Presbyterianism brings churches together into relationships of mutual accountability and cooperation. This form of church government has been called “connectional” to distinguish it from church traditions in which congregations are independent of one another. Accountability in connectional church government is illustrated in examinations of ministerial candidates by presbyteries, their review of sessional records, and the whole process of church discipline, in which individuals and churches can appeal to the presbytery and the general assembly for assistance in resolving disputes in the church.
In connectional church government, cooperation is also illustrated in the sharing of resources to send and support missionaries abroad, to plant and support new churches at home, and to publish teaching tools like the magazine this article appears in. In all these ways, the advantages of being in a connectional church should be obvious.
But what about diaconal ministry? In what ways do the local deacons of your church benefit from ministering in a connectional church? Indeed, how do all members of the OPC benefit from being part of a denomination that pursues mercy ministry at every level of its Presbyterian structure? To many, perhaps, this is not as obvious, so perhaps a review of the work of mercy ministry at each level of the OPC is in order.
The work of local deacons is certainly the most conspicuous expression of mercy ministry in the church. Originally appointed in response to the church crisis recorded in Acts 6, deacons assist the elders in all those aspects of leadership that preserve for the pastors and elders the priority of prayer and the ministry of the Word (v. 4).
More particularly, however, deacons are called to lead the congregation in its ministry to the poor, facilitating and overseeing that ministry to those who, like the widows of Acts 6, are in need of basic necessities (v. 1). This mercy ministry is vital to the health of the church and the credibility of the gospel that it preaches. It is an expression of the heart of God for the poor and the priority of Jesus himself in his earthly ministry.
(For an expanded look at the ministry of deacons in the local church, see the article “If You Are a Deacon” in Ordained Servant Online, accessed at www.opc.org/os.html?article_id=409.)
It may come as news to many members of the OPC, and perhaps even to some deacons, that all seventeen presbyteries of our denomination have a standing committee on diaconal ministry. In most of these presbyteries, the diaconal committee is charged with things like:
(1) The care of ministers in financial need. In the OPC, ministers are members of the presbytery rather than the local church, and so it is typically a committee of presbytery that functions as their diaconate when a minister is without a call or in retirement, but also when a minister’s diaconal needs surpass the resources of the local church that he serves.
(2) The financial support of local diaconates. Some presbyteries carry reserve funds for local diaconates facing needs beyond their resources. Other presbyteries rely on special appeals to
congregations in the regional church for diaconal assistance.
(3) The organization of disaster relief. Presbytery diaconal committees are typically looked to for on-site leadership in responding to natural disasters affecting churches within the regional church.
In recent years, some presbytery diaconal committees in the OPC have begun to take a more proactive role in facilitating diaconal ministry in local churches. Some committees have sought to establish lines of communication with each local diaconate in advance of crisis needs or disasters, in order to be better prepared. Others have taken the initiative to provide training opportunities to deacons within the presbytery, holding diaconal conferences and sharing diaconal resources. Still others have organized diaconal ministries unique to the presbytery, such as short-term mission trips with a diaconal component. In each of these ways, presbyteries in the OPC have been seeking to strengthen the hands of local deacons and their congregations in doing the work of mercy ministry.
Like each presbytery, the General Assembly of the OPC has appointed a standing committee for promoting the work of diaconal ministry in the denomination. The denominational Committee on Diaconal Ministries (CDM) is composed of three ministers, three elders, and three deacons, who are aided by an administrator, David Nakhla. The OPC is unique among Reformed and Presbyterian churches in America in having a standing committee overseeing diaconal ministries at the denomination level.
Particularly since the catastrophic needs generated by Hurricane Katrina, the Committee on Diaconal Ministry has been enthusiastically promoting mercy ministry throughout the denomination. (Additional information about this committee’s work can be found at the Diaconal Ministries webpage at www.opc.org/committee_dm.html.)
There are six areas of special focus for the Committee on Diaconal Ministries:
(1) The financial support of presbytery diaconal committees when their resources are inadequate for their needs. When a local diaconal need exceeds both the local church’s and the presbytery’s resources, the CDM stands ready to provide assistance.
(2) The facilitation of denomination-wide opportunities for short-term missions work with a diaconal component. To help organize this work, David Nakhla serves as the short-term missions coordinator for the OPC.
(3) The coordination of disaster response at the denominational level. David Nakhla also attends to this need, serving as the disaster response coordinator for the OPC.
(4) The oversight and support of missionary deacons. In cooperation with the Committee on Foreign Missions, the CDM seeks to recruit and send out men to serve in a diaconal role alongside missionaries on the field.
(5) The training and support of presbyteries and local diaconates in mercy ministry. To encourage the development of a proactive mercy ministry at the presbytery level, the CDM has held multiple “summits” of committee members from each presbytery, the most recent being near Chicago last October. And to encourage local deacons in their ministry, the CDM has held two national summits for deacons of the OPC. The third one has been scheduled for June 15–17, 2017, in Wheaton, Illinois.
(6) Ensuring that the needs of retired ministers and their widows are being met. This is accomplished by the oversight of presbytery diaconal committees and by use of the Obadiah Fund. The Obadiah Fund celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2016; see the December 2016 issue of New Horizons (p. 22) for expressions of gratitude from some of those who have benefited from this ministry.
It has been truly said that “all mercy ministry is local,” inasmuch as it involves a direct personal response to human need, the exercise of wisdom by those immediately involved, and an expression of Christian love that can effectively join the ministry of deed with the ministry of word. The work of believers within their churches and communities, under the leadership of their deacons, is where mercy ministry really happens. But that mercy ministry in a local Presbyterian church can be supported and strengthened by the larger church to which it is connected. And that is yet another reason to be thankful to be part of a Presbyterian church!
The author is the pastor of Matthews OPC in Matthews, N.C., and a member of the Committee on Diaconal Ministries. New Horizons, February 2017.