Church Growth: Getting the Elders Out of the Way, Part 5

churchgrowthl.jpgTo even consider adopting such an approach, an eldership should consider at least the following:

Ministers should help develop policy. While policy is from the owner (Jesus), through the elders, to the staff, it just won’t work unless the minister is part of the design team. (That’s according to the Carver model. I’d actually say that Jesus is more likely to speak through the congregation as a whole.) After all, the preacher likely has more Bible education than the elders. And he, hopefully, admits his weaknesses and discusses them frankly with the elders (elders sometimes think the preacher has infinite time and talent). And he has to be excited and proud of the plan, or he won’t do a good job of working it.

Very few ministers have the complete set of leadership gifts. As a result, the wise eldership will not impose an impossible stack of expectations on the preacher. Rather, the expectations must be matched to his skills. (Read First Break All the Rules, a book on business management but rich with insights helpful in the church world.)

Where skills are missing, the preacher must be supported either by additional staff or volunteers (which may be elders) to handle that aspect of the work.

If a preacher is a weak organizer, for example, then he needs an assistant or fellow minister with organizational skills. And he needs to be told about his weakness and coached to work with others to work around it. If his ego won’t bear honest discussion of his strengths and weaknesses, he’s the wrong man.

Even the most talented minister needs encouragement and support. Elders can’t just hand off the congregation to a minister and say, “Fix it.” And the first few years of the program will be especially difficult as the preacher will not yet have the confidence of the congregation.

Elders must be publicly supportive. There’s no sense in trying to hide this structure from the congregation. They’re not idiots. They’ll figure it out. Therefore, the smart move is to be up front with the church and back the preacher. However, this has to be carefully timed. The preacher needs to have really proved himself on some sort of trial basis, because this is one of those decisions you can’t easily go back on.

Transition is everything. Depending on the personality of the congregation and experience and gifts of the preacher, it’s likely essential that the plan be implemented in stages. If things don’t go well, then the preacher (or elders) can be coached or the plan rolled back with little adverse effect, as each step is small.

For example, the preacher (or administrative minister) might first be given charge of the secretaries (to learn human resource laws and policies) and, if that goes well, the other ministers.

Now, any time someone’s boss is changed, the organization is at risk of losing an employee. A youth minister who was used to working directly under the elders and having little real oversight might buck rather than deal with day to day oversight from the preacher or administrative minister. He may well quit. (And if he does, he’ll give some reason other than “I can’t stand being so accountable!”) The preacher may have to hire some new people.

Once the minister proves himself as a supervisor of church staff, he might be given charge of some of the adult ministries –adult education, small groups, ladies Bible class, etc. (Or he might start with adult ministries and then take on staff — who are often harder to manage than the members!)

In the Churches of Christ, many of these ministries will have been overseen by a deacon, and now the deacon will answer to the preacher rather than the elders. This may well create more accountability for the deacon, who may quit — or he may blossom in response to training and encouragement by the preacher.

The church may well need to hire an administrative minister. Most preachers are hired first and foremost for their speaking ability. Not all great speakers are great supervisors and leaders.

I know of a Baptist megachurch where the senior pastors run the church as a team. They say, “None of us has 15 talents, like some big-church pastors. But among this group, we have 25 talents!”

There are lots of ways to build such a team, and I suspect that most churches would do better with a leadership team than a single, CEO-type leader.

Elders do not have to be entirely hands off. For example, early on, it may be wise to pair the preacher with an experienced elder to help him transition into his new role. Or the preacher may need to be part of a small administrative team which includes an elder or two.

Experience may show that the team or paired approach works fine, and that the team may become the “CEO” under the Carver model. Or they may transition leadership entirely to the minister as he grows into the job.

Elders are never freed from their roles as overseers. As much as some may wish to never sit in a meeting again, the elders must hold the minister (or his team) accountable for results. This requires regular meetings and an insistence on good, hard evidence that the plan is working.

But meetings shouldn’t be weekly. Once things get going, I would think quarterly meetings would be about right in most churches.

The transition must be managed. The elders have to learn what skills the preacher has and how to manage him. This means that, early on, oversight must be intensive.

This probably means than an elder or two gifted in this area should meet frequently with the preacher (weekly, I’d think) and guide him as he moves into his new role.

This is not because of a lack of confidence in the preacher. Rather, it’s to help him be successful.

Remember why this is important.

Churches grow all sorts of ways, but I know of no example of a large church with sustained growth where the elders make the day to day decisions. Rather, all churches that grow over the long term have turned much of the management over to staff or to a small, gifted leadership team.

This doesn’t mean that growth will be the necessary result of such a change. Lots of other factors weigh in (and future posts will consider these, of course). It’s just one of many necessary steps.

Moreover, among Churches of Christ, many churches have enjoyed considerable growth because the elders (largely) got out of management and took on more pastoral duties. The members love having assigned elders and the comfort of their counsel and attention.

Again, it’s just one of many steps, but it’s a big one.

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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