Starting with the Scattered – Deacons in the Uniting Church

What does the diaconate look like in other Christian denominations? I decided to learn a bit more about the experience of the Uniting Church in Australia, and spoke to Rev. Sandy Boyce, a deacon in Adelaide and the president of the Diakonia World Federation. This organisation is an ecumenical community and forum for those engaged in diaconal work worldwide. In this role, Sandy has found just how diverse the expressions and structures of diaconal ministry are across church bodies, but how much each can learn from the other.

In the Uniting Church in Australia, all baptised Christians are part of the laos – the laity. Without separation from the rest, some are set apart – ordained – to help the church in its work. There are two forms of ordained ministry: Minister of the Word and Minister of the Diaconate. Each form is fully stipended and enabled to perform all church liturgical and sacramental functions. However, Sandy described the difference between the two in a refreshingly simple way, drawing from a national ministry report. The Minister of the Word begins with the gathered community of faith. The Minister of the Deacon begins with the scattered community of faith. Both may find a rhythm of movement between the gathered and the scattered community, but one or the other is ‘home base’. In practice, both forms of ministry may well overlap and interact.

The functions of the deacon in the Uniting Church may include pastoral care, liturgy, preaching, service, justice work and building community. However, the deacon does not do everything alone and it is not a personal ministry, rather it is a ministry of the whole people of God. The deacon equips, encourages and sends people to serve God’s mission in turn. Even while performing social work or other caring professions, the deacon always seeks to highlight the connection between the church and servant ministry.

Deacons follow the way of Jesus, who called us all to “come and serve, to heal and to give people dignity”. The diaconate highlights and amplifies this message for Christian congregations. However, although some might despair when few people ‘come to church’, the deacon encourages gatherings beyond the church and in the community. Then, ideally, the deacon keeps both the gathered and scattered communities in touch with each other. This is why during the church service, the deacon has a special role in the final benediction, which sends people out to love and serve the world.

I find this vision for the diaconate full of hope. Sandy reminds me that in a time of disruption and upheaval, it can look like our traditional forms of church worship may not survive. However, the diaconal role is creative, and finds fresh ways of being church that fit with what God is doing in the world. And therefore even diaconal preaching should be different – as the deacon sees with a different lens, from the place of the margins. 

In practice, the way people live out the ministry of the diaconate varies widely, and is limited by what resources and funds are available. Some deacons spend most of their time in aged care, mental health ministry, prison chaplaincy or homelessness services. Many work for parishes, which gives them the freedom to then do broader outreach alongside the disadvantaged, hurting and marginalised. In all cases, they are sent by the church to witness Jesus Christ in the community.

In her local and international role, Sandy is championing the recognition and value of the diaconal ministry. She is currently writing a book about it, highlighting the 30 years of such ministry in the Uniting Church in Australia. So watch this space! Thanks for sharing, Sandy, as we learn from each other and walk the Christian road together.

Sandy’s final service at Pilgrim Uniting Church, Adelaide
Sandy speaking at a Palm Sunday refugee rally
Sandy (far right) with some other UCA Deacons
International Women’s Day 2021 – Advocacy for survivors of sexual assault
With Deacons and Priests from other Christian churches at a Palm Sunday ecumenical gathering at St Francis Xavier Catholic Cathedral, Adelaide
Sandy at a launch of a book by a Cambodian person who escaped modern day slavery on a fishing boat

“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) 

2 thoughts on “Starting with the Scattered – Deacons in the Uniting Church

  1. What a great diaconate model to be ‘with the scattered members of the congregation’. Pray the Catholic church will follow with a similar model too

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