Elders: The Shepherding Model, Part 2

ShepherdExternal focus

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.

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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7 Responses to Elders: The Shepherding Model, Part 2

  1. JamesBrett says:

    "But the last thing the local congregation needs is to be focused on itself."

    i agree completely with this statement, jay.

    "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."

    this one I have questions about — not that i disagree, though. rather i am uninformed and wondering what examples or implications we have in the bible of elders/shepherds themselves having any ministry roles outside the church?

  2. Jay Guin says:


    Let me put it this way. The elders are the leaders — whether they intend to be or not. If they are entirely focused on healing relationships and comforting the members — all very good things — then the church will likely follow and see the gospel as therapeutic — about how to live happier lives with better relationships. And, of course, there is a therapeutic element to the gospel. But it would be a huge mistake if the gospel were to be reduced to a therapeutic gospel in practice. Even if the preacher preaches a bigger, truer gospel, if the elders practice a purely therapeutic gospel, I think the church just might follow them and so become very self-concerned.

    On the other hand, elders could — through personal relationships, teaching, etc. — mentor members and even heal relationships toward a kingdom purpose. If marriages are healed so that the spouses become better servants of the kingdom, if the sick are visited so they can be restored to kingdom service, if the funerals are preached so that lives of kingdom service can be celebrated, and if marriages are entered into so that couples can support each other in their kingdom-centered lives, then you have a form of shepherding that is Christ-centered, not self-centered.

    I have no doubt but that members will be greatly comforted and pleased to be "pastored" in a way that binds their wounds and comforts them. I just think it's essential that the goal not be wound-binding and comfort. The goal must be "You kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven."

    So, you see, it's not about whether the elders have ministry roles in or out of the church, but whether they have kingdom-focused ministries.

    (Eph 4:11-12 ESV) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,

  3. mark says:

    "but it’d better have a some generals at the top"

    We do have generals at the top…..

    It seems to me the churches of Christ if there growing mega churches do it with an affluent and privileged group of leaders. Its not about gifts of the spirit or models of business practice. It is about humanitarian beliefs that those who want to share their time and money do so in the church. Donny McLaughlin church got a million bucks! Other churches too have been blessed with 12,000 dollar a week contributions in a church where half of it unemployed and someone is dividing the number of families into 12,000 comes up with either a very generous church or few prominent people. I know the answer I have counted collection plates and sat in meetings and seen where the authority comes from. Often the elders and deacons are just figureheads, its who is on the board of trustee it who is behind the scene thats what makes the church what it is. This is where the power struggles exist.

    But I don't want to dismantle such a model. We need to just know that there are very well to do people who want to give money and time to the church. They often want this be done in secret. They many times don't want the to have power given to them. But Elders are deeply fearful of offending such people and go great lengths to please them.

    This model to is part of the parachurch world also. It is about money and who has it to share. Our Christian schools are propped by the wealthiest Americans and now growing international wealth. This is why this paradox exist of the 200,000 dollar degree and what it means…. Our churches of Christ that are blessed in this arena of high-end Christianity operate from a humanitarian model. Changing it would destroy many large churches.

  4. Cathy says:

    I'm a little confused on point B — are you saying we should be trying to grow megachurches, or simply observing the difference in leadership structure?

    Personally, while I've visited at some fairly large churches — both University and Downtown in Searcy are pushing the line, if they aren't over it — I chose to regularly attend and place membership at a smaller church in the area. Not a tiny church, though I did attend one that was, as I recall, under 200 (maybe closer to 100, but this was 15 years ago, so my memory is fuzzy) until the van stopped coming for us, but the one that I made my home was somewhere around 300-500, if I recall correctly. Much over that, and planting a new church seems like the better option to me, because it's too easy for people to disappear unnoticed, and too hard to find a way to feel needed.

    Not every family needs to be the Duggars.

  5. I know a preacher who has been with a fairly large church for more than 20 years who believes that if he were an elder it would take him away from his giftedness as a preacher and evangelist.

    I know another who is with a somewhat smaller, but still larger than average, church who has been there more than 30 years and serves very effectively as an elder.

    As you said, much depends on the giftedness of the individuals and the culture of the congregation.

    Over all, an excellent series. The previous post answering the questions raised in a comment reminded me of what Reuel Lemmons used to say when talking about the authority of elders. Much of our approach is based on internal power politics and "who calls the shots" (Reuel's expression). Too many elderships look at their role as being lords over the flock instead of shepherds. Yes, there is an oversight role for the elders – but not to the exclusion of shepherding. I also remember visiting one church where a note on a bulletin board about a particular work had at the bottom of the letterhead paper, "A Work of the Elders of XYZ Church of Christ." I wondered why it was a work of the elders and not of the congregation!

    Peace and joy to you in the Holy Spirit!

    Jerry Starling

  6. JamesBrett says:

    jay, in response to your response… i can buy all that. i guess i've always thought of the role of elder and teacher (i am leaning towards those being one giftedness in the "5-fold" verse you quoted) as being the one that is primarily inward focused. all exist for the building up of the church, but it seems to me that role (or roles) ought to be focused (not exclusively, but) primarily inward.

    i'm not suggesting elders shouldn't be concerned about kingdom growth. it just seems they should be concerned about the health of the church, which directly and necessarily affects kingdom growth. it seems to me that is their task in the whole church being the church thing.

    but i don't think i'm far from you. your second paragraph demonstrated several ways the elders can be inward-focused for the purpose of outward-focusing… if that makes any sense. i just feel like elders should be inward-focused nearly all of the time, but in such a way that grows a healthy church, healthy churches always outward-focused.

  7. Jay Guin says:


    You offer an interesting perspective. I've also been assured that elders should lead by example, and therefore be almost entirely outwardly focused so the church will do the same!

    I think the truth is in between being inwardly focused and outwardly focused — and depends in part on talents of the elders and the needs of the church at the time. We've had elders who've gone on extended mission trips, who've conducted Bible studies with potential converts, and who've worked hard in benevolence efforts. I think such men do indeed set an important example to the flock. But, obviously, such efforts can't be in lieu of serving the flock itself in other ways — although setting such examples is an important form of service.

    I think the church needs both.

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