This article originally appeared in Deacon Magazine.
How can our deacon ministry be more effective? I am frequently asked this question when I have the opportunity to speak and work with church deacon bodies. The short answer is to follow through with your commitment and accountability. But I realize that my vision of commitment and accountability may be unclear to someone else. Let me describe it by sharing what has happened in the deacon body at Brentwood Baptist in Brentwood, Tennessee.
Our ministry went through a spiritual and cultural change in the mid '90s as we began focusing on how we could become more of a pastoral care deacon body serving our Lord, our church family, and anyone who was in need. For 15 years I have been in the deacon ministry serving as a deacon and deacon chairman and conducting training sessions for deacons in other Baptist churches.
Having the honor of serving as chairman for two years at one of the largest Baptist churches in my state, and watching us grow as we ministered to the sick and those in need from 70 deacons to approximately 300 active deacons, has been truly remarkable. However, the number of deacons serving is less important than the commitment and attitude of those serving.
Focus on pastoral care
I believe the mission of an effective deacon body should be directed by Scripture. The Bible clearly teaches responsibilities of deacons. It also describes Christ's teachings and examples regarding pastoral care. Luke 4:18, John 21:17, 2 Corinthians 1:3-5, and 1 Peter 5:2 provide great examples and give guidance and direction for serving.
As I meet and work with deacon groups, I always make it a priority to discuss the importance of having a pastoral care oriented deacon body as their primary focus. I see no place in Scripture where deacons are commanded to be the governing authority over the church. Those tasks should be left to other church committees to oversee. I know many deacons who do a fine job serving on important committees while they serve as deacon. My church has trustees elected by the church body to oversee the governing of the church. These individuals can't serve as deacon and trustee simultaneously.
Accept pastoral care as a deacon responsibility
The Lord has graciously allowed me the opportunity to be a part of a pastoral led deacon ministry and the blessings I've been allowed to witness and experience are life changing and miraculous. I've seen people healed from what seemed to be certain death, witnessed people going to be with the Lord, and through heartbreaking events such as the death of a child, Jesus Christ never fails to show His marvelous compassion.
I'm troubled when I hear a response from deacons saying that pastoral care is the responsibility of their pastor and not the deacons. The good news is that I hear this less and less. I can tell you that many pastors couldn't possibly address all the pastoral needs of their church due to the demands placed upon them. Some pastors have this responsibility delegated entirely to the deacons unless a crisis occurs which requires them to be involved. Therefore deacons must play an active role in for this support.
Those of you who visit the hospitals, nursing homes, or homebound; write cards; and make phone calls as the major focus of your ministry understand what I'm saying. If your deacon body doesn't have pastoral care as top priority, I would pray that you would consider a new direction.
Take steps to become more pastoral-care focused
Often I'm asked about making the change and becoming more pastoral care focused. I offer the following suggestions.
1. Make the commitment
Become a pastoral care led deacon body, not a governing body. Although you should stay engaged with church decisions, don't make them the top deacon priority. Any change is a process and involves working out multiple issues; the important first step is to make the commitment.
2. Consider a team concept
Depending on the number of deacons serving, deacon teams are assigned weekly tasks. If this is not an option, consider pairing deacons for support and accountability.
3. Report monthly to the church
Calls, visits, phone calls, and other contacts should be reported as soon as possible. If they aren't completed as scheduled, follow-up conversations as to the reason. In our church team, leaders follow up, but the task may fall upon the chairman or vice chairman. In any event if the deacon can't fulfill his assignment for that week, provide a backup for the responsible deacon. The question I heard too often at business meetings was, "What do the deacons do?" Fortunately, after we started the deacon report to the church, that question has not been asked again.
4. Conduct training sessions
Some individuals may not be comfortable with hospital visits or funeral home visits. Have someone from your local funeral home, hospice, or hospital discuss protocol with someone in the deacon fellowship. If some are still uncomfortable, ask them to write cards with a Scripture verse. I have written hundreds of cards and have yet to have anyone tell me they wish I hadn't sent it to them. I have had people tell me they still read cards sent years ago by one of the deacons. They are most comforting to those receiving them, and to hear comments such as this clearly blesses those who wrote them.
5. Have a clear vision
New deacons can get caught up in the excitement of being a church leader. But if no guidance or counseling is provided, or someone doesn't mentor them, they can lose the passion to serve. Train newly elected deacons so they understand the expectations and responsibilities of serving.
6. Share information
Have an information source procedure in place so deacons can be kept informed daily and not just at a monthly meeting. Have daily information from church personnel sent to a designated deacon about recent hospital admissions, deaths, emergencies, or any other significant event. This information can be given to the teams or individuals serving that week for immediate action. One of the worst things is to have someone hurting, and no one from the church seems to know or respond.
7. Let deacons decide
Many churches have eliminated the "deacon roll off" rule. If someone is effectively serving, doing what is expected of them, and wants to remain active, I haven't seen a Bible verse asking them to become inactive. Consider letting this decision be between the individual deacon and the Lord.
Expect a blessing
So what can you expect? You'll be personally blessed by what you see the Lord doing in the lives of those going through difficult situations. The sincere, loving compassion you show to individuals with whom you walk through these crises will provide comfort to them.
Many of us have witnessed some make decisions for Christ as their Lord and Savior because someone - sometimes a total stranger - was willing to share Christ with them and be with them in their troubled hours. But most importantly, it's not about us as deacons but about being willing to "feed the sheep of Christ" (John 21:17) and give the honor and glory to Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, I want to be clear that this article isn't about giving recognition to a particular deacon group or person, or in any way meant as a criticism of any deacon body. I have been given the opportunity to serve with a number of great deacons who have committed themselves to serve people who are hurting. I consider it an honor and privilege to see Jesus Christ working first hand in so many lives and to observe our deacon body evolve over the last several years into what can be described only in miraculous terms.
My prayer is that through our deacon ministry we can share the love of Christ and demonstrate His caring concern to those in need through our service. My prayers are with you as you serve.