Advice to a New Elder: They Smell Like Sheep, Part 1

shepherd3One of the biggest issues in the Churches of Christ today is the proper role for elders. It’s not received the publicity of many other issues, but ask any life-long Church of Christ member about the authority of elders, and you’ll get an ear full.

Ask them about what the elders should do, and you’ll hear an impassioned argument for elders to become shepherds, that is, to stop acting like members of a board of directors and act more pastorally. And yet the elders keep on acting like a board of directors — even when they desperately want to transition to more pastoral duties.

The fact is that the Churches of Christ have a culture that forces elders to act like directors. After all, we are opposed to giving administrative power to the preacher. Every church has some members who believe it’s wrong for the preacher to even meet with the elders because, well, he’s just not an elder.

Moreover, we just refuse to train our ministers in leadership and management. We teach them Greek and Hebrew, but nothing about leading a team, managing change, etc. And many — maybe most — preachers don’t want to be the boss of the other staff members. Preachers find it hard to make friends at most places, and so they enjoy being a peer with the youth minister. When you make the preacher the boss, you’re asking him to do something he’s not trained for and to restructure some of his most important friendships into employer/employee relationships.

So why not set up a personnel committee? Well —

  1. The Baptists do it, and for some, that makes it wrong.
  2. We’ve never done it that way before.
  3. Many churches are too small or have no members qualified as personnel managers. Or the congregation will insist that the elders do it. Or the preacher will insist that the elders do it.

And so the elders become the church’s HR department and the supervisors of the ministerial staff — which takes time and energy that will no longer be available for pastoral duties.

Ideally, the preacher would have supervisory skills, oversee the other ministers, and meet with the elders as a part of their pastoral and other work. But finding a minister who is a great preacher is hard enough. Finding a great preacher who can also supervise staff is a tall order in our denomination.

A few very large congregations (maybe 1000+ members) have hired executive ministers who handle personnel and other issues, freeing the preacher to focus on preaching, vision casting, that sort of thing, and freeing the elders for more pastoral duties. But a smaller church just can’t afford that luxury.

So long before we consider how the elders might become more pastoral, we need to talk about how the elders can delegate enough of their duties to have time and energy to be pastoral.

And it’s not impossible. It just requires some will power and thoughtful planning. Here are some steps to take —

— Go through your minutes from the last year and make a list of every decision made by the elders.

— Ask yourself which of these decisions could have been made by a church member or team of church members. If so, delegate! Empower. Get out of the way. Churches are far stronger when decisions are pushed away from the elders to the members — because (a) they are often more knowledgeable in their ministry areas than the elders and (b) it gives the members a sense of ownership. It connects them so that they are no longer consumers shopping for church services. They are part of the church, serving others rather than being served.

By the way, don’t limit this group to deacons. Women, singles, widowers, etc. can have oversight of a church ministry. It’s about gifting by the Spirit. Rom 12 and 1 Cor 12 are clear that we are to allow members to use their giftedness to serve the church. After all, if the Spirit gave a single man the gift to supervise small groups, who are we to claim to be wiser than the Spirit?

— In a small church, the elders may not have the talent they need for some difficult jobs. Suppose the church has hired a missionary to a foreign country. This can involve difficult tax issues and all sorts of management challenges. The church should reach out to a group like Missions Resource Network to do training and even to take on some of the supervisory work. That is, it may be necessary to delegate some specialized work to a parachurch organization or to the leadership of a sister congregation that you’re partnering with.

— Some church work requires a full-time, salaried person. Are there any remaining decisions that could be delegated to staff?

— At this point, the elders will likely have reserved for themselves (a) doctrinal questions, (b) permission giving regarding worship changes/innovations, (c) supervision of the preacher and other ministers, (d) pastoral care, and (e) the church’s vision and mission. If so, they’ve overlooked (f) training and equipping the volunteers and ministers. It may be possible to delegate this as well, but someone needs to think about training. It’s a God-given responsibility of church leadership (Eph 4:11-14).

Even with the list pared down this much, in a large church, personnel issues can overwhelm the elders’ time. In fact, this list could be overwhelming in any church. One solution is what I call “the Ministries Team.”

This won’t work in all places at all times, but it can be a very valuable tool to free the elders’ time while giving ownership and empowerment to the members — especially when the elders keenly feel the need to become more pastoral.

[to be continued]

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  1. Just to add another perspective here.

    One of the issues that underlies the matter of Elders acting like Directors is the nature of people who are selected as Elders. If the people we select as Elders are Administrators and Directors in their regular employment, they often (not always, but often) tend to act that same way when they take on their role as Elders.

    So, let’s also be more careful about who is selected as Elders.

  2. I started writing on the church as the people and then it occurred to me that we don’t understand the elders and deacon’s roles as we should. We all know that the elders were supposed to attend to the flock, but this was in regards to their spiritual nature. In Acts, if Stephen was indeed a deacon, then he had the responsibility of attending to the physical needs and there are no mention of elders directing this work, but rather the deacons directing this work. Even when we read of the “deaconess” we find her in charge. In fact when we read of the apostles putting Stephen and others in place it was so they could pay attention to the spiritual needs of others, which is what the elders were given the responsibility of doing later.
    It is not coincidence that the elders and deacons have similar qualities.
    And it is tradition that places the elders over the deacons and doesn’t allow the deacons to aid when they need to aid as they see fit, with agreement from the people of course.
    This would allow the Elders to direct the spiritual needs of the people.
    While the deacons saw to the physical needs.
    The elders and deacons were compliments of one another in the body of Christ to fulfill a need.
    In most “churches” the elders and the system are more of a roadblock, because we have trained people to think through them.
    People can’t teach the lost without getting approval and using a teaching system, etc.
    People can’t meet to assemble without getting approval, etc.
    People need to feel empowered, not through the eldership, but by the eldership.

  3. Ever notice how you never see a poor elder in an American church? Unless the entire congregation is poor, and then the elders will be the least poor of the group. Something unsaid in our thinking is being exposed, but we cannot see it.

  4. The biggest farce among the churches I have been a member of is that the preacher must NOT be called or referred to as a “Pastor” when in fact he does more “pastoring” in general than all the elders combined. I know there are exceptions but as a general rule that’s been my observation. The elders are the overseers of the cash flow.

  5. It’s been my experience that, in small to mid-sized congregations, those of less than 400, elders are, of necessity, those men who can, and are WILLING TO, in whatever way necessary, see to the continued existence of the congregation, and who meet the scriptural qualifications for elders.
    Most elders would greatly prefer to address only the spiritual needs of the congregants, but find themselves forced to deal with the day to day physical decisions that must be made for the congregation to continue. That can either be due to the reluctance of elders to “give up authority,” or due to the lack of qualified people to carry out those activities/responsibilities without handholding by the elders. When you are the elder of a congregation which has to watch its dollars carefully, it’s hard to delegate financial decisions.
    You’ve correctly stated that many of an elder’s actions are due to traditional practices…but those practices have evolved because the buck stops there. Most congregants don’t have an awareness of the myriad concerns that an elder has for his flock, or the things needed to assure the continuity of a congregation.

  6. Part of the problem is that we have decided on a system that we imagine from the scriptures. Elders over everything, the money, the people, etc., even though the deacons were probably more in tune with what came in financially due to them providing for the needy.
    From our mindset the set up is scriptural and immutable, despite there being a clear pathway and evidence showing the contrary, where elders over see the spiritual and deacons oversee the physical needs of the people.
    Money wasn’t filtered through the “church” to the people, where money was siphoned off for “church needs”, but went from the people to the people by one willing to aid in this.
    In fact the elders have more responsibility in the growth of the people in Christ, whereas the preacher has the responsibility to grow the Kingdom.
    We have so confounded the responsibilities to become grossly inefficient in application.
    Elders and deacons should behave more like the Holy Spirit in aiding in the progression and need of the saint, without standing in the way of the saint.

  7. “The Baptists do it, and for some, that makes it wrong”.

    The independent christian churches have pulpit committees. Maybe we should follow in their lead.

  8. RJ,

    I’m not familiar with pulpit committees — except some churches use this term for a preacher search committee. How does it work?

  9. John McAfee,

    I hear the voice of experience in your comments.

    Every church is different, but they all put more on the elders than they can handle and then complain that the elders can’t get it all done. The smaller the church, the harder it is to delegate — just not enough people with enough talent in many places. It’s not that the Spirit hasn’t given enough gifts. Rather, we scatter the gifts among several congregations and then wonder why no one church has all the talent it needs to thrive.

  10. I remember David Powers saying that elder’s meetings were fathered by the devil. He was only half joking, I think. Lots of faction and strife when a group of men who are all used to calling the shots and making decisions butt heads, or else one man has more hudzpa than the others who sit by afraid to speak against the lead elder.. I’m sure Jay operates with a very spiritual group of men. But not all are so blessed.

  11. Monty and all,

    It’s obvious that the Churches of Christ have historically often appointed unqualified men as elders. I get too many comments to that effect for it not to be true. But I travel in the more progressive circles, and while we progressive types have our fair share of personality issues and all, my experience is that the churches I run into by and large have very good men as elders. They are under-trained, overworked, under-appreciated,and overwhelmed by their ministries — but it’s obvious the church has made sensible choices.

    So I’m wondering what it is about the conservative/progressive divide that makes for better elder selection? I think it’s as a simple as the fact that we become like the God we worship. If we worship a god looking to damn over foot faults and misreading of the silences, we’ll likely pick as elders men who are like the god we worship. In fact, that’s probably what the majority of long-time members will be like, because that’s what they’ve been taught all their lives.

    In a more progressive church, grace and love and the Spirit will have been emphasized from the pulpit and in the classrooms. Some men will have been changed to be gracious, loving, spiritual men. Not perfect by any means, but they’ll have their eyes truly set on Jesus and not a legalistic idol.

    In short, bad doctrine, especially legalism, leads to bad decisions regarding who will be an elder.

    Now, fixing this is no easy task because elders are appointed for life and generally set the doctrinal direction of the church — but I’ve seen many churches change despite that.

  12. Elders need to serve for a term of a year or two and can then at their choice be extended for another term or retire, either with thanks for their service.

  13. “conservative/progressive divide” Jay I am as progressive/liberal as anyone here, even you. But I am not a change for change sake Christian , in my opinion the church was started by the most progressive person of his time. Any and all change is not progress in my eyes, and I do believe in the eyes of God. When we start changing the word of God I do not call that liberal, just wrong. My liberal upbringing (helping others when possible) is exactly why I am a democrat . We need to look at the word (greed) when we make a judgment on conservative, or liberal. Just my opinion.