Advice to a New Elder: They Smell Like Sheep, Part 4

shepherd3I keep promising myself that I’m going to get to the They Smell Like Sheep part of the series — that is, pastoral care by elders. But not quite yet.

It remains true that most elders have far more work than they can manage, and so the pastoral part of the job gets postponed while countless personnel and other administrative emergencies get dealt with first.

I’ve presented one approach — the Ministries Team — that works in some settings — but not all. We need to consider a few alternatives.

Rule 1: Great churches are great because they tap into the giftedness they receive from the Spirit, not because of their glorious organizational charts. However, a bad organizational structure can frustrate the work of the Spirit in your church.

It’s about people and gifts; not charts and organizational structure — until the charts and organizational structures get in the way — which they will if you’re not careful.

Rule 2: There is no optimal or ideal organizational structure. Every church is differently gifted and so has different organizational needs. And they change constantly.

When someone says that, ideally, the elders are 100% shepherds and take on no administrative duties at all, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Maybe the Spirit gave your elders great administrative skills and no pastoral skills. Maybe half are natural administrators and half are natural pastors. Use what you have. Let the Spirit — not theory or fashion — lead.

Rule 3. Do a gifts assessment. Or just sit around the table and discuss one another’s gifts. But figure out what God has given you — and then shape your organization to fit.

For example, some professional ministers believe that churches should be entirely staff-led and the elders need to do nothing but pastoral care. And they all know a church doing exactly this where it works great. But those churches have ministers gifted in administration and management — and elders gifted as pastors.

I can name far more churches that tried that model and found that it didn’t work well for them at all. The elders concluded that the model failed because they’d abdicated their responsibilities to the church — to use their Spirit-given gifts to oversee staff and other ministries, resulting in all kinds of problems. In some (not all) churches, when the elders stop paying attention to the administrative side, the administrative side falls apart.

Realize that “administrative” is much bigger than negotiating copier leases. “Administrative” picks up things like —

— Making sure the church pursues its vision.

— Making sure the church has a vision and the right vision.

— Making sure that spiritual formation is taking place among the members.

— Empowering and equipping new ministries, programs, and outreach efforts.

That is, without skilled administration, a church is just marking time, keeping house, and paying bills. To be truly missional (by anyone’s preferred definition), someone has to be paying attention to whether the church is doing the things that lead to being missional.

The preacher can preach mission all he wants, but if no one is empowering and equipping mission, mission won’t happen — not much and not well. It sure won’t be included in the budget and won’t find very many volunteers if not brought into the official structures of the church. And members are free to do mission on their own, of course, and many will — but it’s so much better when the church leadership and church membership are all pulling in the same direction.

The administrative team

Many congregations now divide the elders so that a minority take on administrative duties — perhaps chairing or sitting in as a part of a Ministries Team — while a majority focus entirely on pastoral duties. (And the pastoral elders may need an administratively gifted elder to help them get organized to plan their training and care for the congregation.)

So a common model is an administrative committee made up of the preacher (or executive minister in a very large church) and two or three elders who serve as an executive committee to run the church administratively. They set up the organizational chart and assign duties. They make sure the trains run on time. The other elders (and there is often some overlap) take on pastoral duties.

I’ve often seen it suggested that the elders in this structure rotate in and out of administrative duties, on the assumption that being an administrative elder makes an elder more powerful than a mere pastoral elder — which is nuts. Again: it’s about gifts, not power. I mean, the most powerful person in the church will likely be a pastoral elder who is deeply loved for his years of commitment — which means he can get his way on just about anything — but such a man would never think to ask for anything. No, the solution to people in church having power is to give the power to the person equipped by the Spirit for the task — and learn to submit.

Our problems with power are much more about our persistence in appointing worldly men to the eldership than giving good men too much power. Put the wrong man in, and any power will be too much.

Staff-led churches

In a very large church, it’s possible to be entirely staff and elder led. The staff essentially acts as the Ministries Team. But this is for churches with well over 1,000 members.

In theory, a much smaller church could be entirely staff led — but it won’t work. The members will want to be involved in setting the course of their own church, and it’s the rare small or medium-sized church that can retain enough staff long enough that the members will feel comfortable giving the leadership of the church entirely over to paid staff. For a church less than 1,000 members, the reality is that volunteer leaders are needed for the church to work to maximum capacity, and the members will feel cut out and ignored if all the top leadership places are taken by paid staff. (They may well be right.)

But if a staff can grow a church into a mega-church, they’ll have earned the trust of the congregation and will be given the opportunity to lead as they’ve been gifted to do. And when a church becomes big enough, the volume of work and expertise needed may well dictate that the church be led by professional staff. When this happens, the professional staff will be held to a very high standard. (So be careful what you ask for.)

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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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