Godliness, Good Sense, and the Heart of a Servant: Diaconal Summit IV

If you want to learn something about how deacons should serve, a longtime Long Island pastor suggests dining at his favorite Italian restaurant. “When the waiters are talking to you, it is as if there is nobody else in the world,” Bill Shishko explained. “And in most cases, they get to know your name.”

Not only do they bring the food, they bring anything else you might need. “And they check back to be sure everything is OK.”

Sort of like a deacon.

Shishko, who pastored The OPC of Franklin Square for more than thirty-four years and now pastors a daughter church called The Haven, keynoted June’s National Diaconal Summit in Wheaton, Illinois, near Chicago. The three-day summit, this year with five main sessions and nine workshops, takes place every five years. It aims to help deacons discover their niche in a type of ministry that can be hard to define and also to help deacons learn ways others are ministering to the needs of people in tough situations.

Shishko explained in his talk that the diaconate began in Acts 6, when the needs of the church grew beyond the ability of one group of officers. Stephen, a man full of the Holy Spirit, was given the task of serving food to widows—a task some probably considered too menial for such a man. “A deacon is an official representative of Christ, the great servant,” Shishko said. When considering who ought to be a deacon, Shishko looks for godliness, good sense, and the heart of a servant.

A Call to Kindness

A call to kindness, and to its proper use as people guided by the Spirit, permeated the words of both speakers and deacon attendees.

OP pastor Eric Watkins, speaking on “Mercy in a Social Justice World,” pointed to the Old Testament to explore the mercy that flows from God’s heart. The Psalms speak of God’s loving protection and his strict admonitions against thievery, greed, and taking advantage of the poor. God says he himself will execute justice for the oppressed, provide food for the hungry, and drive out evildoers who neglect and devour the weak.

“People in and out of the church are looking outside the church for different paradigms of kindness, mercy, and social justice,” Watkins said. “Our young people are sometimes tempted to drink the Kool-Aid of secular theories and paradigms when they do not feel that their churches are being faithful in these areas, and this can lead to what is known as covenantal drift.”

Watkins explained that what is needed to minister in these important areas is found within the pages of Scripture: “Everything that we need to know about what race is, what justice is, what mercy is, what compassion is, what equity is, what not showing partiality is—all those things are already in the Bible. What we need to do is get out our Bibles and ask the same questions that people are asking but give gospel-driven, Bible-centered answers.”

Within Scripture, he developed, we find that mercy flows from the heart of God. “The Old Testament priests, who were to administer the mercy of God, had the job of caring for orphans, widows, and other disadvantaged people.” Similarly, mercy should flow from the local church. “The church should be the safest place in the world,” Watkins explained. “The church is our house! The church is the hospital, and it has the best Physician.”

Living Out Good Sense

Nathan Kent, a deacon from Trinity OPC in Newberg, Oregon, when reflecting on the conference, said he now understands that caring for people’s physical needs can help people deal with spiritual needs at the same time. That, he said, was nice to hear.

He hopes his church will work on policies and procedures for handling ministry to people who come in off the streets. Deacons at one workshop had a chance to grapple with touchy questions: When someone asks for money, how much do you give? When they ask for more, what happens then? Do you give cash? A check? A gift card? How do you know if you’re being taken? At the end of the day, the word was, “let kindness rule.”

Speaker Seth Long lives in a town where the main reason people visit is to be kind to others—on mission trips or relief efforts. Many people in Neon, Kentucky, lack jobs, and there are few available. People who once owned land still own it, but mining companies took everything but the gravel and turned it into “a mountain wasteland,” Long said. “Then came a brain drain, and many people who stayed behind flocked to offices where they could get government checks. Many see these as the best source of long-term income,” Long said.

Believing in their worth, however, Long tells people in the area that failing to work is a sin because it makes them unable to care for their families or to help others financially. Long is executive director of HOMES, a non-profit Christian organization that builds and rehabilitates houses all over eastern Kentucky, where he practices what he “preaches.” Two members of Neon Reformed OPC, where Long is a member, have successfully participated in an addiction recovery program and have been employed at HOMES for over a year. One has worked his way into a valued position.

Mercy to Strangers

On the other side of the world from Kentucky lived Pastor Al Tricarico, who worked with people he used to call strangers. He and his family served as missionaries in the Karamoja region of Uganda for eleven years. From American eyes, these people wore strange clothes, ate strange food, and had a culture much different than Tricarico’s. What did he learn? That “the stranger is not a nuisance but an opportunity for service,” he told his listeners. The steps of service include meeting others, learning about them, understanding “all people have something to contribute to your life,” and engaging with them, Tricarico said.

“Don’t think maybe you shouldn’t help,” he advised. “We can’t help eight million people, but we can help people on our street.” And we can start by learning their names.

“Do you believe that the Father has been merciful to you? Show that mercy,”  Tricarico said.

The busyness of showing mercy brings us to Christ, said speaker Ron Pearce. “Being busy for the Lord is not the same thing as loving the Lord. And when we get overwhelmed with the needs and the demands, the Lord isn’t calling us to work harder in our own strength, but to draw upon him. The branch must abide in the vine (John 15).”

Part of One Body

In his talk “The Deacon and His Congregation,” Craig Troxel also pointed to John 15:5 as “a simple metaphor describing the union that we have with Christ.” That verse reads, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” The relationship between saints inside the local body, Troxel explained, is the “outworking of that deeper union and communion in which we partake of the powers of the world above, through our communion with Christ, by faith and by the power of the Spirit.” Drawing from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, Troxel said that we belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.

Not only do deacons belong to the local body, but they also belong to the denominational body. “The OPC is a wonderful place to be,” said John West, deacon at Mid Cities Presbyterian in Bedford, Texas.

The OPC has over nine hundred deacons. The average number of registrants for the summits is 215, and this year’s total was 234. Some ministers and elders attended as well, either as speakers or to support their deacons.

“This was the best [summit] of the four,” said David Nakhla, administrator of the Committee on Diaconal Ministries. “In previous summits, we asked big-name [speakers] to talk about their recent books. . . . They were non-OPC speakers, and their topics didn’t entirely connect with the context of our typically smaller suburban churches,” he explained. But this time, all the speakers were from the OPC.

For many at the summit, singing the old hymns of the faith must have felt like a cool drink of water on a hot summer day. After pianist Kirstin Erickson, a Wheaton College student, played the pitches, the men instantly picked up the three-part harmony, and the music they made was strong and sounded as if they all had rehearsed together. After the messages were completed and suitcases nearly packed, deacons talked about the future.

Geno Altiery, a deacon at Bayview OPC in Chula Vista, California, appreciated the workshop on ministering to and working with people who have disabilities. “We want to let the world around us know that there are no limitations in coming to Christ,” he said. Altiery works with an autistic man and provides him rides to men’s events and encouragement with his job. “The power of Christian community is that we’re brought into Christ,” he added. We have “the power to do whatever the Lord wills.”

Speaker Ron Pearce stressed the centrality of Christ: “we need to remember above all things that we do our ministry out of love for Christ, not just to be busy. Don’t allow the many needs of others, the many activities, the many duties to displace the Lord himself at the very center of our conscious hearts.”

Phillip Gettman, a deacon at Trinity OPC in Medford, Oregon, said he left the conference with the conviction of a servant’s heart. “As deacons, we’re not just helpers to the elders; we are peacemakers,” he said. “In times of trial and loss, we make peace.”

The author is a member of Christ Covenant OPC in Midland, Michigan. 

This article originally appeared in the August edition of New Horizons. New Horizons, August 2022.


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A Summit Not To Be Missed!

by Trish Duggan, Communications Coordinator, OPC Committee on Diaconal Ministries

“Please don’t use the expression, ‘I’m only or just a deacon,’” Rev. Bill Shishko strongly and lovingly cautioned the men at the 4th OPC National Diaconal Summit. “Hopefully that will be knocked out of you if you’ve used it in the past.” Shishko went on to share his experience at his former church, the OPC of Franklin Square, and how he worked to build the diaconate there. Diaconal work is hard work, he admitted, but, “I just came to revel in the work, the variety of the work, the excitement of the work that deacons do. I love and esteem the work of the diaconate, and I’m hoping that I can bring some of that love and excitement to you this evening.”

That type of wind of blew throughout the three-day event. Plenary sessions as well as workshops gave practical and spiritual encouragement to lift each deacon brother. Just like Aaron and Hur lifting the arms of Moses, one man lifted another in training and in fellowship. The Bible teaches that “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” There was no lack of that this year.

Registration began early on Thursday, June 2. One group arrived very early in Chicago, coming from California; they had taken the red-eye. Each one registered and some made their way up to take a quick nap before the events of the day officially began. Slowly, and steadily the nearly 200 men, deacons, deacons-in-training, elders and pastors coming to support their deacons, arrived; smiles and greetings to all, thankful for this special occasion.

It didn’t take long before the smells of barbecue filled the lobby of Fischer Hall, drawing the participants out of their rooms. The unseasonably beautiful weather enabled the use of outdoor picnic tables spread across the lush green grass that lined the small slope of the dorm lawn. Soon the seats were filled, and a loud hum of conversation and laughter filled the air. And this was just the beginning of the warm comradery that developed as friendships were established and re-ignited.

The schedule was full; dawn till dusk. Immediately following the first main session on Thursday evening, its content described by one deacon as “steak for breakfast”, it was time to cross the campus to the gas-lit firepits where dessert and fellowship began to stir. Handshakes and hugs animated the scene as small groups gathered to catch up, further confirming the appreciation to again be face-to-face.

From there it rolled: sessions, food, and fellowship. Plenary talks by fathers of the OPC, Bill Shishko, Al Tricarico, Ron Pearce, Craig Troxel and Nathan Trice, were given to the whole group, while workshops, taught by pastors, elders and deacons, were attended in smaller groups. 

Rev. Al Tricarico, associate general secretary of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension, and former missionary to Uganda, reminded the group of God’s grace, “Brothers, you know Christ. You have been rescued from stranger status. And have been welcomed by Jesus into the home of his Father. Now, remember that and gladly welcome strangers in. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. People who are not like us or not known to us can make us feel uneasy. But if God has welcomed you, how can you withhold your welcome when others come into your life and orbit?”

Challenging workshop offerings such as Rev. Eric Watkins’, “Mercy Ministry in a Social-Justice World” gave insight to what is missing in secular, social justice arguments. After carefully protected directness, Watkins said, “I feel like our deacons are one of our most underused resources in our church as it relates to confronting some of the challenges of Mercy Ministry that the world calls social justice. Who carried out the heart and compassion of God, not only in the church but outside the church in the Old Testament? It was to be the priest. How does that ministry translate in the New Testament? It comes to the office of Deacon… “[Deacons need] to be the sort of frontline of engaging some of the things that are now popping up in a social justice context, and we’ve got the best tools and the best resources. “This is what mercy, justice and compassion really looks like. It’s gospel-centered, it’s church-oriented.  It’s the hands and feet of Jesus reaching our communities where the pain actually is…”

Rev. Chris Cashen in his workshop, “Refugee Relief”, also focused in on the need to love the stranger, and how the deacons can encourage their congregations to love and minister to the refugee community. “For deacons, ministry to refugees is such a practical way to encourage your congregants, to engage the congregation, [and] to participate in Mercy Ministry.” He reminded them that they are to lead the charge, but encouraged them not to do all the work. 

All five plenary sessions and nine workshops were squeezed into the limited time allotted, offering much wisdom and ability to share experiences and challenges; something that can’t be done by phone or on a Zoom call.

The three-day conference came and went quickly, but not without leaving a lasting impression on all who attended. “Attending the summit helps you understand the best practices as a deacon and reminds you that you are not alone. Getting good instruction is vital to being a good deacon. The food and fellowship is an excellent way to be refreshed and excited to return to church life,” according to Peter Heinisch, deacon at Providence OPC in Rockford, IL. 

Luke Fawcett, deacon, Resurrection OPC, Matthews, NC said “If you haven’t been to a Summit, you got to do it,” and his deacon-mate, Nathan Brinkerhoff, agreed, “There’s one thing you can’t experience by watching the videos, and that is the singing. If you’re not ready for it, it will almost take you by surprise. It is wonderful— it’s that good.”

If you missed it this year, you’ll have to wait several years for the next, but in the meantime, go to OPCCDM.org to check out the videos of the sessions. It’s truly not the same, and in the future, we hope you’ll make plans to attend in person. No doubt, the food and training you’ll receive will be great. But the infusion of encouragement from the fellowship and the obvious strength in diaconal numbers you will find irreplaceable! 

 


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Meet Your Fellow Deacon Pete Hybert

By Allison Hill, Administrative Assistant for the OPC Committee on Diaconal Ministries

Pete Hybert has been a deacon at Bethel OPC, Wheaton, IL since 1993, and privileged to have a front-row seat to watch the Lord work in many people’s lives. His take-away from it all? Amazement. He says, “You get to see the Lord work. Sometimes it’s not what you expected, but it’s still amazing.”

Pete’s stint as a deacon includes a period when he was the sole deacon. He’s helped walk-ins with various short-term needs, church members with long-term needs and those seeking assistance with a tragedy or disaster. Each situation poses a unique opportunity to see the Lord’s hand of mercy work through the local church. For Pete, this is even true in situations in which it seems there is little headway and temporary discouragement.

Pete knows that it is a privilege to be a small part of demonstrating mercy in tangible ways. That is what he says drew him to mercy ministry. “What I like about diaconal work is the practical side of it.” Pete currently works as a full-time consultant but describes himself as a “jack-of-all trades”. From fast food to working in construction, Pete has found that his wide background and the diverse experiences of his fellow deacons helps them all minister and relate to many.

Mindful of the power of sacrificial giving Pete says with humble confidence, “It’s not that we are genius deacons, and it’s not about trying to do it all. It’s about doing what you can.” “[If] you are able to share time with people, do something that matters to them in the immediate term, and you can talk to them while you do it. That’s what I like about it.” While the goal is to foster independence, “Getting to know people and have them understand their God-given value as an image-bearer [is] something only speaking with them can do [and] it gives you a heart to pray for their salvation.”

Though there have been memorable times of fellowship in helping people move or pumping out flooded basements, Pete has a heart for serving those with disabilities. He and his wife, Faith, a former special needs educator assistant, both have considerable experience caring for and working with people who have long-term needs and disabilities. Serving those individuals and helping them succeed in their own capacities is one of the most enjoyable types of mercy ministry for him. “I try to encourage them and end up being encouraged by them. It’s been rewarding to do what is in our reach to come alongside them.” There is one member of the congregation with long-term needs Pete gratefully says, fuels his work.

“Of course we are willing to help others that we may never see again, but it’s nice to serve people you see and can continue to minister to, physically and spiritually, even when there is little hope of their situation changing.” The ultimate goal is building biblically-founded relationships with people over time.

“It’s always great to see results: growth or even change,” Pete says. As deacons, there is great joy in observing the hand of the Lord in the lives of those you serve.


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