Reforming the Deacons (15): “Let the Veterans Teach the Rookies”

There were some 20 or 25 deacons in the room, men of all ages and backgrounds, some professional, some blue-collar. I was privileged to serve as their pastor and over a pastorate of nearly thirteen years, had only a great working relationship with them.

One night, a young deacon stood in the meeting. Something was bothering him.

“I’m wondering if anyone noticed what happened in the last church business meeting.”


“One of the members–I won’t say who–made a motion that the landscaping committee be asked to spend up to $3,000 to redo the lawn in front of the children’s building.”

More silence.

“That’s not right. That should not have happened.”

The chairman said, “We’re not quite following you, Tommy.”

Tommy stood back up and said, “She should have brought that to the deacons before taking it to the church. That’s what deacons are for. She was out of order.”

In the stunned silence that followed, one of the older deacons, a storeowner downtown, a man with a heart as big as the state, said very quietly, “My brother. This is a Baptist church. The church can do anything it feels God wants it to do, and does not have to run anything by the deacons.”

That’s all he said. He said it sweetly and softly and solidly.

There were no more questions, and not one time in my remaining years in that church did a deacon try that little power play.

Older, wiser, veteran deacons have so much to offer the young, incoming men.

The young deacons need help.

None of us know automatically how to do our jobs, whether we’re talking about an offshore rig or a car repair shop or computer sales. Someone has to teach us how to each a Sunday School class, how to make a hospital visit, and how to handle dispute between church members.

Most brand-new deacons would not have a clue how to lead a service in a nursing home or how to comfort a bereaved family at the funeral home or how to make an evangelistic visit. They do not walk into their first deacons meeting knowing what the guidelines, purposes, and limits of their new assignments will be. They will need to be taught.

Paul said older women should teach young women to love their husbands and their children and do right (Titus 2:4-5).

Immediately after, the Apostle continues, “Likewise, urge the young men to be sensible; in all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, dignified, sound in speech which is beyond reproach, in order that the opponent may be put to shame, having nothing bad to say about us” (2:6-8).

Titus has a duty to the young men of the church, youthful male believers who are presumably being groomed for greater influence and possible leadership.

The admonitions of the early chapters of Proverbs come to mind. Over and over, the speaker says things like, “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching…” (1:8) and “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life, and peace they will add to you” (3:1-2).

Question: Why do we think young people need instruction in how to live, but it never occurs to us that a new deacon might need some guidance? Why do we want to disciple a new believer but no one ever mentions discipling a new deacon in ministry?

Surely, no one thinks the newly elected deacon brings a ready-made knowledge of these matters with him.

I suspect the answer is found in the original premise of this entire series of articles: Deacons tend not to be settled on their assignment. As a result, they end up responding to the leadership du jour. Whatever the new chairman wishes–and sometimes, whatever the pastor says–they see as their assignment. The result becomes a hit or miss proposition, with some years being productive and blessed and some being complete failures.

It is an accepted fact that new, young pastors do not come readily equipped as shepherds of the flock. That’s why God sends them to small groups of people in tiny churches at first. Let them learn on a small playing field, let them take baby steps, put them where their failures won’t hurt as bad and their embarrassments will be few. Let them gradually grow.

New deacons need mentors and role models in other deacons.

The single best thing an older deacon can give a newcomer to the deacon fellowship is a mature and godly example.

Let the older gentlemen be the gold standard.

Over and over, Scriptures enjoin us to honor the elders, the veterans, and to hear them, because they have wisdom to impart. If there is one place in the church above all others where that should be the rule, it’s within the deacons.

1) The older men have lived through several pastorates and have the scars to prove it. They have literally “been there/done that.” They have stories to tell and lessons to impart.

2) The older men have presumably lived for Christ long enough to be sterling examples of godly maturity. In their personal lives, they reflect a strong faith and quiet strength, the kind the rest of us yearn for and recognize as pure gold. This kind of character cannot be faked or turned on and off at will.

3) They should know their Bibles sufficiently to be able to bring up scriptures that speak to specific situations. Solomon spoke of “a word fitly spoken” being like apples of gold (Proverbs 25:11). We have been in meetings when a choice word of scripture–or wisdom based on the Word if not an actual quote–brought us back to reality and set us on track.

4) They should have conquered their passions of the flesh (and we do not mean sexual, although there is that). They do not go off half-cocked, are not impatient with one another, can abide differences of opinion, and appreciate the fact that a pastor is not going to please all the congregation all the time.

Let the older men be the shining examples. And let the younger men have as their ambition to “grow up” to be like them.

Pastors too can help train young deacons by spending time with them.

Today, a pastor friend told me of taking a new deacon calling on church members. In the living room of a particularly troublesome member, the young deacon heard something he would almost not have believed if he’d gotten it by hearsay.

The church member was complaining to the pastor about something. He said, “And don’t come in here telling me what the Bible says. Frankly, I don’t care what it says. The Lord lives in me, preacher, and He tells me what to do, and I don’t need the Bible.”

The pastor told me, “We left quickly after that. I told the deacon we were clearly wasting our time with this man.” He added, “But I wouldn’t take a million dollars for the young deacon being there to hear that with his own ears.”

David was a young deacon with a heart for God. One Sunday night he said to me, “Pastor, would you teach me how to visit the hospitals?”

I was rather young myself–late 30’s–which was fairly close to his age. The thought that anyone would not know how to enter a hospital room, greet the patient and minister to them, offering prayer and a scripture, I found surprising.

“How about meeting me in the hospital parking lot at 7:30 tomorrow morning?” I suggested.

The next morning, we spent 45 minutes calling on all our church members who were patients in that institution. The first few rooms, I asked David to be silent and observe. Then, as we walked down the stairs to the next floor, I said, “Now, with the next patient, I’ll call on you to lead the prayer.”

A few minutes later, as we headed toward the cafeteria for a cup of coffee and discussion, he said, “How did I do?” I paused a moment, trying to choose my words, and said, “Normally, that would be a good thing to pray. But in a hospital room when a patient is having a tough time is probably not the best time to pray ‘And Lord, help us to live this day as though it were our last.'”

He and I laugh at that to this day.

Here are 5 ways the older deacons can teach the younger.

1. By giving talks before the entire body.

The chairman can ask a veteran deacon to share his philosophy of this work, i.e., lessons he has learned in his years as a deacon.

The chairman could ask an older deacon to relate the story of something that happened in the church years ago, a story that conveys basic principles valuable to servant-leaders of the Lord’s flock.

2.By going visiting together.

As they travel in the car from one home to another, the men talk informally. Even this casual chatting builds koinonia.

Or, the veterans could be prepped on matters to share with the younger men during these informal visits.

3. By asking two or three choice veterans to lead classes.

If a deacons meeting lasts, let’s say 90 minutes, the final half-hour could be devoted to group meetings during which the older experienced men talk about principles of service to the others. This might occur as one group or the men may be separated into smaller teams.

4. Ask a young deacon to interview one of the older men in the meeting.

The newcomer will appreciate a little advance notice in order to get his questions, so don’t spring this on him. In most cases, no advance notice should be given to the oldster. What you want from the veteran are his natural insights, reactions, and memories in answer to the questions.

5. Have a meeting just of the younger men and ask them to make a list of questions/subjects they’d like the veterans to address.

If their questions and the veterans’ responses align well, this could be the best evening you’ll have in years.

Training for deacons should be ongoing.

Presumably, your church will have a rotation of deacons, with some coming in and others going out every year. Situations change, churches change, and thus the work you need from the deacon body will never be static. That’s why their bylaws should not be too specific on the kinds of ministries deacons will do. They need to be like a SWAT team, ready to rush to whatever need arises.

At least every couple of years, bring in an outsider to lead a deacon retreat. This should be overnight, if possible, in order for the men to get away, to build camaradie, and to have a few hours of focused learned.

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