Back to Top

Persistent Pursuit: Mark's Journey from Haiti to Deaconship

Mark Vanderwees from Diaconal Ministries Canada joins us to talk about his journey to becoming a deacon and suggestions for best practices for deacons. This episode discusses the evolving role of deacons, community engagement, and practical support for church benevolence and justice initiatives.

The following is a transcript of Season 8 Episode 5 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

Chris: Well, hello friends, welcome to another episode of Do Justice. My name is Chris Orme. I’m privileged to be your host. Today, I'm really excited for our conversation. We're being joined by Mark Vanderwees. Mark works with Diaconal Ministries Canada. He’s currently serving as a deacon at CrossPoint CRC, in Brampton. Mark and his wife Nancy returned to Canada in 2019, after spending 28 years working with World Renew in Haiti and Nicaragua. Mark, thanks for joining us today. I'm excited to talk about your work with DMC. I'm excited to hear about what you're doing as a regional ministry developer for Eastern Canada. Thanks for joining us today, man.

Mark: Yeah, no problem. Glad to be here.

Chris: Let's jump right in. Your journey to becoming a deacon wasn't a smooth one. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how Diaconal Ministries Canada changed your view? 

Mark: We had just moved back after working overseas for a number of years. We landed in Brampton kind of by default. That's where my wife’s folks were from, so we landed there. Then we started going to their church, and we weren't even going to the church regularly, just occasionally. But a few months in, and we still hadn't made permanent plans, I was asked to become a deacon. Kind of unusual. We had no plans to stay in Brampton at the time. Nor did we have plans to stay at that particular church. So I dismissed it. I just wasn't ready to commit to something like that at that point in time. But the chair that approached me, he kept at it. By that time, we had continued to stay in Brampton. We decided to stay in Brampton. He just really pursued me and wore me down until the point where I just said, “Okay, I'll do it.” That was around the time COVID hit too. So there's a lot of things going on. So I did become a deacon at CrossPoint. 

It was a surreal experience at first. It was during COVID of course. I really didn't get what deacons were doing. From the best I could figure out, we did something about the offerings in the church and we deliver poinsettia plants to seniors at the end of the year. That was my experience. I just didn't know where this was going. But I did take a course, a workshop, with Diaconal Ministries Canada around that time. That's when the lights really came on. One thing we walked through the mandate for the deacons that were called to bow our lives on. I just realized what a beautiful calling it is to be a deacon. Out of that. I continued as a deacon there. I ended up becoming a coach for Diaconal Ministries Canada. About a year later, there was an opening to become the Eastern Canadian Ministry developer. That's the role that I still have, to the present. 

Chris: I guess there are a few things for anyone listening: if you're trying to build up your volunteer core at your church, just be relentless. Don't stop asking and, eventually, people will be worn down. 

Mark: Well actually, that doesn’t really follow church order. You're supposed to be there for a year before they can ask you. 

Chris: Wait a year. Wait a year and then start asking. Point of order, point of order. Can we stay on this for a minute? What was the hesitation. You said you weren’t sure, what was it you weren’t sure about?

Mark: The big thing is we weren't sure if we were staying in that particular church. How can you take on an officebearer role if you're not staying in the church? That was a big one. Also, there were a lot of loose ends in our life. We had just moved back, were still settling down. We weren’t looking for more commitments, we were just trying to figure out how to get accustomed to living in Canada again. So that's where that came from.

Chris: You talk about your current role with Diaconal Ministries Canada as a developer. What does that do? What is your role and how are you living out your calling? You said the calling to become a deacon was this big invitation, so what does it look like in your role?

Mark: Well, let me understand what Diaconal Ministries is. It's an organization that was started by the deacons themselves in Canada. So it's just a Canadian thing. Secondly, it's managed and governed by deacons. It's not really part of the Christian Reformed Church structure. It's something on the side. The intent of Diaconal Ministries Canada was to support the role of deacons, because deacons are continually revolving in and out. Deacons need a good solid orientation and then we expect deacons to have a whole array of skills everything from being social workers, without any social work training, to administrative skills, networking skills. That's where Diaconal Ministries comes in. We start to build up the capacity of deaconates. How do we do that? We do it in a number of ways. We do training, direct training with the churches and with deacons. We have workshops on a whole array of themes. We have direct consulting with the chairs and the deacons. There's a whole list of resources that are printed material on the website. We have about 20, 30, 40 years of diaconal experience. How do we get it into the hands of people so they don't continue re-inventing the wheel every time. That's where Diaconal Ministries fits in.

Chris: So, Mark, you had mentioned that you were serving with World Renew. You served in Haiti and Nicaragua for 28 years. What in your experience from World Renew did you have in your tool belt that you were like, “Yeah, I can do this work with DMC”? What did you carry over from that period of your life into this new job, this new vocation?

Mark: There's a lot of crossover. For one, community engagement, that's the big piece for both organizations – World Renew as well as Diaconal Ministries Canada. We worked with a whole array of partners. Some partners were actually diaconal training organizations. So that was familiar territory as well. Just the administrative, organizational, community tools for community-building, community-development. That was all transferable as well. It wasn't a huge learning curve. I guess my biggest adjustment was I was now working in a unilingual environment – English – and the majority were still of traditional Dutch heritage. It was a really good group to work with, but it wasn't nearly as diverse as I was accustomed to.

Chris: This season on the podcast we've been talking about the elephant in the room at the beginning of a justice journey. Characterizing that as what are some things that people just won't say? My question for you now, Mark, is what's something that people won't say about being a deacon but it would be helpful to know as a starting point in trying to be a light in this world?

Mark: Probably the biggest thing is the role of deacon has evolved over the years. If you go back a generation ago, it was still quite common to think that a deacon was on a pathway to becoming an elder in the church. That was a natural thing to assume. Also, the role of a deacon was very limited in scope. I mentioned this jokingly this thing about the offerings and the poinsettia plants. That really was a big part of what deacons did back in the day. Some churches are still continuing those traditions. Some of them are still doing it and a lot more as well. There's a whole range of stuff out there. 

Chris: If someone is maybe hesitating or not sure whether this is for them, what is it that you've seen that clicks for people? Like, “Oh yeah, this is for me.” Have you ever seen someone maybe be sitting on the fence, but something has activated within them?

Mark: I think if you would take our basic orientation workshop, which is something that we offer for any church, anywhere, in-person if possible. What we do is we walk through the calling of a deacon as it's written and shared on the pulpit when the deacons come forward. Almost every deacon can't recall a whole lot of that thing that they committed their lives to do. When you start breaking it apart in this workshop, it's beautiful. It talks about the role of deacons and community engagement, deacons and stewardship, deacons and justice, deacons and benevolence work. We start breaking down, what does that look like? That's when we really find that a person who,  like you say is sitting on the fence, starts to realize that this is a holistic, comprehensive calling. It's very alluring. You want to be part of it. That's one of the things that’s helpful for someone who is not sure if they want to make the commitment. 

Chris: A lot of what we hear about when people are talking about their journey, is we talk about the difficult moments. I want to ask you, has there been a story that has stood out to you where there was a difficulty in this calling, or living this out, or in being a deacon. What's been the most friction-y moment for you? The B-side to that would be where do you see God working in it?

Mark: Let's start with the positive stories first. To share some of the range of things that deacons are involved in. Just last week there was a church, Acton CRC. The deacons are wise enough to know that they weren't really doing a lot of work in the community where their church is located. They really tried to figure out how can we reach out, how can we make these connections, and build these partnerships. They started a coffee trailer. They tow it to parades. They tow it to fairs and other local events. They trained their people in how to serve coffee and build conversations. So that's one example of what a diaconate is doing. 

Another diaconate that is quite different is Waterloo CRC. They're very big on refugee resettlement. They try to resettle one family a year. They have been doing it for 25 years. They don't all come nicely once a year, sometimes they're piled up and they have people arriving in close intervals. Sometimes they have four or five applications out and the one coming. That's their commitment. That's what they do. 

Not all the stories I hear are necessarily inspiring, but it's inspiring how deacons react to them. Another one is a case where a marriage broke up. One of the spouses was left with the mortgage. Not a lot of cash flow, dependence. I don't want to share a lot of details, but in a very dire strait. She didn't want to really talk about it to anybody, because where do you begin? A deacon sat down with this person. She opened up and they were able to help with some bridge funding, so she can meet her cash flow in the short-term. Some counseling for budgeting, some counseling to deal with the crisis in the aftermath. Beautiful way of connecting. Those are the types of things that deacons do. 

I tell people I never met a deacon I didn't like. Probably the most hurtful things that I’ve observed, is when there's relationship issues in a church. That's really, really difficult because that affects the whole health of the church and it affects the health of the deacons. No one wants to become a deacon anymore, because they just don't want to commit to it, because they're not up for it. Those are some of the struggles. There's also some divisive things, because there are limited options that a diaconate can offer for a situation. Not everybody's agreeable on that, but I can’t really share any stories on that. There's tough decisions deacons have to make as well sometimes that can be conflictual and stressful.

Chris: I wonder, Mark, what tools do you offer diaconates in those instances where maybe there are relationship issues or everyone's not on the same page in a particular church of how to move forward on a particular justice issue? What do you offer when they're making tough decisions?

Mark: The idea is to try to prepare churches in advance so that they can deal with it at the time. One thing that we really, really emphasize is to have a good church benevolence policy. In that policy – I just did a workshop on it last evening – it helps you think through the potential things the diaconate might confront when someone gives a request for financial assistance. How are they going to decide whether this person is eligible? The church, if they can nail down in advance as many hypothetical issues that they need to talk about and put a framework around them, then when the actual situation arrives, they can just refer to the policy. They could blame the policy if they feel like that particular request is not appropriate at this time. That's something that we insist all churches should have. Not just for their own use, but also in Canada, the Canadian Revenue Agency is very generous with churches, as with charities in general. But they also have regulations on how those monies are used. We want to make sure that all our churches are in alignment and staying on the right side of the law. 

Another workshop that's really helpful... Some diaconates, their first response to any type of crisis is to give out a gift card for food, or some kind of gift card. If it's a counseling need – gift card. If it's a shelter need – gift card. That's one solution for any type of situation. We have workshops that help deacons think through, using scenarios, how to break down what's appropriate and what's not. Try to break down which type of approach is the most appropriate, whether it's immediate or relief-type reproach or maybe an intermediate rehab, rehabilitative-type approach, or long-term. That helps break it down. At the very end, that's when you really figure out, this is how we can help in this situation. You see after that workshop it's quite enlightening how diaconates can reinvent themselves as to where and how they can best come alongside a person.

Chris: Can you give us one of the scenarios from the workshop? Give us a little teaser as to what are some of those common scenarios or what is sort of an archetype of one of the scenarios that you work through in the workshop. 

Mark: One of the scenarios is a woman who’s knocking on the church door saying, “My husband hit me yesterday and hit my child as well. Can you help me get a hotel for the evening?” What do you do with that? Okay, maybe flesh it out with a little more detail. But in the end, most churches will realize that they're really not in a place to help with that type of thing. Their best option is to find a professional option. 

Another scenario might be a family that recently arrived – a new Canadian family – for example. They're still learning how to what it's like to live in Canada. They still have ties in their country of origin. They're still sending money back to pay for their immigration costs. They're hoping to buy a home someday. They might be in a crisis for something – their car breaks down – because they're on a very tight cash flow. If this person's in your men's group, for example, and you hear the story what do you do? As you work through this scenario, you realize that, sure, the immediate need is to get the car going, because they need the car to get to work.There's other things too, like, someone in the family is working as a PSW because they can't get the qualifications to work as a nurse. There's different pathways to do that, but they don't know how to do it. So maybe your church can help with that. All kinds of other things arise. The idea is to get out of the urgency and to think about long-term. And it's all about relationships. When you get asked, you just get the bare bones information. It's like a picture, a static picture. But all of us have stories behind that. The trick is to have deacons learn to ask the right questions.

Chris: Mark, we're coming to the end of our time and I'm grateful that you took the time to be with us today. I want to ask you, what is one thing about your role with Diaconal Ministries Canada that gives you joy. What keeps you going in this work?

Mark: Definitely the people. Like I said, I never met a deacon I didn't like. They're great people. They are genuine. They want to really do what's right. They're often busy, so there's a lot of compromises that have to be made. But they do appreciate someone from DMC – not just myself because we have coaches in each classis. Those are the ones that are actually on the ground. They do appreciate the support that they get from DMC. That relationship is really good and it's really motivating for me. 

Chris: Lastly, I'll put you on the spot one more time here, Mark. But what's one word of encouragement that you would offer to diaconates across Canada, to those thinking maybe I want to look into this. Maybe I want to answer this call. What's one encouragement that you offer? 

Mark: Really understand what you're being called to. If someone approaches and says, “Would you want to become a deacon? It's really not that much work. It's only an hour a month and we don't meet in the summers.” Most people would have a hard time getting excited about that. But if they really understand what the call is, most people would say, “Yeah, I'd love to step up to that for a part of my life.” And maybe longer.

Chris: Well, my guest today has been Mark Vanderwees. Mark serves as the regional ministry developer for Eastern Canada with Diaconal Ministries Canada. To contact them or get ahold of Mark, we'll make sure that the links to find, Diaconal Ministries Canada will be in the show notes. Mark, thanks so much for joining us today. Really appreciate you, brother.

Mark: Glad to be able to be part of it.


The Reformed family is a diverse family with a diverse range of opinions. Not all perspectives expressed on the blog represent the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church. Learn more about this blog, Reformed doctrines, and our diversity policy on our About page.

In order to steward ministry shares well, commenting isn’t available on Do Justice itself because we engage with comments and dialogue in other spaces. To comment on this post, please visit the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue’s Facebook page (for Canada-specific articles) or the Office of Social Justice’s Facebook page. Alternatively, please email us. We want to hear from you!

Read more about our comment policy.