Church Growth: Getting the Elders Out of the Way, Part 1

churchgrowthl.jpgI’m a big believer in a church having elders. And my belief is not just Biblical (although that would be quite enough). I’ve worked with churches that have no elders, and they often run into serious problems (that’s a topic for another day).

But eldership-led churches have trouble growing. Well, that’s not entirely true. The largest megachurches — like Willow Creek — have elders. They just don’t get in the way.

I spoke with some men who attended one of the recent unity conferences with the independent Christian Churches. They’d run into a colossal irony. The Christian Church members who’d attended the meeting were blown away by our preachers. They were amazed at the excellence in preaching enjoyed by the Churches of Christ. But the Christian Churches are growing much faster than we are. And they’re producing much larger congregations.

Hmm … How can it be that churches grow faster and larger with weaker preaching? Plainly, it’s all about leadership. Well, it could also have something to do with the music, you know (but we’ll talk about that later). But the Christian Church leaders credited much of their success to adopting the Carver Leadership Model (more precisely, the Policy Governance Model). If you’ve ever heard of that, it was probably in the context of a nonprofit board meeting, because many such organizations are going this direction.

John Carver wrote Boards that Make a Difference, proposing a new approach to CEO/board relationships. Consider these contrasting possibilities (stated in church terms) —

* A decorative eldership. The preacher runs the church and the elders yield to his decisions. They are not leaders but may help the preacher effectuate his plans.

* A dominant eldership. The preacher is a hired hand to preach sermons and teach classes but has no involvement in leadership. He doesn’t attend elders meetings and may not be kept informed of the elders’ plans.

* A co-equal eldership. The preacher is a de facto elder. He attends meetings, participates, and decisions are based on consensus — including the preacher.

* A led eldership. The elders meet with the preacher, who serves as, in effect, chairman of the board. He sets the agenda but can’t make decisions without elder input and acquiescence.

* Prophetic preacher. The elders meet and act autonomously, but the preacher has permission to preach to them as well — insisting that they fulfill their scriptural roles. He is not an elder but reminds the elders of their spiritual roles as needed.

I’ve seen all these models in effect. Some work quite well at a particular location, but none has proven effective at church growth.

Here’s the Carver model —

The elders set vision and purpose. The preacher and the rest of staff effect the vision and purpose and are held accountable for success or failure by the elders. The elders specify limits on what the preacher can do, and so long as the preacher acts within these limits, he is not subject to second-guessing.

An eldership might, for example, specify that worship would always be a cappella and communion weekly and otherwise allow the worship minister to run worship as he sees fit, subject to the daily oversight of the preacher (a larger church might have an administrative minister who exercises day to day control, while the preacher concentrates on preaching and a other specified ministries).

Here’s a summary of the model, converted to church terminology, from a consulting website

In contrast to the approaches typically used by [elderships], Policy Governance separates issues of organizational purpose (ENDS) from all other organizational issues (MEANS), placing primary importance on those Ends. [Elderships] demand accomplishment of purpose, and only limit the staff’s available means to those which do not violate the [eldership]’s pre-stated standards of prudence and ethics.

The [eldership]’s own Means are defined in accordance with the roles of the [eldership], its members … and any committees the [eldership] may need to help it accomplish its job. This includes the necessity to “speak with one voice”. Dissent is expressed during the discussion preceding a vote. Once taken, the [eldership]’s decisions may subsequently be changed, but are never to be undermined. The [eldership]’s expectations for itself also set out self-imposed rules regarding the delegation of authority to the staff and the method by which [eldership]-stated criteria will be used for evaluation. [Elderships] delegate with care. There is no confusion about who is responsible to the [elders] or for what [elders] expectations they are responsible. Double delegation (for example, to [an eldership] committee as well as to the [preacher]) is eliminated. Furthermore, [elderships] that decide to utilize a [administrative minister] function are able to hold this one position exclusively accountable.

Evaluation, with such carefully stated expectations, is nothing more than seeking an answer to the question, “Have our expectations been met?” The [eldership], having clarified its expectations, can assess performance in that light. This focused approach reduces the mountains of paperwork [elderships] often feel obliged to review. Moreover, those [elderships] which worry that they are only furnished the data management wants to give them find that, in stating their expectations and demanding a relevant and credible accounting of performance, they have effectively taken over control of their major information needs. Their staff no longer has to read their minds.

Now, there’s another element of the model we have to focus on. Carver insists that the board (the elders) represent the “owners.” For a church, who are the owners? Our first inclination is to say the members. The members selected the elders, after all. The members make the contributions and volunteer for the jobs. But they are not the owners.

Only a moment’s reflection corrects us, to specify that there’s only one owner, and that’s Jesus. Under this model, the elders speak for Jesus. But that’s problematic, too. I mean, it’s just so vague.

Do they speak for the Jesus who insists on how worship is to be conducted? The Jesus who is concerned with our personal finances? The Jesus who is concerned for our children?

Well, this is, by far, the most important policy decision the elders have to make. I mean, the elders can’t just specify that the preacher will be judged by everything Jesus cares about. We have to decide what’s the most important aspect of Jesus.

I think the correct answer is: the Jesus who came to seek and save the lost, the Jesus who loves the unlovable, who eats with prostitutes, sinners, and publicans.

Therefore, the elders speak for a lost, hurting, needy world, beloved by the Savior. He’s the ultimate shareholder. Others may see things differently. But it’s a critically important conversation to have.

The model thus calls for the elders to be servant-leaders of the owner (Carver actually says “servant-leaders,” although he consults primarily for secular organizations). The elders aren’t the bosses. Rather, they serve the desires of the owner.

[An eldership] that is committed to representing the interests of [Jesus] will not allow itself to make decisions based on the best interests of those who are not [Jesus]. Hence, [elders] with a sense of their legitimate ownership relationship can no longer act as if their job is to represent staff, or other agencies, or even today’s [members]. …

We are not saying that current [members] are unimportant, nor that staff are unimportant. They are critically important, just as suppliers, customers, and personnel are for a business. It is simply that those roles do not qualify them as owners. They are due their appropriate treatment. To help in their service to [Jesus], [elder] must learn to distinguish between [Jesus] and [members], for the interests of each are different.

In the next post, we’ll consider the pros and cons of this approach — and then we’ll see if we can improve on it a bit.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Church Growth: Getting the Elders Out of the Way, Part 1

  1. Alan says:

    Interesting thoughts. I tend to think of elders as having delegated authority from Jesus. So they have a pretty broad latitude, but within limits established by Jesus. Their goals are specified by Jesus. And their results will be evaluated by Jesus (1 Cor 3, 4). They can only delegate the authority has been given them. And whether or not they delegate that authority, the elders themselves will be held accountable for the results, because they are the ones God appointed to that responsibility.

  2. Melina says:

    I often think of this verse 1 Timothy 5:17
    "The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching"

    Are we artificially separating the jobs? Here are mentioned that some of the elders preach and teach while all of them direct the affairs of the church. Other people in the church also do some preaching and teaching and evangelising. Can't they all get along and work together?
    Five or 10 men can't share a vision, delegate workload and work together without stepping on toes? Without a corporate governance model? If the preacher is a younger man oughtn't he be submissive to the older men as it says in 1Peter? and all parties clothed with humility towards each other? Sorry if I'm missing the point, but sounds like we have to start from a point of consensus-building and not who's getting out of who's way and who's controlling whom. The only way I know of to grow the church is for people to share the gospel with non-believers, which is why I like to see the paid preacher/minister spend the majority of his time speaking to and teaching non-believers whether one-on-one or in seekers' classes. He could do that all week and the elders could take turns preaching to the flock on Sunday.
    Sorry for the ranting, but I have strong feelings about it.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    It's not a question of getting along. Countless elderships and ministers get along while attending churches that do not grow and do not convert the lost. Getting along is essential, of course. It's just not enough.

    And it is, of course, also critical that the staff and elders work together as a team. But, as in any team, the question comes: what role does each member play? Not everyone gets to be coach or quarterback.

    In a larger church, if the elders try to run the plays themselves (to continue the metaphor), they'll do a lousy job because they are part-time amateurs. At some point, they have to step back and let the staff and other leaders within the church take on a greater role. Overly controlling elderships can quickly choke off a church's ministry or growth.

    Now, the LAST thing the preacher should do is focus on teaching the lost. Rather, as a leader, and following Eph. 4, he should equip others to do so (as should the elders). The minister might well handle hard questions, but for a church to grow, the members have to do most of the evangelism. For a larger church, it's even more important.

    Of course, the preacher should, like any member, be evangelistic, but if the church shouldn't hire him to do THEIR job. Rather than the members supporting the preacher in his evangelistic efforts, the elders and ministers should support the members in THEIR evangelistic efforts. That's really how a church grows.

    The Carver model is not a business model but a model for nonprofits, like the March of Dimes or such. These organizations aren't churches but have something in common with churches — both have a mission to serve the needy. That makes for, to me, an intriguing comparison, as we all-too-often ignore that aspect of church.

  4. Melina says:

    Thanks for the reply. I didn't mean to say that the members don't have to evangelise as well. We all do.
    I don't clearly understand the other points. You may be more familiar with situations of overcontrolling elders; I'm not familiar with that. I see my elders as mature, godly men who are leaders, sound teachers and role models in the congregation. They seem to be facilitating ministry, not choking it. But I will re-read your article again; I think I missed your point.

  5. Jay says:


    Both an interesting and troubling idea. I generally like the idea, as I too have seen many a growing congregation led "off the rails" by an eldership or a "head elder" within the eldership clashing directly with a popular minister/preacher. However, it is troubling because I see it as limiting the "Shepherding of the Flock" role to that of the corporate flock. How do you see the shepherding of individual christians, both faithful and straying, fitting into this model?


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