Leadership: CT Surveys Church Governing Boards

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.

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  1. I am not to sure Jesus is satisfied with all the politics in his church today. really I doubt that he is the least bit satisfied.

  2. When “shepherds” become “governing boards”, different rules of effectiveness apply. An efficient board has delegated almost all decisions short of executive compensation to a CEO. If the CEO is effective, reviewing the dashboard of business indicators is a brief exercise. In religion clubs, the board delegates everything but major staffing decisions and doctrinal changes to a staff of clergy. Since doctrinal changes are very rare and major staffing changes seldom, if a board is meeting for long, they are probably creating mischief for the staff.

  3. Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep! Would that not be a job of a shepherd? Do we have any records supporting a vacation or rest period for any of the Apostles? In a flock of Sheep the shepherd usually is serving and guiding sheep from their birth through the end of their lives. Do you suppose that Jesus had a different concept in mind? Did we ever read of an Elder or leader in the Nation of Israel retiring or having to be re affirmed? Replaced before death? Notice Saul and Eli. Spiritual leaders retire to what? To be just general disciples under the guidance of a successor? I can easily understand replacement of leaders who have become corrupt like Eli and Saul, but to limit an Elder who is appointed by the body of believers because of his abilities, without his abilities being diminished would be no different than removing one of the Apostles from their service to Jesus. Remember these men are not supposed to be guided by the church (the body who elected them) but the church is to be lead or instructed by them. They are the members who are to have been given a special reveling of the Spirit. It is never the students in classes who get make the decision that the instructor is not fit for teaching, (or feeding the flock).

  4. I have always thought that cofC elders were more like a board of trustees than religious leaders. That said, the burnout potential for trustee elders starts to make sense.

  5. Mark,

    I’m not sure I follow your distinction. The members of a church’s governing board are religious leaders — not the only kind of religious leader, of course, but there are many kinds of religious leaders.

  6. Larry,

    I think I get where you’re coming from, but consider Elijah’s response after defeating the prophets of Baal. Classic case of burn out. God’s response?

    (1 Ki. 19:11-18 ESV) 11 And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. 13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” 15 And the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. 16 And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. 17 And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. 18 Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

    God provided Elijah with Elisha to be his successor and assured him that God was making certain that a remnant of God-worshipers was being preserved.

    After being sent out as missionaries, Jesus said to his disciples,

    (Mk. 6:30-32 ESV) 30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.

    Jesus provided rest to those who labored for him.

    When Jesus himself was pressed by the crowds, he sought rest in a desolate place.

    (Matt. 14:13-14 ESV) 13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

    One of the fundamental teachings of scripture is the Sabbath and the need for people to rest from their labors.

    On the other hand, an enforced rest can sometimes deprive a church of needed leadership just when it’s most needed. Many churches don’t have enough men gifted by the Spirit for the eldership to allow a three-year maximum term of office or the like.

    Moreover, too much turnover in leadership makes it hard for a church to retain institutional memory — the guys who learned the hard lessons of experience are all on enforced time outs!

    I don’t know what the solution is, but I think the Churches can prudently try out some variations on the model we’ve used the last 100 years. (In the 19th Century, many Churches had only one elder.) The scriptures aren’t nearly as limiting as we imagine. Nothing says “lifetime appointment.” And some things can only be learned through experience.

    Many churches are giving their preachers sabbaticals — a month or more off every three years or so to recharge and refresh. I think this is a good idea. The same could be done for elders.

  7. Jay,
    So are you explaining that Elijah had “burn out” therefore the Lord took him home? His legacy was still remembered and communicated about while Christ was on earth. I could not think of a better way to serve God. Then to be a “burn out” sent home! These we are speaking of being “burn outs” today, what do they do with their lives thereafter? Become mediocre Christians? Has been’s? How is that ever a good example of how to stand up for faith and Christ? Did Christ have a “burn out”? How about the Apostles, did any have a burn out and return to a less stressful life style? I guess with my understanding of Christ and his life style, I believe that a “burn out” is just as detrimental to a Christian as losing faith and belief in Christ.
    Would not anyone call a life like this stressful?
    Rev 2:2-5 ESV “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. (3) I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. (4) But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. (5) Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.
    Or would a test like this be anything like stress? Who in this life has endured to these extremes? If they stop short do they still get the crown?
    Rev 2:10 ESV Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.

  8. Jay, I know they are religious leaders but they seemed to be more like a Board of Trustees who preserve the organization. I realize that is not their only task though oftentimes it seems that is their only concern.

    My suggestion on reducing the burn out risk is to delegate. Get good people and let them handle issues that arise.

  9. Mark wrote,

    My suggestion on reducing the burn out risk is to delegate. Get good people and let them handle issues that arise.

    I couldn’t agree more. It may not solve every case, but greater delegation is likely the easiest step — and one that will make for a healthier church.

  10. Many of the early saints had burn out, but they actually went to their death by burning. Otherwise they didn’t stop being a Christian and acting Christian like in service.
    If a person came to me for help I should help them. Now if it becomes too much for me, then I get others involved. The hand is not the foot and the foot not the hand, but they all support the body and Christ the head, meaning we shouldn’t just depend on one or two people to do it all, even elders, deacons or preachers. If we see talent we should engage the talent. One of the biggest problems I see is where elders of a congregation stops at a certain number, even though there are more elder available in the wings, they are just un-named and un-utilized.
    I am disappointed when I see preachers retire and then they stop doing what they were doing before as if a wall of glass had been put up. The sad thing is that many of the older preachers could probably be better at some small congregations where many younger ones are struggling and allow the younger preachers to go out to the people.

  11. This was a different thought, that Elijah had a “burn out”. I had never thought of before. As I began to ponder that concept today, I rehearsed the story of the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal and the finality of the prophets of Baal all being killed. This would easily have viewed by God’s people in such a way to place Elijah into a position being as highly honored as God is, therefore to prove beyond a doubt that Elijah had no power in the action he was publicly humbled by a woman who threatened his life. God replaced him with another after a demonstration to prove that the relationship that he had experienced with God was transferred. If Elijah had remained upon earth the Israelite’s might well have worshiped him instead of God.