British politician Joseph Chamberlain once quipped, “On every committee of thirteen persons there are twelve who go to the meetings having given no thought to the subject and ready to receive instructions. One goes with his mind made up to give those instructions. I make it my business to be that one.”
My own experience with church committees would lead me to add one more individual to Chamberlain’s cast of committee characters: the one or two individuals who come to thwart progress. They can’t or won’t articulate a positive agenda; they simply know the articulated agenda is wrong.
Let me put this even more starkly: committees don’t work!
Technically, I’m on solid ground. Committees don’t work, individuals on committees work. And if we’re honest, our experience is probably like Mr. Chamberlain’s: most committee members haven’t thought about the committee’s agenda since the last time they met. It’s only the committee chairman who feels the pressure to get something done.
Committees can be inefficient, slow, and discouraging. If you doubt my word, go join your first church committee!
Before I dig this hole too deep, I’ll admit I’m not anti-group on everything. I think families should eat together, elders should meet together, and church members should worship together. But how about deacons? Should the office of the church that is charged with doing the spiritual work of giving physical care meet together in a committee?
SHOULD DEACONS MEET AS A BOARD OR COMMITTEE?
First, a disclaimer. I don’t think this is a matter of obedience or disobedience to Scripture. I want to make it very clear that here I think we’re swimming in the waters of prudence. That said, here are three arguments for not having the deacons meet together as a board:
- Boards, like committees, are inefficient. How many important tasks in a church go undone because the deacon board has to meet first? It is a mistake not to grant authority to a deacon to act on behalf of the group. So instead of having every decision filter through a committee, empower a trustworthy deacon to act and watch how much good happens.
- Getting clogged in committees can discourage a deacon. Why should a qualified deacon who is competent to manage the facilities have to run the gauntlet of a deacon board and seek the approval of less qualified commentators? Again, it is a question of efficiency, but not only efficiency. It is encouraging when a gifted deacon is able to exercise his gift, and it is discouraging when the gifted deacon gets trapped in the administrative labyrinth of a committee. Further, when a church or committee doesn’t grant a deacon the authority to act independently, it seems to communicate distrust, which can also discourage a deacon.
- A deacon board can be easily pitted against an elder board.Scripture does not set up elders and deacons as two separate legislative bodies (as with the House of Representatives and the Senate in the United States Congress) with the executive branch (the senior pastor) signing into law a negotiated piece of legislation. Scripture designates elders as the shepherds of the church, while the deacons are to support the elders’ work through caring for the church’s physical needs. Having the deacons meet as a board can tend toward this unbiblical and potentially paralyzing “bicameral legislature” type of structure.
IF NOT A BOARD OF DEACONS, WHAT? TRY TASK-SPECIFIC DEACONS
If deacons do not meet as a board or committee, what should they do?
Assuming you have a qualified board of elders giving oversight to the church, I would suggest appointing “task-specific deacons.” That is, don’t appoint a general board of deacons who then share all deacon-related responsibilities, but appoint a deacon for a specific task that helps keep the church in good order.
Types of task-specific deacons could include:
- A deacon of buildings, who is responsible for maintaining any buildings the church owns and physically preparing for worship.
- A deacon of grounds, who is responsible for grounds, organizing volunteers for cutting grass, removing snow, and so on.
- A deacon of weddings, who is responsible for the physical preparation related to all weddings. This person does not coordinate the wedding, but represents the church in the care and use of the building during weddings, and relieves the church staff from long weekend hours spent on weddings.
- A deacon of child care, who is responsible for implementing a child protection policy as well as forming teams of teachers and care-givers.
- A deacon of library/book table, who is responsible to order and maintain access to good reading approved by the elders/pastors.
- A deacon of ordinances, who is responsible to set up baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as well as recruit volunteers for distribution and clean up.
- A deacon of sound, who is responsible for microphones, sound boards, recording sermons, and so forth.
These are just a few suggestions for task-specific deacons. You may also need a deacon for parking or legal matters or college ministry.
Do such task-specific deacons ever need to meet together? Not necessarily. What about the church budget? Should the deacons or a finance committee pull together the budget? Instead, why not appoint a deacon of budget who interviews each task-specific deacon regarding his area of oversight and asks him about his financial requirements for the next year? Then let that deacon of budget present his first take on the budget to the elders, who will then prepare the budget and present it to the congregation.
The bottom line? I would suggest that the church find qualified deacons and then put them to work in areas where they have interest and expertise, unhindered by a committee. Let each deacon form and lead teams of volunteers who love serving Christ’s church together.
Matt Schmucker is executive director of 9Marks, is an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, and has sat on one too many committees.
Reprinted from the online 9 Marks journal.