The day I got tough with our deacons. Finally.

(Readers need to know I love deacons. And yet, I bear scars from run-ins with a few members of that fraternity over the years. My son is a wonderful deacon. These days, I’m writing a series on “My Favorite Deacon” for Lifeway’s Deacon Magazine.  So, let no one interpret what follows as a putdown of deacons. It is not. I am, however, aware that many pastors fight ongoing battles with some who insist on controlling the church. My heart goes out to them. This is sent forth with them in mind.)

Deacons and pastors were given as servants of God’s people.  Ephesians 5:21 urging that we “submit to one another in the fear of the Lord” applies to both groups in the same way it does to the entire congregation.

There is no place for bigshots and autocrats in the family of the Lord.  Jesus Christ is Lord of the church (see Matthew 16:18), and Scripture warns pastors not to “lord it over the congregation” (see I Peter 5:3).

What then is the pastor to do when the deacons insist that their job is to run the church?  That was the situation I came into in 1990 as a new pastor.  Now, not all deacons were infected by the ruling virus, but at least half of the group of 24 were, enough to thwart anything the pastor tried to do that smacked of upsetting their little apple cart.

On one occasion, the deacons brought a proposal to the church to make election as a deacon much harder (I’ll spare you the details), contrary to Scripture and against my recommendation.  I warned them that the congregation was not in favor of this, it would be divisive, and that I could not support it.

They did it anyway.

The business meeting dealing with their proposal turned into an hour-long dogfight. Eventually, I simply announced “This meeting is adjourned and we will continue as we have been doing.”

A few days later, as the deacons assembled for their monthly meeting, one of the men complained, “I’m upset that the congregation did not support its deacons.” (Is this backward or what?)  I said, “Tell me how you feel about some deacons who do not support their pastor? I asked you not to do it and you did it anyway.”  He was silent.

I endured this unbiblical arrangement for seven years rather than confront it head-on for reasons we will not go into here, but kept trying to push the men into becoming servants of the congregation.  Then I made a discovery.

The year prior to my arrival as pastor, the church had amended the constitution to give the Church Council the leadership role. All program and ministry decisions were to be brought before the Council, not the deacons. According to the amendment, the church’s deacons were to fulfil their scriptural role as servants.

This was the first I had known of that amendment.  I was delighted.

Now. This is when it got to be fun.

At the next meeting, we distributed copies of the constitution with that amendment to each deacon.  I pointed out the parts redefining the role of deacons, and announced that from this moment on, we would start living according to this document.  The Church Council, made up of every program leader in the church, key committee chairs, as well as the pastor and ministerial staff, would be meeting monthly for the purpose spelled out in the bylaws. Deacons would start functioning as servants.

Then I dropped the bomb. “You need to know that never again will I bring a recommendation for anything to the deacons. That is the function of the Church Council, not you.  You, my friends, are going to serve the Lord’s people.”

You would have thought I had announced we were selling the property to a casino and everyone joining a cult.  They were not amused.

The funny part is that two or three of the men who hollered the loudest were listed as members of the committee that wrote the amendment.  When one protested, “I don’t remember any of this,” we brought out the record of that 1989 church conference. There he was, listed in the minutes as explaining and defending parts of the new bylaws which he had helped to write.

He had no leg to stand on.

He was still unhappy with his pastor, of course.  Somehow, he and his little group felt that I had played dirty by asking the deacons to live by the church constitution which he had helped to write.

Go figure.

Following is the letter I wrote to the deacons subsequent to this announcement, at a time when some of them were still accusing me of playing dirty.  It’s dated Sunday August 16, 1998.  Anyone who has stayed with us this far will appreciate the letter, reprinted here in its entirety….

“I. The present system which I have lived under and followed faithfully for these eight years of running everything by the deacons before it comes to the church is not working.  Consider that:

1) Usually only half the deacons bother to attend the monthly meetings.

2) Some deacons (in the past) no longer choose to serve.  Two reasons are given:  a. The deacons aren’t doing anything. b. I’m tired of the fussing.

3) A few deacons create constant friction with the pastor.  If their position loses and the deacons proceed to recommend the matter to the floor of the church, those same deacons have been known to martial their forces and create division in the business meeting, intent on thwarting the will of the pastor and deacons and creating division in the body. When the pastor asked the deacons to insist that all deacons either support deacon motions in the church business meeting or be silent, they refused. Church unity suffers.

4) Over the past eight years, the chairmen have attempted to get the deacons involved in ministry in significant ways, but with limited success.  The deacons (some, not all) see themselves first as a board of directors and not primarily as servants ministering to the members of the congregation.

II. The Church Constitution settles this issue.  It assigns the role to the Church Council which the deacons have been assuming was theirs.  This constitution was adopted in 1989 (the year prior to my arrival).  This portion of it has never been followed.

1) Now that the pastor says we’re going to start following it, you would think he was committing treason.  I remind you that I didn’t write it and never even noticed it until last year. Since that time we have activated the church council and have increasingly involved them in the leadership role the constitution assigns them.

2) The church council is by far the most representative group in the church.  The new amendment enlarges it even further.

3) The people on the church council are doers.  When the meeting ends, they leave knowing what each one has to do. This is far more helpful to the church, the pastor and the staff, than having a small group of deacons vote, then leave without taking any responsibility for accomplishing the proposed tasks.

4) Some deacons have said, ‘We don’t need to vote on matters. We just want to be kept informed.’ That’s a reasonable request.  Therefore, consider this:

–a. Anytime significant decisions are being made, I promise to talk with you about them.

–b. At least three deacons at this moment are on the church council: the chairman, the school board chair, and the leader of the boys’ ministry.  There is no reason ever for the deacons to be uninformed about matters coming before the church.

–c. By attending the three worship services each week, you will know everything going on.  Those who complained about not knowing the “Experiencing God” plans for September could have known had they been in prayer meeting back in April when the entire hour was devoted to this subject.

5) Bottom line: We have lived with the present system for the eight years I’ve been your pastor.  Let’s give the system the constitution calls for a try. If at the end of three years it is not working, I promise I’ll be the first to recommend changing it.  How could anyone oppose giving it a try?  (signed)”

(end of letter)

The aftermath….

We never went back to the old system. The present pastor says our deacons are servant-minded and that the monthly meetings are a joy.

No one will be surprised to learn that a few of the diehards never forgave me.  One or two ended up joining other churches. I was not unhappy to see them leave. In time, the Lord sent us new deacons who were sweet-spirited and servant-minded.

In the way of God’s people who learn to value suffering in retrospect and after the fact, I’m grateful for the difficult seven years with that body of deacons.  It made me a stronger Christian and a tougher pastor, and prepared me for my five years following this pastorate with our Baptist association when we went through the post-Hurricane Katrina recovery and rebuilding.

As an old preacher said once, “Where there’s no friction, there’s no traction.” And we all need traction.



6 thoughts on “The day I got tough with our deacons. Finally.

  1. Joe, this will mean a great deal to a lot of pastors. Both those who are in the midst of these problems and those who went through the same things and now blame themselves for the hurt, confusion, animosity and hostility.

  2. It sounds like separating off the management responsibilities from the religious responsibilities. I have thought that should be the elder-led churches. A few very moderate churches have committees which run the church and their members include women and unmarried people of both genders. The rest have elders who want to and do run everything.

  3. This is a great reminder that deacons are servants of the church and “There is no place for bigshots and autocrats in the family of the Lord.” Sometimes, even in the name of passionate promotion of the Kingdom of God, we forget that we are each one part of a group that exists to serve the church. Thank you for this wisdom that inspires me to better and more humbly serve my church.

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