Ten GNJ deacons took the next step in their life of faith on September 29 when they gathered at the Mission and Resource Center to have conversation with Bishop Schol and Superintendent Steve Bechtold and to sign a covenant for presiding at the celebration of the sacraments.
In May 2016, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church passed new legislation giving broader authority for deacons to administer the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion in their ministry setting. The legislation states, “For the sake of extending the mission and ministry of the Church and offering the means of grace to the world, the resident bishop of the annual conference in which the deacon is appointed may authorize the deacon to preside at the celebration of the sacraments. Presiding at the celebration of the sacraments involves taking responsibility to lead the gathered community in celebrating baptism and Holy Communion.”
Bishop Schol invited the ten deacons to a gathering where they discussed the sacraments and what it meant to administer them. The deacons developed a covenant which states: “In order to further the mission of the United Methodist Church in Greater New Jersey, the Bishop and Order of Deacons covenant together so that the deacons who sign this covenant may also preside over the celebration of the sacraments in their places of ministry and/or their contexts.” The statement went on to say: “Recognizing the importance of uniting the full life of the church – including the sacraments – with the world, the Bishop authorizes deacons to preside at the celebration of the sacraments in the deacons’ context for the duration of their appointments.”
“It’s truly a privilege to be bringing this gift,” said Skylands District Superintendent Rev. Steven Bechtold. “The body of Christ extends to all. Christ didn’t come just for Christians, he came for all people. My hope is that we start seeing the sacraments connect church community with the world.”
Regarding Holy Communion liturgy, Bishop Schol said, “It’s about drawing the congregation into something we speak together. It’s about drawing deeper into God’s grace and our relationship with God.” Schol reminded the deacons that we come to the Communion table humbled but with a lively and illustrative liturgy.
“We don’t take communion, we receive it,” Schol said. “It’s a gift from God.”
The covenant states that deacons will hold each other accountable to their ministry and the covenant they were making – the faithful administration of the sacraments, report annually to the gathering of deacons and the charge conferences to which they relate about their ministry of extending the mission and ministry of the church, including presiding over the celebration of sacraments. It also states that deacons are to work in cooperation and collaboration with any elders appointed to the same ministry context as the deacon in assisting the administration of the sacraments.
“Most people, United Methodists included, were not aware that ordained deacons could not preside over the sacraments, except in rare cases,” said Tom Lank, Northeastern Jurisdiction Volunteers Coordinator. “As of January 1 this will change as bishops are allowed to grant deacons the privilege of proclaiming God’s grace through the sacraments wherever they serve in ministry. I give thanks for Bishop Schol who is setting the pace for our denomination as we live into the possibilities afforded by this change.”
For the deacons gathered to sign the covenant, the moment was powerful and moving. Schol stated that the sacraments were a mystery we can’t fully explain. “We need to leave room for that mystery,” he said.