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Ministering in the world

Deacons gathered at the 13th Assembly. Photo courtesy of National Assembly communications

"MY altar can as easily be a rock, a fallen tree, or someone down on their hands and knees making a table for a bride and groom to sign the marriage register on," says Pastor Dennis Cousens, deacon with Cunnamulla Uniting Church.

"My gathered congregations are often in a pub, community hall, backyard or by a riverbank, which is the most God-created cathedral around," he says.

Rev Sandy Boyce, national convenor of the Diakonia of the Uniting Church and Diakonia World Federation Executive, explains how for many deacons placed in a community rather than a church, the worship space will be where the people are.

In this way, deacons are an important part of the church's embodiment of justice and service, she explains.

"The highlight of diaconal ministry is building relationships with people who are often overlooked; made 'invisible' by the disregard of family, friends, community and the agencies they relate to.

"A deacon is able to bring the stories from beyond the congregation into the life of a gathered church, and enable people to respond to opportunities to serve in the wider community.

"Their role is contextual and creative, and often requires a way of approaching worship that will be different to that of worship in the gathered faith community in a church," she adds.

"Deacons were never envisaged in the Uniting Church as 'solo' agents, but as part of the whole people of God, equipping and encouraging others in service, and advocating for those whose voice has been silenced.

Deacon Rev Heather Den Houting, Blue Care Director of Mission and former Kenmore Uniting Church minister, is enthusiastic about the context driven nature of diaconate ministry.

"When Together on the way started I strongly encouraged the Kenmore congregation to get involved, saying, 'We have to be a part of the wider church.

"We have to understand where we belong and that we're not insular'.

"Deacons often say we'll go into new places, new spaces.

Emphasis will always be not so much on the gathered congregation but the ministry to the community in which the congregation may find itself," she explains.

Calvary Presbytery deacon Rev Michelle Cook was called to this ministry because she needed to be pushed out into the world, rather than to turn her gaze in.

She says there are challenges to ministering at the edges of the church in society.

"When you are trying to get the church to see outside itself, there are people who are resistant to it.

"You have to be prepared to deal with helping people to change, to listen to people about where God is calling them and challenging them about the parts of discipleship that they might be neglecting."

Ministers of the Word and deacons can work well together, she says, as they have different gifts.

"That's what the body of Christ is.

"You have different gifts, and among them is the deacon's gift of helping people see outside of the box – having a prophetic voice; bringing things to the foreground that might otherwise be in the background.

"Ministers of the Word have a different kind of gift for explaining the scriptures, and teaching to equip the people of God.

"I think the gifts are complementary."

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the formal "renewal" of the Uniting Church diaconate in recognising deacons as a full and equal order of ministry.

The 13th Assembly noted the anniversary with an appreciation, thanks-giving, and a request for review of materials provided to applicants and mentors.

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Photo : Deacons gathered at the 13th Assembly. Photo courtesy of National Assembly communications