Church Growth: Getting the Elders Out of the Way, Part 3

churchgrowthl.jpgIn re-reading these posts on Church Growth, it occurred to me that I’d opened — but not answered — the central question: Just how do elders get in the way?

Let me begin by saying that elders aren’t alone in this. We normally all conspire together with the staff and the members to keep on doing things the same way that didn’t work last year and isn’t going to work next year. But the elders are particularly in the way because, in a Church of Christ, nothing changes except through the elders.

I mean, elders are overseers and shepherds. Elders set the doctrinal direction of the church. Elders hire the ministers. Elders decide the vision and direction of the church. If you were to draw a chart of how decisions get made, the decisions that either lead to growth or defeat growth nearly all have to pass through the eldership.

Now, I’m not saying elders are in the way of the ministerial staff (although they sometimes are). I think they’re more in God’s way. I mean, it’s God who wants the church to expand, who wants his will done on earth as it is in heaven.

So here are some examples of how elders get in God’s way —

* Bad theology. Legalism will never grow the church.

* Catering to the loud 5%. Elders often yield their decision making to the loud, belligerent few — to people that the church would never name as elders. The effect is to give un-ordain, un-qualified people the power to veto the elders chosen by the congregation. It’s wrong.

* Meeting issues to death. Elders are committees and typically operate by consensus. This means decision making is slow.

Now some truly big decisions really ought to be worked over for months, decision like the vision of the church or how the church will seek and save the lost. But elderships are often guilty of spending so much time worrying over the security system or building plans or the budget that they never get around to what’s really important.

* Not working with the ministers. Some elders have such a weak understanding of scripture that they think they must operate separate from the ministerial staff. As a result, the people who are involved fulltime in ministry aren’t consulted and their talents and insights are wasted.

* Lack of faith. Faith isn’t building a building 5 times larger than you need, counting on God to fill it. Rather, faith is making the hard, dangerous, scary decisions required to grow and counting on God to bless you for relying on him. Then he’ll fill the building.

* Failure to shepherd. The church is desperate for pastoral care for its elders. But elders generally don’t have enough time to care for the flock in this way because they’re tied up otherwise.

* Failure to train. Sadly, the Churches of Christ are just abysmal at training elders. You’d think some college or really big church would start a training program for new elders. As a result, we pretty much have to train ourselves.

Fortunately, there are lots and lots of books and internet sites with wonderful, helpful, Godly material. In fact, there’s so much, it’s hard to keep up! But any elder willing to spend a little time browsing or doing Google searches or even just talking to the preacher and elders in sister congregations can work up a post-graduate education in how to do the job. Many don’t.

* Failure to vision. I’m sure there’s an actual verb for “vision” that I’m not able to think of this late, but you get my point. If the church has no vision for where it’s headed, it’s headed nowhere.

* Failure to lead. Elders are not called to be glorified office managers and CFOs. We are called to lead. We once had a preacher who liked to say, “A leader is someone (a) who knows where he’s going (b) with people following.” We often fail on both counts.

* Failure to teach. Not every elder is a capable teacher. But all elders should recall that one of their Biblical tasks is teaching. “Teaching” doesn’t mean telling the class things they already know. Nor is it affirming people in their beliefs. Rather, teaching means helping people learn new things.

Of course, elders can make people mad if they insist on teaching them stuff they don’t already know. Most of us just want to be comforted with venerable truths we’ve heard a thousand times. But what we need is to be brought to ever-greater maturity and understanding. (Find the resources. Learn. Then teach. If they fire you, well, it doesn’t pay that much anyway, now does it?)

* Failure to use available resources. Elders should routinely attend lectureships, read the latest books, and be in conversation with other elders across the country. But, rather than use the resources God has given us, we fail to learn the skills and gain the knowledge our churches need from us.

Whew! I feel better now.

Okay. Not every eldership is like this. My church’s eldership is truly innocent of most of these sins — but not all. I’m sure that no eldership has it all together. But some are making great strides.

But any elder reading this has surely concluded that this is a difficult, tall, time-consuming order. And it is.

You see, the biggest failings of elderships are (a) trying to do too little and (b) trying to do too much. Both get in God’s way.

The solution is to thoughtfully define what only elders can do and then delegate all they can to the ministers, to committees, etc. and retain only the essential parts of the job — the parts only elders can do — praying that they can get that part done very, very well.

The Carver model does not, by itself, solve all these bad elderish habits. But it will free the elders to spend more time on the essentials, which just has to help.

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 3

  1. Alan says:

    Being an effective elder (shepherd and overseer) takes a lot of time. And as you point out, part of that time should be devoted to continuing education in things directly applicable to the task. In depth study of the scriptures is at the top of that list.

    I think most of the administrative trivia that often preoccupies elders should be delegated to deacons (and not micromanaged).

    Part of the real solution is for elders to devote full time to serving the church, and to be supported financially by the church ("double honor", 1 Tim 5:17-18. Note the analogy in 5:18 to the ox treading out the grain). Full time attention to the church would mean more time for shepherding, and more individual attention to each sheep. To migrate from the status quo to that model we would have to overcome phenomenal obstacles. Budgets are already consumed with other expenses that would be hard to cut. Members might have difficulty accepting such a change. And elders might not want to give up their secular day jobs to serve the church fulltime (often at a substantial pay cut). But it seems to me that this is the biblical model.

  2. Jay Guin says:

    I think it's unquestionably biblical for elders to be supported by the church. Two of our elders are on the payroll (part-time), and they're great blessings to the church.

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