conclusion of the Eastern Pennsylvania annual conference, on May 20, 2023. The conference theme was “possibility.” The affiliation and change to which she refers is a bishop-led, “strategic direction” in which the EPA and Greater New Jersey conferences of The United Methodist Church share staff, resources, and programs. Both conferences are presided over by bishop John Schol.

Bishop, I stood to speak three times yesterday and was denied the opportunity. I would like to be received today with equity.

On Thursday, you invited us to share our hopes and concerns, and so today with respect and grace, I offer this . . .

I am not afraid of change. For the last 20 years, I have been a leader of change in the local church and this Annual Conference. During the pandemic, I have been blessed to serve on a church and pastoral staff that innovates, pivots, grows. We do not fear change. We know it needs to happen, not just so we’ll survive, but so that we’ll be faithful of our commitment to Jesus Christ. 

Some of us fear change, but many of us do not. We live in the realm of possibility. And yet, we also know that change brings loss and involves people. It requires honesty and a kindness that lasts longer than speeches. It requires an understanding of and appreciation for the people involved. And it requires the kind of change management that discusses first and then acts … that meets around tables and not behind closed doors.

When it is done differently, people inevitably feel unseen and unheard. The method matters. You’ve talked a lot about pace, but I’m talking about method. It matters.

So with the utmost respect, and desire to succeed together, I want to acknowledge that many of us do not fear change, but we lament feeling those difficult feelings after many years of good service.

We lament an affiliation in which our names remain unknown and our gifts underutilized. Hear our grief. We lament statements and actions that insinuate that the best thing we have to offer to GNJ is our newspaper. Hear our grief. We lament the absence of EPA preachers and musicians and leaders from our Annual Conference at this Annual Conference. Hear our grief.

We know we need to change. We want a holy change, but we want one in which we are included and not replaced or displaced, where our gifts and experience are valued and not dismissed, where our voices are heard and not silenced, where we are part of the adventure and not inheritors of someone else’s. The method matters.

Bishop, we want to be part of a change that honors the spirit and ministry of Jesus Christ . . . one that honors the way Jesus loved and acknowledged the dignity of others . . . one that honors the respectful guidelines for communication we heard about earlier. We want to change, and we want to have ownership and participation in it. And when we see an effort that does that, we will be ready to support it. The method matters.

May my words and spirit be pleasing to you, Jesus. 

A Timely Book on Multivocational Ministry

“Bivocational and Beyond offers an insightful and solidly researched entrée into the strange new landscape of part-time and bivocational ministry, not as an indicator of failure in the metrics of numbers and money, but as a rich, new possibility for calling forth Christ’s people in God’s mission.”

Ross Bartlett, Reading Religion, April 2023

“an ambitious, informative resource that delves into the complexity and diversity of bivocational ministry”

Heather Grennan Gary, In Trust Magazine, Fall 2022

Thank you to Ross Bartlett of the Atlantic School of Theology for taking time to review Bivocational and Beyond: Educating for Thriving Multivocational Ministry in the most recent edition Reading Religion, a publication of the American Academy of Religion.