By John D. Pierce

CommunionBaptist churches often take on forms and functions assumed to be the norm or even biblically directed for all times. Such was long the case for deacons.

A leadership structure evolved and solidified in many Baptist churches that placed enormous power in a male-dominated deacon “board” — with no biblical precedence — charged with stamping their approval on everything the minister and other lay leaders sought to do. That’s not an indictment of every faithful male deacon, but a broader description of a sociological reality.

Fortunately over past decades many of those congregations have sought to bring the lay ministry function of the diaconate to the forefront, to have more representative decision making in the church, and to be more inclusive of those with the best gifts and commitments for service — including women.

As a college student attending the First Baptist Church of Rome, Ga., I recall my surprise at seeing a female hand extend the Communion elements to be to be passed along the pew. (In that Baptist way of sharing the Lord’s Supper, as my friend and former pastor Jim Dant has noted, we all have been served Communion by women: anytime we’ve sat beside one.)

Many congregations over the years have examined and reshaped their organizational structures to be more inclusive and effective — providing avenues for gifts and calling to be expressed. Some structure their deacon service around ministry gifts while others focus on families.

Interestingly, and appreciatively, at the births of both daughters our family deacons were women: Alice Crenshaw and Libby Allen. They were wonderful ministry representatives of the congregations at those celebratory times.

That is not to say that only women can serve this function — but there certainly are many women who minister in this way and other ways so well who were long excluded by sexist thinking and selective Bible rendering.

When my father died, it was deacon Eugene Espy — whose engaging tale of being the second through-hiker to complete the Appalachian Trail that I’ve told in print and interview — who came to provide support and a comforting word to me. The fact that I vividly recall these experiences during life’s transitional times speaks to their importance.

And there have been other wonderful deacons who’ve reached out to me and my family through the years.

There are many good resources to help churches in organizing leadership structures. I’m not one of them. But opening opportunities for more laypersons to use their gifts in ministry is always a move in the right direction.

And thanks to Alice and Libby and Gene — and other faithful deacons — for being present when your presence was needed. Your service — and that of countless other lay leaders who serve so faithfully — is appreciated.

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