[Reposted from 2012]
A reader asks,
Have you written on the issue of elder-led vs. the lead pastor model? At work, I’m a big believer in the sole leader — follow or get out of the way — model. I’m not sure that’s what God had in mind for the church. Any practical ideas on governing without squeezing the life and passion out of the staff?
Here’s where I am in my thinking.
1. The scriptures give us considerable flexibility but elders cannot abdicate their jobs. They can delegate, but they can’t give away ultimate oversight.
2. The preacher should be treated as a near-elder, meeting with the elders as part of the team. He doesn’t get a vote, but that should never matter.
The reason is that, like elders, he visits the sick, teaches doctrine, mentors future leaders, etc. Elders and preachers do the same things, and the elders need someone on staff to coordinate getting their vision into effect.
I understand why many don’t want the preacher to be an elder (especially in a small church), but a strong elder/preacher divide is always unhealthy. Elders and the preacher must work hand-in-glove.
If there’s an executive minister (in a larger church, a minister who handles many tasks the minister handles in a smaller church perhaps including staff oversight), he’s a near-elder, too.
3. Ministers and elders should be as close as possible as fellow church leaders. How close depends on the degree of authority given the preacher. If he can hire and fire, then elders have to work through him, or else you have two chains of authority.
But in the normal case, the preacher isn’t given that much authority. The rest of the ministerial staff are not near-elders, like the preacher, because many are too young and need to be overseen by the preacher and elders. And it’s just not practical to put every staff member in that position.
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable gives a very healthy model of how to do this.
4. Staff cannot be allowed to silo — that is, youth ministry, children’s ministry, and adult ministry must be planned together, indeed, must have a shared vision, fulfilled together.
The youth minister isn’t the de facto pastor of a sub-congregation made up of teens. He has to work with the rest of the ministers and volunteers in a teamwork fashion, toward a common, church-wide vision.
The preacher is normally best situated to chair the ministers and insist that they work in tandem, putting the elders’ vision into effect on a coordinated basis.
5. The shepherding model can be good or bad. It’s bad when the elders give up being overseers and elders to be pastoral counselors only. This is abdication.
But elders should certainly take on pastoral responsibilities. And in many churches, the elders specialize based on giftedness. Some serve as administrators (with the preacher and/or executive minister) and some purely serve as shepherds and some do a blend of both.
I’m opposed to all models that rotate administrative authority among the elders, as administration is a gift required to be used in God’s service.
In short, you govern without squeezing the passion out of the staff by —
A. Getting away from simplistic organizational chart thinking. It’s more important to build relationships than to draw charts. Think more in terms of drawing inclusive circles than lines of authority.
B. Setting a clear vision, with the ministers heavily involved in the process but not dictating the process. Participation by staff gives them a sense of ownership and gives elders the benefit of their education and experience. But the congregation must also be included if you’re going to ask for any real change.
C. Giving the staff freedom within the vision, but without abdicating the obligation to oversee (translates the Greek word for middle management). Don’t micromanage. Do manage. (Some ministers can’t tell the difference.)
D. Spending time with the staff. We used to meet weekly for lunch on Wednesdays. Building personal relationships and sharing your hearts with each other breaks down barriers and allows many problems to be resolved early and without great pain.
E. Having the preacher charged to keep the staff from being in silos and to assure that the ministers (and other church leaders) pursue the vision and stick to it.
F. Insisting that the ministers and elders honor the system. All this assumes you have elders and ministers who are willing to work within this system. Some ministers will demand autonomy. They must repent or be fired. It’s an unscriptural attitude. Some elders will insist on being overlords. They should resign or repent.
G. Working hard to build trust. Communication leads to trust. Time together leads to communication. There are no short cuts.
H. Lifting up Jesus as the goal, to be pursued according to the church’s agreed vision. Set goals that are audacious enough to challenge the church and the ministers and yet doable — with God’s help. Aim high. Work hard — together — to achieve the goals.
When goals are unclear or when the vision is vague, elders and ministers will pursue their own preferences and projects. When the goal is concrete and well understood, the leadership will pull together and will be tightly bonded to one another by the shared work and victory.
I. Pray together.
Now, for years we had an “elder liaison” structure, so that each leader of a ministry department (we had 12 departments) had an elder assigned to the ministry. It sometimes worked incredibly well. It was sometimes a disaster. I’m not sure I would do it again.
The ideal case was an elder who had a passion for teens. He was not interested in telling the youth minister how to do his job. He just showed up at teen events, hugged the kids, prayed for them, and became a surrogate grandfather. And the teens loved having him around. But he was a rarely gifted man with a charming, open personality — and he got very close to the teens rather than the teen minister. It worked.
The opposite case is an elder who has a passion for the teen minister (for example). He meets with the minister and becomes a surrogate father to him. The minister has issues with his earthly father, and he so he is thrilled to receive unconditional love from an elder. He and the elder become very close.
It is later discovered that the teen minister (again, just an example) was having an affair with a woman on staff. The evidence was as conclusive as could be — short of having them on film having sex. And the elder liaison refused to believe the evidence — and he insisted that the minister not be fired, not be disciplined, and be given the benefit of the doubt — although there was no real doubt. He was in deep, deep denial.
The other elders did not want to fire the minister over the objection of the elder who was his official liaison, and yet clearly something had to be done. The elders had a real mess on their hands.
So there are two problems with the liaison model, as I see it —
- The elder really should be much more passionate about the ministry than the minister. He should be far more concerned that the ministry is protected from a predator and shame and sin than trying to protect the minister from the consequences of his foolish decisions.
- If the preacher is supposed to oversee the rest of the ministerial staff (not always the case), the liaison model can create two chains of command. The elder can unintentionally interfere with the minister’s coaching and correction by his assigned supervisor.
Perhaps the solution is to make clear that the elder is to pastor the people involved in the ministry, not the minister. It’s the preacher’s job to pastor, coach, and mentor the other ministers.
But if the elders do not assign supervision to the preacher, then some chain of command is likely needed, as the ministers will always prefer to “silo.” That is, without intense coaching, they will run their ministries independently of each other because (a) this is how we train our ministers (it seems to be part of the standard package), (b) the preacher avoids conflict by letting each minister do his own thing (even if contrary to the elders’ express instructions), and (c) many a youth minister wants to have his own sub-congregation and own flock with no accountability to others.
In theory, the elder liaison model allows the elders to coach and mentor the ministers to no longer silo their ministries, but in reality, part-time volunteers don’t have time and rarely have the skill to get ministers to actually work together. It just won’t happen — not unless the coaches are elders very skilled in administration and management. That is, unless the elders organize an administrative committee or Ministries Team or else charge the preacher as a common supervisor, the ministers are going to have siloed ministries. The elder liaison model does not work — not by itself — to prevent this and can lead to severe supervisory problems.