In his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey reviews 200 years of literature devoted to success and human development and distills these into seven basic principles. His conclusion is that successful and effective people, regardless of the time and place they lived in, shared some common characteristics that enabled them to become highly effective as artists, politicians, business people, teachers and so on. In essence, he says that they were people who were motivated by principles rather than profit, people who worked at being something rather than having something.
Using Mr. Covey's approach, I have studied the Bible and used my experience in church work to identify some of the characteristics that make for successful Christian living and effective ministry as elders and ministers.
In this chapter I would like to close out the series with a lesson describing the seven habits of highly effective deacons.
Steven as a Model – Acts 6-7
The Bible does not list the qualities needed for being effective as a deacon, like Mr. Covey does in his book, but it does give us a model we can study.
A man named Stephen was one of the first to be chosen by the church and appointed by the Apostles to serve the church in a special way. Many see him as the template for service as a deacon. In looking at his life, we can determine the kind of habits necessary to become effective as a deacon.
A brief portrait of him is given in Acts 6 and 7:
Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, "It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,
- Acts 6:1-5a
Effective Deacons are Spiritually Minded
Stephen was a man who believed and in whose life the Spirit was at work. Being "full" of the Spirit means that the Spirit is producing much fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, etc.) in you. It also means that the Word of the Spirit is alive in you (you know and obey it). Jesus said in John 4:23 that God is looking for those who will worship Him in spirit and truth. We mistakenly think that so long as deacons know how to do tasks like carpentry or web-hosting they are qualified, but the Bible says that the first criteria, the first habit that should be evident in them is that they be spiritually minded men, men who truly believe, know and practice the words of Christ.
Effective Deacons are Effective Workers
The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.
- Acts 6:7
Notice that the task of feeding the poor and widows is not mentioned again. What is mentioned, however, is the continued growth of the church, and along with that growth the probable increase in the need for ministry. Once the Apostles gave the task over to Stephen and the others, it was taken care of without further mention. This means that:
- The Apostles were free to minister the Word, pray and shepherd the church.
- The poor received the food they needed.
- The church continued to grow.
What was important to Stephen was the fact that the job was done and done right, not the fact that he was now a deacon. The task is what is important, not the title.
Deacons are the ones that do a lot of the "heavy lifting" in the church. This is the point of being a deacon. Deacons not only know how to serve, they want to serve and they are good at it because they have developed the habit of effective service.
Effective Deacons Submit to Leadership
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people.
- Acts 6:8
Although Stephen was already a man of great faith and spirituality, he did not see his role as one to advise or conflict with his leaders. He had the support of the congregation but did not use this to divide the church or develop a following or influence. He was not one to form a clique or challenge the elders, he merely did his work and allowed God to work in him.
Effective deacons respect the leadership of other men, even though these men may be weak and sinful at times. A deacon's wisdom is demonstrated in his submission. Even when he could exercise miraculous powers, Stephen continued to serve and submit to the leadership of the Apostles.
Effective Deacons Continually Develop Their Skills
But some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, including both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and argued with Stephen. But they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.
- Acts 6:9-10
Successful, effective deacons are always expanding their capacity to serve. Stephen, for example, began with the task of benevolence in food distribution, but he developed and used his other gifts as well. He used his gifts to evangelize and he used his wisdom to defend the faith.
Sometimes deacons think they are limited and can only do one thing, but in order to grow we must follow the pattern for growth which is relatively simple to explain. The pattern for personal growth in ministry is as follows:
- Learn how to do the job yourself
- Teach someone else to do the job well
- Learn a new job
- Repeat the cycle
This is how deacons grow, how they help the church to grow, and how they gain satisfaction from their work.
Effective Deacons Take Criticism Well
Then they secretly induced men to say, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God." And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came up to him and dragged him away and brought him before the Council. They put forward false witnesses who said, "This man incessantly speaks against this holy place and the Law; for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us." And fixing their gaze on him, all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel.
- Acts 6:11-15
Stephen's increased ability and ministry made him subject to attack. However, he was able to keep a sweet Christian spirit, even when unjust attacks were made against him. Anyone who has served the church knows that these kinds of attacks are the hardest of all to suffer. The ones we don't deserve are the ones that hurt the most.
Leadership of any kind is like that, it makes us visible, accountable and attackable. Deacons, and especially their wives, need to understand and accept this reality. The successful, effective deacon will be able to do his very best, be criticized for it, and still maintain his spiritual balance and enthusiasm.
Now we know that the successful deacon will have already cultivated this habit of weathering criticism because he will have already mastered this next habit even before being a deacon.
Effective Deacons Study the Word
In this long passage Stephen, as he is brought before the religious leaders of his day, is able to defend the faith that he has. He reviews the history of the Jews and God's dealings with them. This summary demonstrates that Stephen knew God's Word and knew it well.
In front of his accusers he was able to explain what God really said and meant in His Word. This required Bible reading and study. He was strong in the Scriptures and this made him a powerful witness when the opportunity came.
Stephen demonstrates that Bible study and service are not mutually exclusive things. I served at a congregation once where several of the deacons would roam the halls during Bible class and then hang out in the foyer during the sermon so they could open the doors at the end of service. They thought that their "service" in putting up communion trays or door monitoring excused them from sitting through a class or a sermon.
Being a deacon, or doing the work of a deacon, is not some kind of "hall pass" to get you out of studying God's Word. As a matter of fact, knowing the Word well is what enables a deacon to do and serve in ways that are in accordance to God's will and thus become effective. You see, it is not just what you do, or how much you do that makes you an effective deacon, it is if you do it according to the spirit and will of God, and for this to happen, you need to know His Word.
Effective Deacons Rely on God
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!" Having said this, he fell asleep.
- Acts 7:54-60
In his worst moment Stephen reveals the essential quality that made him an effective deacon, he relied totally on God. In everything he did, from serving food to preaching and debating which led to his witness of faith that cost him his life, Stephen was a man who sought after and depended on God. We need to understand that becoming a deacon has a double-edged quality to it: many times men are chosen for this role because they are talented, self-starters, successful, good organizers, etc. With time, however, we find out that these very qualities often lead these men to rely on themselves and their own skills or strength. The result is that these kinds of men often wait until they are in deep trouble before they will call on others or on God for help.
The highly effective deacon is a man who puts his talents, ability and resources into God's hands and depends wholeheartedly on the Lord to direct and support him in ministry.
Whether it is planting flowers, helping the poor, managing the budget or visiting and caring for the sick and dying, all things are done in the strength of the Lord and for His glory.
Isn't it amazing that it was not an Apostle or preacher or elder who was first martyred for Christ? It was a deacon! And isn't it amazing that the death of this deacon served as the catalyst for an evangelistic thrust that eventually brought one who supported his execution, Saul of Tarsus, to Christ?
The Bible says that deacons who serve well (meaning serve effectively) receive a high standing and have confidence in Christ (I Timothy 3:13). Stephen's life shows that he received both these things:
- He received honor (high standing) because he had the privilege of giving up his entire life in one moment for the glory of Christ.
- He had great confidence before death because God opened his eyes to see the kingdom of heaven, in heaven, and the Lord Himself there at the right hand of God. Stephen, like the Apostle John, saw all of this while still in his earthly body!
There is no guarantee that our deacons will not have to face death for Christ, and no promise that they will glimpse the heavenly realm while here on this earth, however, they do receive honor from the Lord in His Word for their service and are respected by the church for their special leadership role in ministry. In addition to this, they will have greater knowledge of and intimacy with the Lord as they grow to resemble Him more and more through their service in His name.
There are rewards for serving as a deacon and the wise deacon will pursue these through effective service.
I would like to take this opportunity to commend all deacons everywhere for their good work and exhort them to press forward in the search to be highly effective in their ministries.
This can be achieved by cultivating the habits I mentioned in this session:
- Spiritual mindedness
- Conscientious service
- Submission to leadership
- The ongoing development of skills
- A humble spirit in dealing with criticism
- A knowledge of God's Word
- An absolute trust in the Lord for all things
I hope that these habits will begin to describe your ministry and spirit as deacons as we all strive to serve the Lord with all our hearts, minds and strength. God bless you all in your ministries.