By Erin Kane, GCSRW Director of Research and Monitoring
At the request of a reader, I did more research on the General Conference delegates elected so far this
year in the U.S. and determined that only 4 of those 42 clergy members are deacons (less than 10%). By
comparison, deacons in full connection make up less
than 4% of United Methodist clergy compared to 71%
elders in full connection (the other 25% are part -and
full-time local pastors and associated members.)
Those numbers mean that so far, deacons are well
represented as General Conference delegates
compared to their portion of the clergy population.
However, men who are deacons are
overrepresented. Men currently make up half of the
elected deacons, but as they next chart shows, they
make up less than a quarter of the order.
Some might argue that a larger participation rate
among deacons is unnecessary in the delegations to
General Conference because it is the elders who are
called to administer the provisions of the discipline
(Book of Discipline ¶340.2a). However, this argument
Does not hold water. Lay people are elected to
General Conference as well and are not held to the
same standard, while local licensed pastors are held
to the same standard but may not be elected
General Conference delegates. Deacons’ voices are
vital at General Conference as they help the church
define our ministry and interpret the Four Areas of
Focus. They are called to ‘leading congregations in
interpreting the needs, concerns, and hopes of the
world’ (BOD ¶328).
Why do so few people choose to be deacons? And of the people who do pursue deaconship, why are
more than three quarters of them women?
Many people who choose the path of deacon say they are discouraged from doing so and instead are
encouraged to pursue ordination as elders: men because the order of elder begets prestige and
authority, and women because people believe they should aspire to what men want, to reach the “top.”
There is this idea that elders function in a “head of the household” type of role in that they administer
sacraments and keep order. Deacons are viewed more as helpers or servants. Living in a culture where
the overarching expectations place men in authoritative, administrative roles makes it difficult for
people to picture men as being adequately fulfilled in a role that is defined by exclusion from headship.
But it is more fitting to see the role of deacon as by specialization, compassion, and justice.
This gender divide within similar job
descriptions is not isolated to The United
Methodist Church. In the medical field,
nursing is more often pursued by women
than men, and men who elect to pursue
nursing are questioned. Shouldn’t they want
to be doctors? Nursing is for women.
Doctors make decisions and prescribe
medication, but nurses do the caring work.
However, when men began to enter the
field of nursing at higher rates, overall
wages increased. Unfortunately, a wage gap
between the genders still occurred. In 2013,
the average female nurse’s salary was
$9,600 less a year than a male’ nurse’s
salary of $60,700 even though only 9.6% of
nurses are men.
Our society places more value on work that comes with a prestigious title and a high salary.
Traditionally, this has not occurred with many careers in which women are the majority (social workers,
day care professionals, nurses, teachers, etc.). When
we devalue feminized labor, it means that we don’t
consider women’s work ‘real’ work and that we
think that some work is only for women, and
therefore requires less skill. Generally speaking, work
that is considered women’s work is grossly
undervalued or devalued. Christine Yvette Lewis
discussed this issue with Stephen Colbert on the
Colbert Report in 2011. Domestic care workers like
nannies and housekeepers are isolated and have
few resources to demand fair wages, benefits, and
protections. Similarly, deacons are underpaid
compared to their counterparts (despite the requirement in BOD ¶331.10b that the benefits and salaries
among elders and deacons are to be the same within congregational ministry) and have no guaranteed employment.* The move to reclaim the diaconate as full and equal ordained members of the clergy in
1996 was a great step for The United Methodist Church to take as it professionalized the ministry of
many women in the denomination.
This does not mean, however, that only women should pursue ordination as deacons. Men and women
who feel called to word, service, compassion and justice should receive the encouragement to pursue
deaconship without regards to gender. For a resource on this, click here.
How does your community honor its deacons?
What can the deacons in your community contribute to General Conference?
If you want to respond to these discussion questions, or if you have an idea for an article or research,
email Erin Kane, our director of research and monitoring.
*From page 18 of this document: Deacons have an 18% lower salary when controlled for time in
ministry, parsonage, gender, race, etc. Guaranteed appointment is a luxury that is very much sought
after, but without it, many deacons are able to pursue ministries and positions with more freedom and
flexibility than elders. In addition, many deacons may choose to work in unpaid or low-wage ministries
that help them to do work with impoverished populations, which also influences salary differences
between these two orders. However the guaranteed appointment has given elders more priority in
administrative terms, a policy with the unforeseen consequence of attributing prestige to one order and
For a history of the Diaconate, click here.
If you’re considering a run for 2016 or 2020 General Conference delegate, check out our step-by-step
Women and leadership in higher education institutions of The UMC.