Is it time to appoint deacons? What is the difference between a deacon and an overseer? What do they do in a DMM (Disciple Making Movement)? Can I call myself Bishop if I am the leader of a movement?
I’ve been writing a series on leadership development in Disciple Making Movements. This is Part Five of that series. Please remember that what I write is not to be applied to legacy or traditional churches. My goal is not to attack churches or tell anyone that their denominational tradition is wrong.
My aim is to help DMM practitioners look at scripture and consider how to apply these scriptures in a growing movement (DMM or CPM). One that needs leadership.
If you are not involved in trying to start a movement of disciples in your area, these articles may be interesting to consider. I must emphasize, however, that they should not be used to leverage criticism of existing church structures.
In this article, we will consider passages in the New Testament on deacons, bishops, and overseers. These terms may not be helpful to use in a DMM, but principles from these passages definitely will guide us.
The Burden Must Be Shared
Movements are demanding and costly. There is no getting around that. Starting one or two Discovery Bible Studies is not all that hard. Launching a movement that reproduces into many generations carries a great cost to the pioneers and leaders.
This price includes hours and hours on their knees, a sacrifice of time and focus, trials, persecution, and more.
Seriously pursuing a movement is not for the casual Christian but for those who carry such a passion for God and the lost that they can do nothing else.
Because of this great cost, it is important not to carry it alone. Leadership must be developed and the responsibility for the ongoing growth of the movement shared by a team.
We see this in the book of Acts. The apostles were tired and too busy to cope with all the needs. Demands of the people they loved and served became overwhelming. Something needed to change.
Their solution? Appoint deacons. Staying focused on prayer and the ministry of the Word was of high value.
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews[a] among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”– Acts 6:1-4 NIV. Italics mine.
What Do These Roles Involve?
Deacons were first appointed in Acts 6 to help with the distribution of food to widows. They were in charge of the community impact ministry. Widows needed to receive care, but these needs were time-consuming for the apostles to handle.
Today, in legacy churches, deacons handle things like finances, church property issues, etc. Movements do not have big buildings to manage and be accountable for. There are financial management issues though as people are taught to give.
It’s good for movement pioneers to hand these responsibilities over to trusted disciples. Keeping all the power and control over the money in your own hands is dangerous and inappropriate.
It is important to care for people in need within the movement and in society. How will the movement do this without it becoming a distraction? One that pulls apostolically gifted people away from their focus on prayer, the Word, and continuing to help the movement focus on the lost?
In End Vision statements (Module 1 of the Getting Started in Disciple Making Movements Course) we encourage people to include community transformation elements. What do you want to see happen as a result of thousands of people becoming Jesus’ followers in your area?Movement Pioneers Are Busy and Overwhelmed…How Can We Help? Click To Tweet
A movement can appoint and commission leaders to oversee these ministries within the broader movement.
What shouldn’t happen though, is to delegate this to particular leaders where it becomes only their job to do. Everyone in the movement must be trained in their responsibility to love and care for the poor around them.
As mentioned in my previous article, the Greek word presbuteros is sometimes translated as elder. It is also sometimes translated as overseer or bishop. In Acts 20:28 Paul speaks to the Ephesian elders and calls them overseers. Here the word is episkopos. These two words are used together in Phillipians 1:1. Overseer is also used in the lists in 1 Timothy and in Titus (see the previous article).
Thayer defines an overseer as someone who is “charged with the duty of seeing that things to be done by others are done rightly, any curator, guardian or superintendent.”
The word bishop in scripture is essentially the same word as overseer, just translated differently. See http://kingjamesbibledictionary.com/Dictionary/bishop. It is not used as a role above deacons but as one that functions side by side with deacons.
In the context of a DMM, the term overseer may prove helpful. It can be used for the appointment of those who organize training and equipping events. Or those who coordinate tracking, evaluation, and then feedback to all the leaders. The broader leadership of the movement then makes decisions about course correction, vision drift, goals, etc.
Overseers may also be key, experienced trainers, raised up within the DMM who travel to coach and train in various streams of the movement. They work hand in hand with the apostolic pioneers.
Timing and Team
Don’t rush to appoint overseers. Watch to see who is naturally doing this work out of their heart, not out of a position. Then, recognize them and commission them to this ministry. Allow spiritual leadership to be organic and service-driven not positional and hierarchical.
When do you appoint deacons? When the needs of the community demand it. Those who are apostolically gifted will be feeling tired and burdened by the details and needs of the movement. Take action before this stalls movement growth.
Spiritual leadership in a movement is a team affair. Apostolic leaders (the pioneer team) work hand in hand with those taking charge of other ministries, tracking finances and details, etc. All these roles are service oriented. These are not power structures. Leaders are called to influence, serve and equip others, not to rule or dictate decisions.
A Cautionary Reminder on the Use of Terms in a DMM
It can not be overstated that there is danger in using power terms (see Sarah Lanier’s book for more on this.) We are all royal priests commissioned by Jesus to do the work of the ministry. Don’t elevate yourself or let others raise you up. Take the low road. “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” Luke 14:11.
Calling yourself Deacon, Bishop, or Overseer can communicate the very opposite of that. These terms carry and communicate power. In most DMMs, people are simply referred to as trainers, coaches, by their own name, or as brother or sister, rather than by titles.
In the next article, I’ll share input from key movement leaders who are practically applying these things in their contexts.
Where Is Your Movement At?
These articles may be too advanced for where you are at in the movement you are attempting to launch. Take note of them. They may help you one day as you work through these issues.
If you are not yet at third-generation growth, don’t worry about this too much. Stay focused on the basics like finding Persons of Peace, starting groups, and getting those first generations to multiply.
It doesn’t hurt to learn and pray now though for future leadership development in the movement. That day will soon arrive. Amen?