“May I speak with a minister, please?” said the hurried voice when I answered the phone. “It’s a personal matter.” I confirmed with her what I had suspected: she needed financial help. I transferred her to my co-worker. According to our church’s protocol for would-be Mercy cases, those who live within about a mile of WEPC, attend here, or participate in one of our ministries are eligible to apply for assistance from the WEPC diaconate.
The diaconate—a group of men elected by the congregation who lead the church in Mercy Ministry—is now recruiting men and women to serve as Deacon Assistants. The new volunteer position is open to members who have a heart for the sick, widows, orphans, and others who may be in need. An informational meeting will be held after the second service on Sunday, January 11, in room 160.
After I had transferred the woman’s call, I heard my co-worker say to her, “I am so sorry, but you live outside the specific area we are able to help because of our own limitations. I’d be happy to give you the name of some of the churches in your area.” The caller hung up.
The woman on the phone is one of a dozen or more who call the church office every month requesting help, often for paying a bill amid job loss or sickness. About half of those who ask are eligible to apply. Applicants must meet with one of the workers in the front office, fill out a Mercy Request form, and answer a few basic questions about his or her situation. This information gets emailed to the four deacons of the month.
One of the deacons will call the applicant and arrange for a Sunday meeting with at least two deacons, who will listen to the applicant’s story and decide how best to help.
The most frequent Mercy cases are immigrants living in one of the church’s neighboring communities. They are often “struggling with impediments to getting a job because they don’t speak the language, they don’t have the skills, and they’re trying to learn the culture,” Deacon Max Doerfler said in a recent phone interview. Doerfler is one of the deacons who will lead the Deacon’s Assistant training scheduled for Wednesday evenings, January 14—February 18, 6:00–7:15 PM.
In years past the deacons were more quick to write a check to address an applicant’s short-term needs. In part because of books such as Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts, however, the deacons have come to believe that “sometimes being merciful in a Biblical way is actually not meeting their financial request,” according to Doerfler. Instead, the deacons might point an applicant to ESL class or the Food Pantry or help him or her apply for a job. “We do a little bit of relief, but we also try to equip them to be a productive member of society and to be able to provide for their families,” Doerfler said.
Similar as this mission may be to many charity organizations, Doerfler believes that what sets WEPC’s Mercy Ministry apart is Jesus. “We also want to share the Gospel with them because we believe that’s their ultimate need,” he said. The deacons explain to Mercy applicants early in the process that Jesus is the reason this church has a Mercy Ministry, and they pray with applicants.
Doerfler remembers a recently emigrated family from Egypt that WEPC once helped. The friendship that developed between the deacons and the family opened the door to conversations about Jesus and Allah. According to Doerfler, their needs were overwhelming, and he appreciated the opportunity to “share the Gospel and to work through some really tough physical needs, knowing we had to rely on God.” Eventually the husband in the family found a job, and the wife started attending the sewing class at WEPC.
The deacons—who also care for the church building, open and close the doors on Sunday mornings, and oversee the church’s budget—have seen their obligation to lead the church in Mercy Ministry grow over the past ten years “based on the demographic of our neighborhood and the people we are trying to build relationships with,” Doerfler said.
Deacon’s Assistants would help address the burgeoning requests, as well as engage a broader swath of the congregation in what is often time-consuming and difficult work helping an immigrant family find its feet. Particularly, a female Deacon’s Assistant would be helpful in talking with a female Mercy applicant who might be more comfortable sharing her story with another woman, Doerfler said. Or, a Deacon’s Assistant who speaks Spanish or Arabic would be helpful in case of a language barrier.
Some WEPC members are already informally serving as Deacon’s Assistants. One member, for instance, came alongside an immigrant family and helped the mother apply for her child to attend the WEPC Community Preschool. “She helped the mother navigate the social network, helped explain things, and has been her advocate. She’s been great,” Doerfler said.
The Deacon’s Assistant position would help formalize the role, providing training and support to those already serving and drawing in more members interested in helping. The training will focus on “why we do it and how we do it,” Doerfler said. “We’re not a government entity designed to provide a social welfare net. This is about advancing the kingdom of God and pushing back on the effects of sin and a fallen world.”