1997 Deacon Ministry

Deacon Ministry

1997 Church of the Brethren Statement


Query: Office of Deacon

Whereas, the 1983 Annual Conference meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, June 28-July 3, adopted a statement on the Office of Deacon for the Church of the Brethren, and

Whereas, the office and function of deacon has been recovered with new enthusiasm and purpose across the denomination, and

Whereas, there is a wide divergence among the congregations in the interpretation of the statement and in practices relating to the calling, function, and organizational relationship of deacons, and

Whereas, the 1983 statement fails to give adequate direction in a number of matters pertaining to deacons, such as, but not limited to:

  • the meaning of “set-apart ministry”
  • the relationship of deacons to other “set-apart ministries” in the church
  • should deacons be “called” or “elected”?
  • clarification of the recommended tenure for deacons
  • review of deacons’ accountability in the congregational organizational structure
  • clarification of deacon ministry in the district organization
  • relationship to pastor(s) and other ministers in the congregation and clarification of the respective roles of deacons and pastor(s)
  • relation of the deacon board to the nurture, discipline, and classification of membership in the church;

Therefore, we, the members of the Deacon Board of Manassas Church of the Brethren, Manassas, Va., petition the Annual Conference meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, June 27-July 2, 1995, through the Manassas Church congregational business meeting, and the Mid-Atlantic District Conference, to review and update the 1983 statement on the Office of Deacon, in order that the office may become more unified and strengthened within the Church of the Brethren.

Approved by the Manassas Church of the Brethren at its congregational business Meeting held May 15, 1994.

Harley Kline, Moderator
Betty C. Bolt, Church Clerk

Action or the Mid-Atlantic District Board: Accepted by the Mid-Atlantic District Board, May 21, 1994, and forwarded on to District Conference for action on October 8, 1994.

Action of the Mid-Atlantic District Conference: Approved for passage to Annual Conference by the Mid-Atlantic District Conference held at the Frederick Church of the Brethren, October 8, 1994.

Donna F. Steiner, Moderator
Janet Bowman, Clerk

1996 Progress Report

The Committee wan selected by the National Deacon Cabinet as directed by the General Board following the 1995 Annual Conference and it was asked to complete its work by the 1997 Conference. This is an interim report.

Committee Assignment. The committee was appointed to respond to a query originating in the Manassas (Va.) congregation asking for a review and updating of the 1911 Annual Conference statement on the Office of Deacon. The query cited “a wide divergence among the congregations (of the denomination) in the interpretation of the statement and in practices relating to the calling, function, and organizational relationship of deacons.” The query asked that specific attention be given to the meaning of “set-apart ministry,” the relationship of deacons to pastors and other ministry staff, clarification of tenure for deacons, the place of deacons in the organizational structure of the district and congregation, and the role and functions of deacons. The committee also has learned that the National Deacon Cabinet encouraged and endorsed the query.

Committee’s Perception of its Role. The committee understands its role to be that of building upon and strengthening the 1983 statement on deacons. The statement, and the good work of the committee that designed the statement, have provided an excellent basis for the revival of the recognition and place of deacons in the denomination and in the congregation. We believe that more than three-fourths of Brethren congregation now have active deacon groups, and that most are taking seriously the caregiving function as the primary calling of deacons. There is a high degree of enthusiasm for the ministry of deacons throughout the entire denomination; and that excitement is evident within the committee.

The committee is aware that the goal of deacon ministry is to respond to the needs of the people whom the congregation serves, and thus it is important that the local deacon group function and be structured in such a way as to relate meaningfully to the local situation. The denominational statement on deacons must not prescribe an unyielding rigidity to the functions of deacons. On the other hand, there in considerable request throughout the denomination for more uniformity in the call, structure, and accountability for deacons. The committee also sees as a part of its task to help increase the general understanding of the historical and biblical functions of deacons.

Defining a Mission Statement. The committee, in reviewing the twelve years of renewal in the office of deacon in the denomination, determined that one of its initial tasks should be to write a vision or mission statement for deacons. After much discussion, refinements, and prayer, the following working statement was adopted:

God calls deacons to be committed servant leaders who are:

  • Christ-like, serving with integrity; assimilating, nurturing, and reconciling brothers and sisters in a spirit of trust and discernment;
  • Spirit-led, witnessing to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and to the Body of Christ, the church;
  • Caregivers, utilizing their spiritual gifts in a shared ministry that provides for the total well-being of God’s people.

The committee believes this statement (in its final form) should be in the beginning of the denominational statement on deacons to provide the direction and focus for our understanding of deacons.

Other Committee Activity. The committee has spent considerable time studying both the historical and the biblical background to deacons. The committee invited Dr. Donald Durnbaugh to present a paper on the history of deacons in the Anabaptist tradition and in the Church of the Brethren. Committee member Galen Hackman has led the committee in two comprehensive studies of the biblical background. These exercises have been helpful toward gaining an understanding of the relationship of deacons to ministers, an understanding of what the term “set-apart” means, and the importance of the Deacon Visit that once was a common function of deacons in Brethren congregations.

The committee has been in conversation about its task with the committee studying ministerial leadership in the church, the committee studying Ethics in the Congregation, the steering committee of the Ministry of Reconciliation program, the executive of the Parish Ministries Commission, and the National Deacon Cabinet.

The committee has consensus that it would be more helpful to speak of the “calling of deacon” or the “ministry of deacons” than to use the term “office of deacon.” The committee is in agreement that the calling of deacons is closely related to that extended to those we set-apart as “ministers,” and the denominational statement should define how this “ministry team” can work complimentarily in the congregation.

The committee also feels that there needs to be a more visible and operational network of deacon ministries in the denomination, supplementing the coordination provided by the National Deacon Cabinet. This may call for more responsibility for deacon training and resourcing at the district level, and perhaps some denominational recognition in the form similar to the card issued to ministers. The committee also is looking at a more consistent way of orienting and mentoring new deacons.

Continuing Work. The committee is continuing its work through the following means:

  1. An insight session at this Conference to receive feedback and suggestion;
  2. The distribution of a first draft of the revised statement on deacons to selected reviewers across the denomination, including deacons, pastors, and district executives;
  3. Dialog with the National Deacon Cabinet after that group has reviewed the draft;
  4. Dialog with the ABC Board and the General Board after it has reviewed a revised draft in September.

In addition, the committee welcomes suggestions, questions, and information from anyone who is willing to share it.

Judy Mills Reimer, Chair S. Joan Hershey Galen Hackman
Fred W. Swanz, Secretary Alice Keller Owen Stultz
Marti Barlo Jay Gibble, Staff  

1997 Report of the Committee

I. A Vision for Deacon Ministry

A biblical and historical understanding of deacon ministry suggests the following vision statement for deacons in the Church of the Brethren:

  • Deacons are called to be dedicated caregivers who use their spiritual gifts in a shared ministry of concern for the total well-being of God’s people.
  • Deacons are to be Christ-like, welcoming, nurturing, reconciling, sensitive to the presence of God’s Spirit in their lives and in the lives of others, and witnessing for Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord within and beyond the Body of Christ, the church.

II. The Importance of Deacon Ministry to the Church

The Church of the Brethren throughout most of its history has affirmed the ministry of deacons as central to the life and mission of the church, especially in the congregation. During the middle decades of the twentieth century, the church struggled with finding a place for deacon ministries in the changing structures of congregational organization. This resulted in the downplaying of deacon ministry in many congregations.

In 1983 a major Annual Conference study focused on deacon ministry, leading to a revitalization of the ministry in many congregations. The church now sees deacons as an integral part of its ministry to the personal needs of those whom the congregation serves. Deacons have a significant role in building up and maintaining the focus and unity of the congregation as the Body of Christ,

III. Biblical Concepts Guiding Deacon Ministry

The following concepts summarize the New Testament teaching concerning the nature and ministry of deacons. These seven concepts guide the church as it seeks to implement deacon ministry in the present age.

(For a more thorough study of the biblical material, congregations and deacons are referred to the 1983 Annual Conference statement, The Office of Deacon, and to the booklet, Deacons in Biblical Perspective, written by Galen R. Hackman. This booklet, prepared as background for this study paper, is published by and available from the Association of Brethren Caregivers.)

Deacons Serve in a Significant Ministry. The New Testament views the work of deacons as ministry. This is evident from the Greek word translated “deacon” in the New Testament. This is the primary word in Scripture for “ministry” and has “service” as its root meaning. In the Church of the Brethren, service lies at the heart of our understanding of ministry. Deacons comprise one of the two specific ministry positions in the church during New Testament times. The other position is that of elder, also called bishops or overseers (Titus 1:7 and Acts 20:17,28).

Deacons and Pastors Complement One Another. In 1 Timothy 3:1-13 Paul addresses elders (pastors) and deacons in a parallel manner that suggests a close, complementary relationship. (Paul uses the word “likewise” in 1Timothy 3:8 and gives nearly equal length to both ministries.) The Scriptures never present these two positions as competitive, but rather as complementary in nature. The stated purpose for calling the first deacons (Acts 6:1-6) was to supplement the ministry of the apostles. The men chosen for this ministry went on to be called “The Seven” (Acts 21:8), a term that seems to parallel reference to the apostles as “The Twelve.” This spirit of cooperation between deacons and pastors should guide the church today. (“Pastors” in this paper identifies all persons called to be ministers, whether they serve in a non-salaried or in a salaried position.)

Deacons Bring a Variety of Gifts to Their Calling. The persons called to the ministry of deacon in Acts 6 demonstrate a variety of gifts. Some of them went on to serve in ways we do not normally associate with the work of deacons. For example, Stephen (Acts 6:8-10) and Philip (Acts 8:4-40) engaged in evangelistic preaching. The other five individuals are never specifically mentioned again in Scripture, suggesting they continued to function in a less visible, supporting ministry. Likewise, the church encourages those persons called as deacons today to use their gifts in a variety of ways.

The Needs of the Church Determine the Nature of Deacon Ministry. Surprisingly, the New Testament nowhere gives a list of deacon functions. The closest thing we have is the ministry performed by the seven called in Acts 6. Even there, their calling was in response to specific needs present in the church at that time. Since the Scriptures do not give a definitive list of duties for deacons, likewise the church today must be creative and flexible regarding deacon functions, allowing the needs of the congregation to determine areas of ministry.

The Character and Spirituality of the Deacon Is Primary. The New Testament contains a rather particular list of qualifications for those called to the ministry of deacon. The list (found in 1 Timothy 3:8-13) identifies character and faith attributes. This implies that the spiritual vitality a person brings to the faith is of primary importance and undergirds the specific gifts and talents that person embodies. The church today must continue to call out persons who embody the faith in constructive ways and who have gifts and talents for ministry.

Deacons Are Called to Serve, Not to Rule. Jesus came to serve, not to be served (Mark 10:45). He taught that service would be the guiding principle in the lives of those who follow him, and he warned against assuming authority over others (Luke 22:24-27). The way of servant ministry, not autocratic rule, forms the central quality of the ministry of deacons. Service, caring for the needs of others, was the primary function for which “The Seven” were called by the church (Acts 6). Consequently, the focus of deacon ministry in congregations today should be on service and caregiving, rather than on administrative functions.

Both Women and Men Serve as Deacons. One interesting difference between the qualifications listed for elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3:1-13) is the inclusion of qualifications for women in the deacons’ list (3:11). The list of qualifications for elders (3:l-7) contains no counsel for women, though elders also were to be married (3:2, 4; and 3:12). This leads many Bible students to conclude that in 1 Timothy 3:11 Paul is speaking about women called to the ministry of deacon, not merely to the wives of male deacons. (The Greek word used in 1 Timothy 3:11 for women can mean both women in general, or wives.)

The early church’s calling of women as well as men to the ministry of deacons is also evident from Romans 16:1. In this text, Phoebe is called a “servant of the church in Cenchreae.” The word “servant” is the Greek word often translated “deacon” or “minister.” Paul might mean that Phoebe was just a good worker in the church, a “servant” in the general sense of the word. However, when the phrase “servant of the church” is linked to a specific congregation, it implies an official function rather than a general sense. Also, in Romans 16:2 Phoebe in mentioned as a “helper of many.” The word translated here an “helper” implies a leadership function.

The phrase “husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:12,KJV, NIV) has sometimes been used to teach that divorced and remarried persons cannot serve an deacons. This phrase “husband of one wife” is a difficult one, for which at least four different interpretations have been offered by students of the Bible. (See the sources referenced the beginning of this section.) Nowhere else in the Bible does the phrase “husband of one wife” speak of divorce and remarriage. More likely, Paul means that the deacon should be faithful to the one who in his wife. In other words the phrase means something like this: “A deacon should be a faithful husband to his wife.” By extension, based so the biblical teaching noted above, we might also say: “A deacon should be a faithful wife to her husband.”

In addition to these New Testament texts, later church history also confirms that both women and men served as deacons during the early decades of the church. Based on this Scriptural and historical information, it is the church’s understanding at this time that both men and women are to be called into the ministry of deacon. Congregation’s are encouraged to follow this practice today.

IV. A Historical Overview of Deacon Ministry

Deacon ministry among the Brethren has evolved over the years. The following paragraphs summarize the high points of this development and serve as historical background for our present study.

(For more information deacons and congregations are referred to the 1983 Conference paper, The Office of Deacon, and to the booklet, Deacons in Historical Perspective, written by Donald F. Durnbaugh. This booklet, prepared to give guidance to the development of this paper, is published by and available from the Association of Brethren Caregivers.)

Anabaptist Influence Upon the Ministry of Deacons–An Order of Ministry. Although the Brethren came into being as a result of the Pietist movement of the 16th century, it was the older Anabaptist movement that shaped their understanding of the church and its organization. Anabaptists generally held three orders of ministry: deacons, ministers, and elders (also called bishops). Deacons’ responsibilities included: caring for the physical and material needs of the membership, including the poor; assisting the ministers in carrying out the ordinances and helping in worship services; visiting the sick and erring members; and reconciling differences between members with the goal of maintaining the unity of the body.

Early Deacon Ministry Among the Brethren–Custodians of Church Unity. The earliest evidence concerning how deacons functioned among the Brethren confirms the Anabaptist influence. The primary difference between deacons in the Anabaptist and Brethren tradition lay in the emphasis Brethren placed on the unity of the church. Very early in Brethren history, deacons were called “visiting brethren” for the role they played in carrying out the annual visit. The primary purposes of visiting each household annually were to comfort one another, to reconcile any differences that existed between members, and to exhort the brothers and sisters to stay in the faith. Early Brethren deacons were known for settling differences among members of the congregation and in their communities; and some deacons carried on evangelistic work in their neighborhoods, bringing people into the fellowship of the church.

Emerging Issues about the Status of Deacons in the 19th Century–Ministers or Laity? The 1800s saw much discussion at the Annual Meeting related to the ministerial status of deacons. Two questions were repeatedly asked: “Should deacons be installed with the laying on of hands?” and “May deacons stand when they speak in the congregation?” This debate resurfaced frequently. By the end of the century, deacons were installed only with the right hand of fellowship and the kiss of peace. However, they were allowed to stand when leading in worship, as long as “laboring brethren” (ministers) were present. Considerable variations existed in the actual practice of congregations. A noteworthy change occurred at the 1866 Annual Meeting which approved calling unmarried men to the ministry, if they met all other qualifications. This decision addressed the larger question of who was eligible to serve in ministry positions and opened the door for the eventual calling of individuals, regardless of sex or marital status, as deacons in their own right

Deacon Ministry in the 20th Century–Decline and Redefinition. With the coming of the salaried pastor, the church struggled to understand the deacon’s role in relation to this new form of ministry. The 1919 Annual Conference ruled that the office and function of deacon ministry, including the annual visit, were under the authority of the pastor. The 1931 Conference addressed the issue of a life call or term for deacons beginning a discussion that continued for several decades and ended in the recommendation that deacons be called for terms. The 1942 Annual Conference called deacons a “local office,” and by 1947 the annual visit was no longer listed as a deacon function. Finally, the organizational plan presented to congregations in the 1960s did not even list deacons. These changes came about, partially in response to the concern that some deacons abused their office, assuming too much power, and becoming oppressive and destructive in the fellowship and mission of the congregation.

Reclaiming Deacon Ministry–Renewal and Redirection. During the later decades of the 1900s, the church recognized the need for a revitalized deacon ministry. This concern resulted in the 1983 Annual Conference statement, The Office of Deacon, which helped to renew and expand deacon ministry in many congregations. This landmark statement added and clarified several issues related to the ministry of deacons:

Caregiving was added as a primary emphasis to the functions historically associated with the ministry of deacons.

Both the lifetime calling of deacons and the possibility of term deacons were affirmed.

Women and men (single or married) were eligible to be deacons, with the word “deacon” being used for all indiscriminately.

V. Functions of Deacon Ministry

Opportunities abound for deacons to serve and to be caregivers in congregations today. Four primary areas of ministry, which deacons should ensure are being addressed in the congregation, are identified here. The deacons may carry out these areas of ministry themselves or they may see that other groups in the congregation fulfill them. Either way, deacons are responsible for seeing that these areas are addressed in the congregation.

Under each area of ministry, some specific ways are given through which the ministry might be implemented. These are given as suggestions, and are illustrative rather than mandatory. It is not expected that any one deacon, or even every deacon body, will fulfill all these ministries. Furthermore, deacon bodies, led by the Holy Spirit and in response to the needs of the congregation, may branch out into other areas of ministry.

Advocacy and Support Ministries. Deacons will ensure that there is an advocacy and support network, which reaches all persons and households within the congregational family. This might include ministries such as:

  • Developing a plan that assures consistent support and contact within the congregation.
  • Providing emergency material aid (food, clothing, shelter, etc.).
  • Responding to crisis needs of the congregation (such as a home fire, a debilitating auto accident, serious surgery, long term illness, etc.).
  • Providing intentional advocacy services for persons with special needs (those who are physically and developmentally disabled, those who have been abused, etc.).
  • Ensuring that the needs of persons in particular life situations are met (persons with terminal illness, divorced persons, single parents, pregnant teens, persons with addictions, etc.).
  • Organizing support groups and networks as needed.
  • Reaching out to persons experiencing grief or loss with compassionate acts of presence and service.
  • Serving as a voice for those whose needs are not being recognized and for those outside the household of faith.
  • Ensuing that a fund is in place to assist persons facing emergencies and crises.
  • Organizing labor and mutual aid for persons who need special help (at moving time, making repairs to a home damaged by flood or storm, providing manual labor for a widowed homeowner, etc.).
  • Supporting persons in their transition to nursing and/or retirement communities.

Discipleship and Hospitality Ministries. Deacons will provide general oversight for congregational discipleship, hospitality, and membership concerns, with assistance by the pastors. Among these responsibilities may be:

  • Arranging for the welcome, reception, and assimilation of new members.
  • Ensuring that a mentoring, training, and discipling ministry exists for all new members.
  • Providing opportunities for members to claim and use their personal and spiritual gifts.
  • Planning for renewal experience for members of the congregation (annual visits, revival or recommitment services).
  • Ensuring that a regular membership review occurs (including classification of members) and that membership files are properly recorded for the congregation.
  • Being ready and able to share one’s faith and the joys of commitment In Christ and the Church with those who are new or searching for a meaningful faith.
  • Attending to the preparations for Love Feasts, communions, and baptisms.

Health and Healing Ministries. Deacons will give general oversight to the health and healing ministries of the congregation. They will give special attention to promoting healthy lifestyle choices, healthy relationships, and healthy attitudes, and will reach out with the compassion of Christ to persons experiencing pain and suffering. Opportunities to fulfill this calling include:

  • Developing and promoting health, healing, and wholeness ministries (Lafiya: A Whole-Person Health Ministry, Congregational Nurse, Stephen Ministries, etc.).
  • Visiting those who are sick, hospitalized, or otherwise institutionalized, offering prayers, scripture reading and providing a healing presence.
  • Encouraging the use of, and assisting with, anointing services and other healing experiences.
  • Encouraging members to make calls and visits, send cards, offer prayer support and other tangible acts of compassion (to those who are sick, shut-in, bereaved, etc.).
  • Organizing congregational prayer ministries (prayer chains, prayer groups, prayer phone lines, prayer teams, etc.).
  • Providing transportation for older church members and others as needed (to hospitals, health providers, or other necessary appointments).

Unity and Reconciliation Ministries. Deacons will ensure that ministries of reconciliation are available to those who are facing