Still Needed: A Paradigm Shift for Deacons & Community Ministry
October 15, 2015
Updated June 15, 2021
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“The church does not simply have deacons, but is, by its very nature and calling a diaconate. The call of deacons is to motivate and mobilize the congregation for works of service (diakonia).” From: Diakonia Remixed – Task Force report to Synod 2013
During the past several years of communicating and working with CRC deacons, it has been clear to me that many of them--as well as many of their pastors--still have limited if any awareness of, or possibly interest in, the changes approved at Synod 2015 regarding the Office of Deacon? (NOTE: I originally wrote much of what follows for The Network in October 2015. However, it has been my observation that little has changed since I first wrote about the need for a radical change regarding not only our understanding of the role and work of Deacons but also how others engaged in some type of community ministry view their role, work, and relationship with others in the community.)
As I write this, it has now been six years since Synod's 2015 landmark decision. Since then, there appears to be a relatively high degree of awareness of the decision about Deacons being able to attend and vote at Classis meetings as well as at Synod. However, there still seems to be little awareness about or work being done to implement the changes that directly impact the focus and work of Deacons in the CRC.
I suspect that one of the reasons is because the nature of the changes relating to the role and responsibilities of deacons involves and requires a fairly significant change in how we view and understand the work of Deacons. Many--possibly the vast majority--of our congregations and deacons have done things the same way for so long that it's difficult to think about and act in ways that are fundamentally new and different. What is still most needed, and what Synod 2015 called for is nothing less than a complete paradigm shift in how we think about the primary functions and role of the Office of Deacon.
Many and probably most congregations need to shift from viewing deacons as the ones primarily or exclusively responsible for doing diaconal ministry to one where their primary responsibility is to equip and engage church members in and for various types of diaconal ministry or "deaconing" (Eph. 4:11-12). Additionally, we need to shift from viewing diaconal ministry primarily as something that is done “to” or “for” others in the community to more of one of doing ministry “with” the community*, i.e., neighbors, community organizations, ministries, businesses, and other churches in and from the community. With this shift, the church will become more of a partner and collaborator with others and participate in the work that God is already doing the community.
I believe as deacons and congregations begin this paradigm shift and incorporate these changes, we will move away from a model of community ministry that has a potential to do more harm than good and keep people down instead of actually helping or lifting them up. Among other things, notwithstanding good intentions, we often cause harm and are not being helpful when we as church members view ourselves—perhaps unintentionally—as the “haves,” the ones with the resources and gifts which we give to those we serve from the community or the “have-nots.” The “have-nots” are also often referred to as “the needy," i.e., those who need what we have. As a result, we often miss or are unable to recognize, appreciate, and therefore incorporate the gifts, talents, and assets which God has given them. We also can easily miss or not even realize that God is already present and working in people’s lives and in the community. Our responsibility then is to recognize how and where God is already present and at work in the community and then explore ways to support and participate with God and others in that work and thereby advance God's reign of shalom.
To learn more about the changes as well as the reasons for them, I encourage you to read and perhaps study with your diaconate and/or church council, Diakonia Remixed, the report and recommendations to Synod 2013, along with the 2015 report from the Task Force to Study the Office of Elder and Deacon. Diakonia Remixed provides some very useful and informative background information and history on the Office of Deacon in the CRC along with some very helpful Biblical and Theological content.
I also recently posted an online and downloadable multi-media slide presentation as a tool and resource for CRC and RCA deacon orientation. While developed primarily for deacons from congregations and communities served by the Holland Deacons' Conference, there are many slides that apply to all deacons. This orientation was originally designed for a couple of workshops in 2018 that were attended by both RCA and CRC deacons. This is the link to the online orientation.
While I have mentioned what I view as some of the more important changes resulting from Synod's decision this year, I do not consider myself an expert on these matters. With that said, I hope to hear your thoughts and comments on any of this. Here are a few questions to help "prime the pump" if needed.
* Here is a link to a brochure that provides a simple overview of ministry in, to and with a community
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