In deacon training conferences we point out that deacons “ride drag” for the congregation, a reference to the old West when cowboys would move the herd to the railhead. Someone is riding point, showing the way, others are riding flank to keep the herd from spreading out too much, and then some are riding at the back of the group of cattle, bringing up the rear. Those assigned to ride drag were usually the lowliest hands, the newest hires, or someone in trouble with the boss. Their job was to keep the herd moving, to handle any animals in difficulty (headstrong, caught in briars or a ditch and such). In so doing, they ate the dust of the entire herd and emerged covered with grime.
The word “deacon,” we’re told comes from the Greek diakonos, meaning literally “through the dust.” When problems arise within the congregation, when some church member is unhappy and spreading dissent, as a rule the worst person to deal with the cancer is the pastor himself. Why? Several reasons…
–In our congregational setup, often the pastor is the target of the unhappiness. So, in the crosshairs of someone’s gun, he is too personally invested to resolve this. Even when the issue is the pastor–he’s not doing his job, he’s doing it wrong, he’s out of town too much, preaching heresy, or needs to start wearing shoes in the pulpit–it’s best for a small group of lay leaders to deal with this. (See below for suggestions.)
–The pastor is vulnerable since his employment is always subject to change. I’ve known for pastors to hesitate before approaching a troublemaker in the congregation because “he’s a big giver and we need him for the major project the church is doing.” So, the man gets a free pass to stir up unhappiness in the church.
I took my first church in November of 1962. Over these decades, I’ve heard far too many tales of pastors either having their mouth closed for fear of losing their job or being fired because they took a stand against some Pharisee in the congregation. In the first case, the pastor needs to be courageous even at the risk of losing his job. And in the second case, he should wear his termination as a badge of honor. But even so it’s better to let the deacons handle the problem, even when the issue is the pastor himself.
Here’s why the deacons make better trouble-shooters…
-The trust level is high with the deacons. As servants, when they do their work well, people believe in them and trust them. The congregation knows them, often better than they know the preacher. Our Lord taught, “He who would be great among you should be your servant.” (See Luke 22:24-27 and Matthew 20:25-28) The point of that, which is not always obvious to everyone, is that when we serve faithfully, people trust us. They know we have no axe to grind and have their best interests at heart. Because they trust us, they receive our counsel and advice and they follow us.
-The deacons cannot be pressured. The bully who demands his own way and throws his weight around has no hold over the deacons. He has no leverage he can use against them. He cannot threaten to fire the deacons. So, they are able to speak to him man-to-man, without fear of his bluster. (The deacon who will not speak truth to the blustery troublemaker out of cowardice or fear has no business being a deacon. Courage is a huge factor in church leadership.)
-The deacons know the church as few others do. They know the history, know who has a record of stirring up strife, and have experience in dealing with previous issues. They know what the congregation will stand for and where to draw the line.
-The deacons stay. Deacons do not come and go as we pastors often do. No one can accuse them of being on an ego trip, of trying to build a reputation, or using this church as a means of getting a bigger church.
Let me offer some suggestions on how God’s troubleshooters should go about dealing with troublemakers:
-First, once it becomes obvious that someone is stirring up strife, deacons who learn of this should consult with the pastor. Make sure of what you are doing. If you wade into the situation without knowing the facts, you could end up defending the wrong person, attacking someone doing right.
-Second, with the approval of the pastor, in most cases a couple of deacons will want to make an impromptu visit with the instigator of the problem. (Note: two deacons; do not go alone.)
-Do not try to make an appointment., just drop in. You’re only going to be there for a few minutes. In many cases, the dissenter will try to avoid you if you call for an appointment. Or they’ll insist on knowing the details over the phone.
-Third, during the visit ask the person to tell you why he/she is unhappy and is spreading dissent. You want to hear them out. In some cases, they have a legitimate gripe and you will need to have to do something about it.
-Fourth, at the end of your visit, assure them you will be back shortly. Have a brief prayer and leave.
-Fifth. Report to the pastor and deal with the issue if it can be addressed. Then, report to the individual. Pray with them and ask them to help you spread unity in the congregation.
-Sixth, if the individual is in the wrong with his/her dissent, give them the right information. Then, ask them to spread their unhappiness no further for the sake of the Lord’s work.
Here are some concepts to keep in mind as you work with those stirring up trouble in the church:
- Unity is a far bigger deal to our Lord than it is to us (to our shame). See Ephesians 4. In John 17:21, 23 our Lord tied the unity of His people to evangelism. “That the world may believe.” When a church is divided, its evangelistic efforts come to naught.
- In a congregation of many people, no one gets their way all the time. There is always discussion and prayer and then a decision is made. Those who did not get their way should support the will of the majority.
- Ephesians 5:21 says, “Submit yourselves to one another in the fear of the Lord.” This simply means we should respect and love each other to the point that we do not insist on getting our own way. The rule is this: The stronger submits to the weaker. Simply stated, the weaker is not able to submit, but will demand his/her own way like a temperamental four-year-old. Only the stronger can put his own preference in the background and let others have their way even when he disagrees.
- The exception to letting others have their own way is when something really huge is at stake. If the gospel message (or a key doctrine such as the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, Salvation by Grace, inspiration of the Scriptures) is on the line, we draw a line in the sand and take our stand. But 99 percent of the divisive issues in our churches are concerned with lesser matters.
- Writing to the much-divided church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul said, “Why not rather accept wrong?” (I Corinthians 6:7). That is, rather than tear up the fellowship of a church in order to settle a grievance, why not go ahead and let yourself be wronged and go forward. Take one for the team, as we say. Only the strong can do that.
Deacons will sometimes have the opportunity to teach such concepts to the congregation. When they do, they help God’s people make giant strides toward maturity and effectiveness.
Written by Joe McKeever…reprinted with permission