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This month we continue in our series on the four "F" words deacons may utter about classis and synod. When I say "we", I mean Diaconal Ministries Canada and our good friend, Rev. Al Postma (of Pastor Church Relations/Classis Renewal). 

So far we've covered "Foreign" and "Formal." Our hope in writing these articles is to bring both sides — deacons and these two denominational structures — together, to meet in the middle. It would be easy for one side to simply shout at the other: Change things for us! But is that really what mission and ministry is all about? 

We have intentionally structured our articles in a way to bring the two sides together; so that both parties can see how classis and synod could become more familiar to delegates and attendees and how a little bit of formality could actually bring about focus and intentionality.

For this article, we’d like to talk about the feasibility of classis and synod. Some deacons (and elders) have lamented these meetings are too far away! I (Erin) live in the heart of Niagara, in southern Ontario. In my classis, we have 14 churches with the greatest distance between two being no more than an hour’s drive. Pretty sweet, eh? So what’s all the fussing about?!

Now most will agree that synod is a significant geographical distance for many delegates to attend. But certainly attending a classis meeting can’t be that onerous? Ha! Did you know some delegates need to hop on an airplane to attend a classis meeting? If not an airplane, it can require a mini road trip. Now that’s far! Shout-out to Classis British Columbia North East and Classis Rocky Mountain, just to name a couple. 

As a national organization, we feel some of this pain. Our Board of Directors is made up of one (1) delegate from each classis in Canada. So when it comes time to meet at our Burlington offices, twelve lovely people are taking time away from home, some are taking a couple days off of work, and seven are hopping onto an airplane to attend a couple days of meetings. On top of that, all are needing food and lodging for one to two nights, and some are renting a car to get around.

What Makes a Meeting Feasible?

When we talk about feasibility, we aren’t just talking about where the meetings are held. We are also talking about the when and the how much

For some, the "when" is even more of a challenge than the "where." Over the past few years, our churches have celebrated the new faces sitting around the table. And yet, at the same time, we lament at the challenges this presents. Both elders and deacons don’t look like they did 20+ years ago: not all are retired or semi-retired; not all are self-employed with flexible work hours (eg. farmers); not all are living in a two-parent home, sharing the responsibility of child-rearing.

So with this diversity comes different challenges. For example, most classes still hold a midweek, daytime meeting. What about those who work full-time and have rigid schedules? Or young parents who need to get their kids on and off the school bus? 

What what about the how much, aka the costs of attending classis and synod? This question goes a bit deeper than the two obvious, practical "problems" of the when and the where. When elders and deacons are asked to attend a classis meeting or synod, perhaps their hesitation comes about as they count the cost of doing so as greater than the benefit of whatever else is on their plate. 

To be clear, we aren’t just talking about the dollars and cents. One deacon wrote to us recently in response to a list we (Diaconal Ministries) put together on why deacons are needed at classis and synod. This deacon wrote:

“We deacons have much to do in our local communities and are far better off having focused classis/regional deacons’ meetings than to attend classis meetings. Among other non-deacon related agenda items, classis often spends time doing ministerial examinations and (unfortunately) discipline matters. Classis meetings are important… [but] please save the deacons’ time and the classis cost of additional mileage and honorariums for having deacons attend classis meetings.”

Counting the Cost

While we look forward to tackling his greater point of whether or not classis and synod meetings are futile/fruitless in our next article, for the sake of this article, let’s look at what this deacon points out as the ‘costs’ of attending: time, money, and energy.

  1. Time. Whether you live down the street from the classis meeting (or synod meeting for that matter), or you need to drive 8 hours or more, having a full-day or multi-day meeting requires time off work for those employed – likely unpaid time off of work. Not only that, but it requires time away from home, family, and regular responsibilities. Who wants to spend their Saturday in a stuffy church hall on a gorgeous fall day when they can be home raking leaves and doing their regular Saturday chores? Or at the hockey arena watching their daughter or grand-daughter play lacrosse? For this deacon, attending these meetings also means time away from doing the important work of a deacon, both inside and outside of the church. How is attending a classis or synod meeting helping a deacon fulfill their robust mandate in showing and sharing the love of Christ? 
  2. Money. As we mentioned above, for many delegates to attend classis or synod, it means loss of wages as time is taken off of work. For the church, classis, and denomination, money is spent for travel, food, and sometimes lodging. How is this being stewardly? 
  3. Energy. Related to our time, much energy is involved in attending these meetings, as well as preparing adequately for them. On top of that, when most of the ‘agenda’ is not deacon-related, how is that honouring our deacons and the important work they do?

Counting these costs forces the question: Is it worth it? Is it worth the time? Worth the money? Worth the energy?

If any of these questions comes with a resounding “no”, it also brings up another set of questions: What would make it worth it? What would make it worth the time, money, and energy? And, to go one step farther, who is able to (or responsible for) ensuring that it’s worth it? Can deacons play a role in shaping the time so that it’s worth it for the deacon…and in the process, probably more worth it to everyone?

A New Routine

About 10 years ago, one classis adopted an inspiring and intentional vision for renewal, focused on this mission: to be a community of congregations that are encouraging, equipping, and challenging one another to be vibrant and missional. Because of the way this classis meeting was structured, a first-time elder delegate shared afterward that the day was “fun, worshipful, efficient” and she felt a “sense of community.” The article goes on to say, “From an inspirational opening worship to the closing circles of prayer, she was lifted out of her daily routine and allowed to participate in the life of the church in ways that stretched her vision of God’s kingdom at work in our world.”

Lifted out of her daily routine. We liked that. How can we make these meetings worth a deacon’s time, energy, and money? 

How can we make classis and synod meetings feasible for everybody? How can classis and synod structure these larger gatherings to accommodate the diversity of the delegates in attendance? How can we inspire deacons (and all delegates) to attend in order to be ‘lifted out of their daily routine’? How can we make these meetings worth their time, energy, and money?

Our Advice to Deacons

For starters, think of classis and synod as a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity. Since office terms are normally three years, if everyone agreed to attend these meetings at least once in their career, it could make them much more feasible and worth your while! Nobody wins when we work in isolation. As much as possible, make these large denominational gatherings a priority one time in your term as deacon. You will be blessed by going – trust us! And when you’re there, don’t be afraid to take the initiative to make sure your experience is as rich as possible. Here are some ideas: 

  1. For the classes that are spread out geographically, you'll probably have extended time for networking, sharing stories, and learning together. Take advantage of this! If your classis has a learning time, consider suggesting something that has a more diaconal flavour to it, even if you personally aren’t the one who is a delegate to that meeting (you could suggest something after attending a meeting, which might impact a meeting in the future). Don’t just think of your own experience; think of the overall experience of your fellow deacons into the future. 
  2. Don’t hesitate to participate in the full experience, wearing your deacon hat proudly. For example, feel free to speak up and ask a candidate during their examination about the practical nature of ministry that you experience as a deacon. Ask him/her about a justice issue, like what to say to a person calling the church asking for bus fare. Who would they not give money to and why? Would they pay the heating bill of a congregational member? How many times? Give them questions deacons deal with regularly and strengthen the examination to reveal what wisdom they have in these matters.

Our Advice to Classis/Synod

Are there ways these meetings can be adapted to adjust to the diversity of who are sitting around the council tables? Are there ways these meetings can be enhanced with the inclusion of deacons at classis and synod? Here are some ways you can make these meetings worthwhile and feasible:

  1. Ask whether your classis meetings could be done more frequently, and possibly with a shorter agenda? Remember to solicit input from deacons (and all delegates) on what these new agendas could look like! 
  2. If appropriate, experiment with holding a meeting by video. (Check out this article on The Network.) 
  3. Ask whether your classis meeting could be held over the weekend (Friday night to Saturday) when most employed people are off from work. 
  4. Talk about whether some classes could be even more regionalized to cut down on travel time and costs. 
  5. Why not poll the audience; aka, ask your delegates what they think about some of these things!

Let’s work together to find ways to ensure that the interests and concerns around the diaconal life of the church is represented well in our agendas – to ensure that deacons have meaningful opportunities to contribute. 

Overall, it is our hope and prayer that our denomination and churches remember that the diaconal ministry of congregations is vital to the health of the church; that’s why deacons are invited to classis and synod! Let us work together to find ways to ensure that the interests and concerns around the diaconal life of the church is represented well in our agendas to ensure that the deacons have meaningful opportunities to contribute. Sometimes what can separate what is feasible and what isn’t is by simply acknowledging that the deacons are vital to the meeting – that they know that it’s worth it.

We look forward to tackling this greater point of whether or not classis and synod meetings are worthwhile in our final article: moving from futile to fruitful. 

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