by Stuart Jones
The American Dream continues to challenge and inspire people of all ages and backgrounds. Motivated by the ascending rungs of the corporate ladder, employees seek to rise to the next level of success, while supervisors seek to rise to the next level of recognition. The beauty of the system is the seemingly limitless opportunity for achievement and advancement. In some parallels, these same motivators challenge the Church to fulfill the mission laid before us by Christ himself. Battling complacency and constantly pursuing excellence promotes God-honoring advancement of His Kingdom on Earth.
However, within the church leadership structure adopted by most congregations, ladder rungs that mimic the American Dream have the potential to bring about a “holy nightmare.” As we read Scripture, we discover key positions and roles that should structure the local church. Searching the text, we can find the role of deacon defined as those who are called to action with spiritually-enlarged hearts for service. Elders – shepherds – are defined as the pastors or overseers that God calls to lead a congregation. And sprinkled throughout Scripture, we find the roles of staff or ministers who professionally direct and lead areas of ministry. These Scriptural definitions hold throughout time and governance. But their placement, interaction and value have suffered unfortunate alterations through the lens of the American Dream.
The American Church has embraced a corporate ladder mentality of leadership that typically flows in ascending order from volunteers to deacons to elders and staff. Those seeking to find success and advancement within the church, and within the Kingdom of God, are encouraged to strive for the next rung of the ladder. For example, great volunteers are challenged to become deacons, while deacons are simply waiting to become elders. This hierarchical structure for leadership does not exist in the New Testament! Did some deacons become elders? That seems probable. Did some elders become staff? That most likely defines the “elder of double-honor.” Yet, churches falsely assume that the expectation for achievement and advancement through the leadership roles is implied in the New Testament leadership structure. It is not.
Instead, the New Testament highly values those who accept the roles they are gifted and called to perform. Deacons are men who implement and complete the ever-growing tasks and needs of the church. The role of deacon or high calling of servant leader is not a steppingstone to pastoring or overseeing a congregation. Those who bring action to the ministry of the church and those who bring wisdom to the ministry of the church are often two very different groups made up of very differently gifted individuals. Church leadership structures often create a progression of roles and titles that may very well inhibit the God-given gifts of individuals within the church.
Will many deacons become strong elders in a church? That transition does often happen. However, we cannot assume these are the next steps in the American Faith Dream. Many who are gifted in implementing and accomplishing tasks and projects are needed as servants and doers for the duration of their time on this earth. The time that deacons serve does provide an opportunity for the church to gain trust and confidence in their leadership potential. However, the value of servant leadership must not be perceived as an inferior rung to shepherding leadership.
Paul said, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?” (1 Cor. 12:17). We apply these exaggerated questions to the congregation as we seek out volunteers. However, we seem reluctant to equally value the multiple leadership layers of the church. If all elders became deacons, who would spiritually guide the church? If all deacons became elders, how would anything ever get done? “But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” (1 Cor. 12:18). Leave the corporate ladder on the ground and celebrate the leaders God has placed in your church, exactly as He wanted them to be.