Deacons: An Elder Training Ground

Comments (9)

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.

Sigh.

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? 

Posted in: Deacons; Blog Photo courtesy of Kate McCarthy - http://www.flickr.com/photos/soyunterrorista/2658174628/in/photostream/ Image: See Credit

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Thanks Melissa.  I would have to say that my earlier experience as a deacon, and working with deacons, was as you described.  However, I am seeing that this isn't always the case.  I heard a pastor say at a Classis meeting that, "Deacons are at the cutting edge of where the church is going" (in the context that the health and direction of the church depends heavily on the health and direction of the diaconate).  I would have to agree.  The role and opportunity for deacons is a great one!

Thank you for writing this. I've heard or read before about it being a mistake to consider deacons a "stepping stone" to the "more important" role of elder. Clearly, these two offices could be blessed by people with quite different sets of gifts and skills. 

At our church, we are trying to be more intentional about identifying our gifts and then making a connection between giftedness and where we serve. I hope as we grow in this, leadership ministries will be just one of the areas in which we affirm God's gifts in each other and grow in serving in ways where our gifts can be greatly  used.

According to scripture, elders  have more authority than deacons.   But that doesn't make them more important.   Elders also have the job of supervising the work of the preacher.   That also doesn't make them more important.   Children are very important to Jesus.   Women are very important to Jesus.   The sick and the blind and the lame and the fallen woman and the tax collector were all very important to Jesus. The question of authority of an office should not be related to the importance of the role in terms of how Jesus uses us within the context of the body of Christ. 

The role of sunday school teacher may be more important to some children in terms of their coming to faith, than the role of the preacher or elder.   Ten words spoken by an elderly widow to a sick person in the hospital may be more important to that sick person than twenty sermons or ten family visits done previously.   The simple poignant question of a ten year old may have more impact in someone's life than a thousand admonitions by the elders.   Everyone is important to Christ, and it is God at work in our lives, in whatever role or position or opportunity we may be in. 

Hi Melissa,

I, too, push back against the notion of elders being more important than deacons (or vice versa, though that doesn't usually happen). According to CRC Church Order, "no officebearer shall lord it over another officebearer" (Art. 85). I also think of how deacons were needed in the early church BEFORE elders (Ac 6)!

Rebecca's comment above is apt and something for which to strive – being "intentional about identifying our gifts and then making a connection between giftedness and where we serve" when it comes to lots of things, including deacon nominations.

Thanks for the reflections!
Stan

The apostles were also regarded as elders.   So I don't think there is evidence that deacons were needed before elders.(not that it really matters...).  The Acts passage mentions selection of seven men, but as far as I can see does not specifically identify them as deacons.....although we make the assumption that's what they are.

"Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. 3 Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; 4 but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

5 And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, 6 whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them."" " 

  1. 1 Peter 5:1
     To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed:
     
  2. 2 John 1:1
    The elder, To the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth—
     
  3.  3 John 1:1
    The elder, To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth.

Both "deacon" and "minister" and "servant" are derived from the greek word "diakonos".

A gift was already presented to elders in Acts 11, before elders were mentioned being appointed in Acts 14.

It used to be the case that the "general board of directors" of local CRC churches was often just the Elders and the Pastor.  We called that (in CO) Consistory.  And then there were also the Deacons, a separate group.

These days, that structure has been changed.  Now, the "general board of directors" is the Council, which by CO definition I believe is the elders (including pastor) and the deacons.

Any local church may of course designate (in its Articles of Incorporation generally) that only Elders and the Pastor are the "board of directors" but I think more often than not it is the entire Council that is the board of directors, which means that most decisions are made by both Elders and Deacons together, which specialized tasks (ie. church discipline for Elders and benevolence for Deacons) remain the "specialty" of each separate group.

All of which is to say that while in the past, the position of Deacon was something of "Jr Elder," there is much less cause -- arguably no cause -- to so regard it these days, given the "shift" from Consistory to Council.

As far as a council goes, if there is no distinction in governance between deacons and elders, then there is no need for classes to make a distinction either.  But some churches do make a distinction.   Still it is interesting that the same word we have translated as deacon comes from diakonos, which is also the word that is often translated as "minister".   The term elder as used in the  church comes from the greek term presbyteros, although the word episkopos (overseer) also is used to describe the task of the elders.   In our church, the elders have the dual roles of elder and deacon, somewhat similar to the very early church.   This is mostly because we are a small church. 

I don't know why anyone would be upset by being a junior elder.   Or a junior pastor.   Or a junior deacon.   Unless pride gets in the way.   I get more upset by elders being restricted from fulfilling their roles.   I get upset when elders want to pay someone else to do their jobs. 

John, I wanted to respond to your comment about being upset about being a "junior [officer]". (I also commented above, so this is related to my earlier comment.)

You are right that pride could be an issue here if someone objects to being "junior" or sort of "in training" for filling a role. I think the issue that Melissa was trying to get at, though, is not the idea that someone is sort of "rookie" or "in training" when they are new to a role, but that the roles of Elder and Deacon are distinct from one another, so being a Deacon is perhaps not the right "training" ground for a potential future Elder.

I have observed this exact pattern in various churches; the Deacons tend to be younger while the Elders tend to be older and have often served as Deacons previously. But if someone is gifted as a Deacon, perhaps after a time of rest from church leadership, they should be called again to be a Deacon. Or if someone shows gifts that are those we have identified as desirable in an Elder, they should be called to that office first. (I have seen this happen, but more infrequently than the other pattern.)

As you've said, in your congregation, your Elders fill all roles, so how roles are filled is different for you than for a church with separate bodies of Elders and Deacons. But however it is structured, we do well by our leaders to help them identify which of the offices they might best be gifted for, and then, if they are new to an office, to train them and help them learn their roles as "rookies" or "junior officers" as they begin to serve.

I agree with you Rebecca.

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