On Saturday, June 12, at the approximate time of what would have been the closing program of the OPC's Committee on Diaconal Ministry's fourth Diaconal Summit in Chicago, a hundred deacons from across the denomination instead gathered for instruction, encouragement, and networking…in a massive Zoom meeting!
Call it another lemonade-from-lemons moment associated with COVID-19. Call it another case of the heart of men planning a way, but the Lord directing the steps. Chalk up another "instead," another "alternate arrangement," another "in light of present circumstances…" after more than 15 months of cancellations, delays, and postponements. And yet, with COVID-19 seemingly fading into our collective rear-view, we might each actually come to refer to the 2021 diaconal summit as the last important event on our calendar that was significantly altered by COVID-19 (even so, let it be!)
If the 2021 diaconal summit was significantly altered in form, venue, and execution (and it was), be assured that it was not lacking in substance, intimacy, or a sense of brotherhood. This was not your monthly corporate management meeting with that one co-worker oblivious to his dog's incessant barking. This was not your granddaughter across the country trying to show you her new bicycle but really only inadvertently showing you her nostrils and chin. The resounding testimony of this particular participant was that the 2021 diaconal summit was a great success and a blessing to those able to join in that sweet 90 minutes of conversation.
To be sure, there was a lot condensed into our 90 minutes together on that Saturday! To welcome us, David Nakhla played virtual host while we all configured our Zoom settings and looked to see who we might recognize on one of the other pages of video boxes. David greeted so many of us by name—and not just because we were "wearing a name tag," so to speak. This is a brother who is personally familiar with the diaconate of our denomination, and it shows in many ways.
Retired Army chaplain and current CDM member Rev. Rick Dickinson opened the meeting with a brief devotional from John 16:32-33. He encouraged us with the words of Him who has overcome the world and challenged us to "learn and remember that the best opportunities to glorify and enjoy God will occur through circumstances we never would have chosen for ourselves." There are many of us who perhaps knew firsthand the wisdom of that aphorism in the pre-COVID era, but Rev. Dickinson's words certainly spoke to each of us who have deaconed in and after the COVID era.
A subsequent message from Rev. Nathan Trice was presented in order to prompt us to consider and reflect on three of the main challenges with which seemingly every church and every diaconate has faced in 2020 and early 2021. First, how can a deacon/diaconate help a congregation keep the needs of body and soul in balance? Second, what role(s) does a diaconate play in trying to maintain (or restore) peace and unity in the face of disagreement between brothers? Finally, how can deacons best serve disaffected or contentious people in a congregation? Rev. Trice's warm and personable testimonies of his own congregation's struggles and successes were woven through his message and helped "prime the pump" in advance of the keynote portion of our time together.
Through means and methods known only to unseen engineers in the far recesses of virtual lands where people know what things like VDI stand for and how The Cloud (so called) works, we 100 or so deacons on 85 or so independent devices were placed—suddenly and seamlessly!—into discussion groups of 10 to 12. And this, brothers, was where the blessings and upbuilding of the participating deacons was most powerfully and palpably manifest.
Once in our virtual discussion rooms, the event became personal. It shrunk from lecture hall to workshop. It changed from the feeling of sharing an auditorium to sharing seats around a table. The crown jewel of the 2021 virtual summit was the time spent in the discussion group with a group of nine or 10 other deacons from across the country.
There, in three rows of tiled screens, were the faces of fellow front-line workers. There, in ages and voices and experience as varied as Joseph's coat, were the brothers who had labored in the same ways, struggled against the same challenges, and wrestled with the same uncertainties and anxieties that had faced all our own diaconates. In the discussion group setting was an immediate and intimate sense of camaraderie and encouragement.
We talked about what worked. We talked about what plans went askew. We remembered "back in the early days" and we shared what our congregations were doing to transition back to "normal." Perhaps most simply (and most profoundly), we talked with brothers who knew what this year had been like for the deacons of Christ's church. We were each men who had ministered and served in a year like no other. We were men who had executed our session's unprecedented and ever-changing policies. We were men who were often conflicted and confused ourselves yet couldn't relinquish the high call of the office at a time such as this. For a heartening half hour, we felt a sense of solidarity and we, I have no doubt, each felt much less alone.
I think that even those of us who couldn't get in front of a laptop on June 12 can express great thanks to the organizing committee for their work in planning, preparation, and execution. That there was even a next-best-thing option presented to the OPC diaconate is a testimony to the love and dedication that flows from the Committee on Diaconal Ministries on a seemingly perpetual basis. There is a veritable graveyard of businesses, schools, clubs, and non-profits that have folded under the restrictions and volatility of this past year, and the CDM could have folded their hands on the summit in likewise fashion. Instead, we deacons are exceedingly grateful for the invitation and the virtual venue that was presented to us this year.
We would also be remiss if we did not express how well their plans were executed by the team behind the scenes. Trish Duggan's reminders and instructive emails elevated even the most technologically-challenged of us to competent Zoomers. Mark Stumpff's unseen hand rivaled only perhaps Gandalf the Grey's for sheer wizardry and technical precision. That one hundred participants, a dozen breakout rooms, a pre-recorded keynote speaker, and four time zones peacefully co-existed and interacted for a full 90 minutes is a great testament to the Lord's blessing on the event and to Mark's great skill.
If you are anything like me, perhaps you have (with a heart full of mixed and conflicted emotions) been uttering some version of the declaration, "Well, I hope that was my last Zoom meeting!" every month since October 2020. How great a loss I would have suffered if those temporal desires of my heart had been fulfilled and I had somehow not participated in the 2021 "Continuing the Conversation" virtual summit! I take no liberties to state that the virtual summit was a great encouragement to each man who participated. May we each carry a torch of refreshment and renewed zeal back to our own diaconates as we each transition back to the "normal" labors of Christ's kingdom in the months ahead.
Scott Pearce serves as a deacon at Church of the Covenant in Hackettstown, NJ.
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