Walking in the Way: A Deacon’s Journey

by Rev. Sherry Bryant-Johnson

I imagine my calling to be like the voice of the Teacher in Isaiah 30:21, a Presence within that whispers to me: “This is the way; walk in it.”  For many years these gentle marching orders led me on what I thought was a random path of learning and doing. The ladies of St. John African Methodist Episcopal Zion (my hometown church) who taught Sunday School and directed the Christmas and Easter pageants fascinated me.  So, when I reached adulthood, I taught Sunday School and directed Christmas and Easter pageants. The power of talk therapy to transform intrigued me.  So, I studied psychology at Indiana University.  A southern gentleman captured my heart.  So, I let go of my life in Hammond, Indiana and settled in his rural Mississippi community.  Questions about God, prayer, and life gripped me.  So, I immersed myself in the the Bible, went to workshops, and devoured books by spiritual writers.  Love, frustration, passion or curiosity moved me to learning and service—I thought.  It did not occur to me that the road I traveled was carrying me to a specific destination.

Sherry B Johnson

Rev. Sherry B. Johnson

I meandered into a job as assistant to the pastor at a United Methodist Church in 1991.  As I worked as program staff/administrative assistant, my path began to make sense.  I had entered a new world where my eclectic collection of learning, experiences, and skills were valued and affirmed.  I realized that through my wanderings, God had molded and made me into a minister of the gospel.   My proclamation of the Word was in my teaching, my listening, and in my praying, both in the church and beyond the church’s walls.  After three years as a diaconal minister, I was ordained with the inaugural class of deacons in 1997.

As I journeyed through candidacy to ordination and met wise mentors along the way, I received the gift of words to describe the connection between my learning, doing, and serving— Christian faith formation.  Practicing and teaching the means of grace have permeated my every appointment— associate pastor of a two-church charge, executive director of a United Methodist Mission Agency, and associate director for a center devoted to developing Christian leaders through lifelong learning.  I also weave spiritual practice into training events and other nontraditional settings because of my passion to assist others, to hear more clearly, and to respond more faithfully to the Presence that calls to them, “This is the way; walk in it.”

I live out my own call these days as a spiritual director, retreat designer/leader, Bible teacher, workshop leader, and author.  And I am currently exploring a new interest— offering spiritual direction and Bible study online.

In the 22 years since my ordination, I’ve encountered many along the way who do not appreciate or understand my ministry.  I cannot allow the reality of rejection to stop my work or to divert my attention from the many sisters and brothers who celebrate with me.

I see the celebration of the unique ministry of the deacon as a gift as diverse and surprising as the ministry itself.   This rejoicing breaks forth both in the church and in the community.  It can be as subtle as a feeling of oneness in Christ with a directee, as endearing as a card from a parishioner during Clergy Appreciation Month, or as unexpected as a thank you hug from a pastor in the produce aisle in Kroger.

Whether my ministry is celebrated or ignored, appreciated or reviled, the Presence that whispers, “This is the way; walk in it” still speaks, and I must follow where it leads.

Rev. Sherry Bryant-Johnson is an ordained deacon with extensive training in spiritual direction as well as United Methodist professional certification in spiritual formation.  Her ministry encompasses retreat leadership, teaching, small group facilitation, and writing.  She was an editor/essayist for the anthology, Embodied Spirits:  Stories of Spiritual Directors of Color (Morehouse, 2014) and the contributing writer of Journey to Joy: Jesus is the Strength for Life, a VBS study for adults (Abingdon, 2016).  Based in Jackson, Mississippi, she has served as the executive director of Bethlehem Center, Inc. and the associate director of the Center for Ministry at Millsaps College.

“I don’t want to be a deacon; God wants me to be a deacon.”

by Rev. Sue Pethoud

I don’t want to be a deacon; God wants me to be a deacon.  It’s not like when a young child wants to be a firefighter or a dancer.  It is something much more than that.  I was content to be a middle school math teacher.  It wasn’t an exciting job, but it had purpose and I did it well, but God was not content.  God tried for a long time to let me know that, but it wasn’t until a Friday night, after a week of serving in Appalachia, that I really got the message.  It was an emotional experience and one that took me a long time to understand.


Rev. Sue Pethoud

I got it right away that God was calling me to work in a setting where I would be connecting people and their faith to the world around them, but I didn’t jump right into a deacon studies program.  Hours of prayer led me to become more involved with our youth and to seek out ways to become more educated in my own faith.  I found The United Methodist certification program and it seemed to be where I needed to be.  I thought I was following God’s call in my life, but I was really trying to fit that call into the life I already had.

The certification program was a good place to start, and I am thankful now that I began there, but it was evident very early on that that was not the end of the story.  I had to figure out how this call of God’s was to fit into my life as a wife, mother, and teacher.  Through classmates, professors, and our young pastor, I was encouraged to continue to pray about where I really needed to go with all of this.  Clergy friends gave me books to read, prayed for me, and gave me encouragement to follow where I was being led.  It was pretty apparent that I was really being called to ordained ministry in the role of a deacon, but I was very reluctant to follow that call.  The practicality of it all kept getting in the way of actually following the path that God had set before me.

I was in my 29th year of teaching and the logical, sequential part of me knew that financially, retirement with 29 years of experience would be less than practical.  I was bargaining with God over this very thing when the state stepped into the process, offering a financial incentive to retire early!  Perfect!  The huge roadblock had been removed and I was ready to finally jump in, feet first!

Seminary was exciting and full of learning and listening.  During that time, I continued to be involved with the youth of my own church and through them found Cass Community Social Services.  It was more than evident, that was where I was being called.  I began volunteering there one day a week in 2010 just as I was getting into a full-time seminary schedule.  I was hired for that one-day-a-week job in 2013 just before graduation.  It became a three-day-a-week position by June and by Christmas, it was full-time.  I have been there ever since.

I was commissioned in 2014 and ordained in 2017.  My primary appointment is to Cass as an ABLC (Appointment Beyond the Local Church) with the title of Church and Community Relations Liaison.  I coordinate the over 7,000 volunteers that serve at Cass each year, correspond with donors, speak at churches and other community organization gatherings, run fund raising events and supervise Cass Green Industries.  My secondary appointment is to Cass Community UMC, the church that “birthed” Cass Community Social Services.  There I sing in the choir, preach in the absence of the pastor, and help to coordinate the behind the scenes tasks necessary to keep a church running.  Within the Annual Conference, I am the editor of the Order of Deacons newsletter and have begun a program for all districts to send youth to serve at Cass during the summer.

I often hear from other deacons that they struggle with feeling that though they are following a different call than elders, they are not treated as equals among their elder counterparts.  I get that, but don’t experience it, at least most of the time.  There was a learning curve in the beginning and, occasionally, there still is, but a little education and self-advocacy goes a long way.  If we as deacons, can explain our call and how it may be different but equal to that of an elder in a non-defensive way, we will all be better for it.  We do have to remember that elders who came into the system before 1996 were deacons once and many of them still think of the Order as a stepping stone to elder.

Though I have needed to do some educating both with my congregation and with the clergy I come in contact with, and still do from time to time, I am fully part of the clergy team at Cass Community UMC.  I work with three very supportive elders and share the responsibilities of running a church with them.  It helps that one of those elders is also the Executive Director of Cass Community Social Services along with her Senior Pastor position at the church and understands the demands of my week-day job.  We work together well and I have never been happier.

Rev. Sue Pethoud is the Church and Community Relations Liaison for Cass Community Social Services (CCSS), a Detroit nonprofit agency which responds to poverty with programs for food, health care, housing and employment.  She is also an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church serving both Cass Community Social Services and Cass Community United Methodist Church in Detroit.

Prior to coming to Cass, Sue taught math and science for 30 years primarily to middle school students in Howell, MI.  She also taught in both New York State and Ohio.

Sue has a Bachelor of Science degree from Central Michigan University and a Master of Arts degree from the State University of New York. She received a Basic Theological Studies (BGTS) certificate from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL in 2013.

Her interests include reading, and travel.  She has one son who is a middle school band director and two grand dogs.  Rev. Pethoud lives in Detroit during the week and with her retired husband in Brighton, MI on the weekends.

“Once God has a hold of you, it’s hard to be let loose.”

By Rev. Dr. Amy Valdez Barker

There is this thing amongst clergy who say, “Once God has a hold of you, it’s hard to be let loose.”  As I reflect back on my own call story, I can attest to that understanding of getting into God’s grip and then recognizing that in reality, you don’t actually want God to let you go.  As a pastor’s kid, I was all too familiar with the gifts and challenges of being a family in ministry. And in many ways, I didn’t think I wanted that for me, my spouse, or my children.  But, God did get a hold of me and my soul has never been settled since.  The tug for me to serve God is the driving factor of my life in ministry.

AVB photo

Rev. Dr. Amy Valdez Barker

The question I had to answer was, “How will I serve God?”  I continued to debate with God about how I could serve God without ever pursuing a seminary degree or serving as clergy.  Again, the discontent and the hunger in my soul kept growing and the more I dabbled in seminary learning, the deeper I went.  I loved learning more about my faith, about my church and about religion’s influence in the world.  I loved working with people and serving people.  In every position that I held prior to ministry, I loved serving.  From a waitress in restaurants to an account manager in an advertising company, I loved accompanying people and serving people.  At the end of the day, I knew that was my calling.  However, those kinds of roles never fully satisfied me.

Finally, I gave in and just relaxed in God’s grip.  I no longer wanted to resist, but rather, I leaned into the visions for my life that God was placing in front of me.  The themes of learning, loving and connecting constantly arose in my life experiences.  Learning manifested itself in seminary learning.  I couldn’t get enough of it, so I pursued the Master’s followed by the Ph.D.  I never wanted to stop learning.  Loving was a part of my nature as I constantly wanted to share God’s love with youth, young adults and the people on the edges who never felt God’s love.  Youth Ministry, Young-Adult Ministries, and Mission were ways in which I could live out the call to love.  And finally, “connecting” was something that I had been good at in both my private social life and in my working world.  Connecting people across annual conferences, across the general church and now connecting people in mission.  As a learner, lover, connector, God had a vision to use these gifts for God’s mission in the world.

This is my understanding of a deacon’s call.  As deacons in The United Methodist Church, we have a specialized call to ministry that is unique from elders.  We serve in a variety of roles and responsibilities throughout the church, but at the heart of it is the way in which we connect the church and the world.  As deacons, we have many of the rights and responsibilities as elders in the church, but we take on the role of stretching a little differently in our calling by connecting.  We are doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers, directors and much more who have responded officially to God’s call and pursued the credentialing of The UMC ordained ministry process so that we can link in our workplaces the work of the church.  We also take this responsibility of bringing the world to the church seriously as well.  Too often, the church can be isolated and insular thinking, but because as deacons we live in both worlds, we help the church remember what the world needs from the church.  Deacons are critical partners for God’s mission in the world.  One of my close mentors said to me as I was discerning my call, “The church will be strengthened when one day the deacons outnumber the elders.”  The way I understood that comment was we need more people with theological training, ordained ministry credentialing and a clear understanding of calling to bridge the church and the world in ways that are effective and relevant in a 21st-century mission field.  By God’s grace, deacons like me and the many others serving the church are doing our best to keep that connection alive and the bridge strengthened so that God’s “kin-dom” work is known.

Rev. Dr. Amy Valdez Barker serves as the Executive Director for the Global Mission Connections Unit of Global Ministries for The United Methodist Church.  She leads a staff that relates to partners in the worldwide United Methodist and ecumenical mission network, seeking to foster collaborative interaction for church development and Christian service. She has extensive experience on the connectional level of the church, having worked for the Connectional Table, a program and policy coordinating agency, from 2010 to 2017, four years as the top executive.   She is an ordained deacon in full connection with the North Georgia Annual Conference.  Most recently, she completed a book with Abingdon, called “Trust By Design: The Beautiful Behaviors of an Effective Church Culture,” taking the Towers Watson Research about the denomination’s lack of trust and exploring ways in which the church needs to rebuild trust internally and beyond church relationships.  You can reach her for more information at avaldezbarker@umcmission.org.

“Just” a Deacon – Ministry That Matters

by Rev. Jeania Ree Moore

My name is the Rev. Jeania Ree Moore and I am a deacon commissioned to a ministry of word, service, compassion, and justice by the California-Pacific Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church (UMC).

I serve as the Director of Civil and Human Rights at the General Board of Church and Society in Washington, D.C., where I advocate on behalf of the church for a myriad of issues (immigrant, migrant, and refugee justice; gun violence prevention; criminal justice reform; ending the death penalty; and other justice issues on which The UMC has spoken). I also connect with and support United Methodists around the world who are working for justice in their contexts.


Rev. Jeania Ree Moore

It is a busy job and an incredible one. I am thankful for the witness and work of the church, my colleagues, and the millions of United Methodists and people of faith and goodwill working daily for justice and peace. I could not do this ministry without so many others!

My call story

I am one of those people who did not go to seminary to get ordained, and wound up on the ordination track anyway. When entering seminary at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, I knew that I was neither called to nor interested in working in a local parish setting. What I did not know, however, was how seminary would identify and further develop the ways in which I am called to ministry – that is, through justice work and education.

While at Candler, I had several transformative experiences working with, teaching, and advocating for justice for women incarcerated at Lee Arrendale State Prison, Georgia’s largest maximum security prison for women. These experiences showed me my gifts and the ways in which God empowers me to do things I had never imagined. This led me to embrace a call to the Order of Deacon.

Favorite thing about being a deacon

My favorite thing about being a deacon is meeting and getting to learn about other deacons! Seriously! The diversity of ministries we as deacons embody is for me one of the most exciting things about being a deacon.

One of my friends is a deacon and an art therapist whose practice serves LGBTQIA youth of color, HIV/AIDS clients, and homeless individuals. Other deacons I know of are lawyers, educators, chaplains, and specialized ministers. The work of deacons outside the church, and in overlooked places and spaces inside the church, is vital for both church and world. Our vocations are reminders to the world—and, often, to the church—that God’s good news necessarily goes far, wide, and is embodied in different ways and professions.

Why it’s important to celebrate the work of the deacon

When I was discerning the deacon’s ordination track, a friend and mentor told me, “You know, deacon’s ordination is the little girls’ ordination.” She said this in an effort to get me to consider the elder’s ordination track.

Given that I was uninterested in parish ministry and had no problems with a less prominent role in church politics, her comment did not sway me. It did, however, alert me to a harmful dynamic I have continued to encounter: the idea that deacon’s work is “less than,” or is not “real” ministry, or is not the ministry that matters. Just recently, a colleague and friend of mine inadvertently described another clergyperson to me as “just a deacon” and “not actually a Reverend” (rest assured, I corrected my colleague – we are not “just” anything, and we are indeed Reverends!).

This conception of deacon’s work as “less than,” as not “real” ministry, or as not the ministry that matters, is clearly sexist, rooted in gendered views of the options and appropriate roles for women doing the work of God. This conception of deacon’s work is also incorrect – the work of deacons is real ministry, is not less than other ministries, and is the ministry that matters.

Speaking personally, it matters that I am commissioned as a clergyperson by my church to preach, serve, and do work of justice and compassion in support of just and restorative policies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Speaking up for God’s vision of a just society at the heart of national and international politics, matters.

I am glad for the opportunity to do this work, and to uplift the vital work and role of deacons everywhere.

Jeania Ree manages the civil and human rights portfolio at Church and Society. This includes work on immigration, criminal justice reform, gun violence prevention, the death penalty, religious liberty, education, refugees and migration, and voting rights.

Her work on civil and human rights centers on upholding human dignity, and engages emphases — such as racial justice — which support that dignity.

Jeania Ree feels called to ministries of justice and compassion through advocacy and theological education. Having experienced activism as faithful witness, she believes that in this work of faith-based advocacy, we both give and receive God’s grace. Jeania Ree hopes to have an impact not simply on an issue, but also on the people involved in advocating.

A graduate of the Candler School of Theology and the University of Cambridge, Jeania Ree is a commissioned deacon in the California-Pacific Conference.

Word. Service. Justice. Compassion.

by Rev. David Dodge

Word. Service. Justice. Compassion.  These are the descriptors that The Book of Discipline uses to define the role of the Order of Deacon in The United Methodist Church.

When the 1996 General Conference created a permanent Order of Deacon, it was with the specific understanding that people who were called to this Order would serve as the bridge between the world and the church, between the church and the world. Now, some 23 years later, that expressed need is stronger than ever.

David Dodge 1

Rev. David Dodge

In our increasingly marginalized society, we can witness United Methodist deacons standing in the gap drawing the church to the world outside its walls and drawing the world to a position inside the walls of the church.  We see deacons serving in the many places where the Word needs to be proclaimed.  Where service is so needed.  Where justice is absent.  And where compassion is rarely found.

Today we can see how The United Methodist Church is living into this understanding of the role of the deacon in our polity.  We see them serving as

  • Chaplains in hospitals, colleges, and universities
  • Leading community food banks
  • Developing ministries to the homeless
  • Aiding churches to find new ways to reach out to the community
  • Organizing missional outreach opportunities that address the needs of hurting people
  • Serving as educators, musicians, and administrators
  • Addressing health issues as parish nurses
  • Directing community organizations that serve the marginalized
  • And the list goes on and on for as long as there is need to be noted in the world

It is appropriate that the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women would choose to highlight this order of ministry in The United Methodist Church in that the large majority of people who have heard this call from God and responded are women. And yet, there is work to be done within the church’s understanding of the role of the deacon.  In a denomination that seeks to value equally the role of every person, there is disparity between the way male deacons and female deacons are compensated and supported by the church.  If we are to be true to the calling that we each have as Christians and as United Methodists, the church will need to look seriously at itself and how it addresses the issues of gender equality.

Today we live in a world that sees people seeking to separate themselves from people who do not think like them or look like them, and we need leaders who call us back to our biblical roots and to the inclusion of all people in the church of Jesus Christ.  Deacons are here to serve that call, helping the church to fling open the doors and move into the community.  And helping those outside the church to find the ever-encompassing love of God.  This comes through relationships that are forged through Word, Service, Justice, and Compassion.  This is the role of the deacon in The United Methodist Church.

David A. Dodge holds a bachelor’s degree in behavioral sciences and master’s degrees in intercultural studies and Christian education, all from Scarritt College in Nashville, Tennessee, which nurtured Christian students until it closed in 1988.  Dodge also did graduate work in educational psychology, focusing on moral and faith development, at the University of Florida.  He was consecrated as a diaconal minister in 1977 in the Alabama-West Florida Conference and ordained as a deacon in 1997 in the Florida Conference.

Dodge has served throughout Florida in a myriad of ways including Director of Christian Education at St. Mark UMC in Pensacola; Director of Children and Youth Ministries at First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables; Minister of Program and Administration at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville; Executive Director of the Center for Clergy Excellence of the Florida Conference; and Assistant to the Bishop of the Florida Conference, before retiring in 2016.  Dodge also has served as a director on the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and currently serves as a director on the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women’s board.  He is also a certified facilitator for the Center for Courage and Renewal.

Dodge and his wife, Patti, have been married since 1971 and currently reside in St. Augustine Beach.  They have an adult daughter, Lara, who works as an environmental consultant in Indianapolis.  Their son, Dana, a landscape designer, died in 2003 at age 27.