Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this series: February 1, 2007, p. 210.
The room in which deacons’ meetings are held does not have an observers’ gallery. Unlike most sessions of the meetings of the church’s broader assemblies, the public is not welcome to observe deacons’ meetings—or consistory meetings, for that matter.
The reason for this is not that the congregation may know nothing about the deacons’ work. The deacons do well to inform the congregation of the work they are doing, withholding any names and details pertaining to specific cases. But the members of the congregation may not observe deacons’ meetings because at such the deacons discuss personal matters pertaining to individual members of the church.
But let us suppose that the room in which the deacons of our Reformed congregations meet does have an observers’ gallery, and that we are sitting in it. We will view a fairly representative meeting. Not every diaconate will follow the same order; not every diaconate will include every item on their agenda; but this meeting that we observe is as “normal” as such a meeting can be.
This will be for the benefit of all of us. It will help satisfy the curiosity of any who are not able to be at such meetings. Even more, it will help us realize that at such meetings the deacons work hard on the church’s behalf to see that the needs of the poor are met.
This will also be for the benefit of deacons. You know how your own meetings are conducted. But is everything you do at your meetings relevant to your real work as deacons? Do you get sidetracked on issues that should not take up your time? Are any important matters that do pertain to your office being overlooked?
Eager to observe this meeting, we have arrived early. Consequently, most of the deacons are still arriving. But wait—that man who just walked in the door is not a deacon; he is an elder! Why is an elder at the meeting?
The elders of Reformed churches properly have the oversight of the deacons’ office and work. One way the elders manifest this is by sending one of their number, or the minister, to each deacon’s meeting.
This is in accordance with our Church Order. Article 40 prescribes that to the deacons’ meetings, “ministers shall take good heed, and if necessary they shall be present.” And Article 23 says that “the office of the elders…is to take heed that the ministers, together with their fellow-elders and the deacons, faithfully discharge their office….” The elders have the oversight of the church and the offices of the church. Properly, therefore, they must oversee the work and the meetings of the deacons.
Reasons are given why Article 40 specifically requires the “minister” to take heed and, if necessary, to be present: “Since he is usually much better acquainted with the New Testament teaching on the offices in the churches and with the provisions of the Church Order, he will be able to answer many of the questions which arise in the minds of the deacons.”¹ The fact is, however, that when the minister attends such meetings he does so as an elder.
Our common practice of having all of the elders by rotation take their turn visiting the deacons’ meetings is good, for “it establishes a close contact between the Consistory and the Diaconate and gives every Elder an opportunity to keep in touch with the work.”²
The elder who is present has what we call an advisory vote. Do not misunderstand; he may not actually vote on any motions or matters that come before the deacons. But he may participate in the discussion of motions, and give advice.
Such an elder must not be quick to give advice. His presence does not suggest that the deacons do not know how to do their work, and that the elder must always show them what to do. This elder must resist the temptation of thinking that he has been suddenly given all wisdom, and that the deacons cannot do their work without him. But when he believes himself to have input that might help the deacons in a situation, he may give it.
His real mandate from the consistory, however, is to ensure that the deacons aredoing their work, and then to report to the consistory regarding any matters of which the deacons seek the consistory’s input.
At the appointed time, the deacon who has been elected to preside calls the meeting to order, reads a passage from Scripture, and opens with prayer. This is an appropriate way to begin any meeting of the officebearers of Christ’s church. It is also required by Article 40 of our Church Order, which mandates that the deacons do their work, “calling upon the name of God.”
Probably few, if any, begin with the “Opening Prayer for the Meetings of the Deacons” found in the back of the 1959 edition of the Psalter Hymnal, but the prayer is beautiful and appropriate. Of the exact origin of this prayer I am uncertain; but in the early 1600s it was added to a collection of other prayers in the Dutch Psalter, and translated in the 1930s for inclusion in the Psalter Hymnal.
Here is the prayer:
Merciful God and Father, Thou hast not only declared that we shall always have the poor with us, but hast also commanded us to succor them in their need. Thou hast ordained the service of the deacons for Thy Church, in order that its needy members may receive the aid they require. Since we whom Thou hast called to the deaconal office in this church are now met in Thy Name to discuss matters pertaining to our office, we humbly beseech Thee that Thou mayest, for the sake of Jesus Christ, dwell among us with the spirit of discrimination. May Thy Spirit help us to distinguish between those really poor and those who feign destitution, and to distribute the alms that have been collected as each one’s need may render necessary, in the spirit of joy and fidelity. May we neither fail to comfort the needy members of Thy dear Son, nor dispense gifts to those who are not in want.
Kindle fervent love to the poor in men’s hearts, in order that they may contribute generously of their temporal possessions over which Thou didst appoint them stewards, and we may have command of sufficient means to bring relief to those that are indigent, and may faithfully perform our task with true liberality of heart and without difficulty.
Bestow upon us also the grace we need, not only to relieve want by means of external gifts, but also to instill the comfort of Thy Holy Word in hearts afflicted with misery. Truly, man lives not by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of Thy mouth. We pray, therefore, that Thou wilt bless our ministrations and wilt multiply the bread of the poor, to the end that both they and we may have reasons to praise and thank Thee; meanwhile awaiting the blessed appearance of Thy dear Son, Jesus Christ, who for our sakes became poor that He might enrich us with eternal treasures. Amen.³
The reader notes that the prayer breathes the spirit of deacons who are devoted to their office, have genuine compassion for the poor, and understand that the benevolent funds of the church must be protected against those looking for a free handout. It is a prayer for grace, expressing dependence on God as the fountain of all good to give the deacons the graces of which they stand in need.
At this point, the deacons whom we are observing spend the better part of an hour counting the offerings that have been collected over the course of the past month.
Not all deacons count their collections monthly. Some count each offering immediately after each service; others count special offerings after each service, but leave the General and/or Benevolent Fund offerings to be counted at the monthly meeting; others count the money from every collection from the past month at the deacons’ meeting. The money counted at the monthly meeting has been kept safe since it was collected, either by being stored in a safe within the church, or by being deposited, uncounted, in the bank’s safe until the day of the meeting.
Having counted the money, some diaconates (especially in those churches that use the envelope system of giving to the General Fund) record in a book which member gave how much. This enables the treasurer at the end of the year to give each member a written statement of how much he contributed to the church’s general fund—a statement that is useful for tax purposes.
As the deacons count the money, they often discuss matters among themselves. At this meeting the discussion revolves around the question whether the deacons are the proper body to count the General Fund and special collection offerings. They must be counted; they should be counted by officebearers; but why the deacons, at a deacons’ meeting?
Arguing that the deacons are not the proper body to do this work, one deacon notes that Article 40 of our Church Order requires the deacons at their meetings “to transact the business pertaining to their office.” This business is that of caring for the poor, not overseeing the General Fund or administering the special collections. All the business of the church that does not specifically pertain either to the office of elder or that of deacon is really the work of the church’scouncil—the meeting of pastor, elders, and deacons together. That is the body that ought to count the monies.
The elder quickly chimes in that he doesn’t really mind that the deacons count the money. After all, the council meetings are plenty long anyway, especially since this congregation has the oversight of one of the denomination’s mission fields; and usually the consistory meets after the council, so the night gets late enough for the elders.
Two deacons point out potential benefits to counting the General Fund and special collections at the council meeting instead of the deacons’ meeting. One approaches it from a practical viewpoint: “It would make the counting go more quickly, seeing many hands make light work, and the council has more members than the diaconate.” The other puts forth more substantial arguments: “It would give us more time to devote to our real work, caring for the poor. And, it would mean that we deacons would not have to spend time wondering what to do when the General Fund collections are not keeping up with the church’s needs, or when one family is not giving much to the kingdom’s causes. These are really matters that pertain to the work of the church as a whole.”
But don’t suppose that in this discussion it is the one elder against the six deacons. A fourth deacon demonstrates that there is more than one way to look at any issue, as he justifies the current practice: “It is true that our real work is the care of the poor. But in counting the offerings you could view us as a committee of the council; so it isn’t that it is really wrong of us to do this.”
The fifth deacon, the treasurer, is shaking his head “No.” Not that he is disagreeing with what the last deacon said; in fact, he hasn’t heard it. His problem is that he is preparing the deposit slip—and the numbers are not adding up right!
It is the sixth deacon who has the last word. “No, we couldn’t say it is wrong for us to do it; but I think it is inappropriate.”
Personally, at the moment, I’m agreeing with the deacon who spoke last. “The deacons shall meet monthly, or more frequently as the need arises, to transact the business pertaining to their office. . .” (Article 40). Have not our SB articles for the last few years asserted that this business pertaining to the deacons’ office does not include the general finances of the church?
Just a question from the gallery.
And food for thought.
The collections having been counted and recorded, the real business of the meeting begins. The deacon who has been elected to be secretary for the year reads the minutes of the previous meeting, the entire diaconate has an opportunity to correct them if they are not accurate, and they are approved.
Minutes of meetings are important. Article 34 requires that at each assembly there be “a clerk to keep a faithful record of all important matters.” Recall from the previous article that the deacons’ meeting is technically an extension of the consistory meeting, so that technically Article 34 does not apply. But the point of Article 34 does apply. It is always good to keep record of important decisions made “(1) so that the Church or Churches may know with precision what has been decided in any given instance… (2) To avoid needless duplication of work… (3) And furthermore, we should preserve our decisions and deliverances for the benefit of posterity.”4
Furthermore, the minutes of the deacons’ meeting serve as a basis for informing the consistory about the work the deacons have done.
Not only, then, will the secretary read the minutes of the previous meeting, but you will note him jotting down the motions and other key information from the current meeting in a notebook, or on a laptop computer, to be tidied up at a later time, so that they also are properly recorded.
Let’s see—how the time has flown by, and the space allotted me to write this column. The meeting is not yet over, but it is time for a break.
No doubt one of the deacons’ wives took her turn, in rotation, preparing a nice dessert, and her husband made sure to get the coffee pot going when he arrived at church. So enjoy your coffee and dessert, and be sure to visit the restroom; the real work has yet to be done.
. . . to be continued.
¹ Peter Y. DeJong, The Ministry of Mercy for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1963), pp. 164-165.
² VanDellen and Monsma, The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1941), p. 179.
³ Psalter Hymnal, Doctrinal Standards and Liturgy of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Publication Committee of the Christian Reformed Church, 1959), pp. 83-84 in the doctrinal and liturgical section. The historical information regarding the prayer is found on page 74.
4 VanDellen and Monsma, p. 155.