The annual convocation of the Methodist Church’s deacons became an ecumenical event this year when they welcomed deacons from other NZ churches and the Diakonia World Federation.
About 30 people attended the Diakonia Convocation in Wanganui last month. They took part in a series of workshops and took a bus tour of the region which included a meeting with Te Taha Maori members in Hawera who discussed the important role deaconesses played in the life of the Church there.
National Diaconate coordinator Don Shirley Joy Barrow says the convocation was a chance for Methodist deacons to host Anglican members of Diakonia Aotearoa New Zealand Association (DANZA).
The keynote speakers at the convocation were Diakonia World Federation president Dcn Louise Williams and Australian theologian Dcn Peter Pocock.
To give a flavour of the convocation Touchstone conducted interviews with Louise and Peter.
By Cory Miller
"I want people to meet one another and have life transforming experiences." This desire is expressed by Deacon Louise Williams, a keynote speaker at the Diakonia Convocation held in Wanganui last month.
As president of the Diakonia World Federation, Louise addressed the deacons about the work, goals and visions of the Federation. The Federation seeks to further ecumenical relationships, generate a sense of diaconia in congregations, and to strengthen fellowship among its members around the world.
The theme of the Diakonia Convocation was ‘on the cutting edge’, and Louise emphasises the cutting edge ministry and the humble service that deacons offer their communities. Images of washing feet, waiting on tables, and bearing the light convey a picture of the radical discipleship that is part of deaconhood.
Louise says she wants to cultivate the growth of the Diakonia World Federation and to increase its representation internationally.
"Through the Federation we hope people around the globe will be able to meet each other, form new relationships, and exchange knowledge and culture. These factors combined can create life-transforming experiences."
Through her work in the Federation, Louise has had experiences that have changed the way she sees the world. She came to New Zealand from here home in the US via Fiji where she was able to gain an insight into the culture and piety of Fijian ministry.
Louise says it was 41 years ago that she found herself called to the ministry of deacons. She feels her desire to become a deacon came from her concern for people and her strong wish to care for those who are in need of help. Her desire to influence the church is another motivation that has kept her going through the years.
"Part of being a deacon is to ensure that the conscience of the church remains awake to the suffering and needs of the poor and society’s unloved," she says.
Over the years Louise has found many sources of inspiration in her life as a deaconess and lecturer in the theology of diaconial ministry at Valparaiso University, Indiana. She has been inspired by other deacons, everyday people she meets, and her students.
"I have met people on the verge of retirement who have turned their backs on a relaxing lifestyle and taken the risk to throw themselves into a life of servitude. The people of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean have also given me much cause for admiration. Despite limited resources they still remain faithful and dedicated to their work."
Louise says a deacon is a person with a servant heart, someone who seeks to lead the church, offers to do its ministry, and helps people on the fringes of society.
"A deacon is an equipper and enabler of people. Deacons help people call forth their gifts through gentle and loving encouragement, and support them to use those gifts in their own workplaces and communities. Deacons are a living reminder that Christ calls everyone in baptism to service for Christ and that service is always about giving life to the least of his people."
Louise hopes that, as the Diakonia World Federation becomes better recognised around the world, deacons will become more prominent in their communities. They can be catalysts that create inspiration for the church to make real their pledge to God and help the marginalised, the most treasured of God’s people.
By Paul Titus
Peter Pocock wants us to imagine a diaconal church. He contrasts a diaconal church with the church as it now is, which he says is a Christendom church.
"Churches have a problem. They are so concerned about maintaining the status quo that they have lost site of their true mission," he says.
"They must shift from being church-centred to focus on the Kingdom of God and the community. To build the Kingdom of God on earth we have to be in the community, we have to create community."
Peter indemnifies a number of ways that a diaconal church would differ from a Christendom church. The former is inclusive whereas the latter is exclusive. The former practices indoctrination, the latter education. The former strive to preserve what they have, the latter strive to transform into something new.
"Christendom churches are trying to preserve a sacred culture but we have to realise we are now in a secular society. We have to speak to and interact with that secular society. We can’t do that by being insular and looking inward. We have to look outward.
"I think some of the things I have seen in Wanganui have this outward focus. The ecumenical nature Christian Social Services Wanganui is very exciting. Often city missions are on their own and in competition with one another so the way the churches have joined together there is very positive."
Another feature of diaconal churches, Peter says, is a dependence on laity rather than priests.
"With diaconal churches there is a move away from insularity to connectedness. Rather than guard boundaries they make efforts to connect with people and rather that hierarchy we see servant leaders working arm in arm, side by side.
"Diaconal churches have men and women leaders, they include people of different nationalities and ethnicities, and they are democratic."
Peter believes the future of the church must be diaconal. If it does become more diaconal church it will decline and become less vibrant. Such a change will not be easy and will not be quick, however.
His visit to New Zealand was very encouraging. He believes the small size of towns such as Wanganui force people to cooperate more than they do in big cities. He believes the Methodist Church is more focused on social justice than the Anglican Church though both are still Christendom churches rather than diaconal.
Peter is a lecturer in the theology department of Charles Sturt University and an ordained Anglican deacon.