Christian ministers talk a lot about ‘pastoral ministry’ (running a local church) and often call it ‘the ministry’. This is the established ministry path in every denomination, and denominational trainers may even present it as definitive. However, as I explored last post, parachurch and mission do not require denominational endorsement. Still, denominations do provide for many forms of ministry and mission. Might it be possible to find some kind of place for parachurch work within these?
As 2009 approached, I began exploring ordination in the Anglican Church, and then began its ‘Year of Discernment’ program in Melbourne. I viewed ordination pragmatically; my interest in ordination was for what ministry doors it might open. I had never planned to pursue local church leadership, but I wondered if my parachurch path might fit in with the Anglican diaconate.
Anglicans have a ‘threefold order’ of ministry: in addition to bishops and priests, they’ve got deacons, who form the diaconate. Commentators identify two dimensions of the diaconate. Firstly, a deacon is servant, a broad role using Acts 6 as its prototype, with three angles: a deacon serves others, symbolises service to others, and enables others to be servants themselves. Secondly, the deacon is bridge, connecting their local church and surrounding society, and activating other Christians for mission.
In this dimension of bridge and missional activator, the diaconate sounds like it might have a real connection with parachurch work. This is certainly true in some cases; for example, becoming a deacon is a really good way of doing chaplaincy in Australian schools or hospitals. However, there are two problems.
Firstly, the diaconate is highly generalised. A deacon should be prepared for everything from charity to mission. As one source puts it, a deacon has ‘a heart for the dispossessed and the poor, a strong need to deliver the Church’s grace-filled ministry to those outside, and a strong impulse to keep the Church alive to the realities of secular people’. The diaconate may well be distinctive but it doesn’t have the built-in specialisation required in parachurch ministry.
Secondly, the diaconate is institutionally constrained. Here is an example of the vows deacons make. Deacons (1) operate in obedience to a bishop and priest and (2) are ordained to a parish. Even after a deacon completes their curacy, their ministry remains defined in connection to some parish or other — in other words, a deacon is not just integrated in a local church but their ministry is tied to it at the bidding of a bishop and a priest. If a deacon is to go further afield, it is only with their permission.
In practice, an Anglican deacon may be unhinged for mission in their local area but will always remain at least theoretically subservient to a particular local church and its institution. While Anglican ordination can therefore accommodate parachurch work such as chaplaincy, it does not clearly provide for ministers to be unhinged for mission. For this reason, I pulled out of the Year of Discernment. In the next post I’ll explore some other models.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.