How to Separate Deacon Work from Elder Work

Article
04.28.2010

The Evil One loves to divide, and he often divides most effectively along the lines of authority: husband and wife, parent and child, boss and employee. This is true in the church as well. Whether between the pastors and the congregation or within the church’s leadership, division causes Christ’s church to suffer.

One way this division creeps into the church is when issues arise that don’t clearly fall to either the elders or the deacons.

The goal of this article is clarify how to separate deacon work from elder work. This will help to minimize division between elders and deacons and thus preserve unity among the church’s leaders.

WHERE’S THE RUB?

Fights occur over issues that don’t clearly fall to either elders or deacons. If it’s clear to all parties who’s responsible for something, there’s no cause for dispute. But trouble occurs when it’s less clear: Is this deacon work? Is it elder work? How much should the elders comment on the deacons’ work? Can the deacons weigh in on the elders’ conclusions?

My answer is a rock solid, “It depends.”

No deacon should object to the elders’ ability to pick Sunday School teachers. No elder should argue with the deacons about the furniture polish used on the communion table. If you have this level of disputes in your church, you need to do some basic teaching about what an elder is, and what a deacon is.  Your elders should know they are responsible for the spiritual oversight of the church, and your deacons should know they are responsible for the physical and material needs of the church. If both parties don’t know that, start there.

On the other hand, the tough cases are tough because the issue falls on the boundary line between the spiritual oversight of the church and its physical and material care, or the issue involves both domains.

In order to try to sort some of these struggles out, let me give you three brief scenarios where the jurisdiction issue is fuzzy, two suggestions for bringing clarity, and two encouragements for the road ahead.

THREE FUZZY SCENARIOS

Here are three scenarios that seem to fall on the line between elders’ and deacons’ responsibilities:

  1. Babies are being born and the nursery needs to be expanded. Whose job is it, the elders’ or deacons’? You might think this is deacon work, but if the elders are doing their job well, they will have seen the growing need in the natural course of their shepherding. If you take in fifty new members over the course of two years who are single, the elders should expect to need an expanded nursery in five years or so! This matter will finally be resolved by the deacons through a construction project, but it should be initiated by the elders as they give oversight to the congregation.
  2. Ninety-year-old Mrs. Spandler turned her car keys over to her daughter and can’t get around like she used to. You might think the responsibility for getting her to church falls to the elders, but we would encourage the deacons to step up here. Consider appointing a “deacon of member care” who focuses on the physical needs of especially needy members such as elderly shut-ins.
  3. It’s September and the church’s budget needs to be passed before December 31st. Who leads? Finances sound like a deacon matter, right? In part. A budget is one picture of a church’s vision. Show me the money and I’ll show you the heart of the church. Therefore, elders should take the lead and give direction. That doesn’t mean the deacons cannot help by submitting estimates and listing needs for their areas of service. And a deacon of budget can pull the entire spreadsheet together and propose a budget for the elders to begin working with. But the elders should apportion and balance the budget, weighing, for example, local needs (such as buildings and salaries) against international missions. I would recommend that the elders present the budget to the church with the support of the deacons.

TWO CLARIFYING SUGGESTIONS

How should elders and deacons decide which issues are or are not primarily their responsibility? Here are two suggestions that should help clarify matters:

  1. Elders should be careful to keep administrative (deacon) matters from dominating their agenda. The work of the elders can easily be overwhelmed by a church’s unending stream of seemingly urgent physical matters, yet this is not their main task. Consider forming an administrative sub-committee among the elders that can address more deacon-oriented concerns before they get to the elders. This can keep administrative concerns from clogging up the agenda of the elders as a whole. Give that sub-committee authority to act on behalf of the elders. On the flip side, elders can quickly take the legs out from under the deacons and thus discourage them by too much oversight. Instead, elders should delegate responsibilities to faithful servants and trust them to capably handle such matters.
  2. Elders should model good communication. How? First, they should seek counsel from the deacons before making certain decisions. Consider Proverbs 15:22: “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” Second, they should make sure the deacon are never be caught off guard by any of the elders’ decisions. Therefore, keep the lines of communication open between the elders and the deacons. Consider planning one-on-one conversations between elders and deacons, as well as having a periodic gathering of both groups in which the elders inform deacons about decisions the elders have made before they put such matters before the whole church.

TWO ENCOURAGEMENTS FOR THE ROAD AHEAD

Finally, here are two encouragements to elders and deacons to press on in your work and labor for unity:

  1. Elders: Labor to build trust with the deacons. Don’t assume they trust you by the mere fact that you hold an office. Work overtime to communicate with deacons and carefully consider their counsel. As the deacons’ trust and confidence grows, you will defeat the evil one’s divisive ways.
  2. Deacons: Assume a posture of support without an attitude of “playing second fiddle.” According to 1 Corinthians 12:28 the gift of “administrating” is right up there with apostles, prophets, miracles, and healing. If you have a gift for administration and the qualities of a deacon (1 Tim. 3:8-13) you are a gift to Christ’s church. You have been given a particular “manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor. 12:7)  Use your gift to put down division and build up Christ’s body.

In short, be aware of the overlapping areas of responsibility that elders and deacons may have, and work to clarify which group should handle different issues. Fight against turfiness. Communicate openly and thoroughly with each other. In doing so, you will fight off division and model godly unity among the leaders for all the flock to see, profit from, and imitate.