When members of Omega OPC in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, go door-to-door to meet neighbors in the surrounding community, they often discoverCoverwhelming needs. “Nearly everyone we come into contact with is poor,” says deacon Michael Harer.
Poverty isn’t the only problem. Harer says the neighborhood suffers from violence, drug use, and kids without parents to guide them. That dynamic poses a significant challenge for Omega’s deacons. How can the young church plant offer the hope of lasting transformation instead of just meeting temporary needs?
Harer says the deacons start by asking a simple question: “What is the greatest need here?” They always arrive at the same answer: “The greatest need is for a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
The same principle that drives Omega’s diaconal work undergirded the teaching at the OPC’s nationwide diaconal summit at Wheaton College June 7–9. Nearly 190 deacons, elders, and ministers from around the country gathered at Wheaton (during the General Assembly) to hear good teaching, enjoy rich fellowship, and consider the best ways to cultivate diaconal ministry that encourages deep relationships with Christ and the church.
The summit marked the second time that OPC deacons have gathered together. The Committee on Diaconal Ministries (CDM) conducted their inaugural summit at Wheaton two years ago, aiming to provide deacons with solid teaching and meaningful fellowship across the broader church.
This year’s conference had a similar goal, but added a new feature. In addition to large-group meetings, the CDM also planned breakout sessions with training and discussion about the nuts-and-bolts issues that deacons face in their work of serving those in need.
As a new deacon, Harer was attending the summit for the first time, but other deacons from his church attended the first conference two years ago. That’s where they heard Brian Fikkert discuss mercy ministries using material from his book When Helping Hurts.
“That brought a fundamental shift in the way our deacons were working,” says Harer. The diaconate maintained its commitment to meeting material needs, but intensified its focus on addressing spiritual needs, with the goal of fostering long-term change by God’s grace.
Now when the deacons encounter poverty, troubled youth, and other material needs, Harer says they ask: “Are we simply alleviating those things, or are we bringing Christ into every single one of those lives?”
In the large-group meetings, speaker Steve Corbett—coauthor of When Helping Hurts—addressed that question by expanding on the teaching that Fikkert offered during the conference two years ago.
Even though most Americans are rich by the developing world’s standards, needs still run deep in our own communities. Corbett reported that the U.S. is experiencing its highest poverty rate in fifty years, but he noted that poverty isn’t measured just by a person’s bank balance.
As a broken sinner, every person is poor and needs the restoration that Christ alone can give. Corbett reminded the deacons that their work hinges on helping those in need pursue right relationships with God, themselves, and others.
The speaker also offered practical steps for improving diaconal ministry. He emphasized that much of good diaconal work involves saying no when helping in the short term could hurt in the long term by enabling poor decisions.
A series of small-group sessions offered workshops on how to put the principles into practice. A handful of deacons and ministers led seminars on three topics: how to handle short-term needs, how to manage long-term needs, and the importance of deacons and elders working together to provide ministry that addresses both material and spiritual needs.
Each workshop ended with the men meeting in groups of two or three to discuss case studies that presented a diaconal challenge and then reporting how they would handle it.
Doug Vos, who has served as a deacon for twenty years at Oakland Hills Community Church in Farmington Hills, Michigan, said the workshops were particularly helpful for thinking through complicated problems and hearing how deacons from other churches have handled similar situations. “Deacons really get discouraged when they don’t know what to do next,” he said. “That’s where this education is really vital.”
That education has already played a role in Vos’s own church. He said that after the summit two years ago, their deacons developed written policies for the first time. Those policies have helped them navigate their work more effectively.
Carl Foley, a deacon at Amoskeag Presbyterian Church in Manchester, N.H., said his diaconate wrote policies after the first summit as well. He said the inaugural summit helped him rethink his own ministry. “I had never really considered when helping hurts,” he said. “But it really can.”
Foley said he valued this year’s workshops and the practical counsel, adding that the interaction with other deacons was enormously helpful in improving his own work. Like many others at the conference, Foley also found the worship to be a rich experience: “The singing in the auditorium with all those men—it’s really something special.”
The deacons had opportunities to fellowship with the commissioners to the General Assembly during shared meals and during the CDM’s report to the assembly on Friday evening. On Saturday morning, the fellowship continued at a joint meeting of the commissioners and deacons. The men prayed, sang, and listened to a stirring message about mercy ministry from Wheaton College president Philip Ryken.
Ryken underscored how each piece of Reformed theology informs mercy ministry. He encouraged the men to perform greater acts of service, following the example of the robust mercy ministries of John Calvin and Thomas Chalmers.
By the end of the summit, Chris Sudlow, a CDM member and deacon at Bethel Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, said the response had been overwhelmingly encouraging. “You begin to create a vision of the wider church and an awareness that it’s not just our congregation,” he said. “You realize that you’re connected to something broad and deep. I think that’s very, very rich.”
The author is a member of Matthews OPC in Matthews, N.C., and news editor of World magazine. Photos by Doug Johnson and David Porter. New Horizons, Aug.–Sept. 2012.