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The Evolving Role of Deacons in the Church

Some of today’s churches are modern structures, housing sophisticated, educated members and often operated in a very businesslike environment requiring both accountability and transparency.  I met with four deacons of historic Second Mount Zion Baptist Church which started in 1865, the year of the 13th Amendment ending slavery in all the United States.  The church is under the pastorate of Reverend Theodus Drake, Jr.  The four as shown above are Deacons Prince Reid, Jr., Chairman of the Board, Bobby Johnson, John Culbreath and Woody Givens.  Johnson has served 31 years, Culbreath 20 and Givens 15, all seasoned servants.  According to Chairman Reid, the church has a total of 29 ordained or appointed deacons.

Each of these men are accomplished in their own right outside of the church.  They are, and continue to be, pillars of this community.  We celebrate their service in the broader community and their leadership in the church as deacons.  According to them, being an effective leader in the community is almost a prerequisite to carrying out the duties of a deacon in today’s church. While in the early church, deacons actually ran the church; the duties today are more dispersed.  In the old church the deacons selected the pastor, served the membership, came in early to start the fire in winter, maintained the finances, collected the dues or salary, conducted devotion, hired the musicians and kept the building and grounds. Of course, many churches in the early days only met once each month, especially in rural areas, and ministers often pastored more than one church.  Also, membership was often less than 100 on average.

According to the assembled deacons, the big changes have been in how the church functions in members’ lives and the number of activities that take place at the church.  While in past churches, the number of members often allowed the minister to know each member and their families well, including their ancestors, today’s churches are often larger and it is impossible for some ministers to know the members quite so well although some still try to make it a priority, taxing themselves quite a bit to do so.  Second Mt. Zion membership is divided into 12 tribes, as in the 12 tribes of Israel, each headed by a deacon.  The tribal deacon’s primary responsibility is to look after the well-being of their members, to know when they are sick, to know when their children graduate and keep up with births, deaths and other important life events.

Another factor that changed the role of deacons is the hiring of professional staff and full-time pastors and associate pastors.  The deacons of old were volunteers and had to put in many hours to carry out the various and often difficult tasks assigned to them which included at times hard physical labor.  The church also rotates duties so as not to overburden any one deacon.  There are paid staff as well to clean buildings, professional musicians, accountants and building contractors.  This church is known for the limestone rocks that form the exterior of the old church.  The history is that the rocks were quarried by hand by members and hauled with buckets and wagons to the site and then constructed by some of the deacons.  Can you imagine that today?

We talked quite a bit about the change in devotionals in churches.  When a deacon was ‘set aside’ or in training for ordination, part of that training included how to lead devotion.  They were taught how to pray and how to lead hymns.  The rhythmic delivery of both prayer and song that is so much a part of the old church developed into an art and is carried today in many churches in a form particular to the history of the black church.  Singing during devotionals was almost exclusively acapella, without music and only done with voice, the clapping of hands and stomping of feet.  Dea. Reid talked about his quest of learning to memorize the lines of hymns and how Dea. Clinton Melton taught him how to do it.  It was a learned art, passed down from generation to generation.  The history is that following slavery, there were few in the newly organized churches who could read the lines in the hymn books, therefore, the few that could would read the lines and the membership would rhythmically chant the lines back, creating an original art form that today is waning in favor of Praise Worship style of devotion.

Dea. Culbreath reminded us of the Biblical words setting forth the character of deacons.  He recited Acts, Chapter 6:3-4, “Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” When asked what some of the character traits of an effective deacon are, here are some they listed:  Patience, compassion, sensitivity, commitment, be personable, but most of all, they must be dedicated to the body of Christ, the church.  A deacon must be giving of his time and treasure, he must be a tither.

As the discussion turned to how deacons are selected, it was acknowledged that selection varied from church to church, especially among Baptist churches that generally tend to more independent as compared to some other churches with deacons.  Generally, Baptist deacons are ordained or appointed.  In the old church, deacons were almost exclusively ordained, however, they are currently appointed by the pastor.  At the end of the set aside period, there was an actual ordination ceremony which no longer takes place in most churches.

As we concluded our discussion on the evolving role of deacons, all were asked for a concluding quote.  Here is some of what they provided.

Deacon Culbreath said that in 1996 when looking for a church home for him and his family, he visited Second Mt. Zion and the sounds approaching the church through the parking lot and the welcoming atmosphere were enticing.  He said it, “reminded me of my family’s church, Good Hope Baptist Church.  Dea. Roosevelt Gaines asked the pastor if we had a church home.  He told him to ask us.  When we answered that we did not yet have a church home, Dea. Gaines said, “you got one now.”  The church applauded and we became members on the following Sunday.”  You see what one deacon can do, bring in the sheep.

Deacon Johnson said that, “my service as a steward (equivalent to deacon) in the CME church started at age 18 when my father had a stroke and I had to assume his responsibilities.  It was always expected that I would assume a leadership role in the church.  It is part of my heritage.”

Deacon Givens’ roots are deep at Second Mt. Zion.  “My grandfather was a deacon here and my mother is a lifelong member.  Although, my life took me in a different direction, when things shifted in my life and I became committed to my faith and also felt an obligation to transport my mom, I was slowly led to service as a deacon.”

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