The Role of Elders, Deacons, and Ministers in the Church

“Christ, according to the New Testament, has appointed officers to govern the church under himself. Their authority to govern derives from him even though they are elected by the people.” –Preamble, RCA Book of Church Order

To hold office in the church is a God-given responsibility, not a superior position. Three offices exist within the local church: elder, deacon, and minister. Those who hold these offices work together as the consistory to govern the life and ministry of a congregation. Together, the three offices represent Christ and carry out the work of the Holy Spirit.

Elders and ministers also participate in larger governing assemblies—classis, regional synod, and General Synod—in the Reformed Church in America.

In the Reformed Church in America, a fourth office exists, that of General Synod professor. This office serves by preparing and certifying candidates for the ministry of Word and sacrament. General Synod professors also serve in a “ministry of teaching within the RCA as a whole,” as stated in the Book of Church Order.

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What's the theology behind church office?

Sinful men and women—forgiven and sanctified by Christ—are called, ordained, and installed in office. They become partners with God to engage the divine mission through the church and in the world. Through the Holy Spirit, God calls men and women, gives them gifts for their offices, and provides opportunity for the cultivation of their gifts. The offices themselves are understood to be initiated by the ascended Lord of the church and effected by the Holy Spirit. Thus, when the officers of the church act faithfully, they act by the Spirit. Their actions serve Christ and mirror the will of God the Father.

What does it mean for officers to be ambassadors?

Officers are to be nothing less than agents of Christ in the power of the Spirit. Through the offices, the pastoral ministry of Christ is continued through history. And, through the offices, the mission of the church is continually launched into the world. Scripture teaches that by the working of the Holy Spirit, those who represent Christ, such as the officers of the church, “stand in for” or “act for” the Lord of the church in their deliberations and actions. The analogy of an ambassador helps explain: an ambassador is given power and authority to represent and act for the government, though he or she must do so in a way that is consistent with the policies of the sending body.

Those who hold office are responsive to the congregation but responsible to Christ alone in the exercise of their office. This does not mean that office holders have no accountability to the congregation. Rather, in the Reformed understanding, that accountability is administered through the offices. For example, if members of a congregation do not believe their pastor is fulfilling his or her responsibilities, complaints are taken to the consistory, and possibly, through consistorial action, to the classis. The congregation does not deal directly with the pastor, but through bodies comprised by officeholders.

What does the “mutuality of offices” mean?

Identifying a missional focus for each office does not suggest that each office has only one function. Nor does it mean that the responsibilities of one office are not also borne by the others. There is a mutuality of offices, such that each office serves the purposes of the others, together forming a representation of Christ. No one office adequately represents Christ, only the three offices together. The proclamation of the Word of God draws people into community, prepares them for ministry, and sends them in service into the world.

How does the congregation fit into the picture?

Christ calls the whole church, not just those who hold office. Christ is represented through the church offices, but is also represented by and through the people. The Reformed church strongly affirms the biblical teaching that all Christians have been called and gifted by the Holy Spirit to serve Christ; all members of a congregation are “commissioned” to engage Christ’s mission.

The congregation shares responsibility with ministers, elders, and deacons for their mutual Christian growth. All Christians need the grace that brings forgiveness, communicates God’s love, and orients their lives according to the purposes of Christ. Martin Luther described Christians as simul justus et peccator: at the same time justified and sinners. We are new creatures in Jesus Christ, but the “old Adam” is still alive and potent even in the community of faith. The church is not a communion of those who have fully achieved the goal, but of those on a journey.

People called to be agents of transformation must themselves be undergoing transformation. Apart from such transformation, the witness of the church will be thin and ineffectual. As those who hold office communicate transforming grace, the congregation becomes a body of missional believers, sent out into the world to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. While those who minister through the offices primarily attend to the community of faith they serve, the ministry of the baptized people of God extends through the church and into the world. It is the responsibility of all Christians to carry the world to the church—or back to the church—as the scattered people of God find home in the community of faith. In this way, Christ by the Spirit invites the body of believers into his mission of making all things new.

Elders

Elders are primarily and particularly responsible for the spiritual oversight of the congregation. This includes attending to sound teaching within the church; ensuring that members are nurtured through Scripture, the sacraments, worship, and prayer; and guiding the congregation through government and discipline.

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Deacons

The primary responsibilities of deacons fall into six main categories: mission involvement, disaster response and volunteer service opportunities, hunger advocacy and relief efforts, special individual and family concerns, stewardship education and congregational giving, and caring for creation and living simply.

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Ministers

The primary responsibilities of the minister are preaching and teaching. Ministers—men and women—are called by God to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, administer the sacraments, and care for the members of the congregation. They are to build up and equip the church for its ministry in the world.

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The role of elder

The first duty of the elders is to seek and follow the will of Christ for the church. Elders are primarily and particularly responsible for the spiritual oversight of the congregation. This includes attending to sound teaching within the church; ensuring that members are nurtured through Scripture, the sacraments, worship, and prayer; and guiding the congregation through government and discipline. As the body responsible for spiritual oversight, the board of elders welcomes new members, admits children to the Lord’s table, hears confessions of faith, and acts on requests for infant baptism.

Pastoral care—for the congregation and the minister

Elders are responsible for community, woven together by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit—a community that points to the fellowship of the kingdom of God. Elders should thus take special opportunities to know and guide congregation members toward deeper faith and discipleship, including regular and intentional home visits with congregation members. Pastoral care, a responsibility of the elders, requires good listening skills, intentional visits, and empathetic care. Elders should also visit those who are in the hospital and in nursing homes, those who are homebound, and those who seek the counsel of a trusted friend.

In Reformed churches, elders are also to provide oversight and care for the minister, too. This involves monitoring the conduct of the minister, in preaching and teaching, in word and deed. In addition, elders are to attend to the care and spiritual nourishment of the minister. As people who work closely with the pastor in the ministry of the church, elders are in a good position to provide that care and nurture through counsel, encouragement, kind words, or a listening ear.

Guiding through discipline

Church discipline is also a responsibility of the elders. Elders, together with the minister, are responsible for holding each other and the community to a loving accountability. The positive purpose of church discipline is to guide members to mature discipleship; thus, to discipline is to aid in discipleship. As the congregation walks and works together as a community of disciples, elders need to remember their call to care for the whole body of Christ, taking disciplinary action when needed to prevent harm and suffering for an individual and the congregation.

Most matters of discipline and guidance can likely be addressed through the support and encouragement of personal, pastoral, or professional intervention. However, in more extreme cases, the board of elders may need to consult the disciplinary procedures outlined in the RCA’s Book of Church Order

A commissioned pastor is an elder, too

In the Reformed Church in America, a commissioned pastor is an elder who has been commissioned by a particular classis to fulfill a specific ministry need. After the completion of training, a commissioned pastor can serve in one of many roles, such as church planter, pastor, hospice worker, or any ministry the classis deems fit.

Get more information about commissioned pastors and the process to become one.

The role of deacon

Deacons lead the church in ministries of justice, mercy, and compassion. Deacons are to be servants, following Jesus’s example of servanthood in word and deed. In their roles, they serve Christ, the church, and the world.

The primary responsibilities of deacons fall into six main categories: mission involvement, disaster response and volunteer service opportunities, hunger advocacy and relief efforts, special individual and family concerns, stewardship education and congregational giving, and caring for creation and living simply.

Ministries of compassion

The RCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) directs deacons to aid the victims of the world’s abuse and to express the social concerns of the church. In the Liturgy, deacons are further instructed to show compassion and to manifest the love and care of Christ.

A few ideas of diaconal ministry and involvement are found below, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. Opportunities for service and outreach are unlimited.

  • Local food pantry
  • Prison ministry
  • Meals-on-wheels
  • Tutoring and literacy projects
  • Work projects
  • Shelter for people without homes
  • Advocacy
  • Community development
  • Mission trips
  • Childcare
  • Ministry for older congregants
  • Stewardship education
  • Missionary support

Stewardship and congregational giving

Deacons are responsible for gathering and distributing the offerings of the congregation, giving personal attention to people in need. They are to exercise careful stewardship of all funds, goods, and properties of the congregation. This work often includes the maintenance and administration of a deacons’ fund. In the keeping and dispersing of this fund, accountability and agility are key. Accountability means that a fund dedicated to the needs of members and/or the community should be the responsibility of more than one person. Agility means that such a fund should be administered in a way that the emergency needs of people can be addressed quickly and efficiently, with a concern for confidentiality.

In practice, many consistories, pastors, or boards of deacons have designated two or three people to be responsible for their deacons’ fund. That means a request for assistance can be handled fairly and quickly by a small group of people. It also implies that the accounts of the deacons’ fund, the disbursements and receipts, are available to all—without the names of those who have received aid.

The role of minister

The primary responsibilities of the minister are preaching and teaching. Ministers—men and women—are called by God to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, administer the sacraments, and care for the members of the congregation. They are to build up and equip the church for its ministry in the world.

Ministers proclaim the good news of God’s promised salvation in Jesus Christ. This goes beyond preaching to include all that announces God’s saving action, such as inviting men, women, and children to citizenship into the kingdom of God through faith and repentance. By the function of this office, working with the other offices, the baptized people of God are drawn into a community that discloses the faith, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, justice, and joy of the kingdom. That is, they are formed into a preview of the new creation.

Through the office of minister of Word and sacrament, Jesus spiritually communicates himself through the preaching of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments, and the leading of the congregation in its liturgical worship. The minister should draw congregants into the service of worship and then send the people of God into the world as ambassadors.

Like elders and deacons, the minster holds an office of servanthood and service to the congregation. And, with the elders, the minister exercises Christian love and discipline to the congregation.

Ministers are ordained “in accordance with the Word of God and the order established or recognized by the Reformed Church in America,” states the BCO. For those interested in pursuing a call to the office of minister of Word and sacrament, read these steps for becoming a minister.