Advice to a New Elder: They Smell Like Sheep, Part 2

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    1. Make a list of every single congregational ministry — even washing baptismal garments and hiring the janitorial service. I mean: every  single thing that is being done or ought to be done at your church. It could easily reach 100 ministries if you’re a good observer — especially if you talk to the women. (You’ll be astonished at the huge number of unofficial, off-book ministries the women are running all on their own. They will fear becoming “on book” because they really don’t need to be told how to do their jobs.)
    2. Eliminate the ones you don’t need to be doing.
    3. Take the rest and aggregate them into 12 or fewer “departments.” These don’t need to be be equal in size or budget. It’s more about the dynamics of how your church really operates. Any job big enough to have a full-time, paid minister needs its own department.
    4. Do not go over 12.
    5. Do not go over 12.
    6. Do not go over 12 — because 13 people can’t engage in a conversation. It’s too many.
    7. Eight would be better.
    8. For many churches, it would look something like:
      1. Worship (chaired by the preacher or, if you have one, the worship minister)
      2. Adult education
      3. Teens
      4. Children
      5. Finances (church treasurer)
      6. Building and equipment
      7. Church plants/foreign missions
      8. Benevolence for members and non-members
      9. Pulpit (if you have a separate worship leader on staff)
      10. Involvement of new members/Lost Sheep/small groups
      11. Ladies Bible class (food for bereaved and sick, countless other ministries)
      12. One of the elders sits in to (a) make clear that the team is not usurping authority, (b) the elders are kept informed of what’s going on, and (c) make certain the elders and team don’t work at cross-purposes by accident.

Now, it’s far more important that you have the right people rather than the optimal organizational chart. In fact, putting the wrong person in will mess everything up pretty badly. And this means you’ll have to put some women on the committee. If your church won’t allow that, then the effort is doomed, because your church, like every church, has women who play essential ministerial roles.

In most churches, the preacher naturally acts as chair, but this isn’t essential. Whoever the chair is must be willing to have on-the-table discussions about job performance by any team member. Obviously, there will be cases where discretion dictates having a hard discussion in private, but this is a mutual-accountability group designed to relieve the elders of having to take their time to hold ministers accountable. If the teen minister won’t submit to the group, hire a more mature, most Christ-like teen minister. The same holds for all other positions.

Do not yield to the temptation to rotate the chair among all members to avoid any sense of someone having authority over the rest. Again: it’s about giftedness. The church treasurer may be the greatest treasurer on the planet but not gifted to chair the group. Let the Spirit be the Spirit — and don’t try to outsmart his work among us. Leadership is a gift that not everyone possesses. And pushing for pure equality not only defeats the Spirit’s work, it reveals a difficulty in submitting.

If the real concern is the choice of chair, then the group should talk about the choice of chair, not the procedure for selecting the chair. (Procedural arguments are nearly always disguised arguments over substance. If someone says, “We should rotate the chair,” the correct response is, “Why are you unhappy with the man (or woman) chosen to be chair?” Then you can talk about the real issue.)

Meet monthly and —

  1. Pray.
  2. Coordinate everyone’s efforts; claim spots on the church calendar.
  3. Do the budget and change the budget as needs change.
  4. Recommend congregational goals for the elders’ consideration. For example, I’d have the mission and vision statements worked out here for the elders’ approval.
  5. See to the training and equipping of the volunteers and ministers.
  6. Hold each other accountable for their job performance. See Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team for the best advice on doing this. This step CANNOT be skipped. If you’re not willing to submit to your peers and to hold each other accountable, you aren’t qualified for the team — or any position of leadership. Many people — including many preachers — think conflict is unhealthy. The truth is that unexpressed, unresolved conflict is unhealthy. Pretending to agree when you really don’t is unhealthy (and dishonest). Talking through disagreements as adults is very healthy. A meeting without disagreement is a waste of time and speaks ill of everyone’s perception of the spiritual maturity of the others.
  7. Grant permission for changes and innovations (other than doctrinal and worship matters). That is, if the teen minister wants to start going to summer camp and he needs budgeted money or permission to hold fundraisers, he doesn’t go before the elders. He comes to this committee, and they make the decision. The elders only get a report after the decision is made. The teen minister has no right of appeal to the elders, and the elders should not even hear the complaint.
  8. Communicate! The Ministries Team becomes communications central not just among each other but for the entire congregation. They make sure the necessary announcements are made timely and frequently. They have charge of the church bulletin, email, etc. to the extent needed to do their jobs.
  9. Work diligently not to silo the departments but to work together toward a common goal. Share ideas. Brainstorm. Dream. Together.
  10. Train. In fact, the Ministries Team might charge someone with finding good literature and doing regular training on their duties.

The ministers will be tempted to meet for coffee on Mondays and make decisions that really ought to be made by the Ministries Team. They should not do this — and should be held to account to the group when they do it anyway. It’s a breach of trust. One of the goals of this system is to get lay leaders involved (even prepared to be elders one day) and to give ownership to the members. If the ministers try to game the system, they’ll destroy all that. If they can’t wait for the next meeting to have a decision made, then (a) they need to get organized so they can ask timely and (b) email is an option for the rare true emergency.

Now, with this done, the elders’ list of duties shrinks quite a lot. It could become as brief as — (a) doctrinal questions, (b) permission giving regarding worship changes/innovations, (c) supervision of the preacher, and (d) pastoral care (with much of the pastoral work shared with the full-time staff and several committees, among others).

That’s still a very considerable list, but it’s doable. The first list ((a) through (f)) was nearly impossible. And the volume of decisions that most elderships attempt to handle all by themselves is downright delusional.

One final note: The elders have to be comfortable ceding this much authority to the Ministries Team. If they aren’t, they need to clearly draw a boundary between what is and what isn’t Ministries Team business in advance. We’re not setting up a bicameral system with a House of Representatives and Senate. Rather, very few items should come before both the elders and the Ministries Team — or else we’ve just created a layer of bureaucracy and we’ve not freed the elders from any work. We’ve likely given them more.

Therefore, if the elders have an activist personality, and want to handle some of these functions, either scrap the plan altogether (there are other ways to run a church) or decide in advance what the elders keep for themselves. Don’t let someone say we’ll just “play it by ear.” Therein lies futility, frustration, and anger. Decide in advance. Write it down. Communicate it.

Finally, if the elders wish to be freed to focus on other matters, they should make a habit of rubber stamping Ministries Team recommendations. If the elders insist on re-studying the mission statement or vision statement, then the Ministries Team will feel that their time was wasted and the elders will not have saved any time. Resist the temptation — or set up a different system.

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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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2 Responses to Advice to a New Elder: They Smell Like Sheep, Part 2

  1. Mike says:

    Jay,
    Our church (about 250 members) have been using Ministry Teams for about 10 years. We started these before we had Elders. These teams include: worship team, finance, spiritual development, building, communication and benevolence. Each team has their own meetings and we have an Elder assigned to each team. The Elders then report team status at the Elder meetings (monthly). This has been working, however coordination between the teams is not very good. I am looking at organizing in the way you describe with a single ministry team that meets monthly. Each ministry leader could have their own team or support members.

    A question. For the worship, teen and children’s ministries would the worship leader or minister, the youth minister and children’s minister represent these ministries at the ministry team meeting or would we have another member leader? I am not sure the staff would want to attend another meeting.
    We used to have an Admin team that was made up of the ministry leaders from each of our teams. However, this team took on a life of its own and made some decisions that should have been the Elders responsibility and could not make some decisions that should have been easy. The only other issue was that the meetings would often be very long given they needed to address each ministry status. So, if we have a single Ministries Team meeting I want to prevent some of these problems. I also see the Ministry Team as helpful in developing new leaders in the congregation.

    Thanks for this information. This is very helpful as we evaluate how to best organize to work of our church family.

  2. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Mike,

    A question. For the worship, teen and children’s ministries would the worship leader or minister, the youth minister and children’s minister represent these ministries at the ministry team meeting or would we have another member leader? I am not sure the staff would want to attend another meeting.

    The Ministries Team concept is really a team of teams. For example, the children’s minister may have a team she works with and chairs. She represents that entire team on the MT. If she can’t attend, she sends her vice chair to the meeting.

    It’s essential that there be only one team that does any given job. Just as there can’t be two children’s teams (how absurd that would be), there can’t be two teams doing the work of the MT. Hence, the ministers can’t do the MT’s job for them at meetings of just the ministers. To do so would be to disenfranchise all the volunteer ministry chairs and render the MT pointless. It’s one or the other — and CANNOT be both.

    Just so, the elders can’t do what the MT does either — which will be a very hard habit to break.

    Now, in a very large church, the staff can run the whole thing, but not in a church of 250. That would be very unhealthy because it would deprive key volunteers of a meaningful role in church oversight and administration — meaning you won’t be training your next generation of elders and the membership will feel cut out and unappreciated (because they’ve been cut out and unappreciated). The jobs will in fact not be too hard for volunteers, and the staff needs to focus on training and equipping, not usurping and controlling. The idea is to empower and equip and get out of the way — not to choke to death by control.

    As the members are given training, permission, empowerment, and allowed to do their things, the church will blossom, the Spirit will flourish, and the church will grow. Or the ministers can control everything through their Monday meeting.

    We used to have an Admin team that was made up of the ministry leaders from each of our teams. However, this team took on a life of its own and made some decisions that should have been the Elders responsibility and could not make some decisions that should have been easy.

    That’s why I recommend that an elder sit in on the meetings and prevent just this sort of mistake. Of course, it really helps if the elders lay out in advance what the boundaries are — and that’s why I lay out some suggested typical boundaries. Most elders aren’t used to thinking in terms of boundaries on their authority — and it requires a new, special discipline to give up some of their authority without giving away all authority. So I’ve tried to give some thought as to where most elderships would want to draw the line.

    Dithering over easy decisions seems to be a chronic church thing. It’s usually driven by a desire for unanimity — so that a single hold out makes an easy decision a miserable, endless debate because we just so don’t want to vote. The solution is to vote.

    Our MT often disagreed. I mean, 12 people are going to disagree on a lot of things. But we agreed not to dither. We voted and the losers had to live with the result. Fortunately, we had adults with good self-images, so it was not a problem. In short, someone who gets his feelings hurt if he loses a vote can’t be on the team. Life is too short.

    Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team is very good on this topic, although it assumes a hierarchical structure rather than the MT’s more egalitarian structure. The principles still hold. You just need a chair willing to call the question and members who can live with being outvoted.

    The only other issue was that the meetings would often be very long given they needed to address each ministry status.

    We ran into this same problem. Too many good things to report. Too much fun reporting the victories God was giving the various ministries. We decided —

    a. To have written reports that were made available to the entire church. I mean, we live in the age of email. It’s easy to tell your church what’s going on — and they crave the information. Share! And if you share with the entire church (and the elders), then you don’t have to make a long verbal presentation.

    b. To limit reports — either in time (3 breathless minutes) or number (only three ministries at each meeting).

    Frankly, it was probably a good idea to mix it up a bit. Hilarious to listen to some members try to give a 30-minute report in 3 minutes.

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