Christopher A. Sudlow
What do deacons do? What is their ministry and service? What is required of their calling? Deacons are called to be servants, to be helpful in times of need, to make difficult judgments, to come alongside both saints and unbelievers, and to demonstrate the compassion of Christ our King.
Most of what deacons do is plain and ordinary hard work, done in quiet and behind the scenes, requiring energy and time spent away from their families.
As one deacon put it, deacons need to maintain an attitude of willingness and service, not begrudging the tediousness of the work, but going forward with the heart of Christ toward others. Diaconal work may not be glamorous, but it is glorious.
I reached out to several OPC deacons with fifteen or more years of experience to get their perspective on their work and calling. My interaction with these men was a great encouragement to me, and their wisdom, based on long years of service, was very instructive.
How were you called to be a deacon, and how has that calling influenced your work in the church?
J: Our church utilizes a board of trustees, the majority of whom are deacons, and this board serves as a sort of proving ground for men who wish to become officers. Over time I was able to come alongside others to help in their time of need.
P: I always felt it was important to help people in need before I became a deacon. But once you become a deacon, you are expected to help. You now have a responsibility to others.
What are your highest priorities as a deacon?
C: Being a good listener and prayerfully applying the resources Christ has given his church to help mitigate the circumstances of those in need.
J: To show the compassion of Christ—first to the body of believers, then to the local community, other regions, and countries beyond.
P: Prayer should come first. And, in terms of leadership, engaging members of the congregation in service is also important.
T: Being proactive usually produces better results than being reactive.
What have been your most rewarding experiences as a deacon?
C: Reading thank-you notes from diaconal recipients who give Christ’s church credit for their prayerful concern and help while suffering a season of need and distress.
J: Helping a family through their crisis and watching them become productive servants in the church. The Lord does the work.
P: Members often start to feel better about their place in the church community after they come under the care of the deacons. It’s great to see them interacting with other members, smiling, and contributing, because they now feel like they belong.
T: Spending time with and caring for elderly saints in our church. I have learned to encourage family members to do what they can for those saints, too.
What are your greatest challenges as a deacon?
C: Sorting out true needs from perceived ones, and then applying the appropriate resources that will help and not hurt the situation.
J: There is wide diversity in the people we serve. Distinguishing between helping and enabling in each case is not always easy.
P: In many cases, we have to make sure we aren’t doing things for them, but with them.
T: Trying to discern the truth and how to truly help. I’ve learned that it is okay not to know the right thing to do. The Lord knows.
What advice would you give to young deacons?
C: As you listen, pray, and direct resources from Christ’s church to those in need and distress, allow time for his Spirit to show you how he directs all things for his glory.
J: Sometimes situations feel dramatic and urgent, but you should still stop, breathe, pray, and seek counsel.
P: We tend to wait for people to approach us for assistance, but when a need is clear, being proactive may prevent a bad situation from getting worse. We aren’t trying to direct or correct someone, but to come alongside and help bear a burden or address a problem.
T: Younger men need to recognize the need to serve. I’ve observed a generational change in service. In the past, when someone saw the trash can full, they would simply take it out. Now, however, I don’t see service coming as naturally to young people.
What resources have been the most encouraging to you as a deacon?
J: Official “diaconal training” generally tends towards the theological basis for that role, but practical advice comes only by word-of-mouth from other deacons. Theological training for deacons is solid, but practical training tends to be lacking.
P: I highly recommend the OPC Diaconal Summits. It is really encouraging to meet and talk with other deacons and learn from each other’s experiences.
T: The book When Helping Hurts, and the OPC Diaconal Summit that was based on that book in 2010, have really helped me to better serve those in need.
If you could change one thing about your local diaconate, what would it be?
C: To be more proactive in extensions of mercy and less occupied with the urgency of the moment.
J: To have sabbaticals. We have a group of very seasoned, tenured deacons. The fervor that once existed has waned, and we need to be refreshed.
P: I’d like to see all of us engaging more with our congregation. Keeping an ongoing log of accomplishments could be useful, too.
T: Encouraging the younger men to see the need to serve, and better equipping them to serve.
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May we all learn from the wisdom of our deacons, honor and respect them for their work, and uphold them in our prayers.
The author is a deacon at Bethel OPC in Wheaton, Illinois, and member of the Committee on Diaconal Ministries. New Horizons, February 2019.