This article originally appeared in Deacon Magazine.
Preachers love to tell deacon jokes. It might be the one about the pastor that visited a deacon in the hospital. The dying man wrote a note to him just before he passed away. The pastor stuck it in his pocket without reading it and opened it on the day of the funeral thinking it might provide a dramatic affect to the funeral. Scribbled on the pad were the words, "Pastor, get off my oxygen hose!"
Some pastors take joy in explaining their children's mischievous behavior as a result of playing with the deacon's children. For some reason, the jokes always seem funnier if they exploit an adversarial relationship between deacons and pastors.
In reality tension between deacons and pastors shouldn't cause laughter. Having a successful pastor/deacon relationship can create a harmonious environment within the church. If that relationship is strained, the church will have division, strife, and distraction from its primary purpose.
One of the most important aspects of a good pastor/deacon relationship is to develop a friendship with them instead of merely a business relationship. I've not only enjoyed working with the deacons of the churches where I've served, but I've also developed meaningful relationships with many of them.
Over the years deacons have been my closest friends, my strongest encouragers, and my barometers for the church's spiritual condition. If I had developed an adversarial relationship with them, I definitely would not have had the opportunity to be the leader our church needed.
My current chairman of deacons, Steve Campbell, has become one of my best friends. We enjoy many similarities. Both of us are sports fanatics, and we travel together to ball games - sometimes without even talking "church." Our daughters have developed a close relationship, so much so that their daughter is now our "adopted daughter." Hardly a day goes by that Steve and I don't talk by phone on the way home from work, and usually it's friendship talk more than business talk.
In my previous church, I discovered that Russell and Lisa Smith had the same anniversary year as my wife and I. We traveled on a 20th anniversary vacation together. I played softball with Russell, Richard McCloud, Dane Hawk, Mel Hyde, Bret Becton, and other deacons. We developed a bond through sharing our lives. Those men loved me, and I loved them. All of us grieved when we sensed that God had led me to leave the church after 10 years of service.
I developed friendships with deacons in other ways as well. Our families would go to lunch or dinner together at different times. We held a men's morning prayer group. I intentionally visited alongside different deacons on visitation nights.
I've always tried to carry myself in a way that's transparent. Deacons have known when I hurt, when I was disappointed, and when I was elated. Having a group of deacons who are friends scares some church members, but a true friend can provide both encouragement and correction.
Deacons have also become my strongest encouragers in the church. True to Acts 6, our deacons have seen their role as a support to the staff so that we can preach and pray. Of course I do more than that as a pastor, but they help me to stay focused on those two important tasks. A few examples might demonstrate how deacons have shown their support.
At a previous church I invited a person of a different race to our church. I had known him from childhood, and the Lord had called him to preach. He wanted to hear me preach, and I thought nothing of inviting him. I didn't know that he was the first to cross the racial barrier in our church.
A longtime member called one of our deacons and complained, asking what they were going to do about my "reckless" action. One of the wisest deacons in our church gathered our deacons and made sure they were of one accord in welcoming people of all races. Their encouragement kept me from hanging alone in the wind. They acted with courage in the face of opposition to protect me.
By the way, the complainer left the church, vowing never to speak to me again. A few years later, after this person had returned to the church and apologized for his actions, he asked me to preach his funeral.
One of our deacon families at a previous church showed support by ministering to my wife. Most people forget about befriending the pastor's wife, but Johnny Campbell and his wife did an awesome job of taking the time to minister to Cathy. Their ministry helped me want to be all I could be as their pastor.
At my current church, the deacons lead the charge in recognizing our pastors during Pastor Appreciation month. Last year they allowed the congregation to give testimonies about what the pastors meant to them. I've never felt so appreciated by a congregation. These refreshing experiences mean a lot during tough times.
In addition to being friends and encouragers, deacons are a barometer of the spiritual health of the church. As we gather at our monthly meetings, we pray, discuss business, and find solutions to nagging problems. I try to put the Lord's Kingdom as our only agenda, and all other agendas should be left at the door.
I've always desired that our deacons would be able to talk about anything in the meetings and still have the confidence that it would remain in the room where we discussed it. Amazingly, many deacons don't feel the confidence to be able to discuss anything confidentially in deacons meetings, and it affects the health of the church. Deacons mirror the church in many ways. One of them is by the way they participate in visitation. Our deacon chairman has a passion that all 20 of our deacons become active in visitation on Tuesday evenings. I share that passion, and we are not there yet, but we will be! How can we ask our congregation to support projects and ministries that our elected servants are not willing to support?
Although I don't expect our deacons to do everything, their involvement in the whole life of the church is an important barometer of where we stand spiritually. Many deacons have traveled with me on mission trips across the country and the world. The desire they had to serve means a lot to their pastor. They have caught the vision of reaching the world, and I know others in the church will follow.
Many deacons serve as Sunday School teachers or officers in the church. Some serve on committees or coach Upward soccer. They're not an executive board unwilling to get their hands dirty. Rather they actively serve when God calls them out, whether as a deacon or in another capacity.
Deacons pray in each of our worship services. The congregation needs to know that they are praying men, and I enjoy their leadership in this area. Their prayers reflect the passion that our congregation feels, but they also reveal when we are getting a little cold in our worship. I take clues from their prayers on every occasion as an indicator of the spiritual health of our church.
Although my plan for deacon/pastor relationships isn't complicated, its effectiveness has been proven. Instead of working on opposite sides or as adversaries, I've always enjoyed great relationships with deacons.
Developing friendships, receiving and giving encouragement, and testing our church's spiritual health through the lives and prayers of the deacons have allowed our church to prosper in spiritual ways.
Thank God for the Steve Campbells, Johnny Campbells, Chuck Westons, Tim Pattons, Richard McClouds, and countless other deacons I've known. Their support makes the job of the pastor so much more effective.