Elders: How Should Elders and Staff Relate to Each Other?

A reader asks,

Have you written on the issue of elder-led vs. the lead pastor model?  At work, I’m a big believer in the sole leader — follow or get out of the way — model.  I’m not sure that’s what God had in mind for the church. Any practical ideas on governing without squeezing the life and passion out of the staff?

Dear reader,

Here’s where I am in my thinking.

1. The scriptures give us considerable flexibility but elders cannot abdicate their jobs. They can delegate, but they can’t give away ultimate oversight.

2. The preacher should be treated as a near-elder, meeting with the elders and part of the team. He doesn’t get a vote, but that should never matter.

The reason is that, like elders, he visits the sick, teaches doctrine, mentors future leaders, etc. They do the same things and the elders need someone on staff to coordinate getting their vision into effect.

I understand why many don’t want the preacher to be an elder (especially in a small church), but a strong elder/preacher divide is always unhealthy. Elders and the preacher must work hand-in-glove.

If there’s an executive minister (in a larger church, a minister who handles many tasks the minister handles in a smaller church perhaps including staff oversight), he’s a near-elder, too.

3. Ministers and elders should be as close as possible. How close depends on the degree of authority given the preacher. If he can hire and fire, then elders have to work through him, or else you have two chains of authority.

But in the normal case, the preacher isn’t given that much authority. The rest of the ministerial staff are not near-elders, like the preacher, because many are too young and need to be overseen by the preacher and elders. And it’s just not practical to put every staff member in that position.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable gives a very healthy model of how to do this.

4. Staff cannot be allowed to silo — that is, youth ministry, children’s ministry, and adult ministry must be planned together, indeed, must have a shared vision, fulfilled together.

The youth minister isn’t de facto pastor of a sub-congregation made up of teens. He has to work with the rest of the ministers and volunteers in a teamwork fashion, toward a common, church-wide vision.

The preacher is normally best situated to chair the ministers and insist that they work in tandem, putting the elders’ vision into effect on a coordinated basis.

5. The shepherding model can be good or bad. It’s bad when the elders give up being overseers and elders to be pastoral counselors only. This is abdication.

But elders should certainly take on pastoral responsibilities. And in many churches, the elders specialize based on giftedness. Some serve as administrators (with the preacher and/or executive minister) and some purely serve as shepherds and some do a blend of both.

I’m opposed to all models that rotate administrative authority among the elders, as administration is a gift required to be used in God’s service.

In short, you govern without squeezing the passion out of the staff by —

A. Getting away from simplistic organizational chart thinking. It’s more important to build relationships than to draw charts. Think more in terms of drawing inclusive circles than lines of authority.

B. Setting a clear vision, with the ministers heavily involved in the process but not dictating the process. Participation by staff gives them a sense of ownership and gives elders the benefit of their education and experience.

C. Giving the staff freedom within the vision, but without abdicating the obligation to oversee (translates the Greek word for middle management). Don’t micromanage. Do manage. (Some ministers can’t tell the difference.)

D. Spending time with the staff. We meet weekly for lunch on Wednesdays. Building personal relationships and sharing your hearts with each other breaks down barriers and allows many problems to be resolved early and without great pain.

E. Having the preacher charged to keep the staff from being in silos and to assure that the ministers (and other church leaders) pursue the vision and stick to it.

F. Having certain elders assigned to be a “liaison” for certain ministries. We do this, and some elders have grown very close to their ministers or volunteer leader. This keeps the eldership from having to vote on Sunday morning teacher assignments — but allows an elder to know what is being taught and who is teaching. It’s been a good balance for us — the elder knows what’s going on but doesn’t run things so long as another leader is in place. He does mentor whatever leader is there.

F. Insisting that the ministers and elders honor the system. All this assumes you have elders and ministers who are willing to work within this system. Some ministers will demand autonomy. They must repent or be fired. It’s an unscriptural attitude. Some elders will insist on being overlords. They should resign or repent.

G. Working hard to build trust. Communication leads to trust. Time together leads to communication. There are no short cuts.

H. Lifting us Jesus as the goal, to be pursued according to the church’s agreed vision. Set goals that are audacious enough to challenge the church and the ministers and yet be doable — with God’s help. Aim high. Work hard — together — to achieve the goals.

When goals are unclear or when the vision is vague, elders and ministers will pursue their own preferences and projects. When the goal is concrete and well understood, the leadership will pull together and will be tightly bonded to one another by the shared work and victory.

I. Pray together.

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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19 Responses to Elders: How Should Elders and Staff Relate to Each Other?

  1. Jerry says:

    Having sat on both sides of the minister-elder table (but never at the same time), I can give a hearty, “AMEN” to this article. At times when I was preaching I felt like a “hired hand” – because that is the way I was treated. I always, as an elder, tried to work with the preacher without making him feel as I had at those times. That was not always successful. Some preachers I worked with felt intimidated by me, even though I was always trying to make them a vital part of the leadership team. Perhaps our difficulty was in not having clear vision and goals that all of us were working within and toward.

  2. Price says:

    Is there an example of Preacher / Elder relationships in the Bible besides Timothy ? Why is it exactly that the preacher shouldn’t be an Elder ?? Has the modern day church added a layer to the church hierarchy which isn’t defined or qualifications given ? It seems that there is considerable influence and power in the position that we’ve created…I’d rather see a person with that much influence be an Elder.

  3. Alabama John says:

    Each elder should have an equal vote. Sounds simple and everyone would agree.
    The most common error is there becomes a HEAD Elder and its his way or the highway regardless of what the other elders think.
    This to me is the biggest pitfall for an eldership or church.
    Without solving this, the article will not work.

    The article is so right and what we all should support and pray for daily.

  4. Royce Ogle says:

    At our church we have two preaching ministers who are equals, and they are both elders.

    I understand that in small churches, preachers could seldom be elders because of a limited budget and the hiring of novice preachers. However, in larger churches, I can’t see why the man who does most of the preaching/teaching from the pulpit should not be an elder. If he is deemed to not be qualified he should not be preaching.

    In our coc churches we avoid calling the pastor a pastor. But the truth is that in almost all growing churches, with or without elders, the man who stands in the pulpit on Sundays is the de facto leader of the congregation. Because he is recognized as the official spokesman for God for that congregation people tend to depend more on what he says than anyone else. It’s just he way it is right or wrong. I can’t think of any large church, of any denomination, that does not have a preacher who is also a strong leader.

    Why is it we call our preachers evangelists? I have known a few who didn’t have an evangelistic bone in their bodies.

  5. HistoryGuy says:

    I agree with you… no, hell did not freeze over 🙂

    From my understanding, preachers and elders are separate sides of the same coin, which equips the saints unto maturity; their authority is from God to be used in variant ways, but for the purpose of building up God’s flock. Timothy and Titus were preachers who “set things in place” in churches before elders, but also knew that part of settings things in place included identifying, laying hands on, and working with elders in those churches. I know several preachers who are also elders (or elders who are preachers if you prefer that word order). Scripture reveals spiritual qualifications that Elders and preachers should posses. After all, preachers were given “a vote” at the Jerusalem conference. While I believe consensus is a better model, any elder-preacher “team” that does not give the preacher “a vote” is unhealthy. Perhaps we have difficulty distinguishing between those who the Spirit is “training” from those who the Spirit has “gifted-raised up?”

  6. Royce Ogle says:

    History Guy,

    Now I wonder what all those folks who thought we could never agree are thinking?

    On a more serious note, something has always puzzled me. In our churches of Christ our elders are the supreme authority under the Lordship of Jesus. They should be men well established in the Word, mature believers. Yet they hire some kid who isn’t shaving yet, right out of a brotherhood school, who at best is a novice, and this guy is suddenly teaching the elders. Somehow that just doesn’t make sense to me. The elders are over the preacher, they hire and fire, and he teaches them?

    Wouldn’t that be like a guy with a BS degree teaching a class to a room full of PHd’s? Then maybe not. Lots of things people just accept as the way it’s always been just doesn’t add up in my old worn out brain.

  7. Alabama John says:


    1) We don’t have pastors because others do.

    2) It is a wonderful opportunity for a young preacher to serve an apprenticeship under good Elders. Like all of us, our beliefs change as we get older and more mature and experienced. An Eldership can sure keep a young preacher from many pitfalls.

  8. HistoryGuy says:

    Great points, again! I firmly believe that the COC needs a shift in their thinking on this matter. An Elder-Evangelist team should be working together and with others (mentoring). In my experience, I have known young and old folks who are spiritually mature and knowledgeable of Scripture, as well as young and old folks who are spiritually immature and know very little of Scripture. Humility is the key because everyone needs to be learning until they die (yes, even me!). I am a huge fan of communication and consensus; when preachers, elders, and their “apprentices” study together and seriously challenge each other to talk about tough issues, everyone in the group and the congregation will benefit and grow. For the record (I don’t want folks saying this is a generational problem), I am in my early 30s. My two major concerns in this area are (1) the number of elders who lack Biblical and historical knowledge, and (2) the practice of firing and refusing to hire — the so called outdated — preachers over 50, who generally have a wealth of Scriptural knowledge and life experience to share. Thank you for your thoughts, Royce.

  9. Laymond says:

    Wouldn’t that be like a guy with a BS degree teaching a class to a room full of PHd’s?

    Royce do you think all “phd’s agree ? and especially on relegion.

  10. Charles McLean says:

    Does anyone ever question just how we have managed to develop a model of life in the Body of Christ which requires full time professional management in order to function? When did the power of God become so concentrated in seminary graduates and the building trustees that they became the drivers of church life, leaving the congregation three functions: attend the meetings, fill the non-paid positions in the org chart, and to pay for everything the ruling cadre decides should be done?

    Like Jerry, I have been in both positions. Jay points out that relationships are more important than an org chart. But ultimately, the org chart describes who actually rules what. My question is, how did we come up with all this stuff that requires centralized rule?

    I understand that Jay is addressing the practicalities of congregational identity as we see it now. My concern is that we have been using this altogether human model for so long that we have reverse-engineered our thinking to fit our current practice into certain passages of scripture, rather than the other way around. We have enshrined our local market selection of “eternal congregations” as Holy Writ, and do not even question it. We have been paving this road for so long that the discussion is only on how we should make travel on this road easier, and no one gives five minutes’ consideration as to whether God actually wants us traveling this direction. Even those who are able to escape the spell long enough to ask real questions tend to frame those questions in terms of reacting to existing practice.

  11. Jason Stockton says:

    I am a minster of a congregation that has been without shepherds for decades. I have been here 5.5 yrs.

    I have been told the stories of conflict that predate my arrival. I have experienced turmoil first hand. I conclude that there is a pattern of upheaval. I believe the pattern could be halted by working toward shepherds.

    Knowing that we have a long way to go to achieve a shepherding group, I have taught and listened and worked toward a biblical leadership.

    So far it is rare to talk to anyone who defines leadership from the bible. Every response has been collected from personal experience. Every defense is based on experience.

    Please read Charles’ statement again for understanding, “My concern is that we have been using this altogether human model for so long that we have reverse-engineered our thinking to fit our current practice into certain passages of scripture, rather than the other way around” Charles McLean.

    I come to Jay’s blog multiple times a week to learn from a perspective that I am convinced is focused on the teaching of Jesus. I don’t respond often. Most likely because I don’t have any input that I would consider profitable.

    Jay, I wanted to encourage you to go at it again. Give us a perspective that comes from the teaching of Jesus. Experience aside, what does Jesus say about leadership and how it should function?

    P.S. Biblical Eldership by Strauch has been helpful: http://www.amazon.com/Biblical-Eldership-Alexander-Strauch/dp/0936083115

  12. Grizz says:

    Jay, here are a few thoughts (mostly questions) that came to mind as I read your piece.

    Please define “ultimate oversight” as you use it in your first point. What exactly do you mean?

    Please define “near-elder” as you use it in your second point. Is this a titular ‘office’ or honorific ?

    Is there any concern or weight given here to such scriptures as Titus 2:15? What part does chronological age play according to the scriptures? How is that similar to or disparate from 21st century cultural biases concerning age? Why?

    Where does the Bible say that elders have ANY “authority”? What kind of “authority” belongs to elders? What is the difference between being assigned responsibilities and being given authority, if any? Please be as concrete as possible and try not to rely on speculation about implied authority worked out on the basis of assignments given.

    Is being an elder a lifelong appointment? In what sense do elders have more concern for a congregation than the minister does? Who ‘fires’ an elder who refuses to repent of error or bad attitude? How many ministers have to come and go before it is acknowledged that there is an issue?

    Who develops these clear-cut and un-vague goals and vision? Is this something the elders do while the ministers observe from the sidelines? Is this something God has already provided? How does a ‘congregational vision statement’ differ from what God has already declared to be HIS vision for His people? Should it differ? Why?

    Jay, I am asking questions because I find a lot of what I perceive as church-speak in your comments. I want to know if I understand your meaning or am missing your meaning due to disparate understanding about the meanings of your terminology. I perceive some separation between the gist of your comments and the actual statements in scripture – and, frankly, I do not know how fresh your eyes (or mine) are when viewing these subjects. Are we listening more to the inspired writers of scripture or more to the uninspired writers about scripture (commentaries by ‘common taters’ like us)?



  13. Royce Ogle says:


    Amazingly, you continue to miss the simplest concepts. The point had nothing to to about agreement. It was all about young and immature believers (I understand a few young men and women are mature believers) teaching older, mature believers.

  14. aBasnar says:

    In our churches of Christ our elders are the supreme authority under the Lordship of Jesus. They should be men well established in the Word, mature believers. Yet they hire some kid who isn’t shaving yet, right out of a brotherhood school, who at best is a novice, and this guy is suddenly teaching the elders.

    I am in agreement with you, Royce!! Get some Champaign 😉

    Seriously: That’s one of the great inconsistencies among the churches of Christ. Instead of letting the elders have the main voice in teaching the church, “we” (i.e. many churches of Christ) hire graduates from a theological school who lack grey hair. Mine isn’t that grey either (my beard is getting close), and I am glad to be just an “apprentice” among the other elders in our congregation. Yet, I never went to a theological schoool, but learned all that I know (dogmatically and practiacally) by living and serving in Christian churches (Evangelical, Plymouth Brethren, CoC) for almost 25 years – and in my own family.

    At the same time elders are reduced to “business administrators” … being “fully restored” looks different.


  15. Laymond says:

    Amazingly, you continue to miss the simplest concepts.

    Royce, I don’t claim to be anything other than a simpleton.

  16. Charles McLean says:

    I am no expert on history, but I am trying to think outside our cultural box here. Americans have no analog to the concept of “local elders”, as we find the concept in first century middle eastern culture. We just don’t. The OT idea of elders sitting in the city gates and settling disputes and other local matters is foreign to us. The council of elders and apostles in Acts 15 is just as beyond our experience. The biggest difficulty here is that we fail to recognize that there is something we don’t recognize. We truly don’t know that we don’t know.

    So, we have rather thoughtlessly replaced this Eastern “elder” concept with a Western concept we DO understand. In predictable American fashion, we have adopted an independent business model, and have pasted the NT labels on it. We have a local business ruled by a board of directors, of whom the Chief Operating Officer may or may not be a voting member. Board members are selected by an approximation of the modern proxy vote commonly employed by corporations. As among corporations, board members are often some of the larger investors — or representatives of the same. Once selected, these board members are seldom removed except in the event of a major shakeup in the company, which gets the shareholders aroused about some serious problem in leadership. Board members maintain relationships among their constituent shareholders, representing their views and securing their continued support.

    We even register our operations as corporate entities to get tax breaks from the government for our shareholders.

    Meanwhile, the day-to-day operations of the business are assigned to a professional manager whose portfolio is to direct the overall organizational activity, using a combination of public speaking and the organization of lesser-paid and unpaid staff. This manager is hired based on his operational qualifications and either kept or fired based on the organization’s performance on three benchmarks: maintenance of orthodoxy, improvements in cash flow and capital position, and increases in meeting attendance. The manager who does not do well on these measurables soon finds himself shopping for another post.

    At this point, I must say that in our culture, the model we have created for the church in our city is a varied collection of these businesses, who offer religious thought to the marketplace and compete with one another for customers. It is an almost exclusively industrial model.

    How far is this construct from what first century Jews would have mentally pictured when reading that Paul told Titus to appoint “elders” in Crete?

    I am amazed by the terminology I hear in this thread. I have served as an elder in a local congregation, but if someone had ever introduced me as their “supreme authority”, I would have gone all Acts 14:15 on him and ruined a good suit.

    I fear that what was intended to be an organic model, a natural reflection of a spiritual life, has become an industrial system in Western hands. This is not meant to sound harsh or hateful, but merely observant. This model may not reflect our intentions, our hopes and aspirations, but it all too well reflects our operations. And even the people who see this reality and do not like it are afraid to stop the machinery, for fear of losing their market share to the religion dealers down the block.

  17. aBasnar says:

    The biggest difficulty here is that we fail to recognize that there is something we don’t recognize. We truly don’t know that we don’t know.

    So, we have rather thoughtlessly replaced this Eastern “elder” concept with a Western concept we DO understand.

    And that’s true for many other aspects of church life and even doctrine as well. This should be a challenge for all of us, and here we can the the difference between a “true restorationist” and mere “conservative Christian”. I thank God that we are not saved by understanding and doing everything correctly, otherwise we’d all be doomed. At the same time I am convinced that we should strive for the real thing and not cling to human traditions – but in a way that allows all of our congregation to grow into the better insights instead of splitting over them (which needs time and patience and a heap of love).


  18. Pingback: Elders: On the Authority of Elders, Part 1 | One In Jesus

  19. Charles McLean says:

    “Yet they hire some kid who isn’t shaving yet, right out of a brotherhood school, who at best is a novice, and this guy is suddenly teaching the elders.”
    Hey, I was that kid! I think that first church I served hired me because I was a cheap way to get attendance back up. We did that. Later, the elders fired me… partly, I think, in self-defense.

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