Can We Call You Deacon?

Those who do well as deacons will be rewarded with respect from others and will have increased confidence in their faith in Christ Jesus.
-I Corinthians 3:13
Deacon, From Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia:
Deacon is a role in the Christian Church which is generally associated with service of some kind, but which varies among theological and denominational traditions. In many traditions, the diaconate is a clerical office; in others, it is for laity.
The word deacon (and deaconess) is derived from the Greek word diakonos (διάκονος), which is often translated servant or more specifically waiter. Some believe that the office of deacon originated in the selection of seven men (among them Stephen) to assist with the pastoral and administrative needs of the early church. (Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 6).

In 1975, a Lutheran pastor by the name of Rev. Kenneth C. Haugk noticed a key shortfall in the workings of his congregation. There just wasn’t enough of him to go around. He wasn’t able to care for all the people in his charge in the way that he believed they should be. You see, Reverend Haugk, also a PH.D. in Clinical Psychology, recognized that there weren’t enough hours in a day to counsel and care for each and every member of his church.

And so he went to work to correct this issue, not only for his congregation, but in time for all churches and in all the places that recognize that people must be cared for as a mandate of Jesus Christ for the church.
Over the next twenty-five years, Rev. Haugk and others would work hard to create a ministry that would enable every pastor in every congregation to train and educate laity in caring for people. His system would become known as Stephen Ministry©. Currently, over 9,000 congregations from over 100 denominations use the Stephen Ministry system. Over 50, 000 people have been trained and empowered as counselors and care givers through the work of this system, so named after the apostle Stephen, the first lay person recognized in the early church for caring ministry.

To say, Dr. Haugk’s work has been successful is clearly stating the obvious. There is no way one could even begin to measure the amount of compassion and grace in the name of Jesus Christ that has been offered to people in need of care through the Stephen Ministry program. The work of Stephen Ministers in our congregations, even Presbyterian congregations, is incredible and invaluable. I would never take anything away from it.

Yet, as a Presbyterian interested in rediscovering our voice, I must notice that the work of Stephen Ministry should be redundant in our church system, or at the very least an add-on to the caring of the congregation done through the office established for such a purpose in our polity.

If the pastor is the theological voice in a congregation, and the elders are the spiritual voice of ministry, then we must certainly recognize the third office of ordination in our system, the care giving voice. In our Presbyterian system of polity, in the workings of our church, the voice of care givers and leaders in the ministry of compassion are deacons.

And yet, the work of Rev. Haugk points us to a problem. Just as the clear calling of pastors and elders has gotten a bit out of skew over the years, so has the crucial office of deacon been molded and shaped out of its originally intended purpose. The fact is that in many of our congregations today, the role of deacon has clearly gotten lost. Churches aren’t really sure what to do with the office of deacon. Some see it as a training ground for elders, a junior varsity in which to serve before being called up to the “big squad”.

Many churches have even eliminated the office of deacon altogether in favor of having twice as many elders serving on Session. This is the so called unicameral system that has taken over many churches in our denomination. They saw these two offices as so close as to be able to combine them completely without losing something in the mixture.

In some of our churches, the deacons seem only to fill in when there are jobs and responsibilities no one else seems to wants to handle. Deacons have become the official church usher board. They are the ones who collect food for the needy, not because the congregation is behind such a wider effort, but because the church knows it should be done and no one else wants to deal with it.

Some pastors use the deacon board as a clearing house for the resources of a congregation. If someone from the community calls for the support of their congregation with either money or time needed, the pastor merely refers it to the deacon board. It’s a quick and easy way to get it off the desk and into the hands of someone else to process.

All of these issues are clearly functions of the deacons in our system. However, without the central voice given to our deacons through our system of polity, I wonder if many of these functions do not become the motions one goes through when they have lost the passion of their work. More simply, I wonder if the problem is that our deacons have lost the passion for what they are doing.

Restlessness and discontent are the first necessities of progress.
-Thomas A. Edison

Perhaps this is what the many Presbyterian congregations who have adopted Stephen Ministry have noticed also and why they have sought out a new system. For too many years, our deacons have not had the voice of their office. For those churches who have adopted other systems, like Stephen Ministry, the purpose has been reinvigorated and restored. What about the others? With 9,000 churches and 50,000 people trained, even if all were Presbyterian which they are not, there are still too many congregations who are not caring for their congregants in a passionate way.

What Reverend Haugk first noticed in his church in 1975 is what many still notice even today. There are too many needs in a congregation, both physical and emotional, for one person or a small staff of persons to handle effectively. There are too many hurting people in our churches who are not being cared for.

The good news is that our very system of polity also recognizes this reality and therefore provides men and women to be set apart for such a task. Caring for people is such an important function of our church that we even have recognized its importance with a third office of ordination.

Presbyterians even take caring for others a step further than Stephen Ministry. In our Presbyterian system, we ordain people for such a task. We call them Deacons.

In many ways, our deacons hold the most important office there is for the individual members of our congregations and their families. While the pastor may be in charge of all things theological, and the elder may ensure the ministry of the church is being done, the deacons first make sure that the people are even able to do such things.

Without the deacons, the pastor’s theological questions and development of the presence of God with the people is met sometimes with aching bodies and empty hearts. A pastor can point to the fact that God is with you, but how much more effective is the witness when a deacon who comes in the name of Jesus Christ, holding your hand when it’s said. The pastor may tell you that God intends for you to be whole and healthy, but when you answer the phone to hear a Deacon ask if you need anything in the loss of your loved one, how much more will you believe?

Even with elders it is the same. Elders help us develop our spiritual gifts to share with the world. But if we are hurting or in physical need, these gifts seem even harder to discover. Imagine for a minute, if you can, the voice of Deacons or even a functioning Diaconal Board.

The following is just an example (with a few ideas) of what it might look like.  Each month the Deacons meet together. They have developed a system of cards, one for each member family that contains notes on the circumstances of need each member family has. The parish nurses and pastor are also there to offer support and information to the deacon board as they meet every month. At the appointed time, the board divides up the cards for the purpose of making visits. The cards from last month have been returned and reviewed for follow up. Every family in the church would be visited by a deacon, sometimes if only by phone, a couple of times a year, depending on the size of the church. But most importantly, over the course of that year, the entire congregation would be visited. It may be that no visit is necessary. A congregant might not want a contact, but regularly, someone from the faith community has inquired to see if there is anyone in need.

Imagine the benefits of such an effective ministry of the office of deacon. Through these visits, the pastor is made aware of special needs and concerns. But more than that, the elders are made aware of who is in their congregation of charge, and what their abilities are.

Something amazing happens when people are cared for in the name of Jesus Christ. They have a natural desire to offer themselves to the service of the church. As the individual hearts and minds of a congregation become healthier, the whole ministry of the church follows right along in step.

The elders, therefore, have a built-in caring component to their spiritual leadership and the pastor has a visible sign of the invisible grace they work so hard to proclaim. As a pastor, I wonder how we lost the
focus of such a meaningful office in our Presbyterian system. When did the voice of the deacon get laryngitis? When a new member joins our church, do we not promise to love and care for that person in the same way Jesus loved and cared for his disciples? And yet, we have walked away from the very voice in our churches that allows this to happen, our deacons.

If we are to rediscover our voice as the Presbyterian Church, perhaps rediscovering the voice and passion of deacons would be a good place to start. In the wisdom of the church, we have been gifted with the idea that a disciple of Jesus Christ called from the community to love and care for others is important. So important, in fact, that we ordain them and commission them for the office.

One question remains. What do we do with Stephen Ministry, and all those devoted and committed disciples who offer themselves to such a high calling? To be honest, we learn from them. We ask them to teach us and help us to rediscover caring ministry in the Presbyterian Church. Stephen Ministry is an invaluable part of many congregations who realize the value of caring for people.

What if you are trained as a Stephen Minister, and you are one of those who faithfully answers this call to ministry? What if you are also a Presbyterian and don’t want to be thought of as redundant or as an add-on? I wonder if you might consider allowing the whole church to recognize what you do.

There are basically three kinds of people: those who let things happen, those who make things happen and those who don't know anything happened.
-Winston Churchill

Can we recognize your voice in our church as one of sympathy, witness, and service after the example of Jesus Christ? Can we know you as a person of spiritual character, honest repute, of exemplary life, brotherly and sisterly love, warm sympathy, and sound judgment who offers yourself from our family of faith to those in our churches in need of such ministry? In short, can we call you deacon?

(How to reinvigorate passion and calling to the office of deacon)
1. Your church does not have to have a Deacon Board, even one person called to the ministry of caring can be named and ordained as a deacon.
2. If pastors are the nerve center, and elders are the backbone, then deacons are the hands and feet of the Body of Christ in the community.
3. Remember church officers are NOT made in the image of Mr. Potato Head. Deacons and elders require different gifts and skills. Their parts are not interchangeable.
4. You should know that Stephen Ministers make good deacons and deacons make good Stephen Ministers. Their parts are interchangeable.
5. Deacons are also NOT junior elders waiting to be promoted to the varsity squad.
6. Effective deacons are a good starting point for the ineffective church.
7. In the Presbyterian polity system, the need for deacons is not expendable. Others may serve the need but the need itself remains to be served.
8. A good usher is hard to find, a good deacon is not always the place to look.
9. If people don’t know the church cares about them simply by listening to the pastor say it from the pulpit on Sunday, a good deacon can best illustrate the point on Monday... and Tuesday...and Wednesday...
10. Have you hugged a deacon today? I’ll almost guarantee they’ll hug you back. After all, it’s what they do best.


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