Editor’s note: We recognise that churches differ widely in the way deacons operate. For some, being a deacon is simply serving in a role with no spiritual authority, whereas for others it is an appointed office with a significant level of oversight. This article is shared to help and encourage those who do serve as deacons whatever their context, and to give all of us insight into how some areas of responsibility might be undertaken by those who do.
Overseers and deacons
Compared to the role of pastor, advice for those who serve as deacons is a rather neglected area, yet the Bible tells us that deacons ‘who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus’ (1 Tim. 3:13).
Most Christians do not become pastors, but we must all serve. There is no hierarchy that puts pastors in front of deacons. In Christ, we are all one as we pursue the calling that we have received from God. Two of the most outstanding Christians in the New Testament, namely Philip and Stephen, were basically deacons.
If we look at the qualifications for overseers and deacons in 1 Timothy, we see that there is little difference between them. Paul speaks of deacons using the phrase, ‘In the same way’ (1 Tim. 3:8), although elders must also have the ability to teach. As is generally thought by many, deacons focus on practical matters and elders on spiritual ones. Having said that, it is good to remember that there is no practical matter without a spiritual dimension just as every spiritual matter has a practical dimension.
As for being a deacon, the first thing to remember is that the word deacon simply means servant. The church has appointed someone as a deacon to serve. In some churches certain deacons are given specific tasks like treasurer, secretary or property deacon. A deacon ‘without portfolio’ has the challenge of looking out for things to do without treading on the toes of fellow deacons.
One priority for serving as a deacon is looking after the pastor or pastors. Are they free of money worries and living in a comfortable home as far as that is possible, given the local church’s resources? Different churches handle this in different ways. In one church the deacons would visit the manse annually looking for issues to be dealt with. This action was motivated by practical concern but the minister’s wife wasn’t so keen!
Practicalities, properties and paperwork
When the church meets, if people are going to benefit from the church’s ministry they need to be able to see and hear the preacher and be comfortable whilst they do it. This means that deacons need to make sure that the church building is well lit, appropriately heated, with good sight lines and, where necessary, a good sound system. A deacon will need to take care of things like spare light bulbs and batteries if needed.
More broadly, it may involve a consideration of the provision of a crèche and Sunday School in order that adult listeners are not distracted. Deacons should be alert to other distractions too, such as draughts, extraneous noises and more unusual distractions such as noisy drunks and stray animals.
Churches will differ but it may well be that the welcoming and seating of the congregation will come under the remit of the deacons. Careful thought needs to be used here within the restraints that any building will impose. If projection is used for the songs, that needs to be executed with unobtrusive skill, not necessarily by a deacon but arguably under their purview.
Deacons need to ensure that the church property is kept in good order. Things like checking smoke alarms, clearing gutters, removing rubbish, servicing fire extinguishers, mowing lawns, dealing with leaks and other repairs, managing cleaners and various other workers, as well as making sure the buildings are clean and tidy, all come under the deacons’ remit, although they are obviously not expected to personally perform every duty.
These days there is plenty of paperwork that needs to be done. Someone has to write and review risk assessments, ensure safeguarding policies are up to scratch and carried out, and that data protection laws are being followed. That’s not to mention the need to keep a church’s governing documents up to date with charity law. Again, churches will differ on who exactly should carry these out, but often these are best done by those serving as deacons.
In the midst of such practical considerations, it is important not to forget the importance of deacons remaining holy. They must go on being ‘worthy of respect, sincere, being careful with alcohol and making sure a love of money does not lead you astray.’ 1 Timothy chapter 3 verse 9 says that deacons must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. Daily Bible reading and close attention to the regular ministry of the church are important here. Someone cannot be a useful deacon if things begin to go adrift at home: a good home life is absolutely vital.
Finally, deacons have some responsibility for the physical wellbeing of members of the congregation. There is an understandable tradition that the minister is the main sick visitor but there are strong arguments to say that it is more of a diaconal concern. Something similar could be said about looking out for congregational members who are in financial need. There is no need for a petty demarcation between elders and deacons but it is important that such issues are overseen by someone.
Some churches follow the tradition that deacons will serve the bread and the wine at the communion table. The purpose behind having the deacons distribute the elements at the communion table is a good one. It reminds the church and the deacons themselves that they serve the church. Although it is a ceremonial matter, it can be a way of reminding the church to pray for its deacons and reminding the deacons of who it is they are serving.
Pray for those who serve
Whatever role, office or indeed titles are used in our churches it is vital to remember that all those who serve need our prayers. It is both a privilege and a responsibility to serve the body of Christ. For those who serve well, it will be a blessing to others and it will help them to grow as a Christian.