Pastors, Don’t Forget to Shepherd Your Deacons
There’s something good and right about a pastor fighting to stay out of the weeds of church administration. To put a slight spin on the apostles’ words, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the Word of God to manage spreadsheets and review facility-use policies” (see Acts 6:2).
Nonetheless, there is a ditch on the other side to avoid, too. While we shouldn’t focus too much on administration, we shouldn’t totally ignore it.
God calls us to provide oversight to the entire ministry of our churches—including shepherding the deacons in their work.
TWO BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES
1. Elder oversight involves giving some attention to administration.
Several times the elders are said to exercise “oversight” or are simply called “overseers” (e.g. Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1-2; Tit. 1:7; 1 Peter 5:3). The term suggests that their work includes superintending the entire local church. Walter Bauer’s English-Greek lexicon explains how this word is closely related to the work of “one who has the responsibility of safeguarding,” “a supervisor, with special interest in guarding the apostolic tradition.” The Louw-Nida lexicon states that the word “overseer” captures both “the responsibility of caring for the needs of a congregation as well as directing the activities of the membership.” This suggests the elders’ work includes a level of administrative authority.
Consider also the example of the apostles in Acts 6:1–7, who functioned in a pastor-like way. They provide guidance to the entire church for solving the food distribution problem. They didn’t merely inform the church of their duties, and then walk away. They offered a concrete solution: appoint proto-deacons.
Paul also gave a detailed set of instructions to Timothy, who functioned as a pastor, about his church’s benevolence ministry. And to some extent he gets into the nitty-gritty: support widows who meet these particular qualifications. In other words, Timothy should give some level of oversight to the physical care of widows in his pastoral role, even if a deacon gives more direct attention (1 Tim. 5:3ff).
In these kinds of examples, the New Testament suggests that a pastor’s job includes some measure of administrative focus. While pastors give their chief attention to the state of the vine, doing so requires them to step back sometimes and inspect the condition of the trellis as well.
In other words, directing the affairs of the church means elder oversight extends even to the realm of deacons’ work.
2. Elders ought to provide some degree of oversight to deacons’ work.
The fact that the elders need to give broad oversight to the administration of the church means they give broad oversight to the work of the deacons.
Consider Acts 6 once more. We have no reason to think they managed the proto- deacons as they went about distributing food to widows, but they did specify who could serve in this capacity and put them in charge: “select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we will put in charge of this need” (Acts 6:3).
In general, commentators distinguish the spiritual concerns of the pastors (like sermons, Sunday school lessons, prayer meetings, and baptisms) from the tangible concerns of the deacons (like the building, the grounds, the security, and the finances), as in Matt Smethurst’s book Deacons. And that’s broadly accurate. At the same time, human beings are both physical and spiritual, and the two aspects of our persons are profoundly integrated. A church’s overall ministry, therefore, should not try to wholly separate them either.
For instance, imagine the deacon of budget trying unilaterally to reduce missionary funding to pay for a major building project. The pastors, in response, might take issue!
In short, the Lord places both the spiritual and the tangible, to varying extents, under the oversight of the pastors. The extent of elder involvement over the work of deacons will vary, depending on how closely the deacon’s work relates to the ministry of the word and the spiritual heath of the church.
BEST PRACTICES FOR LEADING DEACONS
Here are three pieces of advice on how pastors can give oversight to the administration of the church without getting swamped with spreadsheets and file folders.
1. Put elders in charge of the annual budget process.
Few matters of administration have more influence on the direction and shape of ministry than the church budget. What gets funded will eventually influence the overall direction of the church. For this reason, it’s wise to put elders in charge of the annual budget process.
In our church, I serve as the pastor who gives oversight to the annual budget process. We have an incredibly capable deacon of budget, who does the vast majority of the number-crunching, the forecasting, and the coordinating of various data inputs. One of my main tasks includes setting and managing a budget-planning schedule. By doing this, I can ensure that the elders get enough time to scrutinize the budget before our members see it and vote on it.
The pastors’ oversight of the annual budget process might look different at another church. It is generally good to keep pastors from getting lost in weeds of financial details. But it would also be unwise to not give the elders sufficient time to study and broadly shape the church’s budget.
2. Find deacons who know when to defer to elders.
A good deacon must be capable of getting vital administrative tasks done with little supervision. Their work should be measured in part by how they protect the pastors and elders from distraction. And yet, a good deacon will also be comfortable with deferring big decisions to the pastors and elders. This instinct for deferral preserves the elders’ oversight over the entire ministry of the church.
3. Build strong lines of communication between the deacons and elders.
Communication between the elders and deacons should be regular. After elder meetings, for instance, the elders should make sure they contact any deacons who might be affected by decisions the elders made. You don’t want a deacon finding out about an elder decision that dramatically impacts their area of service at a members’ meeting along with the rest of the congregation. That risks causing the deacons to feel like their work doesn’t matter.
Likewise, deacons should be quick to report anything they do or see they think the elders might want to know. One thing to help facilitate this is to invite a deacon to every elder meeting and ask them if they have any updates or if there are ways the elders can better help the deacon.
In God’s wisdom, he has given the church two offices: elders and deacons. They shouldn’t function as two separate bodies of authority. Instead, God calls pastors and elders to lead the flock under their care, such that the work of the deacons causes the elder-led word ministry to flourish.
May this be true of all the places where Christ is faithfully preached!