Reforming the Deacons (8): “How to Begin a Major Overhaul”

The old joke–it’s probably more of a parable–has the mice plotting what to do about the cat. Finally, they decided to tie a bell around the cat’s neck so they could hear it coming.

The only thing they could not agree on was who would bell the cat.

It’s one thing to talk about reforming the deacons, and another thing to do it.

How would one go about it? Where would you start?

Let the deacons take the initiative.

Why them? Because the alternative might create an uproar unnecessarily.

Imagine someone standing in your church business conference to propose a complete reorganization of the deacons, including qualifications, membership, assignments, accountability, and limitations.

Now, imagine this coming as a complete surprise to the deacons.

Imagine further that the deacons are being run–and I do mean “run”–by a few strong-willed individuals who see this as their way of controlling the church and its ministers. And in their mind, that’s a good thing.

You may as well have called them crooks and challenged them to a duel. They are shocked, stunned, enraged, and ready to tear the church up to salvage their honor and prevent this from happening.

That’s why you’re not going to do it. (There is a good reason no mouse volunteered to bell that cat. It’s a suicide mission.)

NOTE: We assume here that the deacon body is in need of wholesale changes, a “drastic overhaul.” If something less than that is needed, you may choose to skip what follows.

Let the deacons take the initiative.

Ideally, if the church’s deacon system is not working or is causing more trouble than it is solving, all the deacons will see and acknowledge it, and will agree to bring the matter to the church.

If that’s the case, the church will do it in a heartbeat.

The second approach is not as clear-cut but better than the alternatives of putting up with the defective status quo or springing it on the deacons in a business meeting.

Some of the deacons bring the motion (to overhaul the church’s deacon system) to the floor of the church business conference.

Why would “some” but not “all” the deacons do this? Answer: If the deacons are in disorder, they are not going to agree on anything. The ones who are still thinking straight would have to take the initiative with this.

When it becomes apparent that a) there is no solution in sight, b) those in charge resist any attempts at resolving the division, and c) to continue as things are would be disastrous, then this is the time.

If and when some of the deacons decide to bring this matter to the church and ask the congregation to take corrective action, here are some considerations….

1. Do not surprise the pastor.

Get his counsel. You can bet your last dollar that the one person in the entire church who is paying a hard price for the dysfunctionality of the deacons is the preacher. He should welcome the opportunity to make some wholesale changes.

The best part of it from the pastor’s standpoint is that he is not the ringleader. That the stimulus for this action is coming from deacons themselves will speak volumes to the congregation and should shield him from personal attacks.

So, get with the pastor. You are not asking for his approval in so many words (so he can issue a blanket denial that this was not his doing), although you will want to know that he’s okay with it. If he’s not, stop there until he is.

He can help you decide the best way to go about it. If asked later, he can honestly say that anytime a church member wants his counsel on the best way to frame a motion to the congregation, he’s there to advise them.

2. Get prayer support.

Do not enlist a group of people in the church to start praying about this, or the word will get out. No matter how much you stress its confidentiality, word will leak. When it does, the “other side” (let’s not be crass and call them enemies or opponents) may accuse you of plotting and will use that against you.

Instead, call a few close friends in other cities whom you know as prayer warriors and get them interceding on behalf of your church.

3. Have a plan.

The usual method is to rise in the business meeting, and when recognized by the chair, say, “Pastor, I have a motion to make. If I get a second, I’d like to speak to it.”

The pastor agrees to that.

You say, “I move that (name of your church) abolish the deacon fellowship (or board or group or body, however they are known in your church) immediately, and begin the process for reforming the deacons under entirely new guidelines.” Something like that. (Check with your church’s constitution and bylaws to make sure you are not violating something there. Those documents can be amended, but the procedures are often complicated and take time.)

Another deacon seconds the motion. (You arranged that in advance.)

Then you speak to your motion, telling the church why this is necessary. Your explanation would cover the following….

–The dysfunctionality of the deacons the way they are presently set up. Do not attack anyone, try to avoid using names, and be gentle and Christlike in your manner. Do this right and you could possibly have some on the “other side” supporting the motion.

–Evidences and results of the division within the deacon body.

–Details of the plan you are recommending, such as:

a) A study committee (call it whatever you please) made up of a half-dozen of the godliest and most mature of our people. (You will be asked how they will be chosen, so have an answer.)

b) They would consult other churches (and denominational offices, etc) to find the various ways deacons are chosen, their qualifications, their ministries, and their terms of office.

c) They would prayerfully recommend to your church a better system for choosing deacons, and specify the qualificatoins, what their ministry will and will not cover, to whom they are accountable, and so forth.

4. Be prepared to answer every possible objection you can think of.

Your group should anticipate every question imaginable. There will be plenty, believe me. (After all, whoever heard of a church abolishing its deacons? Your answer: It’s only temporary until we can do it right.)

What will we do without deacons during the interim? (Answer: Anything is better than what we have now.) (If the deacons are responsible for specific ministries in the church or community, you’ll need an answer on how these will continue if the deacon body goes out of existence. Usually, the answer is: Those doing these things will simply be asked to continue.)

Consider bringing to the front of the church all the deacons who have signed on to this, and letting each one a) speak to the motion and b) respond to the congregation’s questions. (Do not bring up anyone who is half-hearted or uncertain. Only those willing to lay their bodies across the tracks to stop that runaway train should be recognized as co-sponsoring your motion.)

If there is no constitutional reason to delay this motion (bylaw amendments usually are presented in one business meeting and actually voted a month later), then ask the people to vote on it tonight. Get it done. Anticipate a motion to table this until next month’s conference so that a) everyone will be advised, b) people can think about this, etc etc. Answer: Normally, that would be a good idea. No church wants to act impulsively in critical matters. However, this should have been done years ago. We do not want to drag this out for months and months. It’s the right thing to do, and we ought to do it now.

5. Prepare for the fallout.

Those who have ruled the church and bossed the preacher are not going to take this without a fight. And–I apologize in advance for how this is going to sound–expect their wives to react worse than they do. (Ask any veteran pastor.)

Some will accuse you of stirring up trouble in the church. You aren’t. You’re trying to solve a major problem within the church. You want a healthy church.

Some will ask why you didn’t bring this up before the deacons themselves and let them discuss the matter before springing it on the church. The answer should be self-evident: “The deacons are the problem. We’re trying to remedy it.”

You may be accused of trying a power-grab. That is, you and your group of deacons want to control matters. The best answer for that is: “We are going to recommend that no one presently on the deacon board be eligible to serve under the new system, at least for several years.” Something like that.

6. What if the deacons of your church do not need a major overhaul but only a minor tuneup?

Give thanks to the Lord, then. Your group is probably normal.

Work from within the group, although bear in mind that the deacons are a function of the church (and not vice versa). The church should make structural changes concerning its deacons and not the deacons themselves.

In one church I pastored, a young deacon took issue with something that had been brought up in a church business meeting. He said, “They can’t do that without bringing it to the deacons first.” One of the older (and wiser) heads said, “I beg your pardon, son. This is a Baptist church; the congregation can do anything it pleases without asking the deacons for permission.”

A healthy deacon body will always be tweaking itself, finding better ways to do the ministry of service given it by the Lord and their church.

4 thoughts on “Reforming the Deacons (8): “How to Begin a Major Overhaul”

  1. Perhaps a third alternative would be to leave the current deacon council alone and involve the Church Council instead. If the church doesn’t have a Church Council, an ad hoc leadership group similar to a Church Council could be formed for the purpose of doing exactly what you’ve suggested that a “few deacons do.” 🙂

  2. Thank you for these words of wisdom. I am dealing with this very issue currently. We have good Deacons but a bad Constitution that has given these men authority to run the Church as an equal to the Pastor. They have only one Business Meeting a year and the business is done before it ever come to the floor. They appoint all search committees and the nominating committee which leaves the church to rubber stamp what they have done. We are a Pastor Led, Congregational Governed body of believers. I believe the men are not the problem but the Constitution has placed them in this role and now I am working and Praying God will lead me in how to address this in the church.

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