by Sally Blanchard
For Rev. Julia “Jules” Nielsen she sees her gift as a deacon in ministry to be an interpreter of the church language.
She said she always knew her leadership qualities would be most effective as a deacon where she could “shake the sandbox” when she sees a need for systemic change. Being a deacon, rather than an elder she said, allows her to “focus on people outside of the church and on the margins.”
A deacon in the United Methodist church goes through the same or similar seminary education and steps to ordination as elders and may have additional educational degrees. The main difference is their focus on being in the community and bringing those experiences back to the church, rather than focusing on the flock inside the church reaching out.
This year the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church, in concert with Conferences across the denomination, is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Order of Deacons. Established in 1996, deacons are called to the ministry of serving those on the margins of society “to witness to the Word in their words and actions, and to embody and lead the community’s service in the world for the sake of enacting God’s compassion and justice.”
The Oregon-Idaho Conference Order of Deacons is honoring its members through various videos and resources which will be available at www.umoi.org/deacons. In recognition of this milestone, deacons within the Conference are sharing their stories about what called them to this unique ministry path.
Nielsen shared that her experiences of being bullied as a child nurtured great empathy in her for those she sees as left out. She relishes her role of interpreting theology to those who don’t speak the sometimes foreign-sounding language of the church. Community organizing for racial justice, stopping domestic violence, advocating for queer people is an integral part of her vocation.
Nielsen considered a career in counseling before becoming a deacon. After earning her master’s of divinity degree and a master’s degree in theological studies in the history of the church in America , she worked for six years in sexual assault and family violence prevention. Feeling burned out, she learned she was more drawn to working to prevent the harm in the first place. She wanted to be an interpreter of theology to those outside of the church – any church.
Today Nielsen serves as the chair of the Oregon-Idaho Conference Board of Ordained Ministry. This group of 22 people is a disciplinary, credentialing, accountability and care body. The board is made up of clergy and lay people who oversee all ministers in the United Methodist Church in the Oregon-Idaho Conference.
She is also a busy pastor at Portsmouth Union Church, a union of The United Methodist and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denominations in Portland. In 2018, the congregation began one of the first affordable housing projects in the state on church-owned property. Over the past 3 years they helped found a state-wide coalition for building affordable housing. It took some time, but she reports there are currently three stories of framed building on their land and they hope to have occupancy of 20 housing units by this winter. It will house primarily veterans.
Nielsen explains that the role of deacons is to bring outside perspectives into the church and interpret the church wherever the challenges outside the walls arise.
When asked what the next 25 years of deacons serving in Oregon and Idaho might bring, Nielsen believes the importance of deacons will be lasting and important no matter the future of the United Methodist Church.
“Deacons have a special vocation to call in diverse perspectives and to listen deeply with, to, and among people living on our church’s and communities’ margins,” Nielsen said. “This vocation is going to be essential to the future of not only our local congregations but our denomination as a whole. It’s ancient, timeless, and always relevant.”
Patty Meyers is recently retired and serving with Jane Hill as co-chairs of the Oregon-Idaho Conference Order of Deacons.
She defines the role of deacon as “a person who is called by God to a lifetime of service, who is authorized by the church and ordained by a bishop, set apart for ministry for the work of word, service, compassion, love and justice. We’re called to give leadership to the church and to teach and proclaim the gospel. We can assist elders with the sacraments and to do faith formation and nurturing disciples… and people see us conducting marriages and funerals. But I think a big part for deacons is that we are leading the church to recognize the needs of the community and to equip the saints to claim their calls to ministry.
“We have a wonderful order of deacons in Oregon and Idaho. We really do live out the purpose of the order and are here for one another” Meyers said.
The order provides regular gatherings for continuing education and faith formation to keep up to date in their vocation and take care of each other’s spirits. They offer mutual support and assistance to each other. Oregon deacon and artist, Rev. Ardis Letey, designed special stationery for the order. The co-chairs use this for handwritten notes to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and other special dates.
Meyers’ path as a deacon has been filled with music and teaching. Hearing her call to ministry as a young person, she always felt she was meant to be a Christian educator. She began with by teaching music in public schools before attending seminary at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary where she joined a United Methodist Church.
“United Methodist theology fit me like a glove,” she explained. In 1981 she moved to Oregon and served churches for 20 years serving as a minister, educator, and musician. After marrying her husband Bob Meyers, former treasurer of the Oregon-Idaho Conference, she joined the faculty at Marylhurst University while also serving small churches.
She earned doctoral degrees in applied ministry in religious education and educational leadership and was ordained in 1999. Recruited by Pfeiffer University in North Carolina she was a professor teaching Christian education and music. Along the way she authored eight books, Bible studies and curriculum, and dozens of articles, poems, songs and hymns. She has served as a consultant and speaker.
Today at 69, she looks back fondly on her years of teaching and her many students who have kept in touch with her. Remembering the students she followed through their seminary and early career years, her teacher’s heart swells with gratitude, “I feel so honored to have walked alongside them.”
When asked how she sees the deacons’ path in the future she answered, “The church needs deacons more than ever because we are called to be bridges between the church and the world; we bring the world to the church and the church to the world. I’m grateful to share love in the world.”