What do Presbyterians believe about deacons?
Called to be servants
Reprinted from the April 2009 issue of Presbyterians Today
On just about any Sunday visitors to Peace Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Ky., will cross paths with Lee Kennedy. A deacon for the past three years, Kennedy assists guests with parking, seating and technological equipment for presentations. He gives them information about the church and introduces them to the pastor. He does all of this with a spirit of hospitality.
Kennedy’s responsibilities as a deacon include serving quarterly as a worship leader, substituting as teacher for the young adult and adult Bible classes and assisting people in the community with food and financial help. He says serving as a deacon allows him to demonstrate his love for Christ and has inspired him to enroll in Bible college.
Though Kennedy has held many other leadership positions in the church — such as trustee, chair of the usher board and chair of the church’s capital campaign — he says being a deacon has been the most rewarding for him. “Some people see this as just a title,” he explains. “I see this as a Bible-based ministry.”
While all Christians are called to care for persons in need, the ministry of deacons is the light that guides the way. Deacons are a reflection of the heart of Christianity. As our country faces some of its most challenging times, growing numbers of people will need care and compassion. Deacons are called to model and extend the love of Jesus Christ.
A job description for deacons
The 1992 General Assembly put forward an expanded vision of the ministry of deacons when it approved a report from a task force studying the theology and practice of ordination. The report (as summarized in The Presbyterian Deacon: An Essential Guide, by Earl S. Johnson Jr.) said a deacon’s job description includes the following tasks:
“Exhibit within the church and before the world the exemplary moral authority of sympathy, witness and service after the example of Jesus Christ.”
Being a servant to all is tough business. Working with people’s problems, hurts, disappointments and needs requires, as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Order puts it, that deacons be “persons of spiritual character.” They should be persons of deep faith and high moral standards (see 1 Timothy 3:8–13), committed to a life of prayer, study and other spiritual disciplines. Attention to these practices can help deacons persevere during times of disappointment or burnout.
The office of deacon was established early in the New Testament church to make sure food was distributed to widows and others in need (see Acts 6:1–6). The leader of the first group of deacons was Stephen, whose witness cost him his life (Acts 7).
Early Protestant reformer John Calvin believed that the primary task of the deacon was to take care of the poor and to distribute alms. According to Calvin, helping the poor is worth everything — even to the point of giving yourself and all of your possessions.
To be a deacon involves becoming a servant to others — a role that may not seem very appealing. But this is exactly the role to which Jesus calls all who are truly committed to following him:
“... whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43–45).
“Care for God’s people in crisis”
Difficult times call for well-trained, committed deacons. The history of early African American congregations offers an example of how the church can make a difference during times of national crisis. Long after the slaves were set free, the physical, emotional and psychological effects of slavery could still be felt and seen. It took some time for freed African Americans to live lives truly independent of those who had owned them as property. The church was the place where most of them went for help. At the church they could find food, shelter, rest, education, encouragement and hope.
These services were coordinated by the Sanctified Women’s Missionary Society, which insured that anyone who came to church seeking help was treated with respect and dignity. Even though the Society had few resources, the women willingly shared whatever they had. The hospitality extended to frightened and desperate people had a direct impact on the healing of an entire community. Members, visitors and strangers were all viewed as fellow sojourners and children of God who needed to be reminded of the love of Jesus Christ.
In her book If It Wasn’t for the Women (Orbis, 2001) Cheryl Townsend Gilkes describes how women in African American churches organized to promote social change and address the needs of college students, young people, household domestics, unwed mothers and a variety of other groups.
“Challenge structures and conditions, within the church and within the wider society, which keep persons and groups powerless and voiceless.”
According to Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, it is work such as the tasks administered by deacons — feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting the prisoner — that qualifies one to inherit eternal life. In this parable (verse 40) Jesus informs his followers what is required of them, saying, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it for one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Becoming a church that is mission-focused and discipleship-driven will require members to work for justice in the world and to develop trusting relationships with people whose lives are vastly different from their own. Deacons will need specialized training to help people who are overwhelmed with financial, medical, emotional and other debilitating problems. Churches must become places of hospitality for members and strangers alike, at whatever cost.
Become liturgical representatives of the church’s presence in the world and the world’s presence in the church.
Deacons traditionally have set the Communion table, visited and prayed for church members who are sick or bereaved, and served as liturgists. Now they also are being challenged to become bridge-builders between the church and the community and to participate regularly in leading worship.
The ministry of the deacon does not have to be confined to the congregation. It can include tasks such as representing the church on the boards of grassroots organizations. Deacons are usually well positioned to help their congregation further its relationship with its neighbors by sponsoring community meals, clothing drives, job training, after-school programs, parenting classes, financial seminars, health fairs and other programs.
Develop new forms of leadership at every level of church, community and governing body life.
Congregations that invest the time to train and support deacons are likely to be healthier than those that do not. The deacons’ ministry may be organized as a board, with the church’s pastoral staff as advisory members. Deacons also may be commissioned individually to fulfill specific responsibilities. This may work best in small congregations that have difficulty finding enough officers to staff a board or in churches whose members do not have the time or are too far apart to meet regularly.
The bottom line, says Earl Johnson, is that deacons can model new and even risky ways of serving. “Perhaps in the coming years,” he writes, “it will be more important to be creative, innovative, spontaneous, and Spirit-filled in our service than it will to be safe and orderly.”
A model of caring
Jesse Tucker, chair of the board of deacons at Louisville’s Peace Presbyterian Church, says she is inspired by Romans 12:9–13: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”
Last September when a windstorm left thousands of Louisville homes and businesses without power, Peace Church answered the call to serve. “We opened our hearts and shared nutritional meals and services with God’s people who were in need,” Tucker says.
Guided by the example of its deacons, Peace Church members regularly welcome visitors to worship, prepare dinners for bereaved families and visit the sick, shut-ins and people in prison. They keep in touch with students away from home and provide meals, babysitting and other services to incapacitated members and neighbors.
Tucker says the charge to serve as the caring and nurturing arm of the church puts deacons in tune with the needs, joys and sorrows of the congregation and community. “We are commanded to minister to those in need, to the sick, to the friendless and to those in distress within and beyond the community of faith.”
Character and duties of deacons
The office of deacon as set forth in Scripture is one of sympathy, witness, and service after the example of Jesus Christ. Persons of spiritual character, honest repute, of exemplary lives, brotherly and sisterly love, warm sympathies and sound judgment should be chosen for this office.
It is the duty of deacons, first of all, to minister to those who are in need, to the sick, to the friendless, and to any who may be in distress both within and beyond the community of faith. They shall assume such other duties as may be delegated to them from time to time by the session, such as leading the people in worship through prayers of intercession, reading the Scriptures, presenting the gifts of the people, and assisting with the Lord’s Supper. Book of Order, G-6.0401–02
Resources for Deacons
The Presbyterian Deacon: An Essential Guide, by Earl S. Johnson Jr. (Geneva Press, 2002); 800-672-1789