Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Celebrating a Silver Anniversary

The Order of Deacons (1996-2021) 

At the 1996 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, the Order of Deacons was voted into existence.  The church has long had a consecrated class of servant leaders known as Diaconal Ministers, Deaconesses, and Home Missioners. But they are not an ordained class of clergy ministers. 

With the creation of the Order of Deacon, the doors were flung wide for more outreach and mission, especially with people living in the margins of society. Ordained Deacons can be in ministry anywhere and everywhere. Their mandate is to “connect the church to the world.” Thus, they are called to ministries of “Word, Service, Compassion and Justice.”  (Book of Discipline, para. 329)

As ordained leaders, Deacons serve in conferences under the supervision of Bishops and cabinets, who officially set their appointments. They undergo the same rigorous examination process as Elders.  And they must be elected to this office by the conference Board of Ordained Ministry and the Clergy Session of the annual conference. They also have higher education requirements to complete as part of their preparation.

2021 marks the 25th anniversary

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Order of Deacons. In the 12th year of their existence (2008), I was elected to the episcopacy. I have had the privilege of walking alongside the amazing Deacons of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference and the Peninsula Delaware Conference.  

I stand in awe at the breadth of their ministries. They are: 

  • chaplains in hospitals, hospice, mental health and senior centers; 

  • teachers, professors and seminary directors; 

  • local church pastors, church musicians, Christian educators and missionaries;  

  • doctors, surgeons, hospital and disability services executives; 

  • directors of camps, retreat centers, food banks and volunteer mission trips; 

  • therapists and counselors; 

  • leaders in HIV/AIDS agencies, disaster recovery, immigration advocacy;

  • church development consultants; and

  • many more fields of leadership and service.

Deacons in ministries outside the local church also have secondary appointments in local United Methodist congregations. There they interpret the needs of the world to the congregation, as they call disciples to serve God’s people from the pews to the pavement, from the sanctuary to the streets. 

Deacons also assist the bishop as needed.  Many have accompanied me as I travel to churches on Sundays for preaching engagements.  They read Scripture, tell the story of the Order of Deacons, and give the “sending forth” at the end of the service.  

Wherever service is needed

They have assisted me and other elders during Holy Communion, Baptisms, and Ordination and Commissioning services.  Their ordination gives them the privilege of conducting marriage ceremonies and officiating at funerals and celebrations of life.  Wherever service is needed they offer the “basin and towel” of humble, self-giving ministry, out of love for Christ.

Even after 25 years of service, the Order of Deacon is still not understood in the minds of many. Generations of folks remember young preachers who were first ordained as Deacons, and after a probationary period became “full-member Elders.” 

The Order of Deacons created in 1996 is no longer a transitional step to becoming an Elder.  It confers full-membership clergy status, equal and distinct from the Elder track. Deacons have a claim on ministerial compensation, annual conference voting rights and ministry supervision, the same as Elders. The Order of Deacon is a gift to the church and its potential has yet to be fully utilized for the ministry of Christ.

I say to the Deacons of the Philadelphia Area: Happy Silver Anniversary!!  The Deacons that have gone before you paved the way for you to take ministry out into the remote places of the world where Christ’s love and compassion is desperately needed the most.

Silver is a precious metal that reflects radiance, strength and beauty.  Deacons embody all of these attributes; and I celebrate the light and blessings that they bring to The United Methodist Church always but especially during this milestone year.   

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Lessons we can learn

The painful history of Native American boarding schools

The dark atrocities of the Native American boarding schools are coming to light in recent years. Last week in the news, we learned of a mass grave with over 200 First Nations children. It was discovered at the site one such school in Canada. There have been similar revelations of abuse in boarding schools in this country for many years as well.  

What were these boarding schools?  They were part of a widespread scheme to intentionally assimilate tribal peoples into European culture.  Indigenous parents were forced to give up their children to these educational institutions by white people whose goal was, in the words of one administrator, to “kill the Indian, save the man.”  

Their hair was cut. The use of their native languages was forbidden. Their names were changed. Euro-American-style clothing was required. And they were trained mostly to become skilled in domestic and laborer-type work. They were to become useful to the dominant culture, which had conquered their homelands and subjugated their peoples.  

This was cultural genocide, plain and simple, and yet these schools flourished with an air of respectability for over a century in our country and in Canada. There are still people living today who were forced into these schools and who remember the horrors of the assimilation they endured and the often cruel tactics of the teachers.  

Many children did not endure

But many did not endure in this long, sad history, dating back to the mid-1800s. Many of the children died from abuse, disease, despair and inhumane conditions in these schools 

Bigotry and ignorance were at the heart of it all.  As a white person growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s I was taught the old ditty, “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.” We were taught how he discovered America, and how lucky for the inhabitants of this continent who learned Christianity from us and were able to joyfully assimilate into a superior Euro-American culture. 

The TV western movies I watched back then depicted Native peoples as uneducated, primitive and in need of subduing, so that the “kindly” white settlers, discovering America in their covered wagons, would be safe.  These boarding schools seemed necessary, almost humanitarian, so that Native Americans could be “like us”—that is, good, right, Christian and “normal.”  

The truth was so not any of that! Ethnocentrism and bigotry were at the heart of the assimilation schools and exemplified some of the most sinful behaviors of humanity.  Worse yet was the misguided use of religion in all of this.  

Many schools founded by Christian institutions

Many of these schools were founded by Christian institutions, including the Methodist church.  True religion should be at its heart a vehicle for God’s Spirit to infuse people with an attitude of respect, love and kindness toward to all people. But many times religion is used instead to oppress, rob and destroy those who are different or refuse to conform to our notion of “rightness.” This is not God’s idea. It is a devious construct of human sin.

In the New Testament’s Book of Acts, we read that some Jewish Christians were insisting that the new Gentile converts had to become Jewish and follow the Law of Moses in order to be Christian.  Huge controversies arose over whether or not the Greeks needed to be circumcised and made to follow other Jewish laws in order to be deemed truly Christian.  Assimilation was the goal. 

The Council of Jerusalem, described in Acts 15, provided a landmark moment when that controversy was laid to rest, at least for a time. However, that spirit of “You have to be like me to be truly saved, accepted, and part of the ‘in’ crowd,” has plagued humanity and the church in particular for millenniums.  

Lessons from the Boarding School

What are some lessons from our boarding school experience?

  1. Cultural genocide is sin and not of God. It never has been and it never will be. What happened in our country and elsewhere to Native Americans was sinful and wrong. The hurt, the trauma is real. It lives on in the hearts and even in the DNA of our sisters and brothers of Native American descent. It also festers in the hearts of the perpetrators. 

    One cannot abuse another member of the human family without paying a price in one’s own soul on some level.  Denial, making excuses and the falsehood of biblical proof-texting do not heal an abuser’s pain.

  2. This stain on our history must be acknowledged, repented of, and mourned.  A Native American woman shared with me that as she was explaining about the recently discovered graves, someone told her to “get over it.” This is often our dismissive answer to remembrances of past atrocities. Hiding it, forgetting it, acting like it never happened are not pathways for healing and restoration. They never have  been.
    Healing comes when people speak truth and show proper respect, and when all engage in the mourning of lives lost and evil exposed. When one is injured, we all are injured, and we share a common grief within our common humanity.

  3. The use of religion to justify oppression of people or individuals must stop.  Each one of us must take responsibility for our own racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and ableism as it arises in our hearts. Ask yourself if your attitudes and behaviors reflect the inclusive love of Christ for all, or do you judge another culture or people as “less than” because they differ from you? Using biblical proof-texting and religious traditions to justify evil is a cleverly disguised sin that is likely one of the greatest sins that anyone can commit.

  4. Engage in reparations. They come in many forms. Those who have been injured by discrimination and oppression are due tangible, restorative responses from their abusers. If one is truly repentant, there must be the “fruit of repentance” that makes right the wrongs, that repairs the breach, and that creates justice.  This can be: giving monetary support for Native American ministries and communities; attending classes and reading books about Native American history and culture (and then using that knowledge for good works); advocating for equity in the “Indian Country” across this nation; and speaking out when discriminatory attitudes and actions arise.  

It has been said, “A long journey begins with the first step.”  Every one of us can take a step in the direction of justice and love for all people, every day of our lives.  When we do we are honoring those who have suffered from oppression and abuse, including the many who have suffered at the hands of our nation’s boarding schools.


  • www.nativepartnership.org, “Native American History and culture: Boarding Schools”
  • https://www.the nationalnews.com, “Canada Struggles with ‘cultural genocide’ pastor after hundreds of children’s bodies found, June 2, 2021 Willy Lowry
  • https://www.pbs.org  “Can Trauma be Passed on to Next Generation through DNA?”  August 31, 2015