Ah, the deacons.
Why is the deacon-board joke as common among pastors as the mother-in-law joke used to be with hack comedians?
It’s such a cliché that church boards are notoriously hard to deal with. So cliché that it can’t possibly be true, right? Riiight?!
Clichés don’t come from nowhere. Especially in small churches, deacon boards (your church may call them elder boards, counsels, or something else) are often a source of pastoral irritation and frustration more than support and counsel.
It’s not meant to be this way. When they serve as the New Testament intended, deacons should be working in tandem with the pastoral leadership, blessing the members, and helping guide the church into a better future filled with worship, fellowship, ministry, and kingdom impact.
One of the biggest questions I’m asked from small-church pastors is how to deal with a difficult board. There are no magic pills of course, and every situation has its unique aspects, but here are some principles that I regularly recommend.
1. Set a foundation of integrity, humility, and prayer
Pray about this. Then live honestly and humbly among them.
You can’t expect God to bless a church unless the pastor is living by this minimal baseline. Then, as you live with integrity among them, it sets a culture of integrity, humility, and prayer for them to follow as well.
There’s a lot of practical advice in the next nine points, but none of it means anything unless we start here.
2. Ask them to clarify their expectations
Everyone makes assumptions about what the pastor and deacons are supposed to do. When we don’t clarify those assumptions, it creates a great deal of stress that is impossible to overcome. Especially if the pastor is relatively new to the church, the pastor and deacons may be operating on different sets of assumptions that are causing conflict without even knowing why.
If assumptions create stress, clarity reduces stress. Two simple questions can be a great starting-point for much-needed clarity:
- What do you think the pastor’s role is, biblically?
- What do you think the deacon’s role is, biblically?
Make sure to keep the words “think” and “biblically” in the questions. “Think” keeps it away from the realm of feelings, and “biblically” clarifies that everyone should be striving for a common biblical understanding, not just trying to win their argument.
3. Rediscover what their (and your) biblical roles are
Have a simple devotional at the start of every meeting going through verses that outline the role of church leaders, followed by a short conversation about what they mean and how well everyone, including the pastor, is or is not living up to the New Testament standard.
If you do this, you may be shocked to discover how little most deacon boards actually know about what they’ve been called to do. And you may rediscover aspects of the pastoral role that help you, too.
4. Give them the ability to fulfill their role
As you rediscover the roles and duties of pastors and deacons, you may find that many deacon boards – and just as many pastors – aren’t following their biblical mandate because the church structure makes it hard to do so.
Together, you may have to do some hard work of clearing away anything that’s stopping church leaders from doing what the New Testament requires them to do.
5. Lead by example
You can’t expect them to do what you’re not willing to do.
Everything you do and say (and how you say it) sets either a good or bad example that they will either follow or oppose. Give them an example worth following.
6. Admit when you’re wrong
It was about nine months into my time at the church where I’ve now been for 30 years when I made my first big mistake. No, I won’t tell you what it was. I’d made small ones all along the way, but this one was a doozy.
At the next deacon meeting, I owned up to it. The room got awkwardly silent. They were waiting for a “but”. When I didn’t do that, the entire temperature of the room changed from tense to relieved. And so did my relationship with them.
They had gotten so used to pastors deflecting, blame-shifting, or otherwise minimizing their errors that they could hardly believe it when it didn’t happen.
Too many pastors think they will lose people’s respect if they take responsibility for their mistakes. The opposite is almost always true. (The only exception is if it’s an exceedingly toxic environment. But, even then, it’s best to be honest about your errors.)
That kind of honesty and vulnerability is far more rare than it should be, and it’s very compelling in a pastoral setting.
7. Get out ahead of problems
If the deacon board is always having to point out problems you either haven’t seen or haven’t mentioned, they will stop trusting you.
When you see a problem, say it. Whether it’s financial, spiritual, relational, or something else, deacons want to see that the pastor is aware and engaged. You don’t need to have all the answers, but you should be aware of the problems and willing to work on them together.
While we’re on the topic, can we please get rid of the old adage “don’t give me a problem unless you’re also giving me a solution?” All that does is stifle productive conversation.
8. Be the most prepared person in the room
From arriving early, to having notes and furniture set up, to reviewing the business and finances in advance, no one in that room should be more ready for the meeting than the pastor. Even if your system is set up where the pastor isn’t chairing the meeting, your preparation should be second-to-none.
Preparation reduces surprises, engenders trust, lowers your stress level, and tells them you care. Lack of preparation does the opposite. It increases surprises, diminishes trust, raises your stress level, and tells them you don’t care.
The Boy Scouts got this one right. Be prepared.
9. Don’t talk behind people’s backs
Gossip kills. If you talk behind their backs, they’ll find out – and they’ll talk behind yours.
Yes, you need someone you can vent to. But it shouldn’t be anyone in the church. Find a trusted pastor, denominational friend, or counselor who can help you process frustrations in a healthy way.
10. Stay long and stay loving
Sometimes, the only way to get past a difficult season with a deacon board is to win the endurance race.
No matter how difficult they are, don’t respond in any way that isn’t loving – strong, but loving. And with some members, it may be a long waiting game.
When we love difficult people, we’re being truly Christlike. And you can never go wrong with that.
(Photo by Thijs Paanakker | Flickr)