Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this series: April 1, 2007, p. 297.
In our last article, supposing that we were allowed to observe a meeting of the deacons, we saw them open with prayer, count the offerings from the last month’s collections, and read the minutes of the previous meeting.
Then we took a break with them, as they enjoyed coffee and dessert, and visited the restroom. Now the men enter the room again, roll up their sleeves and shuffle papers, giving the impression that the actual work is about to begin, and that it might take several hours.
The president calls the men to order.
Still on the agenda are reports of committees, reading correspondence that has been received, and other matters.
The second part of the meeting begins with a review of the work that has been done in the last month.
The treasurer gives the Benevolent Fund report for the last month. The fund began with a balance of almost $14,000; collections brought in almost $1,300; disbursements were almost $2,500; the ending total is under $13,000.
Thirteen thousand dollars is a lot of money. But with the economy slowing down, the two ongoing benevolent cases, and one father in the congregation having lost his job in the last month, it could be gone quickly. Discussing this, the deacons commit themselves again both to give to the poor in accordance with their true needs, and to investigate these needs carefully so that no money is given away needlessly.
Committees of two deacons have been assigned to various “cases” in the church. These committees now give their reports.
(The reader must know that any correlation between what I now write, and any real diaconal case to which he thinks I am referring, is coincidental; I am not basing what I write on my knowledge of any real, particular case.)
One has no report—they were unable to meet with the individual in the past month. They assure the rest of the deacons that they will continue trying to set up a meeting.
A second reports on the visit they had made, in which benevolent help was given. This visit was made to a family in which the father works hard to support his family, but because he receives only a modest wage, and because of high tuition and medical expenses, the family occasionally needs help. Visiting this family is always a joy; it is apparent to the deacons that these parents realize the need to work hard to provide for their needs, and to be good stewards of that which they earn. They are always ready to demonstrate their need to the deacons when asked to do so, and are grateful for the benevolent help they receive. The work of bringing the Scriptures to bear on the family’s needs is joyful, because of the godly and receptive spirit of both parents. The body of deacons receives this report, and approves the work this committee has done. (This approval is given by one deacon making a motion to approve the work, a second deacon supporting the motion, all the deacons being given time to discuss the matter, and then voting by voice). While the help given will suffice the family for some time yet, this committee will periodically check with the family to be sure all is well.
The third report is less encouraging. It regards another family, one that is delinquent in its giving to the General Fund. The deacons whose meeting we are observing do not contact families that have not paid every last dollar of the budgeted amount; but they do con- tact families that appear to be making little, if any, effort to contribute to the General Fund. They are aware that this particular family puts in $10 here, $20 there, and on rare occasion a $40 check, but seems to make no effort to pay the full burden of the budget. The question arises—is the family obligated to do that? Consider this, in answer: first, it is our calling to put the kingdom first; and second, the father of this family, as its head, voted in favor of the proposed budget at the last congregational meeting. This delinquency alerts the deacons to the possibility that this family is having financial struggles. Meeting with the family, they find this in fact to be true. They also learned that the family was almost $2,000 behind on paying its Christian school tuition, and paying little more than the minimum monthly payments on two credit cards.
What makes this report less encouraging, however, is not the financial woes of the family, but the view that both husband and wife expressed, that paying tuition and putting money in the collection plate was what they did with their “leftover” money. The committee of deacons showed this family on the basis of scriptural principles that they must put the causes of the kingdom first (Matt. 6:33); that they would be wise to stop using credit cards altogether, not because they are wrong in principle but because this family is unable to pay off their credit card debt (Prov. 22:7); and that they must be ready to give up some of the things they have come to enjoy (cable TV, two cell phones, eating at restaurants weekly or more often), not because such are wrong in principle, but in order to get their financial position stable. Yet the family still gave the distinct impression that, to them, these “things” were all-important! How to get them to see that man’s life consists not in the abundance of the things that he possesses (Luke 12:15)?
In discussing this report, the deacons express sympathy toward the family. True, the family “made its own bed,” but the deacons do not carelessly suppose that “they should now lie in it.” The deacons remember that they are called to show mercy—to sympathize with those in need. This is exactly what God did to us, when we “made our own bed” by sinning in Adam and by our sins today—God sent Christ, and assures us of His mercy in the way of our repentance! So the deacons are ready to show mercy to this family also, but indeed, it requires the family to see the need to change their ways. The committee is told to visit the family again within the next month, if possible, assuring them that the deacons stand ready to help, so long as the family will use that help to God’s glory—that is, without thinking that the deacons are an easy “out.”
At this point the elder who is present encourages the deacons to give this matter their full attention, and do their work diligently, but assures them that if the parents do not change their attitude or take the principles of Christian stewardship seriously, the elders will be ready also to visit them, on the basis of violations of the fourth and eighth commandments. (Remember that our Heidelberg Catechism, explaining the fourth commandment, requires “that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained”; and, explaining the eighth, teaches that God forbids “all covetousness, all abuse and waste of His gifts”).
The final report was made by two deacons who contacted the father who lost his job, to assure him that they stood ready to help if need be. The father was grateful for this assurance, said that his severance pay would help him for the immediate future, and that he would be earnest in seeking new employment.
Turning to matters pertaining to other needs of the saints, the deacons read a report from a committee of three couples in the church who help organize transportation, meals, and other acts of kindness toward those in the congregation in such need. This committee reports on the work it has done in the recent past, and asks the deacons to advertise the need for transportation of an elderly saint to doctors’ appointments, and running errands such as picking up prescriptions and groceries for that person. This the deacons resolve to do.
The deacons next turn their attention to the work they plan to do in the coming month.
First, the president opens up the church directory, and reads through it family by family. Each deacon is given opportunity, when a family’s name is read, to mention a need of that family, and to suggest a way in which the deacons can help. With most families, nothing is said; with other families and individuals, the deacons already know their needs and are working to meet them. But—here is one family in which a member faces surgery; another, in which a member has been battling chronic health problems. With two other families, comments are made regarding struggles of which the deacons were not all aware. The families have not requested the deacons’ help, nor do the deacons know of an immediate need; but they will be aware that the possibility might arise.
Thinking over the month ahead, and the work that must be done in it, the president reminds the deacons that with the end of the year approaching, the widows, elderly, sick, and shut-ins must all receive a visit again. Committees are appointed to do this work.
Letters that have been received over the course of the last month are now read.
One is received from a diaconate that announces that it has a sizable balance in its benevolence fund, and is able to help any diaconate that has a low balance. This letter is received for information.
The second is from a diaconate of a smaller church, in which the deacons have ongoing benevolent cases and the congregation is not able sufficiently to keep up with its own benevolent needs. This diaconate is asking other diaconates for help. Notwithstanding the fact that this congregation whose deacons’ meeting we are observing has its own benevolent needs, the fact is that it still has a sizable balance, and another congregation has a dire need. A motion is made, supported, and passed, to send a check to the deacons of this sister congregation.
A letter from the deacons of a local congregation affiliated with another Reformed denomination is read, announcing an upcoming conference for deacons, and also reminding the churches in the community of the ongoing needs of the food pantry that this other diaconate runs. This letter is read especially for the information of the deacons. No action is taken.
One letter was received from a Christian college and another from a Christian rehabilitation home, asking to take collections for their cause. The president of the deacons rules that these letters should be treated at the council meeting, rather than the deacons’ meeting, since the council as a whole decides the collection schedule. (In other diaconates, the deacons might discuss these requests, and make recommendations to bring to the next council meeting).
The deacons turn their attention to the needs of individual saints outside the congregation.
We noted in our last article that the congregation in which these deacons serve has the oversight of one of the denominational mission fields, located a considerable distance from this congregation. The council—the meeting of elders and deacons together—is the body that supervises the work of this field. But at the last council meeting, the missionary informed the council of a benevolent need on the field, and the council directed the deacons to investigate the matter and come with a recommendation. The deacons discuss this mandate from the council for a while; then they appoint a committee to investigate the matter more carefully, in conjunction with the missionary.
In the community lives a divorced woman trying to raise two children without seeing a penny of the child support that the children’s father owes her. She attends no church, but is not shy about asking one of the churches in the community for a “little help” now and then. Recently she left a request on the church’s answering machine, which was referred to the deacons. The deacons discuss this. Have they a responsibility to help her? Not all are agreed that they do, but several are emphatic that at the least they should investigate the need, seeing Christians are called to do good unto all men (Gal. 6:10a). How best to help her? That, too, is not easily answered. Two deacons volunteer to meet with her, to investigate the matter more thoroughly. Although these deacons realize the need to do this, the president specifically mandates them to teach the lady about the misery of sin, and her need for Jesus Christ. Any help that might be given her must be given in the name of Christ. And it will either constitute for her a true blessing (if she is a child of God), or it will leave her without excuse (if she is not). She must hear this.
The clock reads 10:25 P.M., and the agenda is nearly finished.
The president asks each deacon whether he has any new matters to bring to the deacons’ attention. Only one matter is brought up. “The letter we received from the Reformed congregation down the road mentioned that they are having a deacons’ conference. That reminds me that it has been over six years since the deacons of Hudsonville, in the fall of 2000, had a deacons’ conference. Perhaps we should organize another one.” The men briefly discuss the concept, find it agreeable, but do not act officially on it. But the seed has been planted.
The clerk, having recorded the “script minutes” of the meeting (those that he jotted down during the meeting itself), is asked to read them. He does so, and the men are given opportunity to modify or correct anything in them. They are then approved.
A motion is made, supported, and passed to adjourn. (I think that most motions that are made at consistory and deacons meetings pass; some fail, but not many. But here is one motion that you know will never fail. In fact, I’ve never experienced it to pass with anything less than unanimous support. By 10:30, we all want our beds!)
Because the deacons take turns closing their meeting in prayer, the clerk indicates whose turn it is tonight, and that deacon prays. Like the prayer with which the meeting opened, this one is no mere formality. The deacons are conscious that the decisions they made must be blessed of God; that the committees assigned to do tasks in the next month need God’s blessing to do the work well; and that the members of the congregation need God’s blessing to receive the deacons rightly. This consciousness is reflected in the closing prayer. Petition is made again for grace to perform their work in the right spirit and with the right attitude— humbly, cheerfully, lovingly, sacrificially, Christ-like in every way.
The deacons rise up, tired for the evening, but prepared again for the real work they must do in the next month, as the ministers of Christ’s mercy.
So ends a fairly representative deacons’ meeting. Certainly some of the items on the agenda do not come up every month, or for every diaconate. At the same time, other matters come up that one could never have imagined. Perhaps there is no “representative” meeting.
But by considering what happens in such a meeting, saints in Reformed churches may better understand that the deacons truly do have the care of the poor and needy in mind, and do busy themselves in that care.
Pray for your deacons, the next time you know they are meeting.