Kathy Smith hit a home run with this article! She reflects helpfully on the role of the deacon, offers some key insights for doing strong deacon programs, and tells some interesting insightful stories.
When we think about money, we tend to think about our money or my money. Yes, we know that it’s actually God’s money and that we’re stewards of that money. But it’s still easy to keep thinking about money as mine, or as God’s and mine. What’s missing in such thinking is the church. What does the church have to do with my money?
The work of deacons is a key part of God’s plan to make money work—not just for those who have it, but especially for those who don’t. The office of deacon is an important part of God’s economic plan for a broken world. Understanding the work of deacons, and clearing up some mis¬understandings, can help all of us more fully understand how money functions in God’s grand economy.
When we think about money in the church we often do think of deacons, since their most visible role in many congregations is that of collecting the money in the worship service. But that is actually just a small part of the calling of deacons—and their calling related to money is really about helping church members use their money to help the needy.
The office of deacon, first of all, is to “represent and administer the mercy of Christ to all people,” (Christian Reformed Church Order, Article 25). So the primary ministry of deacons is a ministry of mercy. Secondly, deacons are to “stimulate the members of Christ’s church to faithful, obedient stewardship of their resources on behalf of the needy.” Here’s where the money comes in; but notice that the emphasis is on using resources for the purpose of benevolence—to help those in need. Moreover, “resources” are much more than money—we also offer our time and skills. Finally, deacons are to do this “with words of bibli¬cal encouragement and testimony which assure the unity of word and deed.”
So, the main role of deacons is the ministry of mercy, and then the stewardship of resources as a way to extend that mercy. All this is to be done with Scripture and testimony, because diaconal ministry is a form of witness to the gospel—giving the cup of cold water in Jesus’ name so that people not only reach their God-given potential for life in this world, but also know Christ as Savior and Lord.
Food and Prayer
One example of this pattern of ministry comes from the deacons at First CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Joel Ruiter, who has served three terms as deacon, explains how benevolence offerings are used to stock the church’s food pantry: along with gathering financial support, the deacons gather food donations, and encourage church members to serve in the pantry alongside the deacons. They talk with the people referred to them by a community organization and help them choose the products they need. “It’s more than a handout,” says Ruiter. “We get to know people, and often end the visit by praying with them.” So even in these short visits, deacons are able to give words of biblical encouragement and testimony.
In the summer the food pantry ministry expands by sponsoring monthly food trucks that provide much-needed groceries to the church’s urban neighbors. Again, the deacons organize this ministry of mercy, but call the congregation to work side by side with them so that church members meet their neighbors and begin to understand their needs. In addition, First Church nurses volunteer their time to do blood pressure screenings and answer general health questions for those who stop by for the free food, providing another opening for conversation. Opportunities develop to invite neighbors to worship, kids’ programs, and the church’s Bates Place neighborhood ministry center, eventually leading some to embrace the church and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Some diaconal ministries of mercy lead to longer-term relationships with people in need. Starfish Ministries in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, helps congregations to encourage struggling families (called “participants”) as they work toward self-identified goals in the areas of budgeting, employment, housing, education, parenting, and spirituality. Multiple volunteers (called “allies”) are trained and paired with participants in the community who desire healthy support and encouragement.
Starfish Ministries’ director, Bonnie Smith, emphasizes the importance of these relationships. “The key is to work with individuals and families to identify what they want to become, and then come alongside to help them take steps toward those goals, rather than bailing them out.” Volunteers are trained to ask, “Can we encourage and support you in making choices to get out of this situation?” Asking such questions also helps to identify those who don’t want to change, and don’t want the relationship.
Tricia, one of the participants in Starfish Ministries, talks about the team of people from Faith CRC in New Brighton who helped her through “one of the lowest points in [her] life.” Tricia attributes her improved family situation to these people, and has given her life to Christ and become of member of Faith CRC because of her relationships with volunteers organized by the deacons of the church. She is now eager to “give back” by being a mentor to someone else in need.
Some deacons may wonder how to get started with ministries of mercy. Starfish Ministries began when the deacons of two Christian Reformed churches in the Twin Cities area wanted to do ministry together and reach beyond the church. But many churches and deacons find the idea of adding ministries a bit overwhelming. Donn Hansum, Director of Volunteers in Action in Denver, Colorado, says that deacons may find the internal financial operation and management of the church to be both time-consuming and sometimes more comfortable than reaching out with a ministry of mercy. But he believes that the most effective and creative diaconal ministries develop when deacons notice someone in their congregation who has a passion for a mercy or service ministry and then come alongside that person to help get a ministry going.
In addition to programs like Kids’ Hope and Stephen Ministry, which function in many churches, Hansum points to a unique ministry like “Bridges of Hope” in Greeley, Colorado—a monthly meeting at which struggling neighbors can join in a free meal and visit booths set up by a variety of service agencies where volunteers share their professional skills and provide legal, budgeting, medical, counseling, mentoring, and other types of assistance. Bridges of Hope connects people with the help they need, and also allows churches to coordinate their services and thus help people get out of the cycle of poverty and pattern of going from church to church asking for money.
Staying Connected to the Church
Bonnie Smith says that it’s important for mercy and service ministries to stay connected with the church. “Many non-profits begin connected to churches and then become disconnected. We want to stay connected to churches because they are the arms, legs, and mouth of Jesus. The conduit of churches is the deacons because they are called to lead the congregation in the ministry of mercy. We come alongside to help them do ministry, because the task of the deacon is not just to do ministry, but to lead the congregation in ministry.” Smith empathizes with deacons who are often fairly new to their role and can be overwhelmed with their task. Since having charge of the budget can be overwhelming and can even hinder the work of mercy, she notes that some congregations hire a treasurer to free up deacons to do more ministries of mercy.
Advice for Deacons
What advice is there for deacons who want to fulfill their calling as completely as they can? Hansum says they should focus on a vision to carry out mercy ministry rather than the financial and administrative work that is often expected; work “with” their community rather than doing things “for” or “to” their community; and walk alongside people who are struggling, rather than try to “fix” the problem for them. He advises, “Think ‘relationship’ rather than ‘relief.’ ” Smith agrees that “the key is the relationship—getting to know people and their situations, and encouraging them in the steps they need to take.”
Ruiter suggests that deacons work with community agencies that have social workers, and ask for training for deacons to deal with various situations. He also recommends that deacons develop a “ministry culture” in their congregations over time. He recalls that his church was one of the first to sponsor a Habitat for Humanity home in its county in the early 1980s. Twenty-five years later, the church designated gifts in honor of its 150th anni¬versary for another Habitat house, and in the years in between had sponsored several houses through the Inner City Christian Federation (a local ministry similar to Habitat). The need for affordable housing is great in the church’s neighborhood, and helping to provide that housing has become a core value of the congregation through the ministry of the deacons.
In the past two years’ flurry of news headlines about the world’s financial meltdown, little attention was given to the work of deacons in the church. But their work is exactly what our world needs. In many ways the meltdown was caused by a lack of biblical imagination about what money is, and how it should be used (and not used). In their intervention and prevention work, deacons offer exactly the ministry and message our world needs to hear today. Let’s encourage our deacons by supporting their efforts, and serving alongside them.
How do deacons carry out their ministry of mercy?
This answer comes from the form for ordination in the Christian Reformed Church:
"Deacons serve by showing mercy to the church and to all people. They received this task in the early church when the apostles designated special persons for the work of mercy (Acts 6; 2 Cor. 8-9). In Christ’s name the deacons relieve victims of injustice. By this they show that Christians live by the Spirit of the kingdom, fervently desiring to give life the shape of things to come. Deacons are therefore called to assess needs, promote stewardship and hospitality, collect and disburse resources for benevolence, and develop programs of assistance. They are also called to speak words of Christian encouragement. Thus in word as well as deed they demonstrate the care of the Lord himself."