Deacons in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are “flexible,” “connectors,” “companions,” “imaginative,” “go-getters,” “humble” and “resourceful.”
What deacons aren’t, panelists at a recent webinar on deacon ministries agreed, is a single thing. Deacons serve inside and outside their congregations, in ways that respond to the different contexts of their communities.
“Deacons look for where God is moving and how they can help with that,” said the Rev. Nikki Cooley, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Liberty, Missouri.
Cooley joined six other panelists for the webinar on deacon ministry. Along with ruling elders and Ministers of Word and Sacrament, deacons are one of three ordered ministries at PC(USA) congregations.
Martha Miller, a Christian educator who works with Ministry and Education Support in the Office of the General Assembly, moderated the 90-minute webinar, which included two rounds of panelist discussion. The Rev. Jihyun Oh, director of Mid Council Ministries in the Office of the General Assembly, facilitated each round.
With live Spanish interpretation available, audience members heard the two panel groups describe the diaconal programs at their congregations, how deacons connect individual worshiping communities to wider communities and how deacon ministry has evolved in recent years.
Demographic shifts, including aging church memberships, and unforeseen changes such as COVID-19 have prompted deacons to be especially creative in recent years. Even within congregations, the ways deacons have helped with worship services and membership communications have been impacted by pandemic restrictions and newly available technologies, such as interactive Google forms and Zoom meetings.
The first group of panelists (beginning at the 8:30 mark) included Joni Craven, a deacon at Davie Street Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina; the Rev. James Estes, associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and the Rev. Irv Porter, pastor at the Church of the Indian Fellowship in Tacoma, Washington. (Porter is also associate of Native American Intercultural Congregational Support within the Presbyterian Mission Agency.)
Porter spoke about the resourcefulness and connectedness of deacons, and how deacons at many Native churches step in to assist with a wide range of activities, including connecting church and community members with resource information.
“In Native communities it’s often not what you know but who you know,” Porter said, “and knowing the resources that are available to help people.”
He pinpointed the special difficulties Native peoples living in urban areas have identifying assistance resources. The PC(USA) providing more training materials to deacons could help Native deacons assist even more people, Porter said.
Craven talked about the changing composition of the neighborhood surrounding her church in Raleigh. “Lots of gentrification has been happening in our community,” she said.
“We have to be able to embrace newcomers,” Craven added, “and newcomers have to be able to embrace us. … As deacons, we want to find out what your needs are, and what we can do to be more welcoming to the community as a whole.”
Estes outlined how deacon ministry works at his large, multi-staff church in Tulsa. A nonprofit affiliated with the church handles much of the benevolent work in the community, allowing deacons to “serve in other ways, with a special focus being elderly members.”
“Taking communion to members who can’t make it to church on Sunday” is one example he cited. When the church sanctuary has been closed due to the pandemic, deacons in Tulsa have passed out communion supplies through pick-up windows.
The second panelist group (beginning at 45 minutes) included two congregations leaders from First Presbyterian Church in Liberty, Missouri, Cooley and Nancy Mabrey, a deacon; a second deacon from the Davie Street congregation in Raleigh, Jackie Benbow; and General Assembly Co-Moderator Elona Street-Stewart (also a church ruling elder and synod executive for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies).
Benbow, who dated her calling to community service to her childhood in Charleston, South Carolina, described deacon ministry as something “God has called me to do.” She is currently serving her fourth non-concurrent term as a deacon.
“From the homeless to the well-educated, [deacons] have to meet everyone where they are and develop programs that serve them.”
Although the pandemic has “slowed things down a bit” at the Davie Street church, the deacon program remains strong, supporting the community through back-to-school supply drives and other programs that help new and needy families.
Cooley and Mabrey shared pastor’s and deacon’s perspectives from one congregation, with Cooley characterizing the deacon ministry at First Presbyterian Church in Liberty as more “internal than external. Deacons are connectors of the congregation, focusing inward.”
Mabrey listed some of the services deacons provide the congregation. During the pandemic, deacons distributed Halloween pumpkins they’d decorated with masks and visited elderly members of the church.
“When we went into a care facility it was to see church members but also the whole community,” Mabry said. “We were there for everybody.”
Deacons can help bring generations together. Mabry talked about a caroling and food delivery program that teamed up deacons with younger people who otherwise might not have known how to serve elderly and other needy people in the community.
Street-Stewart joked that she is so fond of deacons that her son is named “Deacon.” She shared her experiences being a deacon or a ruling elder at different congregations around the country, before and after her son was born.
At her current church, deacons recently led an effort to contact church members 65 and older to talk with them about vaccines. They also contacted friends of members.
Deacons became “essential workers,” Street-Stewart said, and managed to involve “wider friendship circles” in their efforts to disseminate information about health services.
Street-Stewart’s first service at a church was as a deacon. She stressed how deacons are not “rookie” church leaders, but vital members of any congregation, and the members that people from the community at large often know best. Deacons at her church in Minnesota have gone on to influence policy decisions and the work of local nonprofits.
Street-Stewart stressed the importance of deacons being known not just outside the congregation, but also inside. Deacons should provide regular reports to the session about their ministry, she said, to identify what’s happening in the congregation, and how it is making community relationships.
At the end of the second panel discussion, Miller related questions from the audience to panelists and plugged the denomination’s new “Coming Alive In Christ” resource, which uses the constitutional questions answered in ordination and installation to help deacons prepare for ministry and serve within their congregation.
After Oh concluded the facilitated discussion (59-minute mark), Miller reminded audience members they could access the webinar recordings at the Year of Leader Formation website. She also shared her hope that more PC(USA) resoures will be developed in the future to help deacons serve their communities, whatever spirited form that service takes.