Christianity Today recently survey 500 governing boards of US churches. The results are fascinating.
These governing boards would, in the Churches of Christ, be the elders or the elders together with the preacher.
The survey says that the most effective boards (as they evaluate themselves) are those meeting from 21 to 40 hours per year, that is about 2 to 4 hours per month, but less than 1 hour week. The decline in perceived effectiveness isn’t huge once you hit 1 hour per week, but it’s real.
Now, I suspect most Church of Christ elderships meet more than 40 hours per year. And I imagine that most elderships would rate themselves as less effective than they wish. It’s just a really difficult job, and our denomination does next to no training of elders. And there’s no doubt that we spend more time in meetings than is really necessary — largely due to very inefficient means of making decisions. That is, we allow reluctant elders and preachers to talk issues to death — all at the expense of making timely decisions — giving any unwilling elder or preacher the right to filibuster a proposal due to our cultural insistence on consensus rather than mutual submission.
- Almost all boards (94%) include the pastor, who doesn’t get a vote on 30 percent of boards, is allowed to vote on 43 percent of boards, and chairs (and votes on) 21 percent of boards.
The right of the preacher to vote or even attend elder meetings is very controversial in the Churches of Christ. Part of this is due to our debates with the Baptists, in which we argued that the Baptists are in error in giving the pastor exclusive control over “spiritual” matters. Spiritual matters should be overseen exclusively by the elders we argued 100 years ago.
Second, there’s a fear of the preacher getting to vote on his own salary — although I’ve never seen a single church that allowed this. Even when the preacher is a named elder, he is excluded from the salary discussions due to the obvious conflict of interest. And I’ve seen plenty of preachers who were elders fired by the elders! But there is a deep distrust among the members that, so far as I can tell, is not based on reality.
Third, many church members incorporate a business model into their thinking and so figure the preacher is an employee who is supervised by the elders (board of directors), and so he should do as he’s told and not be involved in setting policy. But this isn’t even how businesses really operate. Usually, the CEO is hired to provide advice to the board, although he does answer to the board.
Fourth, there are some churches where the preacher dominates the elders because of his greater education. This is especially true in smaller, rural churches. This can be a problem, but the problem isn’t the structure but hiring preachers who think it’s okay to dominate an eldership and ordaining elders who let themselves be used.
Personally, it makes no sense to hire a guy because of his education, training, and experience and then exclude him from leadership. If you don’t trust his advice, hire someone you trust. I’ve been fortunate to observe a lot of churches follow many different management theories over the years, and my observation is that excluding the preacher from elders meetings (other than when his job is under consideration) does far more harm than good.
(There are those who distrust all church authority. But someone picks the elders and the preachers, and this someone is usually the membership — which tells you where the real problem is. If you don’t trust your fellow members to choose their own leaders, then your church has issues far deeper than the mechanics of who meets with whom.)
The most important qualification for board membership is faithfulness (89.8%), followed by consistent giving (51.9%). What you won’t find on the list at all is training for service as an elder (or comparable title) or, more to my taste, gifting by the Spirit for the task.
In the Churches of Christ, we have a long history of basing elder ordinations on the Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 lists of “qualifications” or characteristics, while ignoring numerous other passages that describe an overseer as someone gifted or chosen by the Spirit for the task. It seems we are not alone in ignoring the test most frequently stated in the scriptures. (And our ignoring of the Spirit more than adequately explains why so many members are unhappy with their elders.)
Three-quarters of church boards have term limits, usually ranging from one to five years. But “the impact of term limits is limited” because 45 percent of churches “don’t limit the number of terms a governing board member may serve,” ECFA reported. While 18 percent of churches require at least a year off between terms, 67 percent of churches allow back-to-back terms without time off, and 12 percent allow three terms without a mandatory break.
Historically, Churches of Christ have treated elder ordinations as lifetime appointments. I’m increasingly seeing some sort of renewal process being adopted. Some churches have a three-year term, followed by possible re-ordination. Others require a mandatory year off.
I would think an elder’s term should be at least three years, just because it takes a while to learn the job. If you have one-year terms, a new elder will not have learned half of what it takes to be effective in 12 months. The result will be to shift control of the church to those who don’t have to be re-ordained, typically the preacher.
I would think a three- or four-term would work well enough. If you don’t require a year off, just as we see in American politics, most incumbents will be automatically renewed. On the other hand, few churches have enough truly qualified men. Force a year off, and you likely leave the church with too few elders.
In fact, my experience is that church members often have no idea which elder stands for what — often assuming the old guy to be conservative and the young guy to be progressive — and often they are exactly wrong. I mean, the members don’t attend the meetings and have no idea of how the group dynamics work or who voted for or against a controversial proposal. So they really have no basis for knowing whom to re-ordain. And making the elder sit out a year won’t change that.
What would change that is assigning the elders particular duties rather than handling everything as a board. That is, if elder X is responsible for the singles and young couples ministries, then his effectiveness would be visible to the church — but that would not necessarily be a good way to run a church. (It’s a common structure for Alabama county commissions and city councils, however.)
Perhaps more helpful would be to assign elders pastoral care over particular households, which would provide some transparency and also help with much-needed pastoral care. But it would only be a partial picture, as pastoral care is not the totality of the job. But if you were to combine that with teaching and assigning administrative work to those who have the gift of administration, you might have a much more transparent eldership and a better means of holding elders to account.
CT identified six top characteristics that seemed to point to a healthy board:
- Board members were chosen by someone other than the lead pastor.
- Policies were in place—and the board had the ability—to ask an underperforming staff member to resign.
- The board was able to challenge and correct a lead pastor when necessary.
- An active strategic planning process was in place.
- Time and energy were devoted to assessing risks and opportunities.
- The board guided the staff with strategic—but not tactical—input.
The first three bullets describe most Church of Christ elderships. But many elderships do not deal with strategic planning, with assessing risks and opportunities, or with strategic planning. And this is generally not the fault of the elders. I mean, we do no training. And few elders come from a background where this sort of thinking is taught.
Worse yet, our preachers with their advanced degrees are rarely trained in these same skills. They are much better at Greek grammatical declensions. This is also not their fault. They take the courses assigned to them.
Sometimes I think our preachers would do better to get a few courses from the MBA program rather than studying Alan Hirsch, just because they seem to have so little training in management. Of course, the elders likely also have no management training — leaving the church with men in charge with no training. Even if you believe the preacher shouldn’t be an elder, if he’s been trained in these skills, he can pass them along to the elders.
I mean, if you want your elders to have a vision and direction for the church, well, just how do you expect them to learn these skills? Get on Google and look for people who can be hired to train or consult with elders. There’s aren’t many, and they are almost all trained in conflict resolution — not visionary or strategic planning. That is, they can be hired when the train comes entirely off the tracks — but they can’t tell you how to drive the train.
We’ve got a leadership problem in the Churches of Christ. The institutions best situated to help are the colleges and universities — not just through the lectureships but by training future preachers for the church of today — churches that need leadership much more than three sermons a week. Leadership training should be standard in the curriculum — and this requires a commitment to and passion for the local church (which would be very biblical were that to happen). And then I’d add to that church oversight consultation — not conflict resolution but skills training. I’m thinking a week-long course for new elders on how to do the job.
Or maybe what we have is working just fine.