Advice to a New Elder: Group Dynamics, Part 1A (Why You Should Call for a Vote)

shepherd3Many years ago — maybe even back in the 1960s — we used to talk about group dynamics. But I’ve not heard that term in a very long while.

Here’s the idea: people in groups act differently from people not in groups. And groups act differently depending on their size.

So this is actually a big deal if you’re an elder — because you are now part of a group. And that group will not act like you — or any other member. It will act like the group — and sometimes the group-ness will get in the way of doing the Lord’s work. And it can be incredibly frustrating unless you recognize why the group does what it does so the problems can be addressed.

This is actually an academic discipline, and materials are easily found via Google. The best resource for a church, in my opinion, is Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Buy it. Read it. Study it together with the other elders and the ministers. Then buy, read, and study Lencioni’s The Advantage.

The Advantage covers much more ground than The Five Dysfunctions, but don’t try to save money and time by skipping The Five Dysfunctions. The principles are so important to an eldership that you just have to read The Five Dysfunctions first. It’s an enjoyable, easy read  and very true to biblical principles. And it will enlighten you about why teams work and don’t work. Mandatory reading.

Voting

For example, let’s suppose the elders are considering whether to allow the teens to remodel their room. The teen minister has met with the elders, presented a compelling case, and money is not a problem.

But the elders have now had 15 meetings at which this topic has come up, and no decision has been made. The youth minister is very frustrated. His subcontractors won’t hold their bids, and so the elders’ dithering is driving up costs. Worse yet, the improvement can no longer be done in time for fall semester, and so the room will torn up while the minister is trying to recruit new kids and start off the new school year.

The elders support the teen ministry, but by dithering, they’ve turned a chance to encourage the minister and the teens into a discouragement — even if they finally get around to approving the remodel.

Ask the elders why no decision has been made, and to a man, no one will know and they’ll be very frustrated.

So what’s really happening? Well, this might happen for several reasons. Imagine, for example, that —

  1. One of the elders is angry with the youth minister over something entirely unrelated. The conflict has not been dealt with, and this elder doesn’t want to do a favor for someone who has offended him — and yet neither is he willing to express his anger and bring it to a resolution. Deep down, he knows he’s overreacting, but he still gets angry whenever he thinks of what the youth minister did.
  2. One of the elders thinks it’s unfair for the youth minister to have access to the elders and the ability to go off budget without involving the other ministries. Another ministry may have even greater needs, but the way they’re organized, he has no way to easily poll the 50 other ministry leaders who have budget line items.
  3. Some people just have trouble pulling the trigger. When you make a decision, you are at risk of making a mistake — and there are people who just can’t bear to actually take the risk associated with a decision, especially one involving large dollars. So they always want more study, more prayer, someone else present to discuss, more input, more time because I’m just not sure we’re acting on God’s timing. (These people, if made into elders, can destroy a church.)
  4. Many elders are pleasers. They live to see other people pleased by what they do. Therefore, they go along with the crowd and support the consensus view — outwardly. But because they are acting for approval and not based on  real conviction, they often feel differently from what they say. And so they come across as passive-aggressive. “If you really support this, why can’t we decide and move on to other things?” “Well, I feel the Spirit pushing me another way and I need time …” In truth, they are not being honest with you for fear of disapproval. They deep down disagree, but don’t have the fortitude to express their real feelings.

(These are all made up. I’ve never run into any of these myself.)

Now, 2 would be no problem if the church had set up a Ministries Team structure or even an administrative team that has authority over the budget. Then it would not be the elders’ problem to deal with at all and the team would have easy access to the leaders of all ministries to discuss the youth minister’s request. 1 reflects an immature elder who is handling conflict childishly.

3 and 4 can be very hard to cope with because they just won’t tell you how they really feel, but neither will they let the group move along. Some would happily let the elders delegate to a committee and so avoid having to make the decision themselves. Others will cling to power to their last breath.

If you’re the chair of the elders and you are unaware of why there’s a problem (because these guys won’t tell you), how do you break the logjam? I mean, at each meeting, the elders read each other’s body language and conclude that one or two elders really don’t want to approve this — but won’t say why not. What do you do?

Well, you could refer it to a committee to decide (often the best solution and one rarely considered by elders).

You could continue to dither forever.

You could take each elder out for lunch one at a time and cross-examine them until they come clean with their real problems. But there’s no guaranty of success, and that’s a whole lot of trouble.

Or you could vote. And then you’ll have a decision and you can move on. Just vote.

But nearly every eldership wants to operate by consensus — and they’ll invest unspeakable amounts of time into trying to create consensus, believing that unity = consensus = taking whatever time it takes to get on the same page. And they’ll refuse to even take a vote when they know they won’t be unanimous.

But this is not scriptural, and it’s really bad management. Take a vote, make a decision, and move on. The job of the chair is to recognize when nothing new is being said and so it’s time to vote and make a decision. I’m no fan of Robert’s Rules of Order for elders’ meetings, but I do believe it’s fair to “call the question” when everything that needs to be said has been said.

Vote! If the chair won’t call for the vote, ask the group whether anyone has something new to add? If not, move for an immediate vote. Refuse all delaying tactics: “We’ve already discussed that concern.” “We’ve already prayed about it.” “We’ve already gotten a second opinion.”

Does that resolve the underlying issue? Well, actually, it does. Either the elders who have reservations will finally voice their real reservations  (good) or they’ll be outvoted and the church can minister properly to its teens (good enough).

There is nothing more unhealthy than unexpressed reservations about an issue — except eternal delays caused by men unwilling to share their concerns with the group. So call for a vote.

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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6 Responses to Advice to a New Elder: Group Dynamics, Part 1A (Why You Should Call for a Vote)

  1. “But the elders have now had 15 meetings at which this topic has come up, and no decision has been made.”

    Gosh. Remove all the Elders and replace them with persons who want to spread the Gospel instead of hindering it. Perhaps the statement is an exaggeration to make a point—perhaps not. It indicates a dozen or so problems with this group.

    I don’t know how to do this, but I see a great need for EVERY group of Elders to have a consultant visit four or five times a year and work with them on every thing. Outsiders can see what is happening. Insiders, well we are often blinded by the myriad details of every day.

  2. JES says:

    If this issue had presented its self “about the time” of Acts 6, how would the 12 have addressed it?

  3. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    JES,

    As I’ve written in earlier posts, I strongly advocate for elders to delegate as much as they can — without abdicating their role as overseers. They can’t stop overseeing — but most elderships retain far too much decision-making and spend far too much time deciding and not enough time equipping. I mean, other than teaching Bible class, when was the last time you saw an elder teaching others about leadership, about pastoral care for the flock, about how to relate to the members and the staff, etc.?

    Dwayne,

    I entirely agree. An outside consultant is often needed. The universities have people assigned to work with churches in their vicinity — often on a gratis basis. Elderships would do well to seek the advice of consultants.

    And this also applies to particular areas of ministry. No one can know everything we expect our leaders to know. So if you want to know how to oversee a foreign missions ministry, contact one of the several nonprofits who do this and ask for their advice. They’ll be thrilled to get on the phone or travel to your town to meet with the elders, missions team, etc. to offer coaching on how to do this better. And there are plenty of good people to call on in other areas of ministry.

    We just so insist on reinventing the wheel, losing all institutional memory, and acting as though God has left us without sister congregations and brothers and sisters who have experience and wisdom and would be glad to help.

  4. JES says:

    Isn’t that the take away from Acts 6? The 12 could not have given a clearer example of how to address this kind of issue; 1. Acknowledge the issue, 2. Give clear instructions on how to address the issue, 3. Make it clear that this is not the stewardship responsible of the elders, 4. Get out of the way and let the congregation pick qualified members to handle the issue.

    For almost 70 years and multiple congregations later, I have seen the elders “pick the colors”.

    More than once I’ve been involved where the accumulate effects of this kind of “leadership” was exhibited and outside consultants were brought in, usually at a cost, and the leadership rejected their advice. Each time the congregation suffered.

    We are slow learners!

  5. Mark says:

    Indecisive group. To the young who know anything about the elders, it looks like the elders are yet another group that is out of touch. The teens already wonder how the elders got chosen, why they can’t decide on something, especially if word gets out that they have the money, just who is against them, or if one powerful person does not want them to get a room redone. The ones with an interest in politics wonder if they should hire a lobbying firm or try to replace some elders with one teen, one woman, etc. such that they would have a little bit of representation. Some teens figure that if the senior adults wanted a room redone, it could have been planned, voted on, and completed in 30 days.

    Now the older group who are likely the largest donors might see the teens as not donating and soon to be gone off to college. Now in the secular world, not donating means no voice. Thus the whole issue of a nondecision makes complete sense.

  6. dwight says:

    I think some things are grossly overlooked in Acts 6. 1. The people chose the deacons. 2. They were clearly able to do this and told to do this 3. The deacons were picked and acted without elder supervision, because they had a certain task to do…supply the needy. 4. This would have included the deacons of internal supervision, to the point of accessing the money for the needy. 5. The deacons themselves did not cost money…meaning that they were not bought, but picked from the larger group. They were willingly chosen servants.
    Now group dynamics will have a play in this. Those in Acts appear to be very unified in spirit, but this might be a problem in a particular church in regards to decisions. And assembly size might have an impact, but it appears that even in the OT the Jews were able to as one people choose and make a choice.
    Much of this will of course have to be done on and in faith. The apostles must have had faith in the people ability to choose and chose wisely from being unified in Christ.

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