Deacons: Shock-Absorbers and Servants
The position was designed to alleviate tension in the church, but the office of deacon sure seems to provoke remarkable controversy. Elders butt heads with deacons over decision-making authority. Deacons are accused of being “turfy.” Staff treat deacons as irrelevant. And so on.
Is there a way to alleviate these unfortunate realities in your church? Yes. What’s needed is a positive, theological definition of what it means to be a deacon.
WHAT IS A DEACON?
According to the New Testament, a deacon is two things: a shock-absorber and a servant.
Deacons are shock-absorbers: the seven men chosen by the church in Jerusalem to care for widows, who seem to be precursors to deacons, were chosen to preserve unity at a time when botched administration was creating fissures in the church (see Acts 6:1-7).
And deacons are servants: their very name means servant, and their precursors in Acts 6 were chosen to handle the practical needs of the church. That way, the apostles could devote themselves to leading the church through prayer and the ministry of the Word.
DEACONS AS SHOCK-ABSORBERS
God has always intended to display his glory to the nations, in part, through the unity of Jews and Gentiles within the church (Eph 3:10), and yet it was exactly at this juncture that disunity was erupting in the early Jerusalem church.
The Greek-speaking Jews began to complain “against” the Hebrew-speaking Jews concerning the distribution of food. The church therefore chose seven men to distribute food equitably, yes, but, more than that, to restore unity where there was division. Unity-building was their primary goal; good administration was the means.
This has several important implications for how we view deacons:
Selection: It’s notable that, when laying out qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy 3, Paul focuses on issues of character rather than administrative skills. Accordingly, our churches should select deacons primarily for their track record of peacemaking, and only secondarily for administrative expertise.
In my church, we have passed over individuals with specific skills that would be beneficial in a deaconship (building management, finances, computers, and so on) in favor of less skilled individuals who are better peacemakers. Then, we have encouraged the new deacon to disciple the skilled individual as part of a volunteer team.
Control: The idea of deacons as shock-absorbers stands in stark contrast to deacons running their own ministry fiefdoms in the church.
How can churches avoid raising up deacons who have territorial fiefdoms? Consider giving deacons limited terms of service (say, three years), after which another individual must rotate into the position. This discourages ministry monopolies and forces deacons to be continually training their replacements.
In addition, elders should teach deacons that they do not “own” areas of ministry; rather, deacons facilitate congregational ministry under the leadership of the elders.
Communication: Elders can also equip deacons to be shock absorbers by regularly communicating with them. They should communicate with them concerning their specific areas of ministry. They should communicate with them concerning the direction the elders are leading the church generally.
For instance, elders might consider reviewing a members meeting agenda with the deacons beforehand, or preparing the deacons on Saturday with the news of a significant Sunday morning announcement.
In both cases, communicating with the deacons ahead of time prepares them to work for unity as the elders lead the congregation through changes.
DEACONS AS SERVANTS
The elders are called to “direct the affairs of the church” (1 Timothy 5:17), and deacons are called to support that direction. In our churches, then, elders should make directional decisions while deacons facilitate congregational involvement to make that vision a reality.
This yields an interesting dilemma: how do we encourage deacons to be entrepreneurial unity-builders without encroaching on the elders’ leadership of the church, and so cause disunity? Here are a few ideas:
Deacon Meetings?: If the goal of deacons is to support the directional decisions made by the elders, then deacons do not need to meet as a deliberative body—especially if your deacons each facilitate ministry in one specific area, such as childcare or hospitality (as they do in my church).
Certainly there is no biblical model of deacons “sharing power” with elders, as do the House and Senate in the U.S. legislature.
Committees: When standing diaconal committees begin to feel that they “own” specific ministry areas of the church, it becomes difficult for them to avoid making direction-setting decisions that should be left to the elders. After all, even things as “worldly” as the building or the budget have highly spiritual dimensions in their administration.
As such, churches should consider making any committees task-focused and time-limited, chartered to complete a task assigned by the elders.
Communication: Most diaconal ministries will at least occasionally run up against direction-level decisions that need to go to the elders. At our church we have found it useful to assign each deacon to an elder who regularly communicates what the elders are deciding in their meetings. The elders can then take direction-level issues in the deacon’s work back to the larger body of elders as needed.
Elders lead ministry, deacons facilitate ministry, the congregation does ministry. That, I believe, is the New Testament model, and that biblical clarity in deacons’ role and function is invaluable for promoting peace and unity in our congregations.