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Whites commissioned to lifetime service

Whites commissioned at Leland Community UMC

Michelle and Bill White of 5Loaves2Fish Northern Michigan commit to a lifetime of lay ministry as the Michigan Conference’s newest deaconess and home missioner.

Content Editor

On October 11, 2023, Michelle and Bill White were commissioned to the Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner, a ministry path of lifetime service for laity within The United Methodist Church. Bishop David Bard preached and led the commissioning, and Julia Paradine-Rice spoke on behalf of the Michigan Conference United Women in Faith as president. The Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner is a program of United Women in Faith.

Bill and Michelle started 5Loves2Fish Northern Michigan at Leland Community UMC in Leelanau County, Michigan’s “little finger,” in March 2020 with a vision to feed people experiencing food insecurity and homelessness, no questions asked. Their mission is simple — “We Feed People” — and they work closely with Northwest Food Coalition and Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan to provide homemade meals throughout Leelanau County, at Veterans Memorial Park and Safe Harbor in Traverse City, and at Lake Ann UMC in Benzie County.

Michelle and Bill would have been commissioned in person — deaconess as a laywoman and home missioner as a layman — at General Conference 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed it. With permission, they were commissioned, at long last, at the ministry site they started, surrounded by friends and the faith community to which they belong.

Being active church members is relatively new for both Bill and Michelle. Bill was raised Lutheran but stepped away from the church for some time. Michelle had no previous church affiliation but was moved to attend Leland Community UMC, just down the street from their house, through a series of Holy Spirit-led invitations following a difficult season of life in 2016. (Read more about Michelle’s faith journey in this earlier story.) After getting more involved in church, Michelle felt a call to something more and then spoke with then-pastor Rev. Daniel Hoffman, who gave her a book on ministry roles within The United Methodist Church.

Feeding the homeless in Traverse City
Michelle and Bill White love feeding people and their ministry, 5Loaves2Fish, does that in the Grand Traverse, Leelanau, and Benzie counties. ~ photo courtesy 5Loaves2Fish

Michelle felt immediately drawn to the description of deaconess, a lay role that puts faith into action and focuses on social justice concerns, matters close to her heart. She then went to a discernment event in Tucson, AZ, sponsored by United Women in Faith, with her husband by her side. Bill had started going to church with her once Michelle had deepened her involvement there. Returning home from Arizona, they both resonated with the deaconess and home missioner program and believed that God had called them to a lifetime of service in this lay order.

The Office of Deaconess, patterned after the biblical witness of the deaconess Phoebe in Romans 16, has been a part of the Methodist tradition for over 130 years. Lucy Rider Meyer and her husband started a training school for deaconesses in Chicago in 1885 to educate young women in various disciplines, including biblical studies, sociology, and economics. The school sent women to minister to tenement dwellers, aid immigrants and the urban poor, and serve as nurses, social workers, and other community leaders.

The Methodist Episcopal Church officially recognized the Office of Deaconess in 1888, but the Office of Home Missioner didn’t get established until much later in 2004, providing a pathway for laymen to serve in set-apart vocational ministry for The United Methodist Church. Today, the program is a part of United Women in Faith, tracing its history back to Rider Meyer’s original vision. (Read more about the history and evolution of this lay movement in this detailed article.)

As outlined in ¶1913 of The Book of Discipline, deaconesses and home missioners follow Jesus and make him known through service to their community. They commit themselves completely to Jesus’ ministry and mission, which call his followers to:

    • Alleviate suffering;
    • Eradicate causes of injustice and all that robs life of dignity and worth;
    • Facilitate the development of full human potential; and
    • Share in building global community through the church universal.

This call of the deaconess and home missioner matched Michelle and Bill’s servant hearts and professional experiences, and they began the program in 2018. As part of their training, they spent time in Asheville, NC, and visited Haywood Street. This urban ministry focuses on community development and seeks to “include and prioritize those in our community who are often overlooked.” Lovingly self-dubbed “holy chaos,” the Haywood Street community is always abuzz with activity, which inspired Michelle and Bill.

Cooking for feeding ministry
All of the meals cooked by 5Loaves2Fish are homecooked, from-scratch meals, with ingredients coming mostly from donated food sources in the community. ~ photo courtesy 5Loaves2Fish

Michelle explains, “Haywood is incredible. It just vibrated. And the minute we walked in, I looked at Bill and said this is what I want to do. I want to work with these people and make a difference in this realm.”

With her experience working in restaurants and catering and possessing a pioneering spirit, Michelle returned home and wouldn’t let this ministry “bug” go. She felt the kitchen at Leland Community UMC was underutilized and wanted to do more to reach their community. So, she worked with the church to try out a Soup Sunday to bring attention to the homeless and food insecure in the community, but it didn’t seem to catch on.

During this time, Michelle helped start an “Art & Soul” program at Traverse City: Central UMC during their weekly outreach breakfast to the homeless and marginalized. The purpose was to inspire dignity, pride, and purpose in the unhoused and those in need through self-expressive art. At Art & Soul events, Michelle befriended Melissa West, a fellow art lover, and they became fast friends. And then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit in late winter of 2020.

“When the pandemic hit,” says Michelle, “Melissa called and said, you have to do something. People are starving. They’re shutting down the meal sites. So, a friend and I started cooking in Leland and putting stuff in spaghetti jars; we had no containers. We didn’t know what we were doing in those early days.” But Michelle and her small team felt called and brought food to parking lots in Traverse City to distribute meals to those in need, and 5Loves2Fish was launched.

Eventually, word got around, and Rev. Jane Lippert, Community Outreach Coordinator at Traverse City: Central and head of the outreach breakfast there, called and asked Michelle if she was feeding people. Lippert was very grateful but she wanted to work with Michelle to get things organized better. Michelle’s meals were skewing the numbers for the other sites in town still feeding people, and each of these feeding sites depended on numbers for grants. So, Jane worked with Michelle to choose a day, time, and location for 5Loves2Fish’s meal distribution.

“We had been distributing at Veterans Park in Traverse City a little bit, so that’s what we wanted. We picked Monday nights, 5 o’clock. And we still show up, 365 days a year. Tons of guests come and help us unload. We set up a nice line. People come; they stay. Goodwill comes and does paper intake. Harm Reduction comes and does blood draws. Our pastor comes and does communion and whatever pastoral needs there may be. Community has been created.”

Commissioning Service
Members of the Michigan Conference celebrate the commissioning of Deaconess Michelle White and Home Missioner Bill White: Rev. Jodie Flessner, Superintendent of the Western Waters District; Bishop David Bard; Michelle White; Rev. Tim Woycik, pastor of Leland Community UMC; Bill White; Rev. Alice Fleming Townley, Mission and Justice Coordinator for the Michigan Conference. ~ photo by Michael Townley

In just over three years, 5Loves2Fish has expanded its distribution sites, and the number of meals has multiplied. So far, in 2023, 5Loves2Fish has served approximately 13,000 meals in Grand Traverse, Leelanau, and Benzie counties. It’s poised for growth, thanks to a supportive United Methodist congregation and the commitment of 12 to 15 dedicated volunteers from the community who come each week to make from-scratch meals for neighbors out of the basement kitchen of Leland Community UMC.

5Loves2Fish recently became a separate nonprofit and has been able to hire an Operations Director, Emily Kanitz. According to Michelle, Emily is the perfect person to get a handle on this feeding ministry’s expanding needs with her international logistics experience. “I really wanted to make this thing be forever if possible. And so, Emily came on board, and her background couldn’t be more perfect for this food highway that we’ve got going.”

This feeding ministry continues to be actively supported by Bill and Michelle, even as they dream about the mustard-seed possibilities that could come. Deaconess Michelle brings creativity and a can-do attitude. Home Missioner Bill brings a heart for people and a passion for battling injustice as a retired social worker.

So, what sustains Bill and Michelle in their ministry? What keeps them going as they work to alleviate suffering and chip away at the injustices causing food insecurity and homelessness?

Michelle responds, “For me, it’s the people we serve. There are times when we’re like, what are we doing? We should be traveling. And then Monday rolls around, and we realize this is exactly what we should be doing. There is something about so many of these people. I think they are earth angels. I think God sends us Jesus all the time. And if we pay attention enough, we realize that we are not the ones providing the service. Many of the people provide us with scripture without ever saying it. When you serve a homemade meal filled with love to somebody who says, thank you for being here, God bless you. You just got yourself a whole bunch of scripture. Whatever you believe, that’s God in action.”

The Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner, a United Methodist program for laywomen and laymen, has been a vocational path for Bill and Michelle as they utilize the skills and gifts God has given them. According to Megan Hale, Executive for the Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner with United Women of Faith, there are 242 active deaconesses and home missioners in the United States. There are 113 retired deaconesses and home missioners, along with 59 candidates in process. Here in Michigan, there are three deaconesses and one home missioner in active service: Anne Hillman, Director of Children, Youth & Family Ministries at Detroit: Central UMC; Valerie Mossman-Celestin, Executive Director of Haitian Assets for Peace International (HAPI); and Bill and Michelle White of 5Loaves2Fish.

Those interested in exploring The Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner are invited to a virtual discernment event on Saturday, December 2, 2023, at 1 pm ET/noon CT. This two-hour event is for laity in The United Methodist Church who feel called to full-time vocational ministries in diverse contexts.

Click here to learn more and to register for this event. Watch this video to hear more stories about other deaconesses and home missioners. If there are more questions, contact Megan Hale at United Women in Faith at [email protected].

Last Updated on November 1, 2023

The Michigan Conference