Here at Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford, we are in the process of a deacons’ election. Deacons in our context are the church’s lay leaders: together with the ministers they form the church’s leadership team.
Some Baptist churches have elders and deacons. In such churches elders are seen as having a leadership role in the spiritual and pastoral affairs of the church, while the deacons are seen as responsible for the more practical affairs of the church’s life. In practice, however, the distinction between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘practical’ cannot easily be maintained – the handling of money, for instance, normally seen as a diaconal responsibility, calls for a high degree of spirituality!
Is it more ‘Scriptural’ to have both elders and deacons? Not necessarily. The fact is that there was no one pattern of leadership in the New Testament. The church at Ephesus where Timothy was based had both elders and deacons – but not the churches at Corinth and Jerusalem. To my mind the principle of leadership is more important, than the pattern.
In our church in Chelmsford we currently operate with twelve deacons – presumably on the ground that there were twelve apostles. Other Baptist churches operate with seven deacons, on the basis that the church at Jerusalem elected seven men to ‘serve’ along with James and the other apostles. Some have argued the larger a church, the more deacons are needed: indeed, at one stage our church had eighteen deacons. However, the larger the ‘board’ of deacons, the more time it takes to reach a decision, particularly when – as in our case – all four ministers belong to the leadership team.
To return to our deacons election. It is quite a lengthy process. The nomination period runs for four weeks. These four weeks are none too long, for time is needed, for people to consider whether it is right to accept nomination – in this respect I encourage all those considering nomination to talk through with one of the ministers what is involved. At the end of the day we are not looking for likeable deacons, but rather for deacons with the particular gifts and graces required for the task.
Once the nominations close, in a church of our size people need time to get to know what those who have been nominated have to offer. Each candidate is asked to produce a photo and some ‘bio-data’ which can be displayed. This year for the first time I will be interviewing the candidates within the context of Sunday services. Needless to say, we do not encourage campaigning – we simply want to give church members a realistic opportunity to assess the calibre of people who are standing for election. Praying for God to guide us in our decision-making without really knowing what the candidates have to offer is a nonsense!
Then, of course, comes the election itself. In times past we used to hold the election at a mid-week church meeting, but now we hold the election on a Sunday – in this way we can involve more people. Furthermore, we hold the election within the Sunday services – at one stage we had a church meeting after the morning service, but then ran into child-care difficulties. Now we hold the election within both Sunday services – with efficient management it need take no more than six minutes. My experience is that visitors that day are not put off – rather they are fascinated by the way in which we do church.
Unlike the world of politics, leadership elections in our church require potential leaders to gain a minimum 50% of the vote in order to be elected. If the Spirit is guiding his people, one should expect at least half those voting to sense his direction. We allow every member to have as many votes as there are candidates, and then, provided they all have at least 50% of the votes, the vacancies on the diaconate are then filled by those with the most votes.
I look forward to seeing again the way in which God through his Spirit uses the ‘democratic’ process to accomplish his will.