Serving God’s Church and the Community as a Diaconal Coach

Pictured Above: Len assisting Becky Jones, Volunteer and Communication Specialist with Disability Concerns & Safe Church, at the 2020 Diaconal Coach Retreat in January.

Len Bakelaar served as a Diaconal Coach in Classis Huron for over 18 years. When Len ‘hung up his hat’ and retired from being a Coach back in June of 2020, we asked him to share about his time with Diaconal Ministries.

Being a Part of Diaconal Ministries Canada

“I had served a number of times as an elder in my church. As a new deacon, I was intrigued by the opportunities to serve not only in the church but also in my community; something bigger that I could be part of. At the time, we (my family) lived not far from where Fred Vandersterre lived. Fred was part of the staff at Diaconal Ministries Canada, training deacons. One Saturday he picked me up and we were on our way to Brampton to attend the All Ontario Diaconal Conference. These were well-attended by deacons; a place to learn and be encouraged to serve in their ministry. This was when “on-line” and “face-book” were words that were not yet invented. We had some very good discussions while travelling together on those occasions. Those conversations with Fred are what motivated me to get more involved in the work of deacons. I knew that this was the way that I could serve the church, the community and, above all, the Lord. Over the years, there were other men and women, including a number of staff members at Diaconal Ministries, who helped to shape me so that I could be part of the team of coaches that exists to inspire and encourage others to serve in the ministry of deacons.

“When my wife, Rynie, and I moved to the eastern side of Classis Huron, I was ready to take on the role of Diaconal Coach (formerly called a Diaconal Ministry Developer or DMD) for that area. They included the churches of Acton, Cambridge (Maranatha), Guelph (First CRC, now Water Street), Guelph (New Life), Kitchener Community and Waterloo. Over the years I made quite a few visits to these diaconates and met a lot of deacons. I also learned much from these visits and shared some common goals with them. I would often send a couple of questions ahead of the visit so that we could discuss them together. I would typically have a theme for the year. One year or season I would ask questions like: ‘Do you take time to discuss the work of deacons with the youth?’ and/or ‘Do you promote the youth to be involved with the deacons in serving?’ Another year the questions would focus on knowing and working together with other local groups and/or agencies. 

Len (middle) on a stroll with fellow coaches Fred VanderSterre (l) and John Klein-Geltink during the 2018 Coach’s Retreat at Crieff Hills.

“One of the areas I was passionate about was helping deacon see themselves as an equal part of the leadership of the church, with the pastor(s) and elders. As leaders, there is an opportunity, as well as a responsibility, to be part of the church’s vision; to help set out and carry out your church’s mission. As leaders, deacons need to know their church and their community; what would make it stronger, and what the gifts and abilities (the assets) are to address any existing gaps. These teams – whether it is a Visiting Team, a Yard Cleaning Team, a Transportation Team, etc. – act as your church’s deacons. Unlike ordained Deacons, these deacons are not limited to a three- or four-year term, which is a blessing. THIS is the church and THIS is God’s calling on our lives.

“There certainly have been changes over the years I’ve served as a Coach in how Deacons serve. We had people living in poverty in those early years and we tried to find ways to help them. Today we encounter the reality of the “working poor” and a continuing increase of homelessness. Deacons see more lives that are crippled by addictions. In the last years, churches have been speaking more openly about depression and other mental health issues and what a Deacon’s role could be in that area, which is wonderful to see. With today’s advances in technology and our increased awareness and education, the world is really at our fingertips which can and should be a great resource in our efforts to make our communities a better place to live. At the same time, those advances can become obstacles, like limiting the opportunities to have a good conversation while traveling in a car to a conference because things are now ‘online’.

“I have been blessed by God through many people in this ministry. Especially my wife, who has also had the opportunity of serving as a deacon over a number of years. I trust that I may continue to pass on these blessings to others so that they too may experience the goodness of our God.”  –Len Bakelaar

Len’s Lasting Legacy at Diaconal Ministries

Upon Len’s retirement, many fond memories were shared amongst staff and Coaches as well. Tammy Heidbuurt, former Regional Ministry Developer for Eastern Canada, said she was having a hard time finding the right words to describe Len. “Len, and his wife Rynie, are beyond giving. They are hard workers, faithful, committed, and deeply passionate and compassionate for vulnerable, in particular those with disabilities. On many occasions I would visit them at their beautiful home where they would feed me while I ogled their gardens. We would talk about their deacons, their work with Disability Concerns, a recent Disaster Response trip they did or would be doing, the Tim Hortons Camp Len worked at or the Gleaners where they both volunteered. They are like energizer bunnies who keep on giving and giving,” Tammy recalled. But Tammy is quick to point out not only what Len did, but who he was. “Perhaps what draws me most to Len is that on top of all these kind and selfless acts – this continuous stream of volunteering and serving – is the most humble, unassuming, calm, authentic and wise man. As soon as he opens his mouth you want to sit still and take it all in. Len will be missed at Diaconal Ministries, but we know that we’ll see him around as he and Rynie will continue to serve and give to others in whatever capacity they can, for as long as they can.”

Fellow Coach, Fred VanderSterre, was sorry to hear of Len’s retirement and was also full of kind words. “I have always looked at Len as a model of the humble servant, moving ahead in faith, with the deep trust in God. Len served on our Classis’ Ministry Committee for a number of years as well, always serving with this servant-like deacon’s heart. He was ready to speak up with integrity, in his quiet voice, often bringing us (CMC) back to basics. He and I journeyed through some interesting developments over the years/decades and saw some significant changes within the churches and diaconates we served. Even today, in this COVID-19 period, we can see the hand of God present in the work of the deacons in ways we likely never would have expected.”

Fred went on to say he hoped Len would continue to be part of the Huron Conference planning team, particularly in his role as a Disability Concerns ambassador, which he has already agreed to do!

Teda Heerema, Diaconal Coach in Thunder Bay, ON, was also taken by Len’s “quiet loving way” and found him very easy to talk to, as Teda was new to the team right before Len retired. “I appreciated all that Len contributed to discussions at last year’s training retreat. His wisdom and non-judgmental attitude will be missed!” 

“My first – and lasting – impression of Len is that this guy is into holy mischief!” another Coach, Karla Winham, mused. “He is so committed to the causes he’s involved in,” she went on to say, “and not afraid to ask people to join him. When that doesn’t work, I suspect he can usually find a way to get things done anyway.”

Karla also shared this quick story about Len: “I learned through my community garden research that ‘someone’ at his church went ahead and built a community garden, way ahead of when the church was interested in the idea. He won’t confirm, but the twinkle in his eye tells me it was probably him! I know Len will bring his signature mix of fun & earnestness to all his future endeavours and he will be missed greatly!”

Thank you Len for your years of service at Diaconal Ministries Canada. We are all better for it! God’s blessings to you and Rynie as you continue to serve in God’s Kingdom with all your hearts!

We [Heart] our Diaconal Coaches!

And we are always looking for more! Does this sound like something you’d be interested in doing in YOUR classis to grow leaders in God’s Kingdom?