What Do You Wish You Had Known When You Were First Installed?

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I've been wanting elders and deacons to weigh in on this question: What do you wish you had known when you were first installed in office?

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Community Builder

Hey Dave, great question! We also can't wait to hear people's thoughts and experiences; the good, the bad, and the ugly. (Well, hopefully none of them are ugly!)

Community Builder

When I was first ordained a CRC deacon in 1971, I was a servant and a rescuer on the course to burn-out. I made every mistake a deacon could make. A lot has happened since then, and I have now completed 31 years as Mercy Minister at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Below is an excerpt from my book, Not Just a Soup Kitchen written as a help for deacons.

Diakonia is the principle by which our Lord describes His entire ministry, and of the life and ministry of His followers:

Everything that was done by the Son of Man who came, Jesus Christ, including humiliation, self-emptying, cross and death is summarized in eight letters: d i a k o n i a.  The same single word also indicates the pattern of life for all who followed Jesus.  Diakonia: they go into service.... They are other-directed.... They find themselves among those in need; it has become their natural milieu.... They discover that they are being drawn into Jesus’ diaconate and start participating in it. (Deacons and Evangelism, CRC Publ., 1975, p88)

Diakonia is essential for the life and well-being of the Church. The Diaconate is about what the church is or should be. It is not something optional to the main thrust of the church’s ministry, but stands at the heart of the Gospel and its mission to the world. It is a reasoned and biblical concern for the well-being of another.  Those concerned with diaconal ministry are not merely concerned that no one is without food, but, also, about encouraging members and ensuring that they lack no good thing. They should be concerned that each member of the church has a place, feels cared for, and can function according to the gifts each has been given.

Ministry of mercy and compassion not only includes taking care of the financially poor, but also to relieving other forms of oppression and affliction. Yet, so many ordained servants enter compassion ministry without training or experience. They literally don’t know what to do and don’t understand the scope of their job description. Here, listed alphabetically (not in importance) are numerous ways diaconates serve their members. They presently care for:

Benevolence

Building and grounds

Communion

Counseling

Fellowship

Financial matters

Hospital visitation

Outreach to non-members

Outreach to members who are poor, sick, elderly, widowed, orphaned, and have special needs

Worship management, ushering, greeting, and security

This is a lengthy description of responsibilities, and the majority of diaconates do it all themselves. But, this is not a healthy model. I believe the healthy and appropriate model for deacons is described by Luke in Acts 6:1-6. The text reads:

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.  And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.  Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.

Although these seven were not called deacons, here they performed a diaconal ministry of mercy and service. The ministry to which they were called was caring for Grecian widows who were being neglected in this growing Christian community. At the time, there were hundreds of new converts in the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek speaking synagogues and the apostles were overwhelmed (according to Acts 2:41, three thousand were converted on one day). And, for “the seven,” what were the biblical requirements for this new ministry? Luke records that each must have a good reputation—filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom to be able to manage this new ministry of caring for the Greek-speaking widows. Picture this: there were hundreds of widows living within Jerusalem’s walls and in the countryside, and a mere seven men, who were called to serve. They, literally, could not do it all by themselves (as the apostles could not preach and serve). They needed the Holy Spirit and wisdom to manage and delegate such a ministry.

Similarly, consider today’s diaconal responsibilities of benevolence, building and grounds, caring for those in need, communion, counseling, fellowship, financial counseling, outreach, visitation, and worship management, ushering, greeting, and security. During my diaconal consultations, deacons have said to me

“We are very disorganized and need organization skills.” Included in their complaints are not knowing what resources are available nor how to refer people or to whom they should refer.  As one deacon said, “Everything is beyond our expertise!”

At another church, the discussion focused on the problem of time constraints. The deacons were not available during the day from Monday to Friday. A solution to caring for others during that time was also unavailable to them. “How can we involve others in mercy ministry (or in "our" mercy ministry)? How can we expose and train others when we feel under-trained ourselves?”

“We oversee both mercy ministry and the building. It is difficult to get volunteers to help us.”

During other discussions, I’ve heard

“What must we do as deacons?” Many churches provide no training prior to deacons being elected and taking office. It almost seems like these churches require no more than the person be breathing.

“What is our biblical responsibility in the church and to the community?” Absence of biblical knowledge is frightening and leads only to frustration, burn-out, and occasionally, people leaving the church. That is a sad commentary.

“What is not our responsibility?” Underneath this question is the premise that deacons don’t have to do everything.

“What resources are available for our use and referral?” A simple community survey or a walk/ride around the neighbor will answer this question.

“What ministries do neighboring churches have that we either complement or duplicate?” Again, asking the right people the right questions will give you the answers you need.

 “How can we stop feeling like we are putting out fires all over the place?” Only when people realize that there is a problem and do something to solve it will things change for the better. It takes more than doing the same problem producing activity over and over again and expecting different results. That’s insane. So, two questions must be asked:

1) What tasks require the Holy Spirit and wisdom—that is, what must deacons do?  2) What tasks do not require the Holy Spirit and wisdom, meaning they can be delegated to others?

During my years training deacons I have heard many opinions regarding the role of the deacon. These include the many mentioned earlier.  But, here is my list:

Deacons must equip and mobilize the saints.

Deacons must collect the gifts of God’s people and distribute them.

Deacons must stimulate a diaconal lifestyle.

Deacons must come alongside those who are hurting. 

Deacons must prevent poverty within the Body.

Deacons must be knowledgeable about local community resources.

Deacons must empower the needy to make good use of all available institutions of mercy

Deacons must cooperate with neighboring churches.

Note that the above do not conform to my training’s true and false questions. I jokingly respond to the deacon’s comments questions with these:

A qualification of the office of deacon is the ability to put out many fires at the same time. (True or False)

A qualification of the office of deacon is the ability to be ruled by “The Tyranny of the Urgent.” (True or False)

The Book of Church Order specifically prohibits deacons from having their answering machines intercept phone calls during family meals. Deacons must answer every call. (True or False)

According to 1 Timothy 24:7 deacons are charged to do all the work of the church. (True or False)

The Book of Church Order states that deacons must model for the congregation the various ways of burning out outlined by Elijah in 1 Kings 19. (True or False)

Our Confession of Faith proscribes that deacons alone have personal responsibility to carry out their tasks. It is sinful to accept the help of others. (True or False)

All kidding aside, I believe the following show the role of the deacon.

Role #1: Deacons must equip and mobilize the saints. One of the primary diaconal responsibilities is to teach the how-to’s of diaconal ministry to church members. According to the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) Book of Church Order. “The office [of deacon] is one of sympathy and service after the example of the Lord Jesus. It expresses also the communion of saints, especially in their helping one another in time of need. It is the duty of the deacons to minister to those who are in need, to the sick, to the friendless, and to any who may be in distress.”

It is not the deacons’ task to be “Lone Rangers” in their ministry. Ephesians 4 calls for “the equipping of the saints” by church leaders. This means preparing Christians for service by giving them all they need to accomplish their tasks. The equipper is a master craftsman developing an apprentice. The equipper is a teacher educating a pupil. The equipper is a coach preparing a player and a team. The equipper is a doctor healing/restoring a patient. In the gospel of Mark, the writer speaks of “nets being mended” before they can be used properly. Fishermen must check out their equipment before use and fix the nets when they need repair. That is the same equipping design for church leaders: insure members are properly prepared prior to their serving others. Here is what the PCA Guidelines state:

“In view of the responsibility of the teaching office to equip the saints for ministry (Eph. 4:11-16), it would appear that the same principle should apply to diaconal leadership. While deacons do not have the shepherding and disciplining authority of elders, they do take the lead in the ministry of mercy. Acts 6:3 indicates that diaconal ministers should be full of spiritual wisdom, which is always the qualification for leadership (I Kings 3:7-11; cf. II Sam.14:17).”

As leaders, deacons should not only minister in the name of the church but should encourage the church’s body of believers by their example to fulfill the ministry of mercy and service to which the Lord calls all members. John 13:15 says, “I gave you an example that you should do as I do." For the health and maturity of the Church, deacons must teach, equip, and motivate members to serve in ministry. According to the Book of Church Order, “It is expedient that … a church should select and appoint godly men and women of the congregation to assist the deacons in caring for the sick, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and others who may be in any distress or need.”

Thus, teaching, equipping, and motivating members to serve is vital. And the numbers involved will usually indicate the spiritual temperature of a congregation. Although the dictionary definition of the word volunteer is “One who enters into or offers himself for a service of his own free will,” those who follow Christ are commanded to follow in an obedient walk.

Christ says "If you love me keep my commandments" (John 14:15). In other words, “if you say you will follow me, then do as I do.” Deaconing has to do with our lifestyle and our relationship with Jesus. The Church needs to be those equipped with towels, ready to clean the wounds of those who suffer. We are called, as Jesus, to “bind up the brokenhearted” (Is. 61:1). Deacons must stimulate church members to action—helping the body of believers follow their Master, who said that He came to serve (to deacon), not to be served (Matt. 20:28).

Role #2: Deacons must collect the gifts of God’s people and distribute them. After stating that deacon’s task is ministering to those who are in need, to the sick, to the friendless, and to any who may be in distress… the PCA Book of Church Order continues, “It is their duty also to develop the grace of liberality in the members of the church, to devise effective methods of collecting the gifts of the people, and to distribute these gifts among the objects to which they are contributed.”

This seems so obvious, for scripture is clear on giving. Moses writes in Leviticus 27:30, “A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord.” Luke tells us in Acts 4:32, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.” Paul shares in 2 Corinthians 8:4 and 14 that the saints “urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing....” He says there should be a mutual concern for one another: “At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality.” In God’s way, we Christians are only stewards of our financial possessions. We own nothing in any absolute sense as it all belongs to God. So obviously, Christians provide for the church through these offerings.

What is not as obvious or stated clearly enough in today’s churches, however, is the need for Christians to also tithe their skills, talents, and time to the church. These, also, belong to God. 1 Cor. 6:20 says “We have been bought with a price.” The Heidelberg Catechism, a creed of Reformed Churches, opens with: “I am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ….”

So, just as deacons facilitate the financial offerings of God’s people, they must collect data on the talents of God’s people—that is, they should develop a talent bank and a system to use these resources.  Church leaders should not have to use guesswork to determine who is available when a particular service is needed—like who is available to bring Mrs. M for dialysis Wednesdays mornings at 8:30, or who can fix a senior member’s toilet, or who can do minor repairs for a member with special needs. 

An inventory of gifts and talents should be at the church’s fingertips—listing all the various vocations—lawyers, accountants, those in the building trade, beauticians, etc., those who have a truck, and those who will just make themselves available. I also suggest a database of blood types so that in case of critical need, people can give the gift of life.  According to 1 Peter 4:10, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” Christians intentional giving of spiritual gifts, talents, vocational skills, and time is an example of biblical stewardship. The Apostle Paul commends this in 1 Corinthians 12:7, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” And he reminds the Church of its essential unity in Romans 12:5, “Each member belongs to all the others.”  In the New Testament every member of the Church has received the gift of grace and has been called to service. The writer of Hebrews says “[God will] equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever.”  1 Cor. 12:5 states that the gift of the Spirit’s grace brings …“varieties of service.”  Paul continues, “There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.”

Role #3: Deacons are to stimulate and model a servant lifestyle for the use of these gifts—Deacons have a great opportunity, as catalysts, to give ministry away and share the blessings of serving others. They can do that through mentoring others, on-the-job-training, and showing leadership by modeling the joy of service—they can out-zeal one another in zeal. As Romans 12:6-8 says, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them…the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”

As mentors, deacons would work alongside members, instructing and encouraging, careful to model the task at hand for the benefit of the member. Here the focus is not only on the task (mechanics), but confidence in the Lord and his service (obedience). Both cooperate to develop a fearless church worker. Adding to the ease of mentoring, members can personally select a mentor with whom they have prior experience or contact. Similarly, on-the-job-training, provides hands-on instruction in areas that do not require close inspection or instruction. In many cases it can be mastered merely from observation. Of course, each deacon will need to attend some form of “Officer training school” to learn expertise in the knowledge of mentoring, or by gaining the same through their own mentor-mentee relationship. Either way, they would teach Diakonia, the principle by which our Lord describes His entire ministry, and of the life and ministry of His followers.

Role #4: Deacons come alongside those who are hurting and serve the distressed with good counsel. 

In one of my workshops, I use this cry for help: “I hurt and I feel there is no one there. No one I can talk to—no one who will listen—no one who will bear my burden. I feel lonely, fearful, and sad. I feel tired and unwanted. I know there's something better --I'm about to give up. Will you help me?  Could you come alongside me? But, can I trust you? Will you be condescending and humiliate me. Oh, I so need your help. Can you show me respect? Can you understand me without belittling me?  Guide me without judging?  Listen without dictating?  Can you offer me hope? Can you live out God's love to me? Can you show that you really care?”

James 2:24 says, “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” He

encourages us to “Visit [care for] widows and orphans in their distress” (James 1:27).  Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5, “...the God of all comfort...comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” In order to give comfort, we need to be available to others and we need to take time to listen to what is occurring in the lives of those we seek to serve. The latter, listening with the desire to help, is probably the more difficult. In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking when they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.” (p97)

We need to include in our agendas time for those in need, and not ignore their suffering. Proverbs 18:14 says, “A man’s spirit sustains him in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” And the In Philippians 2:3-4, the Apostle Paul shares, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourself. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”  In order to comfort others we have to get close to them and not be fearful of that contact. Henry Nouwen reminds us

We all need people who will not be too quick to take our pain away but will have the spiritual and mental toughness to walk with us, sharing in the journey to the point where woundedness can be confronted at its source. Shared woundedness becomes mobilizing. The sting is drawn because the secret is shared. (The Wounded Healer, 1979, p88)

Deacons are in a position to provide people with healthy fellowship and draw them into the unity of the church. They are catalysts for healing. By being with those who suffer, they are able to really help and not just help in the abstract.

Role #5: Deacons must seek to prevent poverty for church members. Deacons need to keep an eye on their members, looking out for the most vulnerable—those who are poor, sick, elderly, fatherless, and widowed—so that none fall between the cracks. Deacons should not stop at feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and rescuing the oppressed in their midst. They need to use the church’s spiritual and material resources and alleviate their members’ poverty so that these brothers and sisters can function and be able help others in the church’s body of believers. In Ephesians 4:28 the Apostle Paul indicates that one of the benefits of working/earning a living is to help those in need: “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.” The Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What does God require of you in the eighth commandment?” It answers, “That I further my neighbor’s profit wherever I can or may... and labor faithfully that I may be able to relieve the needy.” (Question and Answer 111)

Paul commands that we use our gifts for the benefit of others and God’s honor and glory—because the gifts are his and on loan to us. 1 Corinthians 4:2 states, “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.” So, as faithful servants, deacons must assure that the available spiritual gifts and skills of the congregation are used wisely for the glory of God and the benefit of others.

Role #6: Deacons must be knowledgeable about local community resources and how these resources can benefit church members and others. The government administers help massively, not individually. Deacons must see that municipal, state, and federal governments are being good stewards of the Lord’s resources by making them known. The prophet Haggai reminds us that these resources, also, belong to the Lord. Here, God states, “The silver is mine and the gold is mine” (Haggai 2:8). Information about these resources need to be communicated. How do we discover them? Not too many years ago, social service directories were printed and bound in large volumes to provide this information. Now most municipalities and counties have online directories, as do other social service agencies. For instance, Greater Philadelphia United Way has www.211sepa.org, and in New Jersey there is www.nj211.org. The United Way agency has online lists in every state. Many municipalities also have a “211 hotline” to help people find services. There are many helpful religious-affiliated agencies. These ecumenical organizations, especially, exist to help people navigate a sometimes confusing social service system. I’ve found The Salvation Army, Lutheran, Episcopal, Catholic Social Services, and Jewish Vocational Services extremely helpful.  Knowledge of resources and resource personnel allow us to make good use of government, religious, and private agency resources as we minister to people in word and deed. Knowledge of the best resources and lists of the same will benefit us and those we serve.

Role #7: Deacons must empower needy non-members to make good use of all available community resources and institutions of mercy. I’ve heard many people say “I thought the church was supposed to help people”—meaning “You have to give me what I want.” What we must do is not develop a relationship of dependency with those coming for help. One principle to follow is this: “Don’t work harder than the people coming for help.” Let’s help as we are able— according to carefully prepared guidelines—but we should also have a convenient one-two page list of community resources to refer people for help. This what we have done after gleaning those resource lists that others recommend added to those we know and trust. With this list, if we can’t help someone, we can honestly state, “We are not able to do that, but here is another church or agency that can.”  Allow the person to use a phone, and provide a name and phone number for the person to call. If the need is legitimate, they will make the call. Ordinarily this step leads to other successful steps, and leads to greater self-sufficiency.

Role #8: Deacons must cooperate with neighboring Bible believing churches. Don’t duplicate a ministry if a nearby church already provides the service. Obtain information on what resources and ministries are available within your local community and beyond.  Then partner with them for mutual care of the people in your neighborhood. Cooperation and communication will also prevent a major portion of “scams” from taking place.

Diaconal ministry stands at the heart of the gospel and its mission to the world. Diakonia is a total surrender of life for the benefit of others. The basis for Christian discipleship is not knowledge or power or wealth. The basis for being a disciple is service. The model for the disciples in their following of Christ is not the ruler, nor the scribe. The valid model is the person who serves (Luke 22:2).

The role of the deacon is to model Christ while discipling and apprenticing others. It is not the deacon’s job to do all the ministry themselves. But it is their job to see that ministry gets done. A simple summation of the deacon’s role is 1) to be an evangelical witness of word and deed in both worship and service and 2) to encourage and motivate others to use their gifts for the glory of God and the benefit of others.

Summary for Equipping Leaders and Servant-leaders

Admit you don’t have to every task -- Give up the “right” to do everything (free yourself and set others free)

Make a list of tasks you alone must you do.

What tasks do you really enjoy doing but can allow others to perform?

What tasks would you rather have others perform?

1.  Prepare people for service (fix “broken bones”)

Equip people for service (repair torn nets)

Encourage, cheerlead, model, apprentice

What tasks require your giving to others the most time and instruction? (How can it be simplified?)

What tasks require little instruction?

What tasks require no instruction?

Make it your job to give ministry away in the joy of serving.

Give people permission—reasons/excuses—to use their gifts

Delegate to others. Delegation uses the gifts of others. It tells others that they are important and appreciated. It benefits the church’s body life because more parts are actively involved. It frees you for priority action.

Give them all they need to do the job

Give them ownership of the task

Trust them to accomplish the task

Encourage them to do the task

Back off

Intercede only if absolutely necessary

Use this as a learning experience

Risk their making mistakes

Ask for feedback / give appropriate kudos

Community Builder

Dave, it's been decades since I was first installed as an elder. We've come a long way since that time in providing proper orientation for elders (and deacons).

I mourn the selection process for elders these days. We seem to be more concerned with having 'a warm body' in an elder's chair than to have someone who is spiritually mature, who at least appears to live a holy life, and someone who knows scripture.

I would like to see congregations nominate potential elders, then have them go through a series of classes that review the church's doctrine -- yes, the creeds -- with a firm understanding of the Catechism. Potential elders should be asked about their spiritual lives (ie devotions, walking with God each day), their relationships to their spouse and children, and whether or not they feel qualified to become one of the congregation's spiritual leaders. They should display gifts of leadership and decision-making.

We have, in my estimation, taken the office of elder too lightly.  As overseers of the preaching of the Word, and as overseers over the spiritual lives of folks within the congregation, elders have an obligation to know their scripture so that they can carry out their office appropriately.

Community Builder

I wish I had been mentored in how do Elder visits. It was simply left up to me to figure out and either didn't go very well a lot of the time or I simply avoided them. I also wish I had had more explicit instruction about how we set up for communion. Maybe a current or just retired Elder doing it with me the first time. 

Community Builder

Good point about elder visits. I clearly recall being installed as an elder the first time at age 23. Newlywed, young kid. I made my first 'home visit' to a seasoned elder. He sat me down in his living room, pulled out a blank sheet of paper and drew three concentric circles ... like a target.

He said that the bulls eye was one's relationship with Christ. Circles that moved away from that involved one's relationship with family, involvement in 'church life' and in Christian organizations.

He said that sometimes folks like to talk about their faith right away; their devotions and their love of God. But sometimes they're reluctant to talk about how their faith impacts their other relationships: family, church, community.

He said that sometimes folks like to talk about everything BUT their relationship to Christ. They can talk about church involvement, chairing various committees, heavily involved in organizing 'churchy' things, but have a difficult time articulating their personal relationship to Christ and their personal devotional life.

Community Builder

I was elected elder for the first time about 5 years ago. I agree with the others that a well thought-out orientation would have been helpful, for visits definitely, as has also been said. Now that I am the president, saying this is making me realize that creating such a thing should be on my list.