Last week I chaired my last ever deacons’ meeting. It was a very happy occasion – not least because, to my surprise, after the opening worship, drinks (Bucks Fizz and Shloer) and nibbles were served to celebrate the occasion! Furthermore, although this was the last formal meeting, it will not be the last time I meet with my deacons – for before I step down from leading the church here, they will be taking Caroline and myself out for dinner. So no wonder I am grateful to God for deacons!
Alas, in some circles Baptist deacons have had a bad press. For instance, Gerald Coates, leader of Pioneer, once caricatured deacons in Baptist churches when he wrote: “Resist the devil and he will flee from you – resist the deacons and they will fly at you”. Similarly one Baptist pastor remarked: “Deacons can make Herod look compassionate”. But in almost 35 years of pastoral ministry, I can only say that my experience has been very different. Over the years I have served with scores of deacons, but of these men and women only two made life difficult for me – and both of these in due course apologised for their behaviour.
Another critic of the way in which Baptist churches function was Michael Saward, a former vicar of Ealing who later became a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral. He wrote: “Free or Independent churches tend to reduce the position of the minister … to that of one who fulfils their wishes. It takes a very fine church (or an especially able minister) to avoid that trap, which may be why relatively few major exciting reforms seem to have come out of the British nonconformist tradition in recent years”. Although there have been individual members who have wanted me to act as their personal chaplain, I thank God that this has never been the attitude of deacons with whom I have served. My deacons have always encouraged me in the lead I have sought to give – and have only questioned my lead if they thought I might be about to commit ‘kami kazi’! I have never left a meeting angry and frustrated by their obstructiveness.
Clearly deacons do a disservice to their pastor if they are simply a group of ‘yes’ men and women. The leadership of a church is the better where differences of viewpoint can be expressed – provided that these differences are not allowed to become personal. My mind goes to Prov 7.17: “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another”. Time and again I have been in meetings where first one view and then another view is shared, and as a result of the discussion we end up going a third way which none of us had originally envisaged. Low-level ‘conflict’ can be good, provided it takes place within a positive context. In this respect I think of one of my very first deacons in Altrincham, who in deacons’ meetings often expressed a very different theological outlook from that of my own, and yet who in every church meeting was always one of the first to vote for whatever proposal I was putting before the church – for him the loyalty of a deacon for the minister was paramount!
I recognise that my experience is not the experience of every pastor. I remember one minister saying that if he were to win the lottery, he would tells his deacons to go to hell, and then leave the church! Or I am mindful of another minister friend who was literally forced out of his church by two deacons who felt his performance was lacking. Sadly there are churches where the pastor has been regarded as the paid servant of the church, there to fulfil the whim of the congregation. But this has never been my experience. In both my churches I have had the joy of working together with supportive deacons. So much so, that I prefaced my booklet, Radical Leaders: a guide for elders and deacons in Baptist churches with the following dedication: “In appreciation of all those deacons who have served with me in my churches in Altrincham and Chelmsford. To a large degree I am what I am because of them”.
When I step down from full-time stipendiary ministry, I shall miss my deacons. I thank God for their wisdom, their encouragement, and their loyalty. Yes, thank God for deacons!