Last Sunday, I had an off day from preaching, so was able to worship with our home church, where I pastored 1990-2004. As I took my seat and opened the worship bulletin, I noticed we were nominating deacons. Inside was an insert with the names of 18 or so men, and blanks enough to nominate another dozen. I think we have an active group of 24 plus a few lifers.
Over the next twenty minutes of hymns and announcements and prayers, I scribbled in the names of several good men.
My son Neil, currently chairman of deacons, was singing in the choir. Just before the sermon, they all came down, and he and wife Julie sat behind me. He slipped me a note, “Dad, several people have written your name in as a possible deacon. Are you ready to go over to the dark side?” That was a joke.
I smiled and shook my head. That’s not even anything to pray about. My calling as pastor/preacher is still in force and, I expect, will be the rest of the way home.
After church, I told Margaret about this. She said, “That’s all Pastor Mike needs–the former pastor to be a deacon.” We both laughed at that. She remembers as well as I do the conflicts I’ve had with a few deacons over nearly a half-century of pastoring. But according to all reports, our deacons here are servants and only that.
Some have asked where we’re going with this “reforming the deacons” series, and how many more articles. Since I did not start out to write an entire series, but simply took each subject as it occurred, I have no answer. But, I’m thinking this one should be the final word, perhaps a summation of what has gone before.
The man who is deacon material.
We can parse the Greek of I Timothy 3 all we please and the bottom line will always be that the person who qualifies as a deacon in the Lord’s church is one who is solidly Christian. He loves the Lord, loves His people, is devoted to his church and his family, and lives by the highest standards.
Sometimes we use the expression “He’s good people.” That’s a reference to the caliber of the man. He’s solid, a man of kindness and integrity and good judgment. Choose such a man as a deacon and you will never have one problem out of him.
In some ways, it’s easier to say who does not qualify as a deacon than who does. Such a list of disqualifiers would include:
–an unsaved man.
–a Christian who is still immature in the faith.
–a hypocrite. (That is, there are inconsistencies in his walk. Elect him as a deacon and the outside world will lower their respect for your church.)
–a man with no heart to serve. The very word “diakonos” refers to a servant. A man not willing to get under people and lift them up with no expectation of reward or even appreciation is not deacon material.
The deacon is not perfect and our standards should not pretend otherwise. But it is not overstating the case to say the deacons ought to be the finest men (women too, if your church has women deacons) in the congregation.
The work of the deacons.
I saw a bumper sticker on the back of a pickup truck that said, “Whatever it takes!” The small letters at the bottom identified this as the slogan of a labor union.
“Whatever it takes” should be the mantra for every deacon body. Since the New Testament does not lay out their job description or work plan, it clearly leaves it open for each church to decide for itself how deacons can make the most strategic contribution.
Deacons are servants and not the church administrators or point men. Deacons are not rulers, not dictators, and not church bosses. They do what servants do: stay in the background, see what needs to be done, and do it without being told and usually without applause. When they finish one task, they look around to see what else needs to be done.
When someone says, “They ought to do something about that,” they’re calling your name, deacon. You are the ”they” in your church.
Deacons and pastors are partners.
Deacons follow the leadership of the pastor. When they cease to do that, the system breaks down.
My favorite analogy for the working relationship of pastor and deacons comes from the Old West where the cowboys would move the herd to the railhead. Out in front of the herd, the pastor rides point. He sets the direction. On the sides, someone of his designation–usually other ministers–ride flank. They keep the herd together and keep them moving toward the goal. And in the back, eating the dust of the entire group, the deacons ride drag.
The root of diakonos is literally “through the dust.” So, our analogy of deacons as the ones riding drag has good precedence. Those cowhands are usually the youngest or newest or the ones in trouble with the boss, because this is the dirtiest, hardest work of all.
There is nothing easy about putting out fires that crop up in a church, but deacons often do that. There is nothing convenient about getting out of bed in the middle of the night to handle an emergency involving a family you’ve been ministering to, but deacons do that. There is nothing pretty about cleaning out the gutters or mowing the yard or patching a roof of a needy widow in the church, but usually it’s a deacon performing that task.
Thank God for deacons. The church would be infinitely poorer without them.
What deacons should never do.
Deacons should never set themselves up as a line of authority over the pastor and staff. They are servants and should insist (to church members who want them to “do something about that preacher”) that they stay with that role.
This is not to say they should be passive or inert.
When something does indeed need to be done with “that preacher”–and I acknowledge that such occasions do arise–the chairman of deacons might be the one to take the lead in assembling a small task force of both men and women to handle it. I say “might,” because, depending on your church’s constitution and by-laws, there may already be such a committee or group set up to deal with pastoral issues.
If he does pull together such a task force, it should be a few people of the greatest maturity and highest integrity. The group will function better and have a higher moral authority if it includes women in the church.
Furthermore, when the issue has been dealt with, they cease to function as a group. They were not officially established to do anything. They simply responded to the deacon chairman who asked if they could assist the pastor. And that is always in order; no one needs a court order to bless a church by helping the Lord’s servant.
Everything is fluid, flexible, faithful.
The church of two thousand members may need a hundred deacons. A church of one hundred could get by with three or four. And, when a large church with a sizable deacon group begins to downsize due to any number of reasons, they will not require the same number of deacons as before.
The size of the deacon body, their organization, and their function will vary from church to church, and within a church, from year to year.
One of the worst things that can happen to deacons is to set the organization and officers in stone, with nothing changing over the decades and the same men in charge. Pity the poor preacher who walks in and sees that his deacons are stuck in 1955 and tries to introduce change. It’s an unusual minister who can pull that off and remain as pastor.
There are many reasons why rotating deacons is a great plan. It keeps them fluid, allows new people to serve, and prevents anyone from settling in and becoming territorial. It gives the congregation the opportunity to decide over and over again whether this deacon or that one should be retained among its deacons. The church which elects a man once and is stuck with him forever needs to make some policy changes and do it quickly.
The Church which honors its faithful deacons is wise.
While it’s true that deacons are not serving to be noticed or appreciated, the congregation which recognizes and honors these good people does well. “Give honor to whom honor is due,” Scripture says (Romans 13:7).
“Those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 3:13).
When a deacon does his task well, there are few jobs more rewarding in all the world. He can fully expect to stand before the Savior some day and hear the sweetest words ever spoken: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Revelation 25:21,23).