Alive? Welcome to Council!


Guest Blog by Melissa Van Dyk

Check your pulse. Do you have one? If so, you may be the perfect candidate for council!

It seems like there is a leadership crisis in many of our churches, specifically relating to our council roles of deacon and elder. Many congregations are struggling to find individuals who are able or willing to step into these roles. What’s going on? Why is this happening?

There are a number of reasons why this issue is surfacing and one of them is the fact that the number of professing members is declining. This means the number of people eligible to be deacons and elders is also decreasing. Part of this decline has also been attributed to young adults leaving the CRC prior to profession of faith and during the time they would most likely begin stepping into these leadership roles. The absence of these individuals has affected our council options as the pool of people we could draw from is not always being replenished with vibrant, fresh and willing to serve folks.

The shrinking pool of people leads into a second reason: burnout. Many members have been faithfully serving in the church for a LONG time. This potential for burnout isn’t always caused by “overworking.” Sometimes there’s an emotional weariness or spiritual fatigue from serving where you aren’t gifted, or serving without receiving support, wisdom, guidance or mentoring. Long-serving members may not have energy for one more thing on their plates.

While members wait for replacements to step-up and help with ministry, young people often find themselves engaged in studies or working to pay off giant student loans and too busy to take on a role serving the church. Families have children who are involved in a multitude of activities and working parents are involved in making sure their kids get where they need to go. A false idea of busyness as a virtue has pervaded our Western culture and is prevalent in our congregations, too. Busyness then becomes an excuse for not being involved in ministry within the church.

As a congregation, it can be difficult to navigate through this issue without feeling disheartened. What is your church doing to engage members in filling leadership roles? What can we as individuals do?  

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At one time, long, long ago, if you were nominated for an office, it was understood that you could not say "no", since you were called if chosen.   The spiritual value of the office, and the spiritual responsibility of all professing members and the implicit promise that they would serve where called, meant that the main difficulty for a council nominating new members was whether they met the qualifications of office, being apt to teach, being of good character, and ruling their households well.  

If the elder and deacon are seen only as another task, and not as a specific calling, then it is easy to say, "no, I won't serve as deacon, but perhaps I could clean the sidewalk, or paint the walls, or teach a class, or pay a little more to hire someone else to do the painting and lawncutting.   Or maybe we could pay a lilttle more to hire another pastor... "   The engagement should be at a spiritual level.   Leadership does not mean looking at a budget, or listening to reports.   It means listening to the Lord, and shaping the budget, and directing new ministries or invigorating old ministries.     The excitement of listening to the Lord needs to infiltrate everyone, and thus it will also infiltrate potential leaders. 

John, I really appreciate the deeper insight you've offered in this comment.  I am wondering if you have any further thoughts on how the view of office you have reminded us of morphed into the current view of office as just another task to do, because it seems to have eroded quite quickly in recent years.   

Good question, Melissa.  Possibly you could guess at the answers also.  Let me think out loud (on paper) a bit.   I suspect there are a combination of reasons.   Let me start with the calling of preachers.   Ministers used to have a calling that really trusted in the Lord, both for the calling, and for provision.   Some ministers really resisted the formation of a pension fund, just for that reason, because it seemed to take out the connection between the health of the church and providing for retired ministers.  As time went on, the preacherhood became more of a career, rather than a calling (in spite of what it is called).   This attitude also had an effect on everyone else, so that a farmer or carpenter now had a career instead of a calling, and it was mostly about making a living rather than providing a service or doing God's work in your daily occupation as a plumber or painter.  This is a subtle shift in attitude, unnoticed by most people. 

So this subtle shift also began to impact the roles of elder and deacon.   These became tasks and jobs to do rather than a calling by God, but they were tasks without pay, and so became just another volunteer opportunity, competing with the myriads of other volunteer opportunities in any community, including in the church. 

Associated with this is the increase in respect for wealth, for fiscal planning, for leisure, and the decline  of respect for sacrifice and service and calling.  

One more aspect of the lack of respect for calling is the perceived difference in calling for preachers vs elders and deacons.  In many cases, too much stuff is shoved to preachers, as if they are the only spiritual leaders.   This is very harmful to the other roles.   The church order states these offices are equal in honor, but the church order itself does not treat them as equal in honor, and people including pastors do not treat them with the honor they require.   Stating that a minister is of the word and sacraments is not necessary, for example.   There is no reason that an elder could not administer the sacraments, and they should be encouraged to do so, by taking turns especially at Lord's supper.   Elders ought to pronounce the blessings and benedictions without assuming that they are somehow less worthy to do so.  These things do not require a masters of divinity, and thus there is no justification for making a distinction, other than wanting to make preachers into priests, which is not reformed, and not scriptural. 

When preachers are asked to pray or lead at some social events, they ought to decline often, or deliberately ask an elder or deacon or former leader to do so, just to emphasize and teach the value of these callings.  

This leadership training also occurs elsewhere such as in the home or at other activities.   When we are at various board meetings or bible studies or at home having devotions around the table, we make a point of taking turns reading the bible, or praying, or leading in devotions, encouraging as many as possible to participate over time so that they have more opportunity to feel enriched, and less intimidated.  

Family visiting was not only a chance to encourage families or listen to their concerns, but it was also a training by experienced elders and pastors for the newer and younger elders and pastors as to how to deal with and introduce spiritual matters and concerns and answers into a family setting.   The less that is done is also resulting in a reduction of the training that used to happen.  

The task of deacon has improved a bit over the years as it has become more proactive, I think.   But I'm not sure if the message and reason for diaconal work that Stephen was stoned for, is obvious in the work of the deacons.   Deacons also ought to be able to give a clear reason for their life and work and calling in such a way that the glory always is given to God, and that the message of Christ's sacrifice and body of believers is obvious.   That is their calling. 

I also want to say that men are strange beasts.   Often they will leave tasks to women, if the women will do them.   This seems to be the case in several mainline denominations, where when women entered into the offices of elders and deacons and pastors, there was the result of a direct decline of men who felt called to those offices.   Maybe it was coincidental, maybe not.   If men do not lead in the church, they will be less likely to feel the need to lead in the home.   The lack of leadership by men in families has a direct result on the committment of the children to their faith life, and so a generation or two later, the children who grow up do not see their service in the church as a calling.  

While I hear your theory of "busyness", it has been my experience that people have always been busy.   Often busier in the past than today.   But they often set different priorities for their "busyness". 

Perhaps you also have some insights or theories on "the shrinking pool of people"?   I would be interested to hear them. 

One more comment, Melissa.   In some smaller churches or even in some larger churches, there should be no shame attached to having continuing service by some deacons or elders, if there is a small pool of eligible office bearers.   Some pastors have served continually in one church for twenty years, and if there is a need for this there should be no reason why longer terms or extended terms for some elders and deacons could not occur in the same way.    If there is a sense of calling, rather than just a job to get it over and done with, then this extended term will not seem unnatural or difficult when there is a need for it.