By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published November 3, 2016
For the Jubilee of Deacons in May, Pope Francis addressed deacons as servants of the church, encouraging them not to worry about timetables in being available to others.
“A servant knows how to open the doors of his time and inner space for those around him, including those who knock on those doors at odd hours, even if that entails setting aside something he likes to do or giving up some well-deserved rest,” said Pope Francis.
Following are profiles of two deacons serving with devotion in carrying out the work of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Plan—Deacon Mike Bickerstaff and Deacon Joe Pupo.
Deacon Bickerstaff’s adult education ministry at St. Peter Chanel Church, Roswell, and Deacon Pupo’s dual assignment inside and outside his own parish are examples of meeting priorities of the pastoral plan—to know, live and spread the faith, and help parishes evolve.
ROSWELL—Deacon Mike Bickerstaff’s involvement in adult education at St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell predates his 2006 ordination.
“I became involved in 2005,” said Deacon Bickerstaff. “It was a need described by the parish.”
A grassroots effort, championed by then-pastor Msgr. Frank McNamee, led to the development of a variety of adult faith formation programs.
“The thing that drives me is evangelization—the life that (God) calls us to,” said Deacon Bickerstaff. He became the director of adult education at the parish.
The deacon draws upon paragraph 43 of “Gaudium et Spes,” one of the four constitutions resulting from the Second Vatican Council, and the one dedicated to the church in the modern world. It focuses on the idea that religion should not just be for the act of worship, but for daily life.
“This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age,” read Deacon Bickerstaff from the document.
“That whole premise, that assertion is what drives me,” he said. “Faith is not something we profess and adhere to for an hour a week.”
Answering questions people ask
Almost daily at St. Peter Chanel, there’s a program offered to help adults better understand the faith and live it in ordinary moments with family or at work.
The three segments of adult education at St. Peter Chanel are: adult faith enrichment programs; programs and speaker series on integrating faith and life; and adult Bible studies.
The enrichment programming includes the Sunday morning program titled “The Catholic Faith Explained: Practical Lessons for Living.”
“I’m the author of this. What I’ve done is simply to answer questions people have asked over the years,” said Deacon Bickerstaff.
Topics might include how to read Scripture or how to pray.
“I’ve got literally hundreds of these topics,” he said.
Another enrichment program is “The Story of the Faith Through the Witness of the Saints,” also on Sunday morning. Both of these programs are held at Blessed Trinity High School next door to the church in the media center.
Couples night, Faith@Work, among offerings
The third enrichment class, held at the church, is a short-duration speaker series on a variety of subjects, ranging between three and six weeks in length.
One of the series on integrating faith and life is titled “Marriages Are Covenants.” It’s a date night of faith and fellowship with a focus on the sacrament of marriage held bi-monthly.
“That’s an opportunity for parents to leave children at home. That’s an outreach to our couples,” said Deacon Bickerstaff.
Other special programs include the Atlanta Catholic Business Conference Prayer Breakfast and its outreach, the Atlanta Catholic Business Café; Faith@Work, a major speaker series; and a divorce survival program for Catholics.
Speakers at the conference breakfast have included Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, Patrick Lencioni, author and co-founder of the Amazing Parish model, and Dr. Phillip Thompson of the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University.
“It’s a very important point that we are different from job-seeking ministries,” said Deacon Bickerstaff about the café and faith at work programs. “It gives people an opportunity to come together with like-minded people.”
Bible studies meet at varied times
Bible studies are the third segment of adult education, offered at different times and days of the week to fit busy schedules. In addition to open groups, there is a women’s Bible study, a mom’s group study, and one offered to residents of St. George Village.
The deacon particularly enjoys the studies with the seniors at St. George Village.
“I really love that. I love the time I spend there. These are Catholics older than I am who really know their faith,” he said. “I’m teaching them but bringing stuff back to use here.”
The adult programs are geared toward cradle and returning Catholics.
“But we also get inquiring Catholics and non-Catholics,” added Deacon Bickerstaff.
Most of the participants are 30 or older, although some in their late teens have also taken part. Hundreds are attending the Monday and Tuesday Bible studies.
Bickerstaff, raised in Biloxi, Mississippi, with a Baptist father and Catholic mother, grew up having to defend his faith.
“They had to equip us kids,” he said. “Bible study was important.”
People are coming hungry for what is contained in Scripture, said the deacon.
“We’re also looking at the moral, the application. What does this tell me about how I should be living?”
Other parishes can take their ideas
After participating in adult education, people seek many different ways to become more involved in parish life and service.
“They look for ways to love one another,” after deepening knowledge of church teachings, he said.
The parish offerings help parents take advantage of programs on Sundays when bringing their children to faith formation.
A consultant with more than 30 years’ experience in the corporate world, Deacon Bickerstaff is the majority owner of a national software firm. He also offers personal coaching on virtue in professional life as an extension of his faith.
“Early on in my family, faith was important,” he said. “I was one of those teens trying to bring Christ to other people.”
It just made sense to pursue formation for the permanent diaconate. Three different people suggested it around the same time, including Msgr. McNamee and Deacon Martin Lampe.
“That reinforced the discernment I was having in my own life,” he said.
In 2010, he and business leader Randy Hain founded The Integrated Catholic Life, a nonprofit promoting integration of faith, family and work.
The Integrated Catholic Life website features original content from more than 40 contributing writers.
“That’s turned into an incredible outreach,” said Deacon Bickerstaff.
Model content or white papers are available for parishes on how to have more organized adult education programs. The papers suggest speakers and topics.
“That helps reproduce the program elsewhere,” he said. “We’re looking to spread the Gospel.”
St. Peter Chanel’s current pastor, Msgr. Peter Rau, said the parish’s adult education programs cover a broad range.
“They offer an opportunity for adults to grow in their faith,” said Msgr. Rau.
The deacon’s work, and the work of all the deacons who minister to others and preach the Gospel, is invaluable to the pastor.
“He’s a natural teacher and a facilitator who can read a room,” said Msgr. Rau about Deacon Bickerstaff’s gifts.
The pastor said Deacon Bickerstaff also coordinates parish missions, held twice a year.
“We’re fortunate to have Mike on staff here to focus on adult education programs,” he said. “It’s a special grace.”