If the elders delegate enough of the other work, they may well find themselves with enough time to focus on shepherding families and individual members. And if this is the Spirit’s leading, it’s a plan many congregations are very happy with.
But the last thing the local congregation needs is to be focused on itself. Of course, the congregation should care for each other and mend hurts — but this cannot be the focus. The congregation cannot truly be about God’s mission unless it’s going into all the world — and the mission of God to a lost and hurting world must be the most important thing.
Think of the church as God’s army. An army needs hospitals for its sick. It needs USO programs for relaxation. It needs generous counseling programs. But if the army ever thinks it’s about providing hospital care and USO programs for its members, it’s no longer an army at all. The army has to be about defeating the enemy, and the hospitals and counselors help the army stay fit enough to be in the battlefied. The soldiers volunteered to be in the army to take the battle to the enemy, and the army should equip them do just that.
Now, if the elders are almost entirely inwardly focused in terms of what they do, there’s a very serious risk that the church will follow their shepherds and be just as inwardly focused in what they do. Some preachers are licensed counselors. The army desperately needs counselors, but it’d better have a some generals at the top. Someone has to train, equip, and send the troops into battle. The army has to be, first and foremost, an army.
Rules vs. Spirit
Now, there are those among us — progressives and conservatives — who look for laws. But there are few laws here — but some very important principles that have to be read in light of what we know about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives gifts, and he gives different gifts to different people.
So here’s the bottom line to me —
A. There is no such doctrine as “elders are to be prayer warriors and let the staff run the church.” It’s not in the Bible. Some ministers (and elders) take this as an article of faith, but it’s not a biblical mandate. I think it’s partly an over-reaction to distant, overlording elderships. But the elders may not abdicate their scriptural duties.
B. Most megachurches — churches of over 2,000 members — are pastor led. Many have elderships, but the pastor is the central leader. In fact, it’s hard for an elder-led church to grow larger than a group of part-time volunteers can take it. Churches of Christ aren’t producing many megachurches.
C. And yet, few preachers are gifted to lead a large church in as the pastor of a megachurch does. After all, we normally hire a minister from outside, and we usually hire based on preaching talent, not administrative skills. And it’s unusual for administrative gifts and speaking gifts to be in the same person. It happens — but you can hardly assume that a great preacher knows how to lead a church by himself.
D. The plea is often for the paid staff to lead the church rather than the elders, and yet many of the staff will be quite young, quite inexperienced, and not that knowledgeable about that particular church — because they may have been only newly hired.
E. Then again, not many eldersships are gifted to lead a large church. Fewer still are trained for the task. You see, the organizational structure isn’t really the cure.
Rather than pushing for the latest fashion in organizational structures —
I. Follow the Spirit’s lead. Where are the gifts of management, oversight, counseling, mentoring, teaching, wisdom, and knowledge? Who can best lead the church — not defined by position but by gifts?
II. If the Spirit has given the necessary gifts to the preacher and staff, the elders may scripturally delegate to them such level of oversight as they find appropriate — provided they don’t abdicate their oversight responsibility. They can delegate, but they can’t not be overseers. (Double negative is intentional.) Delegation is scriptural and often wise. Abdication is not.
III. If the elders want to delegate some or all administrative oversight to the staff, some of the elders will need to remain involved, and the usual solution is an administrative committee consisting of elders and some staff members, ultimately subject to the entire eldership.
IV. Do not rotate elders in a misplaced sense of fairness. This is not a democracy — it’s a gift-ocracy. The men who sit on the committee are determined by gifts, not luck of the draw. And men working outside their giftedness will be miserable.
V. If your church doesn’t have a Rick Warren — a 15-talent man — the solution isn’t to run an ad for a new preacher. The solution is for the elders and staff to become so unified that they make up a 15-talent leadership team together.
VI. Even in a church where the administrative oversight isn’t delegated, I think the elders should normally include the preacher in their deliberations and treat him as a virtual peer — although not an elder. After all, the chuch can’t serve two masters, and so the elders and ministers have to be of one heart and one mind — and that requires time spent together. There is no other way to do that.
Ministers are often doers who hate meetings. They are often busy. And they need to get over it, learn patience, cancel something, and cherish the opportunity to share their ministries and lives with the elders so that the church can have a single vision and unified leadership.
VII. The elders always carry the ultimate responsibility and so the final authority, but wise elders delegate as much as they can and no more than they can. In my church, the elders don’t do budgeting except very rarely. We don’t run small groups or adult ed. We do keep up with what’s going on and set broad goals. But occasionally we step in and change the direction of a program, not because it was badly run but because the church’s needs have changed.
VIII. We spend a lot of time with the ministers on visioning — not just for the church but working with individual ministries to set a framework for how each ministry will serve the church’s overall goals and making sure it all fits together.
One of the biggest problem any church leadership faces is how to avoid silo thinking — that is, the teen minister running the youth ministry in a direction that may be good for his program but without concern for its impact on or fit with the rest of the church. Churches tend to have dozens of individual ministries doing their own thing and not working together in sync. Coordinating all that and hammering it into a consistent vision is no easy task in a large church.
IX. On the other hand, the elders and staff must let the Spirit do his thing — and that means empowering the members (not just the staff) to initiate new ministries and to re-invent existing ministries in ways that fit within the overall vision of the congregation.
Therefore, the best way to lead a church is to let the Spirit lead it. That means recognizing talents and gifts where they are, letting gifted people do their thing, and helping, supporting, offering the wisdom that only comes from experience — and not constraining the Spirit’s work.
X. We’re finding that leadership can be much more like surfing than construction. Rather the building a house according to blueprints, where every nail is pre-specified, we try to catch the wave of the Spirit and ride the wave where it takes us. It’s not easy, but it works better, and gets easier with practice. (And like surfing, you’ll make mistakes, wipe out, get embarrassed, shake the sand off,, and go again.)
The key, then, is to work with the staff — not over the staff and not apart from the staff but as a unity with the staff to help the church follow the Spirit’s lead. At least, that’s the theory.
And, I must add, it’s not just elders and staff, because often the most important leadership is in the trenches doing the Spirit’s work in God’s mission. The staff must also allow the ministries to initiate and create and re-invent — but within the congregation’s vision and aware of and sensitive to the other ministries.
X. Beware ministry fads. Some, of course, are good stuff and from the heart of the Spirit. Most, however, are fads. Learn what you can, but don’t impose foreign ideas on a congregation where they don’t really fit.
We once hired a minister, and as he was driving to Tuscaloosa to re-locate from his old home to his new home, he explained to an astonished member a long list of how the church needed to be reorganized and structured to become more effective. He’d not yet even moved to town and he already had the prescription! And he struggled in his ministry greatly when he got there. Listen, discern, and only then prescribe.
Whether it’s elders, ministers, or volunteers, you don’t attend a seminar and impose the latest fashion on the church. Rather, you learn all you can from anywhere you can, and then you teach and pray and let the Spirit do his thing.
For example, starting a few years ago, the elders observed a fresh, intense desire within our church to become involved in community service. We were getting questions about how to become better involved — and we honestly didn’t know. So we went about learning by forming a team of members — some social workers, some highly motivated volunteers, all full of the Spirit — to put together a plan and teach the rest of us.
Whose idea was it for the church to become more missional? Well, I can list about 50 people who had the idea all about the same time — making it the Spirit’s idea — and the next few years proved the wisdom of following the Spirit’s lead.