The Diaconate Structure

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By Lori Wiersma and Connie Kuiper VanDyke

Advice for experienced deacons: provide a good orientation to new deacons. You’ll reduce stress and increase job satisfaction if you provide new deacons with clarity about structure, roles, and responsibilities. Be sure to look for gifts of service AND administration as the following excerpt from the Deacon’s Handbook explains.

Diaconate Structure
Local diaconates are structured in a variety of ways, often determined by the size of the congregation. In smaller churches, a deacon may be assigned a wide variety of tasks. Some of these will be administrative functions: serving as chair, benevolence treasurer, secretary, or committee member. Others will be more people-oriented: working with people to meet financial needs inside and outside the church, making hospital and funeral visits, or conducting visits with members.

Many churches recognize that people do not often possess both administrative gifts and service gifts. Since both sets of gifts are needed to carry out all the responsibilities of deacons, many churches divide tasks into two areas. Administrative deacons spend the majority of their time in meetings, planning, and doing other administrative work. Service deacons build relationships with congregational members and community people and work directly to meet their needs.

Assigning Roles
However your diaconate is structured, each deacon should have roles and responsibilities assigned according to his or her particular gift and heart for ministry. These roles and tasks might include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • benevolence team member responding to requests for help with food, rent, utility, and other basic needs
  • editor of a deacon newsletter or bulletin
  • transportation coordinator
  • leader of an ongoing community service project
  • representative to the deacons’ conference or classis
  • chairperson or treasurer

Administrative deacons and service deacons work together to meet the goals of the diaconate. For example, a service deacon may identify the need for a service project. An administrative deacon may then help organize what needs to be done, determine what resources are available, and schedule the event, while the service deacon recruits members from the congregation to carry out the project and communicates with the people involved and the congregation.

It’s important to make your preferences clear when assignments are being made. This allows you to seek a role for which God has gifted you. Here’s where the gifts survey we discussed in chapter 6 can be of great help and can validate individual gifts.

Nominating for Categories of Service
One good way to assure that deacons are matched in ministry areas based on their giftedness is to nominate future council members in the categories of administration and service. This can be taken one step further by nominating people specifically for the roles in the diaconate that need to be filled, such as treasurer, chair, service project deacon, or benevolence deacon. In this way, people are nominated for a role for which they are qualified; they will not be surprised later by being assigned a role for which they are not gifted. A database of spiritual gifts will be most helpful in this process.

Orientation for New Deacons
Those who are beginning a term as a deacon for the first time should not be expected to figure out for themselves what they are supposed to do. Each of the deacons who is finishing his or her term should be paired with one of the new deacons to answer questions and give general guidelines.

Every church should put together for each new deacon a folder with basic information: the dates and times of meetings, a diagram of church leadership structure (council or consistory, diaconate, committees, and so on), and a list of ministry leaders within the church who will be partnering with the deacons in their work.

Every deacon should have ready access to a list of community resources that includes a description of the ministry and contact information, key contacts inside and outside of the church for various issues, a list of websites that will be helpful in finding resources and understanding problems, and a list of Scripture verses for encouragement and for reference in visiting and working with people. If your church has a library, make sure it includes current books and articles about diaconal ministries and that deacons are aware of these resources.

Diaconal Ministries Canada advises that newly elected deacons can best be supported by a mentor—an experienced deacon who will help them answer the practical questions that come up in their work. A mentor is able to share experiences and accompany the new deacon on visits. New deacons who are connected to an experienced deacon are ready to do ministry much sooner than those who are left to discover the task on their own. The diaconate could also do the following to assist the transition for new deacons:

  • provide a written task description.
  • explain how to respond to needs in the church and community.
  • detail the activities in which the diaconate participates throughout the year.
  • encourage ways to develop the new deacon’s particular gifts.
  • nurture spiritual growth with regular prayer and devotions.
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