By Patrick Scriven
This week at the United Methodist Women’s Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, several laywoman with roots in the Northwest will be consecrated at deaconesses. The commissioning service will take place at the Columbus Convention Center on Friday, May 18 at Noon (PDT). The service will also be livestreamed at unitedmethodistwomen.org/live.
Lynn Swedberg from the Pacific Northwest Conference and Kelly Marciales from the Alaska Conference will be consecrated, with each commissioned in their respective home conferences this summer. Swedberg, a consultant to the denomination’s Disability Ministries Committee, is a member of Manito UMC in Spokane. Marciales, a member of Christ First UMC in Wasilla, directs a faith-based community organization called Valley Interfaith Action.
Additionally, Sophia Agtarap, Director of Communications at Vanderbilt Divinity School and Irene DeMaris, who works for Wesley Theological Seminary in public theology are among those being consecrated with Pacific Northwest Conference connections. Both have been active members in several PNW churches and have served in professional lay ministry roles within the conference.
Deaconesses and Home Missioners (the male equivalent) are laypersons called by God to a lifetime relationship in The United Methodist Church for engagement with a full-time vocation in ministries of love, justice, and service. More can be learned on the United Methodist Women website or in the Book of Discipline, ¶1913.1.
The calling to ministry as a deaconess is one that is felt in ways both distinct and familiar. For Lynn Swedberg, service to the church has been an assumption she has carried since high school. When her work in disability ministries was described by individuals like Bishop Peggy Johnson as deaconess-like, the thought of becoming one started to emerge as a possibility. “Confirmation came when I, who almost never cries, cried through the past two deaconess consecration services,” shared Swedberg. “Somehow my heart was deeply touched!”
Sophia Agtarap describes becoming a candidate for deaconess as a natural evolution of her faith journey. Her entry in the candidacy process for ordination as a deacon helped her to discern that her “calling was to serve the church as a theologically trained lay person.” As she encountering the deaconess home missioner order and community and its called “commitment to love, justice and service,” she knew she had found a home.
For Kelly Marciales, meeting a deaconess at a Mission u event in Wasilla made all the difference. When Deaconess Fran Lynch described her role and relationship to The United Methodist Church, it resonated, “encompassing exactly how [Marciales] felt.” Lynch additionally helped her discern by asking good questions which clarified how this theological-trained lay role was distinct from clergy orders.
As she has prepared for her service as a deaconess, Marciales says she has been “ordering [her] life toward her mission rather than toward her personal goals.” Doing so has allowed her to sense God’s movement more clearly, have more time for her family and increased effectiveness in her ministry.
Theological training is a part of the preparation for becoming a deaconess. Agtarap and Swedberg both described some of the seminary-level theological training, coaching and discernment work required. For Swedberg, the past five years have provided such training and new opportunities complementing a calling to disability ministries first discerned in 1999 and lived into in various ways since. Agtarap shared that the process has prepared her “to fully live out [her] call as a community organizer through Moral Movement Tennessee, and storyteller through work at Vanderbilt Divinity School.”
After they are consecrated this week at the United Methodist Women Assembly, and commissioned by their Annual Conferences, Agtarap, Marciales and Swedberg will continue to serve the church in many of the same ways they have to this point. Perhaps this is because, as expressed in their stories, the Deaconess/Home Missioner order is much more a validation of callings being lived into than it is one that affords its members special privileges or specific responsibilities.
When asked what they would say to someone considering being a deaconess or home missioner, each spoke more about the covenanted community one is joining rather than a specific role. Marciales shared that the community “is multigenerational, multiethnic, economically diverse, and missiological in nature. A Deaconess/Home Missioner does not travel alone, ever.” Agtarap, after recommending the free discernment weekends, said that for those who are called to serve but have struggled to find a place to fit, the community offers “a welcoming group of people who have found many ways to serve God through ordinary and extraordinary vocations.”
Similarly, Swedberg emphasized that being a deaconess or home missioner is “more of a calling into a covenant community than to a role.” Elaborating she says, “[r]oles and specific ways of being in ministry will change.” In a time when the church sometimes stumbles in adapting its ministry to meet the needs of a hurting world, one path forward might involve such an open embrace of ministries of love, justice, and service, perhaps even one led by lay people with training, creativity, and flexibility.
Patrick Scriven serves as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.