Deacons: breathing new life in an ancient church office


Churches are developing new models for more relevant ministry

By Sherry Blackman | Presbyterians Today

At Community Church in Howey-in-the-Hills, Fla., all worshipers are encouraged to care for one another. Three years ago, the traditional board of deacons was replaced with a care team. Courtesy of Community Church

Since the early church, the office of deacon has been an integral part of ministry, with men and women called to care for the needs of the faith community. In the Book of Acts, Stephen was among the first of seven deacons appointed by the elders to alleviate the burgeoning care of widows and orphans. With the appointment of these deacons — which comes from the Greek word diakonos, which means “servant” — the elders were then able to focus on preaching and teaching.

Today, though, there seems to be ambiguity as to what a deacon does. There are deacons wondering if their only job is to send get-well, birthday and anniversary cards to members. There are clergy who see beyond greeting card ministries and train deacons to share in visiting the sick and lonely, only to be frustrated when the care of their congregations continues to fall solely on their shoulders. And then there are nominating committee members tasked with filling vacant deacon slots, who are disheartened by the small pool of candidates to choose from and then are told “no thanks” by the few.

These questions and challenges are making many church leaders ask, “Is it time for an ancient ministry to be overhauled?”

The Rev. Dr. Earl S. Johnson, honorably retired, thought so — back in 1992. It was then, at the 204th General Assembly, Johnson presented a report titled “The Presbyterian Deacon: An Essential Guide” that suggested “deacons could model new and even risky ways of serving.”

Now some three decades later, the pressures of serving an aging church population, coupled with fewer members and leaner pastoral staffs, have led congregations to reach for new models.

Widening the circle of care

Faced with a membership roll of about 50 members, and with 75% of the community beyond the church at retirement age or older, the Rev. Linda McCardle Jaberg, transitional pastor of Community Church in Howey-in-the-Hills, Florida, has established a care team rather than a board of deacons.

The team currently includes nine people, some of whom had served as deacons in the past. “The only requirement to be part of the team is to have a passion for caring for others,” said Jaberg. “Anyone from the congregation can volunteer or be recruited to serve.”

The team has been in place for three years, and Jaberg says it is “working pretty well.” Each member of the team is assigned one to three people that they are to “care” for by checking in with them at least once a month. As for serving communion to shut-ins, elders now have that responsibility.

Jaberg says that the care team — not the pastor — is “the first level of congregational care” at the church. To nurture the care team, and in fact, to nurture all the ministries at the church, Jaberg says that “compassionate care” is “intentionally layered” into every meeting or small group gathering. Compassionate care includes a time for Bible study, prayer and sharing with one another what is going on in their lives. By doing so, she says, a deep connection has formed among the members of the church, and an understanding of how participants can minister to one another has grown. Jaberg has also discovered that meetings “go better and tend to be shorter” as compassionate care is practiced.

Shorter deacon terms

Several years ago, First Presbyterian Church of Rockaway in New Jersey, was faced with the difficulty of getting people to serve on the board of deacons, mainly because of the high rate of burnout their deacons experienced.

Graphic by Mark Thomson

“People were overwhelmed with their responsibilities. They were responsible for getting ushers and communion servers, and preparing communion and meals,” said Joe Martinoni, an elder at First Presbyterian of Rockaway, adding that many of the deacons were also serving two consecutive three-year terms.

Realizing that the church “needed a new beginning,” Martinoni says that the bylaws were changed to commission deacons for a one-year term rather than three years. “More people are willing to make that kind of commitment,” he said. In addition to the one-year term, there is also no limit as to how many consecutive terms a deacon can serve.

Currently, nine deacons minister to those within the church and outside in the community. They are not on a board of deacons, but like Jaberg’s church, belong to a congregational care committee. However, First Presbyterian Church of Rockaway’s deacons do serve communion to those who are homebound or ill. They also oversee the prayer chain, deliver meals that are needed, track church visitors and host new member breakfasts, Lenten lunches and Sunday fellowship hours.

Lisa DiBonaventura, a deacon who serves as the communion coordinator, says changing the bylaws and creating a care committee “opened up more opportunities for everyone in the church to be involved.”

“When I first became a deacon 20 years ago, there were a lot more deacons, so we could handle all the responsibilities and needs of the church. As the number of deacons dwindled, the need for more help in caring for our congregation grew,” DiBonaventura said.

Diminishing numbers overall continue, she says, but the congregational care committee is “a fantastic, hard-working group of people who are committed to the care of our congregation and supporting each other.”

Dissolving the board of deacons

The Rev. Melodie Haag Long is the transitional pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, which has a membership of 200. During their transitional process, she says the board of deacons was dissolved — requiring a change in bylaws — as the church examined the role of deacons in its overall ministry.

“When we looked at what the deacons had been doing, their duties revolved around social events, such as dinners, coffee hours and communion preparation. We wanted to move to a relationship model where commissioned individuals serve under a congregational care committee,” said Long.

By doing so, she says that deacons, who still serve for a three-year term, are doing the work of witness, caring and compassion — and are helping to prevent pastor burnout.

“One of the things that contributes to pastor burnout is [the expectation] that the pastor will visit every person. That is not the way it was set up biblically or in our Presbyterian polity,” said Long. “We’ve moved away from a diaconate to a congregational care model, where deacons will work with the pastor.”

Long reports that the move to a congregational care model has meant more congregants have stepped up and taken over the social events of the church, such as coffee hours and dinners. A worship committee handles communion preparation. Elders, as well as deacons, have taken on the task of bringing communion to the homebound, Long adds. Training is available for offering home communion with a prepared liturgy and a home communion kit.

With the congregational care committee in place, what is emerging is a church that is embracing a new identity.

“The deacons are nurturing relationships,” Long said, adding, “How do we tell the world we care for others, when we don’t care for one another?”

The return of the deacons

Back in the 1960s, Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville disbanded its board of deacons, which was responsible for the care of people, as well as the property and finances. In its place, a five-person care committee was created. The property and financial responsibilities were given to the session.

Five years ago, though, the church brought back the board of deacons, complete with 15 members who would focus solely on witness, care and compassion as defined in the Book of Order. According to the Rev. Megan McCarty, associate pastor for mission and membership, the move to reestablish a board of deacons was made simply because “our care team was too small, and there were too many member needs.”

The church of about 800 members, with a pastoral staff of three, defines the ministry of deacons as such: “From birth to death, life is filled with needs that the deacons support. The deacons celebrate babies born, grieve in times of loss, and offer support to the church when people are recovering from surgery, are lonely, or simply need a caring presence.”

The deacons meet monthly with McCarty to share what the needs of the congregation are, who is in the hospital and what they need, which may include visits, meals, transportation and taking communion to those who are homebound or in nursing care facilities. They oversee the prayer quilt ministry, prepare for funeral receptions, create care kits for those being treated for cancer, and welcome new babies. The deacons also look for new ways to help those going through a critical time.

“We have a young woman who is undergoing cancer treatment, and the deacons have arranged for her to receive a card every day over the last two years,” said McCarty.

Sherry Blackman is the pastor of Presbyterian Church of the Mountain in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania.

A creative deacon approach

Breaking down the needs for better care

For the Rev. Hunter Camp of Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Augustine, Florida, the old deacon model of assigning families to individual deacons to care for — sometimes up to 30 families per deacon — just wasn’t going to “cut it,” especially in a congregation with over 800 members, and growing.

“The old model wasn’t serving the deepest needs of the church,” said Camp, explaining that for the deacons who were assigned young families, the responsibilities were often overwhelming, leaving many feeling paralyzed.

“Over the years, many deacons simply mailed birthday cards to households,” he said. The card ministry started becoming the predominant task of the deacons, which Camp says, “left deacons feeling that their work was insignificant.”

That has now changed to a model of care at Memorial Presbyterian that focuses on placing 21 deacons into the following four teams, each with its specific tasks:

  • The “BeLoved” Team is responsible for visits, calls, cards and home communion.
  • The Health Navigator Team offers resource referrals to help members navigate medical issues and life transitions due to health or housing needs.
  • The Reception Team expresses hospitality and care to family and friends during life remembrances (funeral receptions) and celebrations.
  • The First Friends Team connects new members to the life and activities of Memorial Presbyterian by providing one-on-one interactions and group fellowship opportunities.

According to Camp, the team model has given deacons a greater sense of satisfaction and energy as it taps into their individual gifts and passions.

“Now our deacons are becoming more integral to the caring ministry of the church,” said Camp. “They have become vital to the life of the entire church community.”

— Sherry Blackman

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