Deacons: An Elder Training Ground
One of the most frustrating undercurrents I have noticed in congregational leadership is the idea that deacons on council are really just a lower form of an elder. Some churches even use the deacon role as an elder training ground - the place where "green" council members cut their teeth or get their feet wet. You know, it's the simple role. It's the baby step of council. Deacons - you can't mess too much up in that role. No permanent damage could be done. Nothing THAT important happens there. A new-to-leadership deacon needs to get a few years under their belt before they will be spiritually mature enough to serve as an elder.
Frustrating - yes. Break my heart - yes. Where do all these notions come from? You may not experience them in your council - or I certainly hope not - but the reality is that there is a perceived hierarchy when it comes to church leadership. Elders are the ones who go to Synod, Classis, visit congregational members, have spiritual conversations and meet regular with the pastor, holding them accountable in their call. Deacons - well - what do they actually do? I guess they count money, and collect offerings, and sometimes make an announcement.
Obviously this is an extreme contrast. I have to generalize when it comes to a topic like this because congregations do leadership in different ways, and churches fall on different points of the spectrum.
To think of the deacon role as the understudy for an elder role is to miss the fact that these two offices have very different functions, and require different skill sets. There are, of course, overlaps and some people could do great work as either an elder or deacon - perhaps they are called to these roles at different periods in their lives. That's wonderful! The fact is, these roles aren't in competition with one another, they complement each other! When you put one above the other you instantly create a negative dynamic.
The most detrimental thing that comes from the illusion of elder as greater than deacon is that the work of the deacons gets dismissed and seen as secondary to anything that is going on around the council table. Think about what the deacon role is. Called to be prophetic critics, called to promote faithful stewardship, called to work for justice, called to inspire people to worship God with time, abilities and wealth, called to compassion for the needy, called to be encouragers, and called to be sensitive counselors.
That, my friends, is no small role. That is the opportunity for life, growth and engagement in your congregation. Deacons are needed now, more than ever, to live into these callings - fully supported by the other leadership roles. Elders AND Deacons work hand in hand to advance the Kingdom of God.
Whether as an elder or a deacon we should be serving where we are gifted. And when you prayerfully consider names for council, you start to realize that God doesn't work in the same boxes we do. Everything seems to get flipped upside down. Race. Sex. Age. Experience. Demographics. There isn't a lower form of anything on council. We are peers, serving God where we are called.
How do you think the role of deacon is viewed in your church?