Just a few years ago, Eddie Hammett says, the subject of deacons in the free church tradition started coming up in much of the congregational consulting and coaching work he was doing.
Many churches — and plenty of deacons — were doubting the effectiveness of the diaconate, a role played by laity in the context of those churches.
“I started drilling down on what wasn’t working,” Hammett said. “And what kept bubbling up time and time again is that ‘we are doing this more out of tradition or expectation, rather than as something the spirit led us to do.’”
So Hammett began tailoring his coaching, consulting and workshops to help congregations look into how their deacon boards are structured, how they function and how they got that way in the first place.
The approach combines an examination of what scripture says about deacons with a process of discernment to determine in which direction a particular congregation may want to take the institution.
“People responded well,” said Hammett, president of the North Carolina-based Transforming Solutions. “They are able to turn it into something that meets the needs of the community.”
Deacons as missional leaders
One of Hammett’s regular clients in the process is the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina. On Sept. 10, he is scheduled to lead “Creating a Spirit-Led Deacon Ministry” at Mountain Grove Baptist Church in Hickory, N.C.
The half-day seminar is open to deacons and other church leaders who will evaluate the ministry and explore the potential spiritual impact of the diaconate on the congregation and community.
The workshops are as overdue as they are relevant to the modern church, said Larry Hovis, executive coordinator of CBFNC.
“There are only two offices in Baptist congregations that are ordained — ministers and deacons,” he said. “We have invested a lot into ministerial operations but we have not done as much as we needed with deacons.”
As the primary lay leaders in congregations that have them, deacons often have the closest contact with church members and ministries.
“We believe the health of the church is tied directly to the health of the deacons,” Hovis said.
And in the age of the nones and dones and an increasingly secular society, deacons are needed to help the church’s efforts to reach into the wider community, he said.
“In the past, in most Baptist churches deacons focused on administration or congregational care. Those things continue to be important, but in our times we need deacons to lead churches in the area of missional engagement.”
‘Polarization and dissention’
But missional engagement is leading some churches to dump the deacon concept in favor of leadership councils and other new forms, Hammett said.
“That’s particularly true in new church starts and in churches where the pastor is under 40 years of age — maybe under 35 years of age,” he said.
And there are other congregations changing the name of their lay leadership boards.
“A lot don’t want to call it ‘deacon’ because of the baggage,” he said.
Many others want to keep their deacons, but refocus their efforts.
“They say ‘tradition has handed us the deacon family ministry plan,’” Hammett said. “They said they want to care for their people, but it’s not working.”
Similar complaints are common about administrative functions, assignments by age groups, family types and geographical regions.
The problem is these designations often do not line up with the gifts of the deacons assigned to them, he said. The result is some in a church feel served by their deacons while others do not.
“It can lead to polarization and dissension in congregations,” Hammett said.
Opposition to changing the system also is common. Often, deacon boards are entrenched with charter members and other old-guard leaders.
“And constitutionally it is a sacred cow” in many Baptist churches, he said.
The idea is to try to discern the needs of the church and the gifts of the deacons, and then connect the two.
The result of the process looks different in different churches. Sometimes a new Sunday school program will emerge, at other times an apartment Bible study group.
“It’s very fluid,” Hammett said. “Sometimes it just evolves into something no one has ever heard of before.”