OPC Committee on Diaconal Ministries
Helping to Train, Encourage & Connect Deacons






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Meet Your Fellow Deacon: John West

by Allison Hill, CDM Administrative Assistant

What is the role of a deacon? What is his primary responsibility in the church? Most likely, the answers many deacons and church members may generate in response to these questions will contain, if not solely focus on, the notion of “service”—service in the church, for the church. John West, deacon at Mid Cities OPC in Bedford, Texas, would agree. However, he would take it one step further. Calling his fellow deacons to a higher order of service than merely performing the tasks required in the local congregation, West claims that it is the deacon’s duty to “cultivate an environment in the church that is conducive to the entire body serving one another and the outside world.” Deacons are to set the standard of service within the Church.

John West has served as a deacon in the OPC since 2019, but previously served a longer stint in a non-OPC congregation. Resultingly, he has spent many years of his life caring for the needs of the local church, as well as thinking about how he can best serve the church in his role. Over the years, his perspective has certainly evolved and been strengthened. Speaking on the significance of the diaconal office, John asserts, “The deacon is the cornerstone of service in the church. It is what I would hope all men would aspire to be. If you want to serve the Lord in the body, then really think hard and long about why you aren’t a deacon. The ability to serve is the gift the Lord has given us.”

Notably, John’s transition to the OPC also impacted his view of diaconal work, as he previously served in a church where mercy ministry largely emphasized long-distance, short-term work. “In the OPC, diaconal work is focused on serving the body. It is ongoing and sometimes it is messy, but it is encouraging to get to see the fruits of your local, long-term efforts,” John says. He continues by saying, “The people who need help aren’t always outside your building—they are frequently inside your building. I feel drawn and compelled to minister to them first.” 

Though with a renewed vision of who to serve, his outlook on how to serve has also changed. John frankly admits, “I’m not climbing up on roofs anymore. Other people are much better suited for that kind of work.” Yet, one thing has remained the same: “I enjoy working with people; I truly love getting to know the people of the church.” 

Luckily for John, people’s needs generally aren’t limited to roofing projects. In fact, he shared that his work as an Information Technology professional has shaped his service as a deacon. John says, “My work helps me do diaconal work better. I am thankful for my vocation, and I can see how the Lord has used it to enable me to bless the local church.” From broadcasting services for the church to working on people’s computers, and even coordinating the efforts of others in the church to fulfill various areas of need, John’s service to the church is closely connected to his vocational employment. 

Another area of service John has come to love is hospitality. This has only been enhanced by his wife, Suzanne, and her gift for welcoming and caring for others. He says they simply have a desire to love and serve people more than things. Hospitality ministry is a sphere of service John has greatly enjoyed observing and participating in with his local congregation. In recounting the encouragement drawn from specific opportunities he has seen hospitality demonstrated, John shares that of a particularly difficult situation: a dear couple’s loss of a child. However, as John recalls, “it was a very rewarding time for the life and strength of the church as we all had the opportunity to pray for them, serve them, and draw closer to them in deep, meaningful ways. It was a blessing to see that family served and provided for.” That, he recalls, was one of the best times in the life of the church right in the middle of one of the worst. “To see the Lord provide for his people through his people is encouraging because it embodies and constitutes the ordinary means God has ordained for the care of his people,” John says. 

These reflections reinforce John’s professed affinity for “helping people help other people.” John again comments on the responsibility of the diaconate by saying, “We build up the body by serving them, but service doesn’t stop with deacons. We build up the body by encouraging them to serve one another.” Thus, to the deacon, he says: “You can’t do it all, but you can ask for help and usually get assistance from others to do anything. People are eager to serve, they just need a leader. You have the privilege to lead by serving.” To the church member, John provides this simple, yet motivating reminder: “You don’t have to be a deacon to serve your church.”


The Poignant Plight of the Asylum Seeker

by Pat Hatch, Refugee and Immigrant Ministry Director, PCA Mission to North America


You work as a lawyer in a developing country, and your work exposes the fact that government officials are raping civilians in your community.  As your work becomes known, you begin to receive death threats.  Not long after, you are beaten, causing permanent partial hearing loss. As soon as you are recovered, you begin your work again, undeterred. But then you get a note saying: “We know where you are, and what you are doing. This time, we will not leave you alive.” This time, you know you have to flee. 

When you arrive in a nearby country, you find out that your homeland government is still tracking you for reprisal. You flee to yet another country, where you go into hiding. 

Eventually you manage to escape to the US on a visitor’s visa, and you begin the difficult process of applying for asylum. For two years you sleep on couches, never far from homelessness. In order to survive, you frequently have to beg for food and shelter.

This is the TRUE story of one of the more than 432,000 asylum seekers* currently in the US. A significant number of them are believers in Christ. Many of them were professionals in their homeland. In the majority of cases, the reason they have had to flee is related to a value that we as Americans hold dear (freedom of speech, religion, political opinion, etc.) Regardless of their previous occupation or religion or ethnicity, they are all persons created in the image of God and of great value to Him. 

From a humanitarian standpoint, they resemble refugees in many ways. But there is no nationwide public/private infrastructure to support asylum seekers while they wait many months or years for their case to be scheduled for a hearing. Unlike refugees, they are not allowed to even apply for a work permit for at least 6 months, and it can take additional months to several years for the permit to arrive. They are not eligible for any safety net benefits. They must survive during this time without any income or access to any basic social services.

The reality is that many have no choice other than to beg food or shelter from any person they might know or meet, or to work “under the table,” in order to survive until their case is eventually heard. This makes them vulnerable to many kinds of abuse (including sexual exploitation.) They struggle with hunger, and homelessness always imminent. Some resort to homeless shelters and may become victims of crime. These hardships compound the severe trauma most have experienced before arrival, as well as their separation from loved ones for the indefinite future, and the psychological burden of being in limbo for an undetermined length of time as they navigate the complex, time-consuming, and unpredictable asylum process. 

Asylum seekers have urgent, very basic needs—particularly sustainable housing and food. But as of 2022, there are virtually no government services for asylum seekers and only about a dozen independent non-profit organizations in the entire country (only a few of them Christian) which are trying to assist asylum seekers with these needs. A total of only approximately 400 beds are available at any given time for more than 400,000 asylum seekers. 

Churches and individual believers have an incredible opportunity to welcome asylum seekers in practical ways and walk with them as they continue their long and arduous journey of finding a new place to belong after fleeing their homelands due to fear for their lives!

To learn more about refugee ministry in the OPC and how your local congregation can demonstrate mercy toward refugees and asylum seekers, visit our Refugee Ministry Page.

*The American Immigration Council defines an asylum seeker in the US as “any person who has fled from their home country for fear of their lives being jeopardized due to their race, religion, nationality, gender, membership in a social group, or political opinion, and has asked the United States to grant them asylum.” 

(For more true stories of asylum seekers, visit https://www.dashnetwork.net/who-we-serve/real-stories-testimonies/).

**For more on the differences betweenrefugees and asylum seekers, visit DASH’s helpful webpage on the topic: https://www.dashnetwork.net/who-we-serve/asylum-seekers-vs-refugees/.


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.