When the Servants are Governors


Getting the roles of governance and ministry mixed up is the crippling confusion in many councils. For deacons, the role confusion can be even more painful and debilitating. Are deacons primarily decision makers? Or are they ministers of benevolence and mercy? Are they sometimes both?

This confusion can hinder effective leadership in any congregation (or any organization for that matter), but in our system it’s especially confusing, and especially dysfunctional. The term “ruling elder” can lead to all kinds of assumptions. The Church Order says, in Article 26, that the elders ‘oversee’ and the deacons ‘administer’. DeMoor in his Commentary [PDF] stresses that whatever distinctions we make, we also need to remember that there is to be no “lording it over” each other among elders and deacons, and together deacons, elders and ministers are to “govern”.
The most helpful book I’ve seen so far about governance at the congregational level is Dan Hotchkiss’ Governance and Ministry – Rethinking Board Leadership. I’m only a quarter of the way through it, and already I’m very glad I bought it.
Because of the long-standing ambivalence and confusion about the role of leaders in the congregations, especially that of deacons, the office of deacon has suffered in many churches. Sometimes it’s viewed as second-class, or as an overwhelming mix of decision making and busy-work. Sometimes benevolent needs seem overwhelming, while the ongoing routines of the diaconal office eat up all the available time. Sometimes the deacons are too busy to set up the systems needed to make sure good diaconal work happens.
Hotchkiss has wonderfully insightful things to say about congregational life, how it’s changed in recent decades, how problems are typically handled, and what tends to go wrong. AND he has very clear and specific things to say about what needs to be fixed and how to address those challenges. I believe that councils in general, and especially the deaconate, can profit from the insights and the advice that Hotchkiss offers. Making solid decisions, forming effective teams, and getting the work done well – these are all part of what it takes to run the church. And as growth occurs, organizational adjustments need to be made. Hotchkiss is valuable stuff. Especially for deacons.
Are there any deacons out there who have already made use of this book? Have you found another resource that has helped build a strong and effective deaconate? May we hear from you?
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I am the task team leader for our church "Governance & Ministry Task Team".  We formed this past summer (as directed by our council) and are finishing up our work to review how we do things at our church -- in particular with elders, deacons, council structure, ministry teams, etc.  In addition to reading Dr. DeMoor's "Church Order Commentary" (which was excellent), we also read Hotchkiss' "Governance and Ministry".  This book paved the way for the direction we took.  It is an excellent explanation of a concept -- you still have to do a lot of the work and figuring out how if applies to your specific situation, but the concepts, as explained in this book, are, in my opinion, the best way to approach this problem.  I would highly recommend the "Governance and Ministry" book!