The Greek word from which “deacon” is derived literally means “servant,” often used for the person who would wait on tables. Traditionally, there have been three different ways churches have understood this role.
For some, such as within the Roman Catholic church, the deacon has been primarily about the ministry of helping. Here the deacon acts as an assistant to the elders/priests, helping them more effectively to do their work.
For others (and many Presbyterian churches could be included here), deacons function essentially as a board of trustees, managing the property and finances.
While our church’s diaconal team has some responsibilities that fit those two categories, it’s the third understanding that especially shapes us: that deacons are given to a church to help lead it in the ministry of mercy.
In Acts 6 we see an important decision being made by the disciples. They know that they must prioritize in their own work preaching of the gospel and praying, and that they cannot allow themselves to get distracted from that role. And yet they also become aware of a need: certain widows among them are not being cared for, something that must not be within God’s household. And so they appoint 7 mature Christian leaders to facilitate the ongoing physical and material care of this vulnerable population. They are appointed to help the church show mercy.
If you read Old Testament prophets like Amos, or if you think carefully about the parable of the Good Samaritan, you’ll notice that seeking justice and showing mercy to the vulnerable is not an optional extra for Christians who have time to spare. It is considered central to the Christian life. It is inconceivable to the Bible’s writers that we can experience God’s mercy without reflecting it to each other and the world around us.
Our deacons and the diaconal team work together to help us fulfill that calling. A significant part of their work involves seeking to be connected to every person in our congregations and then addressing physical, material, and emotional needs as there is opportunity. That can involve helping out with the cost of groceries, bringing a team to do some house repairs, or helping a person receive the counseling he or she needs.
Another, very related part of diaconal work is helping to mobilize us in showing mercy to the world around us. We live in a city that experiences brokenness on every level, and that means God has given us opportunity to show the life-changing love of Jesus in very tangible ways. Our diaconal team takes the lead in helping us do exactly that.
As you might be able to tell, I’m pretty excited about our diaconal teams and the work that they do. Please pray for them and for us—that both of our congregations may be places where God’s mercy is made clear to each other and the world around us!