Diakonia Redux: Will Deacons Get a Voice?

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I am not sure I’ve ever heard a deacon speak up at classis. Though deacons have been delegated to Classis Chatham for seven years, I’d be hard pressed to identify how their presence has affected the meetings of classis. However, we will soon be able to test whether this is simply a failure of my own perception. Synod 2105 is being asked to ratify church order changes that will make the delegation of deacons to major assemblies the rule, rather than the exception, and to approve a report on the offices of elder and deacon.

I was a delegate to Synod 2013 and a member of the advisory committee that recommended the path leading to this new report. As I read it, however, I think that Synod 2015 will be faced with many of the same challenges that faced Synod 2013.

To begin with, having changes to more than a dozen church order articles before it, synod will be tempted to either get bogged down in the details of each change, or to pass the entire package without fully discussing the implications of any one change. Some changes seem straightforward, though adding the words suitably gifted to article 4 manages to be both insulting (as if assemblies paid no attention to giftedness in the past), and naive (as if the addition of four words will change nomination procedures in the future). Others, like the revision of Article 1, merely refocus the entire church order.

In addition, synod will still be faced with the reality that while some classes believe this change is overdue, others see absolutely no reason for it. Some people might say that it is part of the problem, but as the CRC is increasingly diverse and understandings of leadership in different contexts and cultures develop, I wonder about the wisdom of imposing a model on the entire denomination. Furthermore, I am not sure how much groundwork has been done to learn how the suggested changes will be received or implemented in different classes across the denomination.  

Finally, there is the question of whether these changes will have the desired effect.  One of the aims of the Diakonia Remixed report of 2013 was a “revitalized, more robust diaconate.” In a similar vein, the 2015 report looks for a “revitalization of practice in the offices of elders and deacons within local congregations.” This revitalization may happen if the recommendations in these reports are adopted, but synod ought to at least discuss this. Though deacons have been delegated to my classis for seven years, I am not sure I’ve ever heard a deacon speak.

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Community Builder

Thank you for your thoughtful comments for us to consider as we look ahead to Synod 2015. I share your concern about the possibility--perhaps even likelihood--that the delegates to Synod 2015 could get "bogged down" with all the recommended changes to the articles of church order. You raise some important questions and I would like to hear what others are thinking about it as well.

I for one am excited to see what the changes might bring. I have been at classis meetings where elders barely spoke a word. According to this line of reasoning, perhaps we shouldn't delegate them to classis, either.

Community Builder

Here is the summary of the Synod's Agenda. Look how neatly all the ministries of the CRC HO Departments & Ministries have been pigeonholed into the five streams. The CRC Extension Fund in Canada, which is 3 times large than the US (Loan Fund) one, is not even mentioned anywhere.

Faith Formation
Calvin College
Discipleship and Faith Formation Ministries
Servant Leadership
Chaplaincy and Care Ministry
Christian Reformed Church Loan Fund, Inc., U.S.
Pastor-Church Relations 
Pensions and Insurance
Safe Church Ministry
Global Missions
Christian Reformed Home Missions
Christian Reformed World Missions
Loving Mercy and Doing Justice
Committee for Contact with the Government
Disability Concerns
Race Relations
Social Justice and Hunger Action
Urban Aboriginal Ministries
World Renew
Gospel Proclamation and Worship
Back to God Ministries International
Calvin Theological Seminary 
Worship Ministries

The order is very telling. Gospel proclamation is last. With a 557 page Agenda it will be an interesting Synod. Why Deacons would even want to participate is a question for me. They have their hands full at the local church level.

True, deacons have their hands full at the local church level.  This has sometimes been used as an argument for not delegating them to the broader assemblies.

But couldn't the same thing be said of pastors?  Of elders?  Yet there is no talk of them staying home.

Ultimately, doesn't it all go back to fully reflecting the work of the risen and ruling Christ, though the offices, at all levels of assembly and decision making?  It will be interesting to see what might take place when this becomes a reality.

 

 

Participant

While I support the idea of including deacons at Classis meetings, I wonder about the participation. It is hard to find deacons that are able/willing to take a day off of work for a Classis meeting. I often wonder about the possibility of deacons having their own meetings and reporting to Classis. A number of years ago I was in another Classis that made the change to include deacons. The attendance of deacons was minimal at best. We need full participation of deacons to make it work well.

Community Builder

Jeff,

I think you--and others--might appreciate and benefit by reading a letter written in 1939 by deacon Hendrik Schoonekamp about the need for and importance of deacon inclusion and representation. You can read it on The Network's page for Deacons here.

Community Builder

To those who might have missed it, there is a post on The Network's site for Deacons entitled, "What's Up With Deacons Going To Synod?." The post itself is a letter written to CRC Deacons by The Task Force to Study the Offices of Elder and Deacon. Given the interest sparked by this particular post, I think anyone wanting to better understand this issue might find it helpful. You can get directly to the post by going here. You might also be interested in reading a letter written in 1939 by a deacon that addresses the matter of deacon inclusion/representation also posted on the page for deacons here.

 

Community Builder

John Klein-Geltink, a deacon from Classis Chatham, emailed his response to this post and asked me to share it here--for some reason he was unable to post it directly.

Hello Jack
When I read the report I was rather put off as are other deacons.For the past 13 years a number of deacons of Classis Chatham have served on the Classis Chatham Ministry Committee and attended Classis meetings and voted on all matters. We even asked to set time at classis to have churches share Diaconial ministry at local communities,which did happen at our last May meeting.Deacons also designed questions to be discussed at Church visits about the nature of diaconial work in their commuttees.So I am not sure what Norman is talking about.
 

Participant

 

Norman, I full support the full inclusion of deacons at all assemblies.  We work together in God's kingdom and we need to share information, encourage one another, and partner together.  So, we need every opportunity to be in the same room together.  I understand your uncertainty, and we'll have a big learning curve.  I'm hoping that the changes we have to go through will leave lots of room for evaluation and flexibility so we can make accommodations.

Norman, I did find your reference to deacons not participating at classis meetings quite disturbing, and I shared that with you privately.  No elder, minister or deacon can be evaluated by the number of words that are being said at a classis meeting.  I might even suggest to you that some people (ministers in particular) probably say too many words at Classis and do not add a whole lot of value to the meeting.

I have been very blessed being in the presence of all God's servants.

Diane Plug

Community Builder

If, as some suggest, the roles and responsibilities of the offices reflect or are intended to reflect and perform the functions of Christ as prophet (pastor), priest (deacon) and king (elder), what does it say about our denomination's view of the role and responsibilities of the deacon (priest) when we don't include them and give them a voice and vote at synod?

Community Builder

I'll try to address your various points from my perspective as a deacon, a deacon who recently attended a classis meeting (and spoke at the meeting), and a member of both task forces that wrote the subject reports.

Your opening and concluding observation about not being sure about ever hearing a deacon speak at classis might be more indicative of the agenda and culture atmosphere of what classis meetings are like to deacons. Have the deacons been encouraged and mentored by pastors and elders to actively participate in the meetings and committees? Are the topics and discussions relevant to deacons? Do the deacons have a voice in shaping the meeting agenda? In my experience, certain pastors/elders may dominate the discussions. At the last meeting of Classis Atlantic Northeast, the delegates broke into small groups of four to pray for one another and also discuss a topic. Deacons participated equally with the elders and pastors in these small groups. This is one small example of how deacons can be encouraged to have a voice at a classis meeting. I've been told that almost every deacon from one of the churches who has attended a classis meeting in recent years has returned with renewed energy and excitement about ministry.

A couple points regarding the church order changes:

  1. The proposed changes are the result of four years of work over two task forces. The churches have had ample opportunity to comment on the changes and suggest revisions. (One specific revision suggested via overture in 2013 has been incorporated into the 2015 report.) I am sure that future synods will have additional changes based on experience working with these proposed changes.
  2. I hope that at this synod an advisory committee is assigned the sole task of working on this report. The advisory committee in 2013 was assigned additional work that didn't allow it to fully focus on the report it was given.
  3. Changes viewed individually rather than in the context of all the other changes may be questioned, but we looked at every church order article with a big picture view of the offices to ensure that the articles communicated the vision of the offices of elder and deacon that we, and hopefully the church, wants to see.
  4. We have no expectation that these church order changes, in themselves, will be the primary means of revitalization of the offices of deacon and elder. That's why there are other recommendations in the report that are just as important as the church order changes. In my opinion, this report should be viewed as the beginning of a journey of revitalization and not the final word on what needs to be done.

Finally, addressing your concern about imposing a model on the entire denomination, well, isn't that what being a denomination with a church order is all about? Isn't requiring elders and pastors to be delegated to classis meetings already an imposed model? I encourage classes to be creative and share their experiences with incorporating deacons into the structure of classis.

Community Builder

Terry,

Thanks for "jumping in" to share your perspectives and thoughts as someone who has been intimately involved in this process for several years now. I am grateful for interest and responses that Norman's post has generated thus far. I encourage those who are following this conversation to share their thoughts on the post itself or in response to any of the comments made thus far. 

Community Builder

I appreciate Norman and Terry's comments. The church made an interesting change when it broadened the skill sets for the ED of the Denomination. Now when you look at the skill sets of those who are nominated to the BOT and the Boards of the various ministries, the "quota's"  for Ministers and Lay people come into play.The "Lay" people for that do not have to be Elders or Deacons but certainly can be. Looking at skill sets has became a factor on one of the Boards I served on and that is good.

If that review of skill sets could be applied to those selected to go to Synod, the distinction between Elders and Deacons could largely fall away. Now of course you need a skill set evaluation at the congregational level if you want to be consistent. But here is where the problem comes in. Pastors on the payroll can always (I hope) get time off for Synod/ Classis. But for lay people this is more problematic. Not only they have to devote time to local work in the role of Elder or Deacon but they can also be delegated to Classis and Synod.

Despite all of the new technology, and how it was supposed to help us, it has probably done the opposite. It is harder than ever to "get away" from the job. In our church polity we have to rely on the wisdom of church Councils and Classis to select the most capable (and I hope with appropriate skill sets) people as delegates to the Ministry Boards and to Synod.

I will make (repeat) another bold suggestion. Could the church not take Calvin College out of its governance structure and also find a totally new way to govern World Renew (e.g. give that role to the Deacons)?

I think that looked at from a historical perspective, the office of deacon is incredibly flexible and has manifested itself in many different forms.  Your note about nominating people according to skill sets brings up an interesting historical note, Harry.  In Geneva the deacons were divided up into procurators, what we would call administrative deacons, and hospitalars, who had the care of the poor and sometimes lived among them.  Calvin defended this distinction exegetically.  Maybe in our new setup it will make sense to make use of it again.  

Participant

The question is how to get deacons involved in Classis and Synod? Would a stipend for those losing wages be an effective measure? Some Classes have stipends for elders to attend Synod. Perhaps that is a route to explore...

Thanks, Terry for your remarks. I wonder what the participation rate of deacons is at Classis Atlantic Northeast? I left CANE in 2008 and at the time, deacons delegated to Classis was relatively new, but participation/attendance at Classis was not a very high percentage. Has that changed considerably over time? I believe Classes that allow women deacons will likely have a higher percentage of attendance than Classes that have not yet approved that measure.

 

Who cares if the deacon can or cant speak at Classis, or synod, or who has what role if the work of the church of either office is not being done effectively.  We have much to say and are amazingly articulate in our own assemblies but are mute in practical matters in our congregations and especially in our communities.  We have the cart before the horse.  Let's go for what's working and rewrite our playbook.  

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