Advice to a New Elder: Getting Started (A Preacher that Fits)

shepherd3I think of the church in terms of concentric circles. (Sorry: I majored in mathematics and Venn diagrams are hard-wired into me.)

The inner circle is the elders — together with the preacher. I think in just about any church, the preacher has to be treated much the same as an elder because the elders’ and preacher’s jobs overlap so much — and because both have responsibility for the entirety of the church.

You can’t have the preacher and the elders rowing in two different directions. CAN NOT. Therefore, either the preacher is a mere hireling, and must do exactly as he’s told, or else he’s part of the shepherding team. And I’ve seen churches try both models — and all models in between — and the closer the elders and the preacher are, the better things work. The congregation thus hears one message, sees one vision, and is being led in but one direction. (And wise preachers greatly prefer this arrangement. It’ll help you hire a good’un.)

If the elders find that things go better with the preacher absent from the meetings, and if they much prefer meeting without him, either the elders have a problem with power — not realizing that power is for giving away, not hoarding — or else the preacher is a bad fit. And sometimes it really is as simple as a bad match. Some preachers don’t match well with some congregations or some elderships — and yet can be extremely effective somewhere else. Personalities matter.

Now, here’s the hard truth. Churches need leadership. “Leadership” is a bucket of skills, and the skills that are needed change as the church grows and otherwise changes. Sometimes, the elders don’t have all the skills needed to lead a church, especially a big church with lots of programs and high expectations from the members.

Well, they can either find additional elders to fill the void or else they can hire a preacher who fills the void. And if there are no qualified elders who can provide the missing skills, the best choice is to hire what you need. And sometimes a preacher who was great when the church had 200 members can’t provide what the church needs to be a church of 400.

The church may need an outside consultant to help them see the problem. Or it may be as simple as paying attention to missed opportunities. When the elders drop the ball, does the preacher fall on it? Or does he not even notice? Or does he notice and figure it’s not his problem? You need a man who falls on the ball and who then helps the elders not repeat the mistake.

In my law practice, I learned a long time ago that sometimes the job outgrows an employee. I’ve had to fire people who were excellent, loyal employees but who could no longer do the job we needed done — because the job grew bigger than the employee.

I mean, we’ve tried coaching the employee, giving the employee a daily task list, and all sorts of other things — and she just couldn’t do the job. And so we let her go — even though she was (and is) a very good friend who did great work for many years.

When that happens, well, it’s just terrible. We pay very generous severance (multiple months, depending on years of service and likelihood of her finding a new job quickly). And we write recommendations. We call friends and try to get her a new job. But we don’t live in denial. Once it’s clear it’s a bad fit, it’s time to go in different directions — but as kindly and gently as possible. Delay only makes things worse.

I remember well bumping into this particular former employee at her new place of business, only to be hugged and invited to lunch. She was enjoying her new job, having success, and had found a good fit.

I have another former employee who is in the process of moving into a management position where I helped him find a new job. He’s going to do very well — better than if he’d stayed with me, and he knows I helped him get the new position.

So as terrible as firing anyone is, especially someone who’s been a good employee, it’s not the end of the world. If you handle it well — with compassion and genuinely try to help him find a job that’s a better fit — everyone comes out ahead.

I’m telling you that I’ve tried it both ways, and there’s something magical about having the right guy in the pulpit working alongside, in tandem with, the elders. The church won’t understand why everything is so much better, but it will be. It’ll be like a veil of gloom and despair has lifted — not because you got rid of a bad man but because you finally got the right man with the right skills — and the tension and frustration and stress all resolve and things are just … better. The elders can turn their attention away from trying to manage their way through a bad fit to tending to their flock.

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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One Response to Advice to a New Elder: Getting Started (A Preacher that Fits)

  1. John says:

    I am convinced that Church of Christ preachers, in pounding the message that ministers aren’t pastors or reverends, have done their job too well; and its going to take a long, long time to flush it out.

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