Advice to a New Elder: A Few Starting Points, Part 2

shepherd3Don’t overlook the ministers. Some elders (not at my church) look at the preacher and think, “I’m an elder and you’re not!” Bad idea. Yes, the church is supposed to be overseen by the elders and not the ministers, and no, we’re not supposed to turn it all over to the “pastor.” But if the elders don’t delegate, the church will never grow beyond an institution manageable by part-time volunteers. And that’s not very big. Delegate, but don’t abdicate.

The ministers have extensive training in ministry, which most elders don’t enjoy. They are full-time employees. And the reason they’re in ministry is they’re passionate for God and his mission.

On the other hand, ministers are a different breed. After all, most people don’t choose ministry as a career. And ministers sometimes inadequately sympathize with those who have not chosen full-time ministry.

The solution for these inherent differences is to get closer to the ministers. The closer the elders and ministers are, the more the church can benefit from the blending of their very different talents.

And this requires regularly spending time together and keeping your antennae up for tension or discord. By one means or another, stay close to the men and women whom you are counting on to make it all work.

Don’t be afraid of the volunteers. Elders often obsess over the fact that the church is a volunteer organization and no one has to obey them. As a result, elders often ask much less of the members than they should. They are often deathly afraid that the members will leave or say no and the church will collapse.

And some do leave and some do say no. But the way you make certain the members don’t serve as God would have them serve is to never ask them to do so. Low expectations will always produce low performance.

I have often been astonished at the Christ-like hearts of our members and their willingness to donate time and money and energies to the work of the church. Therefore, you should be more concerned not to ask too much—they might just do it.

Show appreciation and gratitude. Some men have trouble expressing appreciation and giving compliments, probably because they were raised by a father who refused to show appreciation. Get over it. The church needs to hear encouraging words from its elders on a regular basis—especially one-on-one compliments and thanks.

Don’t leave your good sense at home. Many fine businessmen go to church and forget every bit of the good sense they bring to their businesses and households.

Some of our members take delight in criticizing the elders for running the church “like a business.” Elders don’t like criticism any more than anyone else, and so some carefully refuse to run the church like a business. Bad idea!

Obviously, the church isn’t a business, and we aren’t here to maximize profits. But good business practices are usually good church practices. For example—

  • Equip your staff with computers, smart phones, books, and whatever they need to do their job. You can buy a lot of computers for a lot less than hiring another secretary. And your ministers will enjoy their work more if they are well equipped.
  • Secretaries do secretarial work better and less expensively than preachers. Hire enough support staff so your ministers can minister rather than typesetting.
  • Internal controls for cash, receipts, and such are necessary. Most embezzlers go to church somewhere.
  • Sexual harassment, the Fair Labor Standards Act, workers compensation, unemployment insurance, and all these annoying laws businesses have to contend with apply to churches, too. Adopt the right policies. Post the right signs. Don’t be naïve.

Don’t be naïve about sex. If your employee at the office commits adultery against his wife, it’s a serious problem but not normally career ending. If your minister commits adultery, you have to fire him, his career may well be over, and church will be in turmoil for a very long time. Worse yet, someone in your church will have been victimized by a minister you chose to put in a position of trust.

Make sure the ministers stay away from internet pornography and aren’t alone with members of the opposite sex. A Church of Christ minister loses his job over adultery at the rate of about one per week (just an observation, not a provable statistic).

Here’s the rule: if your wife or his wife says that woman’s up to no good, she’s up to no good. Deal with it. Don’t procrastinate. Don’t allow even a hint of impropriety.

The vision-thing matters. Be sure the church always has a vision before it. Vision-casting is hard and often misunderstood. A vision statement or mission statement is not a vision–not by itself.

A vision is a shared dream in which the entire church participates that tells us all where we think God wants us to be in the fairly near future.

A vision is precise enough that we can say that this is in the vision and this other thing is not.

A vision is something you can see in your mind’s eye. You’ll know when you’ve arrived there because you’ll have seen it before in your dreams, in your prayers, and in your hallway conversations.

A vision excites, inspires, imposes accountability, and motivates.

A church without a vision is just keeping house. A church with a vision is on the move, has a purpose, and is filled with the excitement of anticipation. A church with a vision can fail  — but it can also succeed. A church with no vision can do neither.

Make sure the church always has a vision. Then make sure the entire staff and leadership structure of the church — paid and unpaid — supports the vision. It’s a condition of employment for the staff.

Learn to read the members’ criticism. When a member walks up to you and says he’s unhappy that such and such is going on, you may well be talking to the only person among 400 who feels that way. Or you may be talking to the only one among 400 with the courage to complain. Be careful to tell the difference.

Many elders so want to please the members that they can’t bear any criticism at all. You’ll have to get over that. If you make 80% happy, you’ve done very, very well. In a church of 400, 80 people can be unhappy and you’ve still made a very good decision!

But even when most people are unhappy, they may be too humble or too kind to voice their concerns. So listen hard. Help establish an atmosphere where people feel free to express themselves.

And be careful to remember that your circle of friends is not likely to be representative of the entire church. Just because all your lunch companions hated the song selection hardly means that the majority felt that way.

Don’t let it go to your head. Most of the time, being an elder here is a joy. I’ve often felt myself lifted up on the prayers of the congregation. God is with this congregation.

Don’t get full of yourself. It’s easy to do when people are speaking so well of you. It’s easy to think that you’re responsible for the congregation’s success.

Men who served as elders for decades before us not only blazed the trail, they flattened and paved it. I’m just glad to have a front row seat to watch God working through our volunteers and our ministers to do amazing things.

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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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