One 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 —
- The Baptists do it, and for some, that makes it wrong.
- We’ve never done it that way before.
- 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]