The agenda for our quarterly church conference on November 29 is a full one. The finance committee will present its financial plan for missions and ministry in 2018, the Nominating Committee will propose a slate of church members to serve new terms on various committees, and we will consider deacon-recommended revisions to our church bylaws regarding how we select individuals to fill the positions of moderator, moderator-elect, and church clerk. We will also consider a recommendation from the deacons to modify the way we call people to serve in the deacon ministry here at Providence. While all these agenda items are important, I believe this last one deserves an extra measure of attention.
Over the summer, our Nominating Committee asked the deacons to discuss ways to improve our process for calling people to serve as deacons. So, at their August meeting—and then again in September—the deacons did just that, talking at length about the strengths and weaknesses of our current process and how to make it better. Out of these conversations emerged a consensus recommendation for reducing the number of deacons called each year to twelve, and affirming them together, as a group, by a paper ballot vote of yes or no. The roster of twelve prospective deacons would be assembled, as it has been for years, by the Special Nominating Committee, which would solicit nominations from the congregation at the beginning of the process. A nearly unanimous majority of the deacons endorsed this recommendation. The full text of the proposal will be included in the agenda packet available in advance of the church conference.
Now, because we’re Baptists, a recommendation like this will likely strike some, if not many, of us as undemocratic, in the sense that it does not provide church members with a way to vote for—or against—individuals on a deacon ballot. This is a valid concern because, Lord knows, we Baptists like to reserve our right to say no. In thinking through this recommendation for myself, though, I found it interesting that, when the first deacons are called to serve in Acts 6:1-6, there is no mention of the church in Jerusalem holding an election. Instead, we’re told that the apostles asked the church to select—the nuance of this specific Greek verb is “to look at observantly, to examine, or inspect closely”—seven individuals to serve as deacons. After, we can only assume, doing their due diligence to observe, examine, and inspect, the members of the Jerusalem church called these first seven deacons and had them stand as a group before the apostles who, we read in Acts 6:7, “prayed and laid their hands on them.”
As we all know, democratic elections produce winners and losers. The New Testament model for identifying deacons in the church, meanwhile, seems designed to produce leaders who are called to servant ministry in the same way that we call other ministers to serve in the church. Deliberate, prayerful discernment and examination comes first, followed by a call to serve—which, if accepted, is then affirmed and blessed by the congregation. The differences between these two ways of calling deacons are significant, especially in light of our church’s stated goal of returning our deacon ministryto its biblical roots.
There is, of course, no standard “Baptist” way of calling deacons. At my former church in Murfreesboro, the church roll serves as the deacon ballot—an example of direct democracy if there ever was one. The church in which I was raised, First Baptist in Greensboro, has, since at least the 1970s, followed the same model our deacons are now recommending. I imagine any number of other methods are out there as well. It’s the genius of the Baptist way that each congregation enjoys the freedom, in Christ and under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, to decide for itself how best to organize, make decisions, and call leaders. I’m grateful for that freedom. It allows us to tailor our practices to support our priorities. Our current deacons believe that their recommended modifications to our practice for calling future deacons reflect our stated desire to return Providence’s deacon ministry to its biblical roots as a servant ministry in keeping with the New Testament model. I agree with them—and I hope you will, too.
May the peace of Christ be with you!