I was recently invited to lead a session with our church’s Deacon Body on “The Deacon as Servant Leader.” The time was limited, but I tried to deal with the concept from three perspectives—biblical, historical, and contemporary—before turning to the “servant leader” aspect.
From the biblical perspective, the main idea we take away from the New Testament is that the role of the deacon or “servant of the church” (Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:8-13; Romans 16:10) was to do just that—serve the church. The passage that we usually turn to as the earliest expression of the role (Acts 16:1-6) does not use the term, but the Seven were appointed to “serve tables” or “wait on tables.”
I reminded the group that Paul and other leaders of the early church did not operate out of a church manual with detailed job descriptions. They were more concerned that the function of service be carried out. Those selected as deacons were not people who exercised authority but church members who served their brothers and sisters in Christ. They were probably already servants and the church simply acknowledged that in a formal way.
The diaconate was defined in many ways during the Patristic and Medieval periods, but a more biblical approach was revived by the Reformers and the early Baptists. Charles Deweese points out that Thomas Collier in 1654 pictured the work of deacons as that of “serving tables: the table of the Lord, the table of the minister, and the table of the poor.”
Of course, later Baptists like R. B. C. Howell in the 19th century came up with the idea of deacons as a “board of directors” that took care of the secular matters of the church so that the pastor could deal with the spiritual. This idea was not universally accepted, of course (little is “universally accepted” by Baptists). In 1897, Edwin C. Dargan, professor of homiletics and ecclesiology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, warned of the tendency of deacons to act as "a sort of ruling presbytery"
In the mid-twentieth century, Southern Baptist leaders like Howard Foshee, Robert Naylor, and Jim Henry criticized the “board of deacons” approach and sought to picture deacons as co-workers with the ministers of the church in pastoral care, benevolence, and worship leadership.
So where are we today? I think our church provides some examples. We do not have elders (a trend in some churches) but continue to have a Deacon Body that works with the ministry staff.
1. We have a diverse group of deacons. When our church agreed that women were qualified to be serve as deacons, it also made divorced people and ministers eligible (that’s how I got to be a deacon).
2. Deacons are less involved as administrators. The majority of administrative work is done by committees. The pastor will often ask the Deacons for their response to new initiatives in the life of the church, but this is primarily due to a concern for the spiritual and relational implications of these actions.
3. The support and blessing of the diaconate is sought in the process of licensing and ordaining individuals to the ministry.
4. Deacons work alongside (not under) pastoral leaders. They are co-workers in the pastoral care of members. Like most churches, we have used several structures for this: Deacon Family Ministry (which I really enjoyed); a joint ministry plan with Sunday School; and ministry teams (All of these focus on caring and spiritual ministries.)
5. Deacons are once again seen as “servants” or “servant leaders” of the church. (In fact, when I was deacon chair several years ago, we presented a book on servant leadership to all new deacons.)
6. I believe that increasingly our church members elect those as deacons that they would like to have minister to them. They are selected for their qualities of caring, spiritual acumen, responsibility, and commitment rather than their community or secular roles.
(A major source of citations for this blog was Charles W. Deweese, The Emerging Role of Deacons, Broadman Press, 1979.)