News and Views

The Road toward Sacramental Authority for Deacons

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By Rev. Dr. Leo Yates, Jr.

The outcome from General Conference has been very positive for all sorts of groups, including Deacons. The Rev. Julie Wilson and Rev. Dr. Leo Yates, both Deacons in full connection, had submitted petition #20879, titled Granting Sacramental Authority to Deacons in their Ministry Setting.

Also known as calendar item #554. Paragraph 328 in The Book of Discipline was updated in 2016 to include sacramental authority for deacons enabling them to preside over the sacraments with their bishop's permission. Though The Book of Discipline authorized deacons to preside over the sacraments, some bishops would not authorize them to do so for different reasons. Also, some Elders were either unavailable or unwilling to support Deacons when the sacraments were needed.

 In 2023, a questionnaire was dispersed to all deacons through the deacons' Facebook page surveying the order of Deacons regarding sacramental authority. The results showed that  90% of Deacons surveyed supported sacramental authority. After hearing about some of the barriers and stories by Deacons who faced barriers to sharing the sacraments, we reviewed paragraph 328 and decided on the simplest path forward -- strike out the sentence, "the resident bishop of the annual conference in which the Deacon is appointed may authorize..."

More importantly, we realized we would need support from General Conference delegates, both Elders and the laity while showing respect for the Elder's call to the sacraments. We were able to do this by leaving in the petition the, "assisting the Elder in administering the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion" clause. Another similar petition related to sacramental authority for Deacons removed the assisting the Elder part of the paragraph, which did not receive support by the subcommittee in the Ordained Ministry legislative committee that was responsible for the petition. 

 That first week of General Conference, we learned that our petition was approved and supported by the wider legislative committee. Deacons who were already in Charlotte gathered on Sunday, April 28 to strategize and gain wider support from all of the delegates. Rev. Justin LaRosa, a deacon who serves at Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, Florida, helped organize the group at a local coffee place near the convention center. It was noted that Elders lead the gathered church and Deacons lead the dispersed church and the sacraments are a means of grace in and outside the walls of the church. 

As the second week of conference began, there were some delays in bringing the petition to the floor. But finally, petition 20897 was briefly debated on Thursday, May 2. The testimony by a delegate (also a deacon) seemed to bring support, explaining how the sacraments can be used to extend the church’s mission as it pertained to diaconal ministries. It passed with 65% in support. 

Deacons gathered at the next recess to celebrate the passing of the petition. The new president of the Council of Bishops, Bishop Tracey Smith Malone, joined some of the deacons in their celebration, even posing for a group picture with some of them.

Rev. Julie and I found each other at the celebration and congratulated each other.

Moving forward, the chairs of the order of Deacons across the connection will be meeting via Zoom in the near future to discuss sacramental authority among Deacons. We realize the importance of Deacons understanding their responsibility of having sacramental authority and applying discretion whenever presiding at the sacraments.

After all, the Love Feast is still a great alternative in many situations. This way, the chairpersons can communicate the same message to the orders we serve and lead.

We will want to communicate the following.

  • First, Deacons do not have the same sacramental authority as Elders, as Elders have it as a part of their ordination vows.
  • Second, the BOD paragraph still stipulates that Deacons are to assist Elders with the sacraments, particularly in the church setting, where it is the Elder's responsibility as a part of their call to order.
  • Third, Deacons are encouraged to use discretion when using their sacramental authority for their diaconal ministry, which should be considered after they first attempt to work or partner with Elders in ministry settings where they serve together.

Clearing up some confusion will also be helpful, such as what is “contextually appropriate” when Deacons preside over the sacraments (as stated in the BOD paragraph) and the misconception that sacramental authority is tied to an appointment setting (like Elders, Deacons are ordained, they’re not licensed local pastors). Also worth noting is the paragraph applies to all Deacons, whether provisional, a member in full connection, or retired who are in servant ministries. These and more will be a part of our conversation, which will then be shared with our individual orders.