Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.
I have a deacons’ meeting tonight. Another night away from the family. Endless discussions. Problems without solutions. And I hardly had time to prepare my report on the benevolent case that I am working on with one of my fellow deacons. Oh, how I dislike deacons’ meetings!”
I hope, deacons, that such is not your view of deacons’ meetings. But, because you too are human, such thoughts may have crossed your mind.
Reviewing the purpose and benefits of deacons’ meetings should enable us better to appreciate them. Such meetings, properly conducted, enable the deacons to do their work better. By addressing this subject we conclude our treatment of the work that pertains specifically to the office of deacons.
Deacons’ meetings are required by our Church Order. Article 40 reads: “The deacons shall meet monthly, or more frequently as the need arises, to transact the business pertaining to their office, calling upon the name of God; whereunto the ministers shall take good heed, and if necessary they shall be present.”¹
The reason for this requirement is at least twofold. First, it ensures that the work of the office of mercy will be carried out regularly in a congregation. Second, this requirement underscores the fact that no deacon is free to do the work of his office on his own; he may do it only in connection with the other deacons. This requires the deacons to meet as a body, and to make decisions as a body regarding their work.
This requirement applies only to the diaconates of certain congregations. In small congregations, with few elders and deacons, in which the deacons are “added to the consistory” (Article 37 of the Church Order), separate deacons’ meetings are not required. In such cases, both elders and deacons meet together once a month to care for the financial and temporal affairs of the church, and the matters pertaining to the offices as a whole; and to care for the spiritual affairs of God’s people, which is the duty of the elders;and to care for the poor, which is the duty of deacons. But in those congregations in which the elders meet alone to care for the work that pertains to their office, Article 40 requires also the deacons to meet alone, at least once a month, to carry out the work that pertains to their office.
That the article requires deacons’ meetings only of the deacons that are not “added to the consistory” is evident from the fact that the Church Order views the deacons’ meeting as an extension of the consistory meeting. Article 29 speaks of three kinds of assemblies in the church: “the consistory, the classis, and the general synod.” No mention is made of the deacons’ meeting as an ecclesiastical meeting.
My explanation is also the position of VanDellen and Monsma:
Should the Deacons hold separate meetings even in Churches in which the Deacons constantly meet with the Consistory? No. In Churches which have not yet introduced separate meetings for the Elders and for the Deacons the latter need not hold special meetings for Deacons alone. In these Churches … the work of mercy is regularly acted upon at the general Consistory meetings. Article 40 is intended for the larger Churches which have their general Consistory meetings and their Restricted Consistory meetings and consequently also need their Diaconal meetings.²
Understanding that the Church Order does not require the deacons in every congregation to hold separate meetings explains the fact that at the annual church visitation, one of the questions put to the ministers and elders, in the absence of the deacons, is this: “Do the deacons attend regularly the services for divine worship as well as the consistory meetings; and in case such meetings are held, do they also attend deacons’ meetings?”³ The phrase “in case such meetings are held” presupposes that in some churches such meetings are not held, and the phrase presupposes this without judgment—that is, without suggesting that in every instance it would be wrong for the deacons not to meet separately.
If, however, you are a deacon in a church in which deacons’ meetings are not required, don’t stop reading yet….
For, first, Article 40 does not apply to you, insofar as it requires a monthly meeting. Do not take this to mean that you need never meet as a diaconate. You must meet, as the need arises, that is, when you are dealing with benevolent cases. But in distinction from other diaconates, your meetings will not be announced to the congregation, and will not be held on a specific night of each month.
Second, the right understanding of Article 40 certainly does not prohibit you from having monthly meetings that are announced to the congregation. Consider the possibility that having such meetings regularly, and announcing them to the congregation, would be as beneficial for you and your congregations, as for others. The only difference between your meetings and those of other diaconates would be that, whereas they meet as a body of deacons apart from the consistory, you would meet as a committee of the consistory.
Deacons’ meetings are for the benefit of all.
First, they are for the benefit of the congregation. They remind the whole congregation that she has the office of deacon in her midst, and that this office requires work, time, and effort. The congregation, seeing an announcement in the bulletin that the deacons will be meeting, does well to pray for the deacons as they meet. Perhaps, people of God, we do not often enough remember to pray for the officebearers of the church, as they gather on a particular night of the month to do their work.
Secondly, such meetings are for the benefit of the poor. It may be that one in the congregation has a need that he wishes to make known to the diaconate. By knowing that the deacons meet on a certain date, he is able to come to the diaconate to let them know his need. Admittedly, some in the church would prefer not to make their need known this way; they would prefer to tell one deacon, and let that deacon “get the ball rolling.” Others, however, might prefer to come to the whole body to present their case, being ready to answer any questions that any of the deacons might have, then leaving the meeting so that the deacons can discuss the matter.
Even for those poor who do not desire to appear personally at such a meeting, the knowledge that the deacons have such meetings will assure them that the body as a whole will discuss their case. This, I say, is for their assurance—one whose need is genuine has no reason to be ashamed of his need. He will be comforted in knowing that the whole body of deacons, not just one or two individually, cares for him in his need.
Third, such meetings are for the benefit of the deacons. They are a means to carry out the work to which the deacons are called. Let me underscore that point. The deacons’ meeting is not the primary work of the deacon. Rather, it is a means to help the deacons do their primary work well. How the deacons’ meeting goes is determined somewhat by how well the poor are cared for. How much any particular deacon looks forward to that meeting will be determined by how deeply he pities those who are poor, how devoted he is to his calling.
Deacons’ meetings are beneficial for deacons because they allow the whole body of men to discuss their work, to encourage each other in it, and to benefit from each other’s experience. They allow a committee of deacons who are frustrated in their dealings with a particular case to air those frustrations, and receive advice. They allow the deacons to do their work in an organized way—to develop a plan as to how best to care for the poor in their congregation, and to put that plan into action.
Such meetings are beneficial for the deacons also because they give an opportunity for the deacons to be instructed regarding their office. Article 40 implies that this opportunity could arise, for it requires the minister to be present. He must give advice and counsel, but also instruction, to the deacons as the need arises.
These benefits of deacons’ meetings are not merely potential or hypothetical benefits; consciously or unconsciously, the deacon enjoys these benefits.
Here I speak from experience. As a pastor, I must attend consistory meetings. Sometimes much time and effort are put into preparing for them—getting an agenda together, gathering all the correspondence I’ve received that must be treated, and, even more, making reports and preparing recommendations. But these reports and recommendations assume that the real work of preaching, teaching catechism, and caring pastorally for the congregation is being done. And how well the meeting goes depends, in large measure, on how well the work is being done.
More than once I have left a consistory meeting that went late and left me tired, in which were treated matters that pastors and elders would rather not treat, nevertheless lifted up and renewed in my spirit. I do not bear the burden of the congregation alone! And, insofar as I do not always bear that burden wisely, God has appointed other men to give me advice and wisdom! The next day, with a better sense of direction and a renewed focus, I can again busy myself in the real work.
Finally, the whole consistory will benefit from such meetings. If the deacons take good heed to their work, the consistory’s calling to supervise the deacons will be more easily carried out.
Facing the prospect of an upcoming meeting, deacons should think on these benefits, look forward to the meeting, and be encouraged to prepare well for it.
Also those deacons who meet regularly as part of the consistory, and for whom separate monthly meetings are not required, do well to ask whether they experience these benefits apart from monthly announced meetings. If they find they do not experience all these benefits in their work, they ought seriously to consider having monthly meetings.
Having explained the benefits of such meetings, we will examine in the next article, the Lord willing, what happens at such meetings.
¹ The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, 2002 edition, p. 20. Every article of the Church Order that is later quoted in this article is taken from this book; the specific page references will not be given.
² Idzerd VanDellen and Martin Monsma, The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1941), p. 177.
³ The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, 2002 edition, p. 113.