The Administration of the Ministry of Mercy
Blessed is he that considereth the poor: Jehovah will deliver him in the day of evil. Jehovah will preserve him, and keep him alive, And he shall be blessed upon the earth.Psalm 41
Think not the good, The gentle deeds of mercy thou hast done, Shall die forgotten all; the poor, the pris'ner, The fatherless, the friendless, and the widow, Who daily own the bounty of thy hand, Shall cry to heav'n and pull a blessing on thee.Rowe
I have learned from Jesus Christ Himself what charity is, and how we ought to practice it; for He says: By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye love one another. Never can I, there¬fore, please myself in the hope that I may obtain the name of a servant of Christ if I possess not a true and unfeigned charity within me.Basil
Having considered in some detail the history and task of the diaconate as well as the qualifications and the legal appointment to this office, we are now ready to address ourselves to the more practical matters of how the deacons are to function in the Christian church. Two subjects call for our attention here: first of all, the proper organization of the ministry of mercy, and secondly, the effective prosecution of the duties imposed upon the deacons by this office. The first of these will be considered in this chapter.
The Charter of the Diaconate
The glory of the diaconal office in the Reformed churches is manifest in its firm rootage in the Word of God and in its holy ambition to perform all its work in accordance with the will and spirit of Jesus Christ.
The strength of Protestantism lay in its rediscovery of the relevance of the Word of God for the life of the church and of the individual believer. Too long had the divine revelation been ignored and even forgotten. For centuries both clergy and laity had suffered spiritually, because the truths of Holy Writ had been exchanged for the traditions of men. But when once again the clarion call of the gospel was heard throughout the Western world, a new day dawned for the church of Christ. Not only was its liberating effect experienced in the lives of those who believed, but it was fully as vitally attested to in reorganization and reformation of the churches. Thus the tyranny of the hierarchy was broken, and the offices which had so long been perverted to dominate the lives of God's people were restored to their original form and beauty to labour for the edification of the members of the church and the glory of God. Although all reformatory groups moved in this direction, among none was there greater consistency and effectiveness than in the churches which followed in the footsteps of John Calvin.
The Bible has always occupied a unique and honoured place in the Reformed churches. The life of the congregations in all its ramifications and implications was molded according to the God-revealed pattern of the Word. Thus not only in its doctrinal teachings and liturgical forms but also in its church polity did the Reformed faith labour to build solidly and consistently on Scriptural principles.
As a result these churches have always insisted that the diaconate was essential to the spiritual wellbeing of God's people and the effective ministry of the church in the world. The true church may recognize no other lord and master than her Glorified Redeemer who rules His people by His Spirit and Word. And in that Word are found the basic principles in accordance with which the diaconate must be administered. Especially five fundamental truths relative to the diaconal ministry must be clearly understood and consistently remembered by the members of the church, in order that the work of mercy to which the deacons have been appointed may be conducted with the approval and blessing of Christ Himself.
- First of all, the Bible teaches that the diaconate is a divinely-appointed office in the churches. Several New Testament passages plainly assert this.1 While some Protestant groups were willing to retain in their ecclesiastical life anything that was not plainly forbidden by the Word, the Reformed leaders always championed the position that since the church is Christ's and Christ's alone, nothing ought to be retained except that which has been enjoined by Him in His Word. Thus no church has the right either to neglect the institution of the deacons or to alter its specific task in any way.
- The diaconate is also clearly one of the permanent offices in the church. Although it has been argued by some that the office of the "Seven" recorded in Acts 6 was a unique and temporary ministry, later New Testament passages which speak of the deacons demonstrate that this ministry of mercy was meant to be continued by Christ among His people. As long as there are poor committed to the loving care of fellow believers, this office must be maintained and developed.
- Furthermore, the New Testament represents the deaconry as a well-defined office. In spite of the fact that the three permanent offices in the churches must cooperate closely in their spiritual service, the uniqueness of each may never be overlooked or minimized. Paul in Romans 12:4-8 discusses the importance of this very clearly and unmistakably when speaking of the several gifts and graces with which the Saviour has adorned His people in this life. As in the body there are many members but all have not the same function, so in the church as the body of the Lord Jesus the several members have their several offices and callings. The deacons have been appointed not to preach or to govern but to take charge of the work of mercy. This is their particular province, and in their calling they are exhorted to abide.
- The diaconate, as well as the other offices in the congregation, is ministerial in character. Although clothed with a large measure of spiritual authority and power by Christ in order that they may discharge their task effectively, the deacons may never forget that they are servants of the Lord's people for His sake. The warning given by the apostle Peter to the elders not to lord it over the charge allotted to them but to make themselves examples to the flock of the Saviour may be validly applied to the deacons as well. The paradox of service in the kingdom of heaven must come to expression in the work of deacons, in order that "he that is the greater among you, let him become as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve." They must be fully consecrated to the ministry to which they have been appointed and thus ready to serve the church which Christ loved and for which He died. Thus the position of the officers, including the deacons, is not that of a hierarchy which dominates the lives of the members but rather that of servants who follow in the footsteps of their Lord.
- And finally this office is fruitful unto the spiritual growth and edification of the congregation. Many and rich are the promises which the Saviour gives to those who seek to live by the law of love. And since the deacons are called upon to demonstrate the effectiveness of that spiritual law in a concrete way, they set a worthy example to all the members of the church. By means of this the church is built up in love to the glory of God and for the welfare of mankind.
Although comparatively few Christian groups still recognize and maintain the diaconate as the God-given ministry of mercy, we may entertain no doubt concerning her spiritual charter. This is clearly revealed in the Scriptures which constitute the sole rule for our faith and practice.
The Regulation of the Diaconate
For the maintenance and promotion of good order in Christ's church on earth these Scriptural principles have been expressed in the Church Order, a document still to little known and appreciated by many. It is one of the precious legacies left to this generation by our forefathers who amid strife and persecution sought to reform the church according to the Biblical pattern. Although several changes have been made throughout the centuries, in order that the situations encountered in new lands and other times might be met, it contains basically the same rules adopted by the famous Synod of Dort in 1618-19.
In discussing the office of the deacons in a series of articles, the Church Order seeks to regulate the ministry of mercy in accordance with the expressed will of God in the Bible.
Deacons are mentioned for the first time in Article 2. Here they are listed together with the ministers of the Word, the professors of theology and the elders as constituting the permanent officers of the church. According to Articles 4 and 5 they have a regulative voice together with the elders in the election of the ministers of the Word for the local congregation. Although this work is properly speaking part of the ministry of government, the Church Order for the sake of the welfare of the congregation entrusts a larger group than the eldership with it. Likewise, no minister may leave a congregation to take up work in another field of labour without the previous consent of the consistory together with the deacons.
These deacons as well as the elders and the members of the congregation are charged by Article 16 to take heed to the minister of the Word. In the spirit of patience, helpfulness and love they must supervise his labours and have regard to his daily conduct. The next article affirms the equality of the office-bearers. Thus, although one deacon may have been more richly endowed with talents than another, all hold the same office and are clothed with the same authority. Therefore none may lord it over his brethren and arrogate to himself special prerogatives and powers.
Whenever the congregation needs more or other elders and deacons, the deacons already in office are admonished to labour to this end with the elders. Thus the same task imposed on them in connection with the calling of a minister of the Word is here laid upon them with respect to the appointment of the other office-bearers in the congregation by Articles 22 and 24. No list of candidates may be presented to the congregation without the full cooperation of the deacons. Article 23 maintains that the deacons as well as the ministers of the Word must be supervised by the elders. These latter are charged with the task of seeing to it that the ministry of mercy is faithfully and effectively discharged in the congregation. No deacon has any right to take offense at this regulation, since the elders have been appointed by Christ Himself for the purpose of maintaining good order in His church.
Articles 25 through 27 deal much more specifically with the diaconate. In the first the task peculiar to the deacons, in distinction from those of the ministers of the Word and the elders, is mentioned. This has already been considered in detail in Chapter VIII. The next article elaborates on their work in relation to others who are also caring for the poor. This important matter will be discussed in Chapter XI, XII and XIII. Article 27, the last of the three, regulates the term of office of both elders and deacons in the local churches.
The second section of the Church Order deals with the ecclesiastical assemblies. Here the office of the deacons is mentioned only twice. In Article 37 the rule is laid down that they must be added to the consistory as assistant elders to transact any official business, if the number of ruling elders in the congregation is less than three. Wherever the number of elders is comparatively small, this same policy may be followed. By thus enlarging the number of consistory members in the smaller congregations, the Reformed churches sought to guard against the abuse of spiritual power in the church by a few. Convinced that there is greater wisdom in greater numbers, they refused to recognize any consistory composed of only two elders. Article 40 regulates the meetings of the deacons. These are not ecclesiastical assemblies of the same kind as consistories, classes and synods, which exercise the ministry of government in the name of Christ. Hence a diaconal meeting does not rule the church as does the consistory. Rather, it is dependent on the consistory and must be under its constant spiritual supervision. However, in order that the work of mercy may be properly performed, regular meetings of the deaconry must be held. Specific mention is also made of the relation which the minister of the Word sustains to these meetings. He may be called in from time to time to give counsel to the deacons.
The third section of the Church Order, comprising Articles 53 through 70, deals with doctrines, sacraments and ceremonies in the churches. From the very nature of this material we would not expect a frequent mention of the office of the deacons here. Yet they are mentioned in Article 54, which specifies that they as well as the ministers of the Word, the professors of theology and the elders must subscribe to the Three Formulas of Unity. This is one way by which the churches have sought to maintain purity of doctrine. It need hardly be added that no deacon has the right to subscribe to these creeds, unless he is thoroughly conversant with their contents and agrees wholeheartedly to them.
In the last section, wherein is discussed the subject of ecclesiastical censure, the office of the deacons is mentioned several times. Article 79 regulates the disciplining of office-bearers, holding that they shall be suspended or expelled from their office immediately, if found guilty of some gross sin. This is to be effected by the preceding sentence of the consistory in consultation with the consistory of a neighbouring congregation. The next article, though not specifically mentioning the diaconate, does list several sins which constitute a defamation of this office in particular, such as simony, theft, filthy lucre and others.
Article 81 makes provision for censura morum. This is the mutual censure exercised by the officers of the church among themselves prior to the celebration of the Lord's Supper. The problems occasioned by the removal of the poor to another congregation are considered in Article 83. If cause for removal is deemed sufficiently weighty, the diaconate is to provide the poor with the necessary funds. Article 84 specifies clearly the equality of the deacons among themselves. This constitutes the last mention of this office in the Church Order.
From the above it is evident that the Reformed fathers realized clearly the importance of the ministry of mercy in the local churches. They sought also to make adequate provision for it and regulate its administration in such a way that all things pertaining to it might be done decently and in good order. Unless the deacons are thoroughly acquainted with the several provisions made in the Church Order for their work, they will not be able to discharge their duties properly and effectively.
The Relation of the Deacons to the Consistory
One of the most debated subjects in connection with the office of the deacons concerns the matter of their relation to the consistory.
The occasion for the wide-spread divergence of opinion must be found in the seemingly contradictory positions taken by the Church Order itself. On the one hand the consistory is always regarded as consisting properly of the ministers of the Word and the elders in any given congregation. And yet on the other hand the Church Order clearly insists that where the number of elders is less than three the deacons must be added to the consistory, and in any congregation with a small number of consistory members this rule may also be applied.2 Since most of our congregations began with but a small number of officers, this provision was universally carried out. Hence consistories for all practical purposes were composed of ministers of the Word, elders and deacons. But as the congregation grew, the need for separate diaconal meetings as provided for by Article 40 was felt. Yet in most cases where these were inaugurated under the supervision of the consistory, no move was made in the direction of having the elders meet in separate session to conduct their business. Consistorial work was still done in the presence and with the cooperation of the deacons. Only within comparatively recent years have several of the consistories of our larger congregations completely removed the deacons from their position of assistant elders as allowed by Article 37.
In certain quarters this action was vigorously opposed, not the least by some of the deacons who felt that they were being deprived of some of their rights and tasks as office-bearers in the church of Christ. Support for the opposition they claimed to find in the Belgic Confession which affirms with respect to the offices in the churches,
We believe that this true Church must be governed by that spiritual polity which our Lord has taught us in His Word; namely, that there must be ministers or pastors to preach the Word and to administer the sacraments; also elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the Church.3
Thus to many there even seemed to be a discrepancy between the Church Order and the Confession, since the latter spoke of a general meeting of all the office-bearers of the church while the former spoke only of consistories of ministers and elders.
Besides, appeal was also made to the decision of the first synod of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, held at Emden in 1571, which spoke of "gatherings or consistories of ministers of the Word, elders and deacons." Thus the question arose whether it was proper for elders and deacons to meet separately to conduct their respective work. This matter was settled three years later at the Synod of Dort which affirmed that ministers and elders should meet together to perform the work proper to their calling, while the deacons should meet separately to prosecute their tasks. Since that time the several revisions of the Church Order have recognized the propriety of such separate meetings.
It should be remembered that basically there is no discrepancy between the Confession and the Church Order on this important matter. The former merely seeks to set forth the general principle regulating the necessity of the institution of the several offices in Christ's church, while in the latter the necessary provisions were adopted to put this principle into practice in the most edifying and fruitful way. The Church Order, though insisting on separate meetings, nevertheless clearly recognizes the necessity of close cooperation among the offices in certain matters pertaining to the general welfare of the congregation. This follows from the very nature of the offices in the church. They root in the triple office of Christ Himself, Who is our prophet, priest and king. For a season this power was conferred on the apostles. Theirs was a unique and temporary office, which during the course of their ministry was gradually replaced by the permanent offices as the church increased in size and influence throughout the Roman Empire. A distinct development was the rise of the ministry of the Word out of the eldership, already evident in the days of the apostles, since which time the church has recognized the distinction between ruling elders and those who in addition to this also labour in the teaching and preaching of the Word. Thus we can understand the double insistence of the Church Order. On the one hand it insists on close cooperation of the officers and provides that certain matters cannot be regulated without a meeting of ministers, elders and deacons, while on the other hand it clearly makes provision for separate meetings of consistory and diaconate, in order that the spiritual work can be discharged in the most profitable and edifying way.
In the light of the above we can understand why the Church Order regulates the relation of the deacons to the consistory only in a rather general way. In all smaller congregations where the number of office-bearers is rather limited, the need for close cooperation is apparent. There the deacons serve as assistant-elders and the elders serve as assistant-deacons. This is possible because of the limited amount of work in the smaller churches. As a result separate meetings of the consistory and diaconate are not necessary. But when the congregation grows, work multiplies and the number of office-bearers is usually increased. If in such situations the deacons are still added to the consistory, many of the details of the work of both consistory and diaconate are easily neglected. Thus the regulation of the Church Order with respect to holding separate meetings give evidence of the practical wisdom of the fathers and should be honoured in our practice. Surely when the number of elders in any local congregation has been increased to six or seven, serious consideration should be given to the possibility and feasibility of following the provisions of the Church Order strictly. Both consistory and diaconate can function effectively and profitably for the welfare of the congregation with this number.
Yet where this organization has been completed, joint meetings of the consistory together with the deacons do not become superfluous. To the contrary, the Church Order specifies that in many instances these are obligatory. In every Reformed congregation the consistory and the deacons must meet together to transact certain business which may never be discharged by the eldership alone. In their very useful commentary on the Church Order, Monsma and Van Dellen quote a Reformed authority on church polity, who lists the following matters as properly the business to be discharged at such joint meetings. The list includes the following:
- all matters pertaining to the election of office-bearers;
- the issuing and receiving of the credentials of the ministers of the Word;
- the provisional consideration of and decision with regard to the emeritation of the minister of the Word;
- the exercise of mutual censure before every celebration of the Lord's Supper;
- the work of church visitation conducted by two ministers of the classis in which the congregation resides;
- the administration of the finances of the congregation;
- the general administration of matters pertaining to benevolence, such as the regulation of offerings for the poor, etc.;
- the administration of all properties owned by the congregation;
- all such general correspondence which concerns neither the eldership not the diaconate directly.
In this connection it ought to be remembered that the presence of two distinct meetings, the consistory and the diaconate, may never give rise to the idea that the life of the congregation is controlled by two separate agencies.
Among the basic principles to be observed is the recognition of the consistory as the sole governing body in the local church. To it has been assigned the duty of supervising the entire life of the congregation, including the work of the deacons. It must therefore be expected that the consistory is in some way represented at diaconal meetings. This may not be regarded as improper interference in the work of the diaconate. Rather, the elders by means of this supervision should seek to promote the healthy development of the ministry of mercy in the church.
Several methods of consistorial supervision of the diaconate may be suggested. In some churches the consistory satisfies itself with reports which the deacons render at the joint meetings from month to month. This may then be accompanied with an occasional visit of two elders at the diaconal meetings. A far more systematic, and in our opinion much more effective method, is that of delegating elders who shall be present at these meetings. This may be done by rotation, so that all the elders have occasion to meet with the deacons in their gatherings and thus become better acquainted with the problems facing the ministry of mercy. However, this supervision may also be done by appointing a committee of two elders to be present at all diaconal meetings for the course of a year. This gives far more continuity to the supervision of the work by the consistory and enables the deacons to profit from the advice of the elders who have become better acquainted with diaconal problems through their frequent contacts with this work.
Since the recording of the budget receipts has been quite generally referred to the deacons, the presence of such a regular committee of the consistory would seem highly advisable. We should remember that financial administration is not exclusively the province of the deacons. In fact, the first responsibility in this field rests with the elders. They should be well informed of the faithfulness and liberality with which the members of the congregation support the work of the Lord. The supervision of the stewardship of God's people is one of the responsibilities of the consistory and may never be forced on the deacons. Those members who are delinquent in supporting the church should be visited by a committee of elders rather than by the deacons, lest the latter come to be regarded merely as the financial agents of the consistory and congregation. And in order that the consistory may be well aware of the response of the members to the obligation of Christian stewardship, it is advisable that the same committee which meets with the deacons records the budget receipts.
One more matter concerning the relation of the deacons to the other office-bearers in the church deserves mention in this connection. The Church Order clearly recognizes that the minister of the Word has a responsibility to the diaconate in the church. In the article dealing with diaconal meetings the provision is added, "whereunto the Ministers shall take good heed and, if necessary, they shall be present."4
This clause was added to the Church Order by the Synod of The Hague in 1586.5 The cause of this addition must undoubtedly be sought in the lack of proper supervision and healthy development of the ministry of mercy in the Dutch churches at that time. To strengthen the bond between the deacons and the consistory the minister of the Word was also charged to supervise the diaconate. Although he is to perform this work chiefly in his capacity as ruling elder, also as a minister of the Word he is eminently qualified for this advisory and supervisory work. 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.
This supervision of the deacons by the ministers is mandatory. Article 40 insists that they "shall take good heed" to the diaconal meetings. Thus they must know whether such gatherings are held at stated times according to the needs of the congregation, whether the deacons understand their office, whether the meetings are conducted in an edifying manner, and whether the relations of the deacons among themselves are amiable and exemplary. In this way any tendency on the part of the deaconry to develop independently of consistorial control can be curbed at the very outset. Yet this article does not insist that the ministers shall attend every meeting of the deacons. In many of the smaller congregations where the consistory meets but once a month and the diaconate no oftener, it is possible for the minister to meet with these brethren frequently. But in the larger congregations with the multiplicity of duties assigned to the pastors, few if any will even be able to find the necessary time to attend these meetings regularly. Yet this does not absolve any of them from the duty of exercising the proper oversight. Even in those diaconates which are carefully and consistently supervised by the elders the minister of the gospel must continue to take great interest. At any time he should feel free to step into the meeting and observe what is being done. Undoubtedly most of our diaconates would appreciate his interest and presence highly and seek his counsel on some of the difficulties which they face from time to time. Likewise, the diaconate may request the pastor's presence at any time when special need for counsel and guidance arises. Unless it is impossible for him to come, he may not decline this invitation. Only if both ministers and elders take proper heed to what is going on in the diaconal gatherings will they be able in good conscience to answer questions put to them at every classical gathering and annually by the church visitors concerning the ministry of mercy.
The Organization of the Diaconate
In order that this office may be effectively prosecuted, it is necessary that the diaconate be properly organized in accordance with the Biblical charter and the principles enunciated in the Church Order.
What is required in the first place is the drawing up and adoption of a set of rules by which the diaconal meetings are governed. Naturally, such rules must embody the principles which are recognized and set forth by the Church Order. However these principles are very general. Thus a set of regulations in which these principles are applied to actual situations in the local congregation is very necessary. Too many deacons have just cause for complaint that when they assume office they hardly know what is expected of them. The chairman's work would also be made measurably easier if the general rules were carefully laid down. Many of the churches in the Netherlands have followed the custom of preparing a set of regulations for the local diaconate. This we might well borrow from them. A very elaborate set for the large congregation of Amsterdam has been incorporated in Diaconal Handboek to serve as a guide for the Dutch churches.6 Because our congregations are much smaller, a simplified set of rules will suffice. The following may serve as a pattern to help our consistories and diaconates in preparing fairly comprehensive regulations for the ministry of mercy.
Regulations for Diaconate
The Diaconate of this congregation consists of all the deacons duly elected and installed here. At present the number is………, all of whom serve for a period of three years in accordance with the regulations of the consistory.
The Diaconate meets on alternate Monday evenings at 7:30 o'clock. All deacons are expected to attend every meeting. In case of unavoidable absence the deacon shall notify either the president or secretary, stating the reason for his absence.
The Diaconate shall administer its finances in accordance with the fiscal year adopted by the consistory, which extends from January 1 through December 31.
The Diaconate shall at the first meeting of the new year proceed to the election of the following officers: president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and vice secretary-treasurer. All officers shall serve for a period of one year.
The Diaconate recognizes the following to be the duties of the various officers: The president shall call the meeting to order at the scheduled time, open in the appropriate manner by reading a portion of Scripture and offering prayer, introduce the business, welcome visitors, direct the discussions, and rebuke any deacon who conducts himself in an unbecoming manner. He shall also call upon each deacon in turn to offer closing prayer.
The vice president shall assume all the duties of the president in his absence. The secretary shall record the official proceedings of the meetings, carry on all necessary correspondence and take charge of all books and records which are to be preserved.
The treasurer shall record all receipts and disbursements for charity and prepare the proper reports for the consistory and the congregation. The former shall be presented monthly, and the latter semi-annually.
The vice-secretary-treasurer shall function in the absence of either secretary or treasurer. In the absence of both, the vice president shall function as secretary and the vice secretary-treasurer as treasurer.
The Diaconate through its Executive Committee, consisting of the officers, shall appoint the following committees: Committee on Cooperation with Christian Institutions of Mercy, whose duty it shall be to acquaint itself with these institutions, their rules for admission, etc., in order that proper advice may be given to those who should be cared for there. Committee on State Welfare and Relief, whose duty it shall be to keep the diaconate informed on those aspects of state and federal relief and welfare programs which may have a bearing on the work of the deacons, particularly in connection with the rehabilitation of the blind, the crippled, etc.
Committee on Contact with Women's Auxiliaries, whose duties it shall be to keep a list of the names of Christian women who are willing and able to help in the homes of those who are in need.
The following order of business is adopted for the diaconal meetings:
Opening by the chairman
Reading and approval of Minutes
Correspondence and new business
Reports of Committees
Requests for aid
Counting and recording of offerings
Adjournment and prayer
Voting shall be done by acclamation, except in the case of voting for officers, which shall be done by ballot. All matters are to be decided by simple majority.
Special meetings may be called by the president, when he deems these necessary. All the members of the diaconate are to be informed of these meetings by the secretary.
The deacons shall receive the offerings at all services of public worship in accordance with the schedule drawn up by the secretary and approved by the diaconate. Anyone who cannot be present at such a time must find a substitute for himself from among the diaconate, or if this is impossible from among the eldership.
The treasurer together with one of the other deacons shall deposit all moneys in the safe immediately after each service. In case of the absence of the treasurer, the chairman shall assume this responsibility. Also on the day after the monies have been counted and recorded, the treasurer with one other deacon shall remove these from the safe and deposit them in the bank where the diaconate has opened its account.
All deacons without exception shall engage in the visitation and comfort of the poor, the distressed and the sick who are in need of diaconal assistance. To this end the congregation is divided into districts, so that each deacon becomes responsible for the work in his own district. All investigations in the conditions of the poor shall be conducted by committees of two, the deacon of the district together with his partner appointed by the president at the beginning of the year.
The deacons also shall bring the gifts of the congregation to the poor in person, not neglecting to speak words of consolation and cheer and offering prayer.
No gifts for benevolences outside of the membership of the local congregation shall be made by the diaconate without previous consultation with the consistory.
No changes in these regulations shall be made without the approval of the consistory.
For the sake of good order the diaconate should meet at stated times according to the needs of the local congregation. These meetings must be announced to the congregation, in order that those who are desirous of bringing any matter to the attention of the deacons may be properly informed of the time and place of the diaconal gatherings. Informal meetings of the deacons, for example, immediately after the services on the Lord's Day or after some other meeting in the church, should be discouraged by the consistory as out of harmony with the significance and dignity of the ministry of mercy. The Lord's work is worthy of a more orderly procedure than that.
Nowhere does the Church Order specifically mention how often the diaconate must meet. Indeed, Article 40 makes mention of "every week," but this is qualified by the phrase "wherever necessary." It must be remembered that when these articles were adopted meetings as frequently as once a week were made necessary because of the demands of the times. Today but very few diaconates will feel the need of meeting every week. In most instance bi-weekly or monthly meetings will suffice. But it should not be forgotten that even if the practical aspects of the ministry of mercy may not seem to require stated meetings, these should be held regularly, and the opportunity utilized to discuss some basic principles pertaining to this office. Besides, if a diaconate does not find enough work in the local congregation, it should seek consistorial approval to extend the scope of its labours to those beyond the confines of the membership of the local church.
In our churches one of the deacons is usually elected to serve as chairman or president for a term of one year. This is contrary to the policy generally followed by the churches in the Netherlands, where the deacons often preside in rotation so as to cut off immediately any tendency to hierarchy. In some of these churches a deacon may also serve for a period of one, two or three months, but in many of the larger churches every meeting is presided over by a different deacon. Although several valid arguments may be adduced for this practice, there are difficulties which may not be ignored. Some deacons are more capable of presiding than others. By introducing the system of a rotating chairmanship, the diaconate is imposing a larger degree of responsibility on the secretary. There is also a danger that some of the work will be neglected, unless someone thoroughly conversant with diaconal work presides at every meeting. Since retirement is compulsory at the end of two or three years, there is comparatively little danger for hierarchy in the diaconate.
The president, of course, occupies a strategic place in the diaconate. He should be thoroughly acquainted with parliamentary procedure and endowed with a large measure of common sense to be able to give proper leadership to his fellow deacons.
It also goes without saying that the secretary performs very important work. All official proceedings and decisions must be accurately and completely recorded. These records must be kept in a permanent form, and those which are no longer needed at every meeting filed away with consistorial records in the archives of the church. Especially in the preservation of such records there is room for much improvement in our churches. Too many valuable documents and letters and records are left lying around here and there, either in the church or the homes of the deacons, and consequently lost. The secretary is also charged with carrying on all necessary correspondence with state authorities, institutions of mercy and such persons who have business with the diaconate but cannot be contacted in person. The minutes of the diaconate as well as the financial records must be submitted to the church visitors at the time of their annual visit.
The treasurer must record the receipts and disbursements of the benevolent funds and prepare the financial reports which are to be made regularly to the consistory and the congregation. In many of our congregations a deacon is customarily elected as treasurer of all church funds. Where this is done, much care must be exercised that the gifts for charity shall be kept distinct from the general fund. Gifts for benevolent purposes may under no circumstances be used to meet the running expenses of the church. Only in emergencies and then only for a specifically limited time may these funds ever be borrowed by the consistory. It should further be remembered that when a deacon is elected to the position of church treasurer, his first responsibility is to the ministry of mercy to which he has been ordained by the Lord.
In order that the work of the deacons may be done in the most orderly and efficient manner possible, it is advisable in large churches to divide the congregation into geographical districts. This will usually be unnecessary in congregations numbering less than a hundred or a hundred and fifty families. But wherever the number of the poor and aged is large, such a division will promote good order and give all the deacons a better opportunity to serve directly in the work to which they have been appointed.
It goes without saying that the deacons are always to consult together in performing their office. No deacon may act independently of his fellow-deacons in dispensing alms or making investigations. Without previous consultation with and approval of the others he may not promise assistance to anyone. Yet by assigning specific districts to the deacons they will be better able to serve those who are in need. By calling on the same families repeatedly they will be able to win the confidence of the needy and to comfort them in their distress.
The appointment of certain standing committees charged with specific mandates will also render the service of the deacons more valuable and efficient. Especially in the larger churches, where the work has become more complex and the relationship between diaconate and congregation more impersonal, it will be advantageous to assign certain types of specialized work to these committees. In our busy modern world the church expects much of her office-bearers. Beside providing for their own families, they are expected to devote a large share of their time and attention to the spiritual care of the congregation. And if the work becomes too burdensome and is not properly apportioned, it may at times be done in a haphazard and slovenly fashion. Such problems occasioned by the relationship of the diaconate to state welfare agencies and institutions of mercy can only be adequately resolved by committees who have made special study of them.
Among the several different committees which may appropriately be appointed, the following deserve special mention.
In many congregations the task of providing transportation to and from church for the weak and the aged is assigned by the consistories to the deacons. This does not necessarily mean that the deacons must actually perform all the work involved. Often it may be profitable to have the whole congregation share in this type of Christian service. However, the deacons should then make the proper regulations and see to it that the work is carried out. Lest too much time be consumed at diaconal gatherings with these details, the diaconate may appoint a committee to discharge the work connected with regulating transportation.
Since every institution of Christian mercy has its own rules and regulations and since the deacons are charged with cooperating with these organizations, it is advisable that the diaconate appoint a committee whose duty it shall be to become thoroughly conversant with these rules. Then when any members of the congregation need diaconal assistance in order to be admitted to these institutions, all the necessary information will be on hand.
Likewise some of the deacons should be charged with the duty of inquiring into the provisions made by the local and federal governments for helping the needy. These laws are many and complex. But since the deacons will often have to cooperate with such agencies as they seek to help members of the church, they should be acquainted with the regulations. To expect all the deacons to study these laws is asking too much. Everybody's work is usually no one's work. Hence a committee should be charged with investigating this field and presenting its findings to the diaconate. In the light of such information the diaconal gathering will be able to determine fairly accurately which type of state aid can be received by our people without infringing on the special mandate which Christ has given the deacons to care for the poor of His flock. In this way, too, valuable aid can be given to the blind, the crippled, the orphans and others who by state law are entitled to a measure of support. Yet in all these cases the decisions are to be taken by the full body of the deacons and not by a few.
Without paying careful and constant attention to the proper organization of the diaconate, we may not expect a successful prosecution of the ministry of mercy in our churches. As in all things, so also here, the rule of the churches is that all things shall be done decently and in good order.