The Book of Order calls ordained deacons to a ministry of “compassion, witness, and service, sharing in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the lost, the friendless, the oppressed, those burdened by unjust policies or structures, or anyone in distress" (G-2.0201). A tall order! In addition, the previous Form of Government, when describing the responsibilities of a session, included the charge to ruling elders to “lead the congregation in ministries of personal and social healing and reconciliation in the communities in which the church lives and bears its witness” (Book of Order, 2009–11 version, G-10.0102g). That, too, was and remains a tall order, asking ruling elders to think and pray beyond the walls of the congregation’s bricks and mortar to consider the well-being of the world immediately around the congregation. It follows that given these current and historical mandates, a primary responsibility of active ruling elders is to provide for the mission and ministry of the deacons as they lead the congregation, including the session, in blessing the communities in which the church lives.
Unfortunately, the ministry of deacons in our congregations is often limited to those mundane tasks in the internal life of the church that no one else wants to do, the Cinderella tasks—“do the mending and the sewing and the mopping. …” To be sure, a part of the deacon witness is humble service, and in the spirit of Philippians 2:1–13 there are no tasks so menial that they cannot become an act of ministry and a moment of witness for the common good of God’s people. But ruling elders would do well to ensure that deacons are not so burdened or burned out by the maintenance tasks of ministry within the congregation (setting up tables for every church meal) that they have no energy or imagination left over for the mission tasks of ministry beyond the congregation (breaking bread with neighbors and strangers). A wise session will counsel with the deacons, offering to redistribute or retire some or all previous tasks in order to make room for person-to-person ministry with those who most need to see the “redeeming love of Jesus Christ” (Ibid) within but also beyond the congregation.
Another way ruling elders can support the ministry of the deacon is by interpreting said ministry to the wider congregation. Often in Presbyterian churches, the office of deacon is perceived as a secondary or peripheral ministry; perhaps even understood as a kind of proving ground for possible “promotion” to ordination as a ruling elder. But if there is wider agreement than ever before that the church does not just have a mission, but is a mission, and that if our summons as followers of Jesus is not only to go to church but to be the church, then it follows that the ministry of the deacon—“compassion, witness, and service, sharing in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ” (Ibid)—is the leading edge of our common life in and for the world. Sessions would do well to train nominating committees to seek out those saints with spiritual gifts that align with the sacred work of compassion, witness, and service to serve as deacons. Furthermore, ruling elders should use their influence to highlight and encourage the work of the deacon, regularly reminding the congregation that the church is always and everywhere called to participate “in God’s mission to care for the needs of the sick, poor, and lonely; to free people from sin, suffering, and oppression; and to establish Christ’s just, loving, and peaceable rule in the world” (Book of Order, F-1.0302d).
Let ruling elders lead the church precisely by providing for deacons who lead God’s people outward and upward, always pointing to Jesus—the chief minister among us all.
Ralph W. Hawkins serves as executive presbyter and stated clerk of the Presbytery of Shenango, which has forty-nine congregations in western Pennsylvania. He is married to Elizabeth, an ordained deacon.
For additional reading, The Presbyterian Deacon: An Essential Guide is available for purchase at http://www.wjkbooks.com/Products/066450325X/the-presbyterian-deacon.aspx.