Advice to a New Elder: They Smell Like Sheep, Part 6 (inclusive decision making)

shepherd3So how does a too-busy eldership include the congregation in decision making? Well, it depends on the size of the church and the decision being made.

We know from Acts 15 (doctrinal decision) and 1 Cor 5 (decision to withdraw fellowship) that these kinds of decisions were made with congregational participation by both small and large churches. The Jerusalem church likely had more than 20,000 members! And I sure wish the scriptures told us how the apostles managed such a huge congregation, but the scriptures are silent on process.

Let me suggest some approaches (and I’ve participated in all of these at one time or another) —

  • Meet with the entire congregation one small group at a time. Have carefully worked out questions to pose each group and then let the group discuss whatever is on their hearts. We asked, “If you were to leave our church for 10 years, and if while you were gone the Spirit had his way with the church, what changes, if any, would you expect to see?”

That’s a indirect way of asking, “Where do you think God wants the church to go?”  which is much better than “Where do you want the church to go?”

We did this on Wednesday nights and allowed an hour but went later if the group wished. We took careful notes, and it’s probably the most encouraging thing I’ve ever done in church leadership because so many of our members were clearly in tune with the Spirit and remarkably mature.

(This process was cut short by a certain F-5 tornado.)

  • Take a survey. We’ve used a template from Jon Ellas’s Church Growth Workshop. The best I can tell, that ministry is no longer active, but there are plenty of sources for this sort of material. In fact, Jon’s book can be bought at Amazon.

Be sure to ask some open ended questions, even “What else would you like to say to your elders?”

Try to use a format that allows for most of the results to be charted in Excel — or else most elders will only read and respond to the longhand comments of a few. Humans can’t average 200 or questionnaires in their head. The longhand comments will be invaluable but may not be representative of the church as a whole.

  • Set up focus groups. Divide the Wednesday night adults at random among multiple classrooms and have a facilitator (not an elder or staff member) lead a discussion. The elders should sit in the rooms to hear what’s being said (I’d record them all), but he should avoid participation in the discussion. The members need to feel free to say whatever they wish. (I wouldn’t mind an elder correcting a factual misunderstanding.)
  • Divide the small groups or classes among the elders, and have an elder meet with his groups or classes to hear their thoughts. He could just routinely rotate among his assigned small groups. (Small groups would work better because they have a more flexible agenda and would feel more comfortable talking informally with the elders over a meal at someone’s home.)
  • You could use smartphones to allow members to vote on questions, with the results immediately posted to a screen. I’ve not tried any of these, but they look interesting: PollEverywhere, mQlicker, polltogo.
  • In kind of a backwards approach, we’ve taken a half-quarter of Bible class time, put the elders in chairs in front of the class, and allowed the class to ask anything. Even if the elders don’t ask a single question, they quickly learn what’s on the hearts of their members.

Now, notice that one reason the process is important is that the members will appreciate elders who allow themselves to be vulnerable — to receive criticism. Elders in Churches of Christ have a reputation for being distant, defensive, and unwilling to communicate. As a result, even if the elders aren’t like this at all, they’ll be perceived this way. Hence, going out of your way to break the stereotype will not only provide congregational input, it will build trust and support for whatever decisions are made down the road. It may well completely redefine the relationship of the elders to the church.

The problem with all the above is that it’s just a whole lot of trouble — and many elders will be terrified of being criticized in public. But I’d far rather someone criticize me to my face than talk behind my back. At least I can then respond. Maybe I need to apologize. Or maybe I need to explain a misunderstanding. There is just no substitute for face to face conversation.

The “whole lot of trouble” problem is not as difficult as might appear — and it’s okay to recruit some members or staff members to help with the planning. You don’t have to go it entirely alone. In fact, involving members in the process will further create the perception of openness and vulnerability.

The elders before my time (when the church was much smaller) sometimes met separately with every single family in the church to deal with very difficult issues — such as our decision to relocate and build a new building. And they have my forever-respect for having done so. But as the church grows, the ability to do this becomes much more challenging. I mean, in a church of 500 with 200 family units and, say, five elders, that’s 40 meetings each. Just scheduling those meetings would be a huge piece of work.

On the other hand, if the elders will make a point to visit all the small group meetings for groups in their shepherding group, not as teacher or authority figure but as a good listener, the elders will effectively be in continuous contact with the congregation — and the congregation will know it and feel it.

Most church members don’t want control. I mean, most people understand that in a group of hundreds of people not every decision can or should go before the entire group. What members want is to know that they’ve been heard and that their opinion matters. They may not get what they asked for, but their opinion was respected and prayerfully considered.

So how will the members know this?


And there are LOTS of ways to receive input from your flock. But it’s also possible to do all the above in a way that makes the members feel that the decision has already been made and this is all spin-doctoring. The best way to avoid that feeling is for it never to be true. That is, don’t huddle up, decide on the change you want, and then think about how to fool the church into thinking it’s their idea.

Of course, any elder is entitled to have his own opinion — but the elders need to carefully avoid any indication that the decision has already been made and the church is being instrumentalized (used). In fact, some members will have been burned before and assume they are being used regardless of what you do. The more face to face the communications, the more persuaded the members will be of your good intentions.

Perception Management

I like to tell elders that they’re in the perception management business. And yet,  elders tend to assume that the entire church attends all their meetings and knows all the decisions made and why — when in fact they just don’t.

A friend once told me that in an institution, knowledge is the greatest motivator. That is, the more the members know about the decision and the process, the more motivated the church.

Another friend told me that people fill gaps in their knowledge with their fears — in the most pathological way possible. And it’s true. (I have stories.)

Therefore, over-communicate. If you took a survey and made some decisions based on the results, tell the church. Let them know that you decided to change the start time for services based on a strong majority vote.

When you make a change, ask yourselves what the members fear about the change. And then address their fears directly when you explain the reason for the change.

One of the most difficult things to do in my years of eldering has been to get everyone to explain the reasons for their decisions when they’re announced. Some elders and some ministers feel that giving a reason implicitly says they need the church’s permission to have made the decision. Wrong! What is says is that I love you and therefore respect your passion for this church and trust you to react like an adult even when you didn’t get your way. Refusing to explain implicitly says, “I don’t trust you to react maturely to this.” Or, worse yet, “I’m not sure I agree with our decision and probably should have thought about it longer before announcing it.”

Preacher compensation, for example

If the preacher has been given five weeks of vacation and the elders are a little embarrassed by their generosity (they shouldn’t be), failing to tell the church where the preacher is this week only feeds their distrust and fears. Maybe he’s trying out at another church? Maybe he’s deathly ill? Maybe there’s been a death in his family?

This leads to the question of confidentiality in preacher oversight and reviews. Most churches do not publish the preacher’s salary — and more than one preacher has said to me that he’ll happily publish his salary when the members do the same!

What most church members don’t know is that executive fringes, severance, etc. are very different from what most members see. They get 2 weeks of paid vacation and, if they’re terminated  without cause, likely a two-week severance package. They are astonished — even angry — when the preacher gets a better deal.

They also don’t know that the preacher has to pay self-employment taxes of 15.3% on his income — that is, he has to pay his own FICA match (in effect). It can get complicated. But his salary is really about 7.65% lower than the stated amount because of the extra federal self-employment tax (although the housing allowance cuts the other way and makes it even harder to compare a minister’s pay to a member’s pay).

So it’s important to tell the church that (a) preachers are compensated like recruited executives in business, meaning they (b) get more vacation than many and (c) may be treated more generously in terms of severance. Like a business executive, you’ve asked this man to move into town, buy a house, and take on massive responsibilities — and he’ll be right to want more than two weeks vacation and enough severance to let him find a new job and relocate. Moreover, tell the church that you’ve consulted with Abilene Christian to make certain you are paying what a church of your size should pay a preacher of his experience.

So, like just about everything else, the more information you provide, the more trust you build. And there will come a day when you need the church to trust you on something you can’t share with them. You need to have some trust (political capital) banked. Besides, it’s the right thing to do.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

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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17 Responses to Advice to a New Elder: They Smell Like Sheep, Part 6 (inclusive decision making)

  1. John F. says:

    Don’t overlook the importance of Acts 6 in this process, where, after the need was presented, the decision making process BEGAN with the congregation (literally , (playthos) multitude) “select from among you” .

  2. James Thrasher says:

    It’s hard to encourage people to contribute when they are’t allowed to know how money is spent (preachers salaries). Every public organization’s records are open, and so should be those of the church. As to the preacher’s objection, if the members are paid by church, they should be public, too.

  3. dwight says:

    In the beginning the decision was rather simple when it came to the funds…from the people…to the people in need. .

  4. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    James writes,

    Every public organization’s records are open, and so should be those of the church.

    A church is not a public organization. And some churches do publish the preacher’s salary and some don’t, which the law permits. The scriptures are silent on the question. (Make of that what you will, but I think it just means that the scriptures are silent and nothing more.) I do agree that the budget and year to date expenditures by category should be open to the members — because I can’t think of reason for them not to be. I see salaries as different — in part because of the following and in part because of the Golden Rule. If I were a preacher, I wouldn’t want to work for an eldership that the church did not trust to set my pay.

    I can tell you for a fact that publishing the salary to the congregation will make the job less attractive to many candidates and make hiring more difficult. So there will be a trade off — a less attractive job in exchange for greater transparency.

    If you don’t trust your elders, then “There’s your problem.” You need new elders or a conversation with the elders about whatever led to the distrust. If you trust your elders, why do you care?

    If you trust the elders are a matter of personal integrity but think them ignorant regarding the market value of preachers, you might want to educate them on how to determine market wages and benefits. In fact, some elders really don’t know and they need to be told. I do strongly believe in benchmarking as a means of setting salaries. Market may not be perfect, but it’s a really good starting place.

    Just so, if the elders decide to reveal the preacher’s salary to the church, there are some important boundary issues.

    First, if the preacher was hired on the promise of a confidential salary, well, you have to keep your promises. It really is an integrity issue.

    Second, the congregation has to be educated on preacher pay — the impact of the Self-Employment Tax, the housing allowance, the market, comparable wages for preachers with similar tenure at similar churches, and such like. And there’s the very difficult issue of bonuses and raises. I mean, do we really want the entire congregation privy to the preacher’s annual review? Do that and you won’t keep him for long.

    Any organization — churches included — must have a clear chain of command. 300 people can’t be the preacher’s boss. If they must all vote or approve his wages and bonuses (even if it’s just having to navigate the politics of giving the guy a raise when many church members disagree with the decision even though they have no vote), then they need to all take management courses and read management materials and be able to do the job competently. Dropping a check in the plate does not make one a competent supervisor or HR person — and I can think few things that would be as unfair as having the preacher supervised by 300 unqualified supervisors. Would you take such a job?

    So the elders have to be able to do their job — which includes being the supervisor (overseer) of the preacher. And they can’t do it if 300 people are trying to do their job for them. It’s not possible — and sounds miserable to me.

    That is, if you don’t trust your elders to do their job, then give them whatever advice they need — and they often really do need the advice of a top notch HR person or manager. But if you just don’t trust them, man up and ask them to resign.

    But I’d be interested in hearing other perspectives on the issue.

  5. dwight says:

    Jay, You are right…a church is not a public organization. It is a private organization bound in Jesus of family members.
    Is there such thing as a “preacher’s boss” other than Christ. I mean in our churches yes, but in the grand scheme of things, the preacher works for the King to expand the Kingdom.
    Unfortunately we often think job-wise, instead of mission wise. We see the position, not primarily in the church building, but in the field, among those who are also spreading the gospel.
    Should an elder oversee a preacher? Is there an example or precedence in the scriptures for this? I don’t think so.
    We do see an apostles telling Timothy what to do, but not elders.
    I would argue that the preachers territory is defined by where they need to be, as opposed to the elders and/or deacons who are where they are and then address the needs there.

  6. James says:

    I don’t have a problem with the elders setting a salary for the preacher, or any other employee. I have a problem with the elders thinking the members are not capable of understanding the process. If the preacher doesn’t feel with his salary being public knowledge, then choose another occupation, or find a church that will hide his salary.

  7. Johnny says:

    Jay doesn’t your thought process here run counter to your earlier advice that there is no such thing as too much information in the decision making process? In fact won’t, as you said, the congregation fill in the blanks and make assumptions about compensation if the elders are not open about it? A good minister is worth a professional salary, a poor minister is overpaid at any price.

  8. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    You make a good point. Transparency is — as a general rule — a very good thing in any organization, the church included. But just as is true of every kind of organization, there are limits. Even the government, which is an actual democracy, can legitimately keep some secrets. After all, they can’t negotiate to buy land if they have to publicize the highest price they’re willing to pay!

    So it’s not a question of whether there is a line. There is. But where to draw the line — and reasonable people will disagree. But I personally can’t buy an argument that is premised on the untrustworthiness of all elders. I grant that some churches have done a dreadful job of selecting elders. The solution is to pick better elders, not to burden them with rules and processes that keep them from doing their job.

    Rather, I think we start with the very biblical principle of the Golden Rule. How would you feel about having your salary disclosed if you were the preacher? Your raises? Your bonuses? Your annual employment reviews? I know for a fact that preachers don’t like it one little bit — and I don’t blame them — because as soon as you tell the entire church what the preacher makes, everyone at church fancies himself an expert in what preachers ought to make.

    And I’ve heard some irresponsible opinions from some otherwise very intelligent people — such as preachers make a commitment not to care about money. Even though they have wives and children and college to pay for — and why aren’t all Christians held to the same standard? Where is the rule that says preachers can’t make what the members make? (My personal philosophy is that the preacher ought to make a salary typical of the lifestyle of his congregation — as a starting point for a multi-factor analysis.)

    Perhaps we could mitigate this by training our members on how to be generous to their ministers and to understand how to treat someone at your mercy right. But it’s far easier said than done. And I’ve seen some real ugliness triggered by revealing the preacher’s pay.

    Yes, I know elders who’ve given away the store to the preacher. Well, actually, in the Churches of Christ — I don’t. Zero. But I do know LOTS of elders who underpay the preacher shamefully — in ways that any businessman would consider embarrassingly shameful. Again, our business ethics often exceed our church ethics.

    And I know countless church members who are convinced the preacher should live in near poverty. So if I were a preacher, knowing what I know, would I agree to disclosure of my pay? No way. And so the Golden Rule argues against disclosure.

    Could my church hire a capable preacher and disclose salaries? No, it could not. This is not speculation. I’ve discussed the question with many candidates and many preachers in established Churches of Christ. If you want to cut your candidate pool by 90%, put the salary in the bulletin. Or vote on it. Even if the salary would be approved by a congregational vote, the repercussions would be seriously negative. Many, many members could not get over a preacher who is not starving. Yes, we really have a streak in our collective psyches that is just that pathological.

    But my experience is far from universal. I’d be interested in hearing whether any churches have tried disclosure and found that the results were wonderful.

  9. James says:

    If you know of many churches who are grossly underpaying their preacher, then someone is discussing or publishing the preacher salaries.

  10. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    I hear from preachers regularly as well as from men who serve as mentors to many. In addition I’ve analyzed the database ACU publishes. They post the raw data but without names.

  11. Alabama John says:

    Its best to not debate the salaries but leave it totally up to the congregation and preacher.

    The way to do it fairly is to put the newly hired preacher on an agreed upon percentage of collection. That causes him to work harder, preach better prepared sermons and the congregation to happily show its appreciation or displeasure, instead of questioning the amount of salary.

    The more and better you do, the more you make, its the American way!!!

  12. Dwight says:

    AJ, that sounds nice, but I would think would lead to “people pleasing” in order to get more money or at least encourage it on some level. Preachers might and should preach things that make the congregants uncomfortable and might lead many to withdraw their funds, even though he is doing what he is supposed to be doing.

  13. Jay’s argument against transparency in salary is disturbing. I am not saying he is not correct, but that the religious and social climate that he describes which makes such transparency impossible is distressing. It seems to me that this atmosphere of greed and covetousness and mistrust and manipulation and secrecy cannot be a healthy one (“pathological” seems an accurate adjective) and that it would be of great importance for elders to address the symptoms and root causes of such carnality in the congregation, rather than ignore it because addressing it would hurt the attendance or offering numbers.

    I think of a doctor whose patient Jack has a strong risk of heart disease due to smoking, but Doc won’t mention it to him, because Jack’ll just keep smoking anyway and will take his medical business elsewhere if Doc insists on offending him by bringing it up. Besides, everybody smokes, so Doc figures he may as well let that go and try to get Jack to exercise or give up whiskey, because those subjects don’t offend Jack. And Doc still has two kids to get through college.

    Are we doing what is best for the spiritual development of the individual sheep we shepherd, or are we doing what is best for the organization we operate? And if our looking the other way at covetousness and selfishness and greed averts conflict, are we deciding that a avoiding conflict is leadership’s most important responsibility?

    Is this why a congregation of older people gets sermons decrying homosexuality instead of sermons pointing out God’s objection to gossip or divisiveness or greed or judgment?

  14. Jay asks how you would feel if your salary and bonuses were public record? Since my salary IS public record (by law) I can say honestly that I don’t care. I think the real question is, if you object to having others know how much you make… why is that? We certainly give out hints. If you own a $500,000 house, we have a pretty good idea what kind of salary it takes to pay for that. If you drive a new car, we know what they cost. So, what is the actual objection and why should that objection exist? Is there shame here? Or covetousness? Or have we so stratified ourselves in the church over money that if Mr and Mrs Member knew what the preacher makes that they could not relate to him? If we think paying a higher-than-average salary would drive a wedge between the preacher and the member, why do we pay it? Why do we not address the real issue here and instead choose simply to hide what we are doing, as though we were ashamed to be found out?

    Sounds like we are facing some ungodly attitudes and are addressing it with shame and secrecy. That does not sound like a very good plan for an organization of believers. And real elders should be the first ones to get this.

  15. Alabama John says:

    It could have the negative consequences you describe but, in a congregation of people that are happy in their beliefs of a loving God and not the mean one waiting to get you it would be positive.
    People pleasing can have many connotations and all can be positive if the congregation is a happy one that spends time enjoying each others company as Christian brothers and sisters.

    I like it to a company of people that are on commission. Would they rather have an upline manager that just lets them all roll along in the status quo or one that pushes and encourages each to their maximum abilities?

    Doing better benefits everyone and its spirit is catching!

  16. Laymond says:

    I have never been really comfortable when someone who claims to be a Christian, actually a leader in the movement, demands pay for doing what Jesus commands all Christians to freely do.

    This Christian “stuff” is not as simple as it may seem to some.

  17. laymond says:

    Have many Americans became so successful , that they no longer need Christ in their life. I believe Jesus was for the poor and downtrodden , was for picking people up , when you are on top can you be picked up. What was it that Jesus said about the rich and entering the gate to heaven.

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