The Deacon and Home Visits
What is the difference between the diaconal and the pastoral home visit?
This question focuses the attention on a problem — what is special about a diaconal home visit? People are convinced that a pastoral home visit is special and an elder does not have to convince sympathetic church members of the necessity of those visits. However, the visit of the deacons is not experienced in the same self-evident manner. The deacon, when he comes to visit, has more obstacles to overcome than the elder. Why is that? Sympathetic church members know that they should not be so inhospitable as to pose the question, “why are you coming?” to the deacon who seeks to set up a meeting. But that question does cross their minds. In my opinion, that question exists because there is not a knowledgeable insight as to what is special about a diaconal visit. That has more to do with an uninformed impression of the diaconal task among church members, among those who are to be visited as well as fellow office-bearers and the deacons themselves who in greater or smaller measure carry this deficiency in themselves. Already in 1965, the diaconal home visit was advocated by the then national conference of deputies ADMA (conference of deputies for general societal and diaconal situations, now simply called diaconate). In 1983 the diaconal home visit received an official commendation, so that in the list of questions for church visitation, a question was included about diaconal visits. However, what I have noticed about this particular attention, is that during most church visitations, because of time constraints, this question is passed over. I have never experienced the opposite, that the pastoral home visits receive no attention.
I will try to formulate what is special about diaconal home visits in relation to pastoral home visits. I have already written about this several times. For this reason, I excuse myself from writing a complete history of diaconal home visits. I want to specifically investigate the question from the deacons’ point of view.
Unity and Cooperation
Because our God is one, all church work carries the mark of unity (Eph. 4:1-16). Differentiation in tasks and service does not and may not wipe that out. It is characteristic of the congregation that she is one in God (vv. 1-6). Within this unity there is a differentiation that is itself a gift from Christ (vv. 7-11). However, that difference in gifts and services does not destroy the unity but rather builds up the congregation (vv. 12-16). The gifts equip all for the service of ministry (v. 12) and together, these gifts of Christ unite the congregation (v. 16). With all the differentiation in service, unity remains. Collegial cooperation between elders and deacons is therefore obligatory, and the overlap of their work is to be natural. Although society may have proceeded to far-reaching allotment of tasks, in the church we do not follow that example. Our God is one, therefore our lives also need to be one, and our various services must display that same characteristic.
In spite of all their differences (thus also in pastoral and diaconal home visits) the pastoral and diaconal work has much in common. Deacons and elders together have the task to build up the spiritual house, whether they are together in a church council meeting or attending to different tasks. They work in context with each other. Even in the form for ordination, this cooperation is highlighted. The celebrated reasons for comfort always come to the fore at such a moment; it cannot be otherwise. Whereas, in the pastoral task, the accent falls on the spiritual dimension, helping people in spiritual need, while in the diaconate, the accent falls on reaching out in psychological and social needs. Differentiation may not mean separation. The pastoral, spiritual dimension does not mean negating the concrete societal everyday reality experienced by the pastor in his contact with the people of his parish and with society. Material or structural requests for help are often interwoven with spiritual backgrounds.
Differing Goals for Home Visits
Beginning with unity, the service of elders and deacons expands into different areas with the direct result that their home visits are also different. In this connection, I am looking at home visits as the periodic visits of elders and deacons to the homes of the members of the congregation entrusted to their care, without there being any special occasion or reason for the visit. How regularly this happens depends on the agreement made within the consistory.
I am outlining the following goals for a pastoral or diaconal home visit:
- The pastoral care that an elder desires to give at a home visit is care for the church member as a Christian, for his coming to and remaining in the faith, hope, and love in the reality of every day.
- The diaconal care that a deacon desires to give at a home visit is care for the church member as a child of God, and aid to help him or her in the diaconal task in church and society out of love for Christ.
The goal of the diaconal home visit is much more specific than that of the pastoral visit. The home visit of the elder has the total breadth of belief. The visit of the deacon looks specifically at the diaconal task, the task of the church member as well as the diaconal task on his behalf!
Topics for Discussion — Visiting Together and Separately
I am, in general, not opposed to a home visit done by an elder and a deacon, together. When this happens with intent and direction, there is much to be said for it, provided the elder goes as elder and the deacon goes as deacon. Christ gave this task to them, and therefore they go as they promised with their installation. When they both understand that more is required than either pastoral or diaconal ministering, then this should be possible. The only situation that I can think of where you would not go on home visits together is when the elder in question does not have a sufficiently strong awareness of the diaconal task, and he does not give sufficient room to the deacon or even prevents him from focusing attention on the diaconal service. Perhaps you should not (yet) go together because or as long as the congregation has not yet been made fully aware of the diaconal task.
It belongs to both tasks to speak with the members of the congregation about being united in faith with Christ and with his church. Both can bring forth the topic of participation in church services and of being fed spiritually through the services. Both can carry out an extensive conversation about the use of the gifts of the Spirit for the upbuilding of the congregation. Both will want to pay attention to functioning in society as a Christian. Because Christian life is a unity, not a single office-bearer will say, “That ‘field’ is exclusively mine.”
Still, enough remains to be introduced from the point of view of the separate offices. The elder will open the discussion around the spiritual life to get to faith and continue discussing in the faith; the nourishment to and growth in faith are specific to the elder. This includes everything related to this, namely personal Bible study, participation in church services, Bible study groups etc.
Topics for the Deacon
Assuredly, I am not promoting the possibility of doing home visits together as elder and deacon because there is not enough for the deacon to discuss on his own. I can see more than enough topics to organize (if agreed upon, annual) diaconal home visits, separately.
Take as an example, the following topics and questions (which can be found in the 1996 article, Diaconal Home Visit for a systematic perusal):
- the diaconal aspects of the church service as a stimulus for diaconal service during the week;
- hospitality within the congregation toward each other, strangers in society, homeless children/young people/old people, etc;
- seeing daily work in service to God, the neighbour, and creation;
- the necessary contact/conversation with unemployed members of the congregation or with those who have problems at or with work;
- if young people are present, ask them how it is going at school, what they are considering as career choice, whether they believe that serving God and their neighbour has something to do with that;
- in conversation — this is also a contrast with a pastoral home visit — give information about:
- the giving of help within and outside of the congregation that occurs through the office of the deacons and how the members of the congregation think about it;
- the possibility for personal involvement to lend diaconal help within and outside of the congregation;
- within the confidentiality of the home visit, ascertain whether the visited member himself needs help and/or a reminder that one can ask for help in things that come up.
- the question whether the congregation member is aware of (urgent) diaconal tasks, not yet administered;
- through many and various topics of conversation, it can be brought forward that Christ is the source of our serving others;
- finally, the deacon can/will bring in prayer the needs of the member being visited, of the church, and of the world before God.
I hope that I have encouraged and stimulated the doubting deacon, the reflective diaconate, and the planning church council. To my thinking, deacons speaking about the diaconate with church members at their homes, lend a huge contribution to the upbuilding of the diaconate service of the congregation.