Baptist deacons have sometimes had a bad press. Gerald Coates, the founder of the Pioneer group of churches, once caricatured the life of many a Baptist church when he wrote: ‘Resist the devil and he will flee from you – resist the deacons and they will fly at you’. Or as one pastor remarked: ‘Deacons can make even Herod look compassionate’.
No doubt some ministers have had bad experiences with their deacons, but then the fact is that that some churches have had experiences of their ministers. In over thirty-three years of being a pastor of a local church, my experience of deacons has been very positive. Indeed, I wrote the following as a dedication in my book Radical Leaders: ‘In appreciation of all those deacons who have served with me in my churches in Altrincham and in Chelmsford. To a large degree I am what I am because of them’.
Inevitably not every deacon I have worked with has been ideal. I think, for instance, of one deacon who could never keep a confidence – and yet, I have to confess that his heart was in the right place. Yet, without exception, I have found my deacons supportive of the leadership I have sought to exercise. Yes, there have been times when my deacons have questioned the wisdom of a proposal – but this proved to be a positive feature. The fact is that “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another” (Prov 27.17 NRSV); or as the GNB puts it: “People learn from one another, just as iron sharpens iron”. This certainly has been my experience. I have been the better leader, precisely because there have been deacons ready to put a different point of view. I have grown and developed as a leader precisely because of the way in which my deacons have inter-acted with me. I can honestly say that I have never felt ‘thwarted’ by my deacons; rather I have been supported and encouraged by them.
As a result I have always looked forward to deacons meetings – or ‘leadership team meetings’ as we now call them. For although we have often had major issues to contend with, I have never had problem deacons to confront. Indeed, as I look back, over the years I have experienced immense kindness from my deacons. I think, for instance, of the surprise party my deacons threw for me to mark my 40th anniversary of my ordination – it was a moving experience. Or I think of the eighteen annual appraisals I have undergone here in Chelmsford in which every year two representative deacons have been involved – without exception they have always been an affirming experience. And then there is the ongoing practical care and concern which my deacons have had for me and my family – I am truly appreciative of the way in which my deacons have looked after us..
I am also grateful to God for the time deacons give to the church – and thus support my ministry. In the first place there are the monthly leadership team meetings, the monthly leadership team prayer breakfasts, and the annual leadership team weekend away. But there are so many additional duties too – in addition to attending Sunday services and home groups. For those at work this can be immensely demanding. And as for those who are retired, very often they shoulder yet further time demanding responsibilities. I am so grateful to God for the commitment of my deacons – and for the way in which they free me up to focus on my calling to spearhead the mission and ministry of the church.
And so, at this time when we are in the process of a deacons’ election, I say, ‘Thank God for deacons’.