The OPC's First Diaconal Summit

Patricia E. Clawson

More than two hundred deacons from across North America migrated to Wheaton College for the inaugural Diaconal Summit of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The three-day conference, held June 3-5 in Wheaton, Illinois, was the first denomination-wide conference for deacons in the history of the OPC.

More than two years ago, when the Committee on Diaconal Ministries (CDM) first floated the idea of hosting the Summit, the committee members never imagined that 220 deacons, pastors, and elders would attend or that the conference would be so well received.

"The verbal response we received has been exciting," said Lendall Smith, president of the CDM. "Just the encouragement of being with other deacons and knowing that there are resources available to help them has been a great encouragement to them."

The Summit looked at the best ways for deacons to minister to the poor and handle other challenges, encouraged networking among deacons at a presbytery level, and pointed out resources available for deacons.

Dr. Brian Fikkert, executive director of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development and associate professor of economics at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, was the keynote speaker. Fikkert's talks were based on the book he wrote with Steve Corbett, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor ... and Yourself. The son of the late OP pastor Henry Fikkert, he outlined strategies for helping those who knock at the church's door seeking aid.

The second speaker, Bob Wright, an OP missionary deacon in Uganda and a CDM member, gave a firsthand account of ministering to the needy. A discussion of the positives and negatives of short-term missions followed during a question-and-answer session with Fikkert and Wright.

The Summit concluded with three workshops that considered the nature of the diaconate, specific challenges facing deacons, and ways to network within the presbytery and throughout the OPC. The deacons also ate breakfast with their counterparts from their own presbyteries, many of whom had never met each other.

Like many attendees, Lee Sias and Todd Everly, deacons at Grace and Peace Presbyterian Church in California, Maryland, came to the conference hoping to gain feedback on their work as deacons as well as to see if their service was in line with the principles and practice of the CDM. "I was very pleasantly surprised that there was a mutual exchange of practical application and experience with other deacons," said Sias. "I greatly appreciated knowing that we are on the right track."

Everly agreed: "The last thing we want to do is to feel like we're aiding someone, but in a sense we're harming them and ourselves. We have to counter the world's view with God's way of looking at things."

Both deacons plan to share what they learned with their fellow deacons. They also want to reassess how they currently handle situations and consider how to apply what they learned to specific cases in the future.

A Look at Helping the Poor

Fikkert's first talk on defining poverty and how to alleviate it opened many deacons' eyes. He pointed out that many view poverty as a lack of material possessions, while those who are poor chiefly identify poverty with feelings of shame. Poverty, Fikkert said, is rooted in broken relationships between the person and God, others, himself, and creation. These broken relationships affect everyone, so everyone is poor in some ways, he said. Understanding that we are all poor in some way prevents a superior attitude on the part of deacons who help the materially poor and eliminates the attitude that we can "save" the poor. To alleviate poverty, according to Fikkert, is to reconcile broken relationships.

The first step in reconciliation is to repent of viewing poverty as only material loss and of our pride (our God-complex) in thinking that we can solve the problem ourselves.

Fikkert stressed that the proclamation of the gospel is central to alleviating poverty—a concept unpopular with some evangelicals who don't want to impose their beliefs on others. The gospel must be communicated in word and deed or the materially poor may view the diaconal help as coming from their own efforts or some source apart from God.

Fikkert's guidelines for helping the poor begin with assessing the type of help needed. When a person is in crisis, such as after an earthquake, he cannot help himself and needs immediate "relief"—the first level of assistance. That help is temporary and may involve handouts.

Once the "bleeding" stops, Fikkert said, the situation calls for "rehabilitation"—the second level of assistance. The goal shifts from immediate help to restoring the person to the situation he was in before the crisis happened. At this point, people are able to participate in their own recovery by using their God-given gifts. For example, Haitians can be employed to help rebuild their homes damaged in the recent earthquake in Haiti.

The third level of help is the "development" stage, where the deacon and the person seeking help work together to solve the problem. For example, instead of having the homeless line up to receive meals at a shelter, he suggests using their abilities to help prepare the food and clean up afterward. That helps to eliminate the feeling of shame associated with poverty.

Fikkert urged churches to determine whether they want to deal primarily with relief efforts, work to encourage rehabilitation, or seek to move people beyond their current situation toward the development of a new way of life. He urged deacons to assess the assets of the needy by asking people what gifts and abilities they and their community have. Too often, churches make the mistake of asking people what they need. "I can't imagine a worse thing to do," said Fikkert. "The assumption is that you are there to fix them."

Often aid agencies and short-term mission teams have prepackaged solutions to impose on the poor and "do it to them," said Fikkert, such as building a house without the needy person's input. "It puts us in the mode of God." Instead of that blueprint approach, Fikkert urges a participatory learning process that doesn't "go in with all the answers." It includes the poor in the planning and the execution of a plan to improve their situation, which is a slow process.

When a man stops at the church door and asks for help, Fikkert encourages the deacons to ask what he would like to see improved in his life in four months. Then they should ask what abilities and resources he and his family have to help improve his situation. Next they should ask how the deacons could support the man in reaching his goals, with the aim of building a relationship with him, not just giving him a handout.

An Example of Deacons at Work

When Bob Wright stood up to speak, he mentioned how he got involved in missions—through short-term missions in Africa. After several short-term trips, Wright went as a short-termer to work on the mission field that was opening up in Karamoja, Uganda. That trip eventually turned into a long-term stay. As a missionary deacon, Wright renovated buildings, built a medical clinic and missionary homes, maintained the mission's vehicles and facilities, and drilled wells for water. While he did those things, the missionary pastors preached the gospel.

In Africa, aid groups are big business, dumping tons of grain and other gifts on the Karimojong, which leaves them with the expectation that they are entitled to handouts. To counteract that attitude, Wright developed a work-for-food program to encourage the Karimojong to help plant and harvest sorghum and other crops in exchange for food. Wright also gives vocational and technical training to the Karimojong, teaching them how to build windmills and homes. "Aid has done a lot to harm the Karimojong," he said. "I will not give you anything," Wright tells them. "I will give you an opportunity to earn a few days worth of food."

Wright encourages deacons to maintain an attitude of service, have a servant's heart, and be willing to do the task at hand. "The deacons exist so that the pastor can concentrate on the ministry of the word and prayer," he said. "I serve not just pastors, but their families. It's interesting to drill wells, but I have to unclog a lot of toilets, too."

The Uganda mission has strict policies for short-term missionaries. Although Wright has seen denominations split as the result of short-term missions, our missionaries benefited from short-term teams by developing connections between those who visit the fields and their home churches.

The Deacon's Office, Challenges, and Networking

Three workshops focused on the office of a deacon, common challenges deacons face, and networking within presbyteries. OP pastor Ronald Pearce, the CDM secretary, focused his workshop on the characteristics of the diaconate. "It's a very high office, but not the office of ruling the church," said Pearce. "If a man is not qualified spiritually to be a deacon, he is not qualified spiritually to be an elder.... The diaconate is not a training ground to wait for a man to grow up spiritually to become an elder. It's a different calling."

Deacons help elders with discreet needs, supporting the session in what they are trying to accomplish, said Pearce. When deacons take flowers and tapes to the sick, for example, they should combine their visit with the gospel. "Diaconal love must always be in conjunction with the ministry of the word," said Pearce.

In another workshop, John Belden, a CDM member and the former pastor of Neon Reformed Presbyterian Church in Neon, Kentucky, said that short-term missions is a cottage industry in Appalachia. He encouraged deacons not to do things that the needy people can do for themselves, such as painting a home while the owners sit on the porch and watch. "When the CDM hired someone for short-term missions, I was excited to have someone to do it right. The OPC needs to do it right."

David Nakhla, the new Short-Term Missions Coordinator, was introduced to the deacons. He will coordinate disaster relief and oversee resources and short-term trips for the Committees on Diaconal Ministries, Home Missions, and Foreign Missions.

CDM member David Haney, spoke in another workshop about networking within the presbytery. "One challenge to many diaconal committees of presbyteries is that they are reactive," said Haney. "We were very convinced that the local diaconate should be trained and mobilized.... What we're trying to do on a denominational level is to put tools in your toolbox."

As an example of presbytery networking, Stephen Igo, OP pastor from Hudsonville, Michigan, shared how the Presbytery of Michigan and Ontario held a diaconal conference during a presbytery meeting. In small groups, forty-five deacons shared about the strengths and weaknesses of their ministry, gained and gave advice, and created a diaconal database within the presbytery.

As a result of the Summit, Paul Mattoon, a deacon at Faith Presbyterian Church in Garland, Texas, hopes their deacons will develop a benevolence plan, engage the congregation in the work of the diaconate, and communicate with deacons in the presbytery. "The Summit changed some paradigms on poverty," said Mattoon. "It's always good to hear common themes others are struggling with."

Matthew Posvar, a deacon at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, agreed. He appreciated "for the first time in my life to be around a lot of deacons and talking to more experienced deacons."

CDM member Kenley Leslie summed up the hopes of the conference. "Lord willing, the connectedness of the deacons will be a blessing to his church."

The author is the editorial assistant and a reporter for New Horizons magazine. Reprinted from New Horizons, Sept. 2010.

New Horizons: September 2010

The OPC's First Diaconal Summit

Also in this issue

A Quiet General Assembly

Chronicles of a Reforming Church: Part 2: The Transition of the Church

Goings On at 7401

Presbyterian Guardian Now Online

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