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To Preach or Serve Tables?

by on January 23, 2017


(Clarification: although the words have unique meanings related to the role of church leaders, I will use terms like elder, pastor, shepherd, and overseer interchangeably in this post)

I’m blessed to be a member of a church where deacons serve a vital role. Men who bear that title have a daily, tangible impact on my life, and that gives our pastors the opportunity to shepherd more faithfully. Having attended churches in the past which (admittedly) struggle with the distinctions between elders and deacons, I now enjoy the fruits of a ministry that has found clarity in this area. I yearn for everyone to get a healthy grasp on these roles so all Christians can experience the same.

I’ve known numerous pastors who were willing (even eager!) to serve the physical needs of the church. While I commend them for their humble, servant attitudes, doing so actually handcuffs their ability to serve the spiritual needs of Christ’s body. I believe this happens because Christians lack a biblical understanding of elder and deacon roles. Church members expect their elders to meet every need, but the church functions best when we align ourselves with God’s design. I’m convinced that a key reason for the fruitful pastoral ministry at our church is the faithful service of the deacons. I could make a list of all the tasks our deacons perform, but we’d be better served by considering the lesson in Acts chapter 6.

When the Apostles oversaw the appointment of deacons (note: although the word “diakonos”, which means servant or minister, is not used in Acts 6, we understand this to be the institution of the office of deacon), their reasoning was simple,

“It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2).

No one said serving tables (or, by extension, all physical needs) wasn’t important, but just that it wasn’t the duty of the Apostles, who laid a foundation for the role of pastor-overseer. Pastors are not above planning meal schedules or helping church members move, but they are called to another role, one so vital that it must not be neglected. The Apostles understood their responsibility,

“We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).

A few years ago, I had an enlightening conversation with one of my pastors, who happened to be devoting a lot of time to planning an upcoming church event. He was a lay elder, so his shepherding time was limited by his full-time job and his primary ministry to his family. In our meeting, he was fulfilling his pastoral role by counseling me, but he was also worried about his assignments for the special festivities. I had the opportunity to remind him of Acts 6 and encourage him not to burden himself with the event, since his primary role was that of a shepherd.

The Bible tells us my pastor’s time would have been better spent in prayer and teaching, rather than finding church members to fill roles and provide food items. Assuming an event is worthwhile, then it’s important for someone to handle logistical tasks, but not a man whom the Holy Spirit has made a shepherd of God’s flock. We “regular” Christians can be a great encouragement to our pastors by not asking things of them that should be done by deacons or even other non-leaders from the congregation.

If you are a pastor, you must not spend your time planning events or creating church budgets in lieu of shepherding the flock through teaching and prayer, for to this you have been called! You may oversee the forming of budgets, but to give up counseling time to balance line items is a waste of the gifts God has entrusted to you. Some of you may gather in rented spaces for worship, meaning you have “church-in-a-box” that must be set up and torn down every Sunday. And you probably think you should lead by example by showing up early to un-stack chairs and plug in audio equipment. This might sound odd, but I want to suggest that you skip setup and let someone else do it. Letting everyone else carry chairs doesn’t make you lazy, but it might make you a more faithful overseer of God’s church. What pastor couldn’t use an extra hour to fine-tune his sermon or pray for those who will gather to hear it?

If you scan the whole of the New Testament, you’ll find that virtually every activity undertaken by elder-shepherds falls under the umbrella of “prayer and the ministry of the word”. It really is that simple. I’ve heard too many stories of overburdened pastors, many of them bi-vocational, who struggle to find time to prepare sermons and meet regularly with their congregants, which hurts the whole church. Even worse, many of these men work so hard in their pastoral ministry that they sacrifice family time and disqualify themselves by failing to manage their own households well.

I want to encourage pastors to simplify their ministries until they can do the most important things well. If that means cancelling events or even getting rid of a few church programs, then glory to God! Those programs probably weren’t necessary in the first place. The Bible is clear that you will be held to a strict standard for the way you shepherd the souls under your care, so throw yourself into the study of God’s word and into improving your preaching. Part of your responsibility includes teaching your church what the Bible says about elder and deacon roles, so you may be unintentionally misleading them by taking on time-consuming tasks for which others are better suited. Weed out any duties that don’t fall under your teaching and prayer ministry, and I believe you’ll be amazed at the increased fruitfulness that follows.


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