Jez Field
Giving Power to the Right People

How can you tell who the important people are in an organisation? By the number of people you have to get through before you can talk to them? By how much they get paid? By the level of decision-making power they have? Whatever the answer, it’s clear that organisational importance is a perceptible concept.

How would new people in our churches answer the same question? More importantly, would their answers pass Jesus’ test in Matthew 20?

You know the story, Jesus’ auntie petitions him with the request that her boys (his cousins) get special treatment in his kingdom. Jesus’ reply offers valuable insight into his vision for how church should be structured:

“You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave.”

“Amazing!”, we cry. “Radical! Revolutionary! An example of the upside-down kingdom…” But do we obey Jesus’ command? “It shall not be so among you.” It’s a strong statement. He really doesn’t want us to look like the gentile rulers.

The usual application, not wrong, is to stress that leaders within the church are to be servant leaders, those who model Jesus’ sacrificial, servant-hearted leadership. But what if there was meant to be more to it than simply a lesson in leadership values? Saying that leaders must lead as servants is true and vitally important, but what if we took it a step further? What if we said that our servants must be our leaders? That would certainly fit with how the early church came to organise itself. Whilst I appreciate the danger of playing word games with a foreign language, it’s not unreasonable to point out that the word for servant ‘deaconos’ became one of only two key offices of leadership within the early church: deacon.

Elders were an established reality within Judaism, everyone knew what they did, but deacons – who are they? Was the creation of servant leaders a dramatic and intentional application of Jesus’ command? A way of placing power in the hands of the ones you wouldn’t expect? In the early church were the deacons more notorious than the elders? Consider the fact that despite naming dozens of people who helped him in ministry, the apostle Paul doesn’t name any of them as ‘elders in the church’, but one of the deacons at Cenchreae, Phoebe, gets honoured in this way.

So, do our churches reflect a model of decision-making authority and public esteem that embodies Jesus’ value system?

As an elder, I’m aware of the challenges this poses to the way I lead and I’m aware that simply by virtue of my role in church life and being the only full-time paid member of staff, I get given my fair share of ‘greatness’ or power. I get to make all sorts of decisions and when new people join us I am often introduced as the leader of the church. I can’t help thinking that in my church, and in many churches like mine, it isn’t the deacons who are the greatest but the elders.

I’m not sure our communities are as subversive of ‘gentile’ leadership patterns as Jesus intended them to be.

There’s lots more that could be said on this, but recently we took a few intentional steps to try to change the culture.

Visual arrangement matters. When we appointed elders recently, we asked them not to stand on the stage, but on the floor with the congregation (they are meant to be servant leaders after all). We then had our deacons stand on the stage praying alongside our apostolic delegate, recognising them as elders within the church. We thought about how things look to others and the ways in which we elevate people, physically as well as metaphorically.

Sometime later when we were appointing a new deacon we publicly appointed and prayed for her in much the same way we did for our elders. We gave the church a few weeks’ notice and then invited her to the front, onto the stage, where we prayed and prophesied over her.

I was encouraged recently to see how our friends at Kings Church Eastbourne took the decision to propose new elders and deacons to the church alongside each other (cover image), bringing them each to the stage and honouring them each publicly.

We’re incomplete and imperfect but we’re clear about the journey we’re on and the kind of church we believe Jesus wants us to be. The question is who are the ‘greatest’ among you in your church? How could I tell? Are they the ones Jesus intended them to be, or could you do with a little shake up to ensure power is given to the right people?