Every Church is Elder-led; Every Church is Congregational

by Dave Miller on January 10, 2013 · 53 comments

Ecclesiology is always a hot topic among Baptists. One of our bedrock beliefs is congregational church government. But not all congregational government is constructed alike.

I’ve been the senior pastor of three churches over the last 27 years. My first church was governed by its eight deacons, who ran the church with something just less than an iron fist. Everything went through the deacon board. The church’s committees and officers had to go through the deacon board to get anything done. They even felt they had the authority to tell me what I could and couldn’t preach (let’s just say we contended about that one).

My second church had deacons and committees, but it slowly, over the 14 1/2 years I served there, became a pastor-led church. In fact, I have come to believe that this is the reason God moved me out of that church. It had developed an unhealthy dependence on me. I never wanted to rule the church, but over time it got to the point where very little happened there that wasn’t my idea.

My third church, the one I serve now, has been (up until the last year or so when we restructured) a committee-led church. In a church that only reaches 300 in attendance on Easter Sunday, we had 22 standing committees! When I first got to Sioux City, I read the church’s bylaws and I stated a theory which was confirmed by folks that had been around a while. Those bylaws had been written by someone who had had a bad experience with powerful deacons. I’ve never seen deacons with less responsibility than ours had. We have three full-time staff members who also give leadership to certain ministries.

So, I’ve served 3 churches: one deacon-dominated, one pastor-led, and the other committee-led. Three churches, three different structures, but these three churches all had something in common which I believe is common to all churches.

They all had elders and they all were congregational.

All Churches Have Elders

Let’s not quarrel with nomenclature here, okay? In none of these churches was there a mention of elders in the bylaws. None had an elder body. But in each of those churches there existed a small group of folks who gave clear and distinct leadership to the church. They were “de-facto” elders.

Elders (whether they are called by that name or not) are a body of leaders in the church who help to steer the church in the direction it should go, the people that the members of the church look to for guidance.

In my first church, I was an elder, to some extent. But the real elders of the church were the deacons, and in reality a small group of 3 or 4 men among those. If something was going to get done, they had to get behind it or it wouldn’t happen. In my second church, I was the lone elder (in the last few years of that ministry – it was not true as much in the early years). I would bring ideas up to the deacons for their thoughts, and they would say, “Whatever you think, pastor!” That was nice, but I came to believe it was not healthy. I noticed something at Southern Hills. We have formed several special committees over the years to make important decisions. A hospital wanted to buy some land from us and we formed a group to discuss it. We needed an site plan to try to make some sense of our fairly odd physical plant layout. We needed to restructure the church. What I noticed is that each time the church elected an ad-hoc committee, some of the same names appeared on each committee. (By the way, I was glad they did – these men were genuine, spiritual leaders).  Of course, the pastoral staff also are respected and we have genuine “elder” authority.

My point is simple – every church has a person or a group of people who are the de facto leaders, the elders. Call them pastors, or deacons, or give them no title at all. They are the true leaders. In some churches, these are godly men who meet the biblical qualifications for elder and are officially given that role. In some churches, these can be power-hungry folks who usurp authority through whatever means. Elders, in the real more than in the ideal, come in all shapes and sizes.

The argument among Baptists is not about whether your church will be led by a small group of folks who will give guidance and direction to the church.  The question is what you will call that group, how much authority they will have, and whether they will be selected, qualified and commissioned according to biblical standards.

Your church has elders.

Every Church is Congregational

In my first pastorate, we had monthly (and often lively) business meetings. The church voted on just about everything. That carried through into the early years of my second pastorate. One year, while I was on vacation (after this, we never scheduled business meetings while I was gone!) the church had a business meeting in which it spent 45 minutes “discussing” whether or not to buy a roll of stamps. As we grew (and after we wrote bylaws) we put more authority in the hands of officers and committees and our business meetings focused more on the big-picture items. Here, at Southern Hills, we only have a couple of business meetings a year, plus special meetings as we need them. Our August meeting covers nominations and reports while our December meeting focuses on the budget.

Some SBC churches (generally smaller ones) have business meetings in which the church votes on everything. That is impractical in churches as they grow larger. Bigger churches tend to have business meetings that only focus on larger items – passing the budget, electing pastors and other leaders.

But, again, I maintain that every church is, in one form or another, congregational. The government might not be congregational, but in the end the congregation will have its final say. If the congregation is not given a voice in church affairs, if the leadership ignores the consensus and rams things down the throats of the people, they will vote the only way they can – with their feet.

Church leaders need to respect the congregation as they construct their government. Yes, churches need to qualify leaders and respect their leadership. But they also need to empower the congregation and respect the church’s priests (all believers) who are able to discern the will of God as a group and seek the will of God together.

I am not trying to make too sweeping or controversial of an observation here – my point is much more simple. You are going to have a small group of leaders in your church, for good or ill. And your congregation is going to have its say, in one way or another.

I believe that biblical ecclesiology demonstrates respect for leadership and holds it accountable to high standards. It also respects the congregation and its voice in church affairs. There are a variety of ways those interests can be structured, but qualified leadership and congregational consensus are essential for the proper functioning of the church.

I also think that some of our ecclesiological arguments are really more about nomenclature than substance. We are not arguing over whether a church will have elders, we are arguing over what those elders will be called. And we differ on exactly how much authority the congregation should have in church affairs as opposed to the leadership. But, for the most part, we are not arguing over the core truth of congregationalism – that the church’s consensus is essential in the conduct of church affairs.

1 Dave Miller January 10, 2013 at 2:10 pm

I’m dying to see how off-topic this post will go!

2 Adam Harwood January 10, 2013 at 2:20 pm

Dave,
Your title caught my attention. In general, I agree with your post. I would only differ on one point. “Elders,” according to 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 should be “able to teach.” Although godly lay leaders often function in a shepherding, elder role, they should not properly be called “elder” if the cannot teach the Word just as they should not be called “pastor.” Would you agree? Thanks for this post, brother.
In Him,
Adam

3 Dave Miller January 10, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Yes, I agree with that.

The difference is between the ideal and the real. The elders you describe are what OUGHT to be. What I am talking about is more what IS.

Unfortunately, there is all too often a difference.

4 Joshua Breland January 10, 2013 at 2:36 pm

Dave,

Having “elders” and being “elder-led” are two very different realities. I agree with you that all Baptist churches, in theory, have elders. I disagree with the title of this post that all churches are “elder-led.” As you noted, committees, deacons, and various other biblically unqualified “leaders” functioning as elders have the reign in too many SBC churches today. Perhaps this is one major reason the average SBC church is in decline.

One recent example comes to mind. When a lay personnel committee can force a pastor to resign without the congregation ever knowing the committee voted on the issue, the church is no longer congregational or elder-led in any meaningful sense.

Here is an interesting post from a pastor regarding the transition from “deacon-led” to “elder-led.” http://www.9marks.org/journal/moving-deacon-led-elder-led-church

5 Dave Miller January 10, 2013 at 2:39 pm

It has not been my observation or experience that elder-leadership is the key to church health and growth that many have presented it to be.

As I noted to Dr. Harwood above, I am dealing not with the biblical ideal, but with the real – what exists in churches.

6 Dave Miller January 10, 2013 at 2:40 pm

The exception to that is in larger churches – megachurches almost have to have some form of elder leadership.

7 Joshua Breland January 10, 2013 at 2:53 pm

Dave,

I agree with you. I don’t believe elder-leadership is “the” key to church health. It is one necessary component to church health. Unqualified shepherds wreak havoc on the sheep. There can be no health for the flock if they do not have biblically qualified shepherds.

8 Dave Miller January 10, 2013 at 3:01 pm

And I would say that it is (as currently practiced in a lot of SBC churches) absolutely not necessary.

In fact, a lot of conflict and damage has been caused by the attempt to impose elders on churches.

I’ve written on this before, maybe I can find a link to that old post.

9 Matt January 10, 2013 at 3:04 pm

I’m losing your argument here, as you’ve basically defined elders as church leaders (and perhaps even deacons) when you state, “My point is simple – every church has a person or a group of people who are the de facto leaders, the elders. Call them pastors, or deacons, or give them no title at all.” Now, this is clearly going beyond the exegetical and linguistic bounds that you said were necessary yesterday in your article on how biblical theology needs to drive systematic theology. It seems to me that you’re playing loose with your definition of elders when it serves your purpose. Respectfully, Matt.

10 Dave Miller January 10, 2013 at 3:06 pm

I’m afraid you are missing my point.

11 Joshua Breland January 10, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Dave,

I agree, elders should not be imposed on a congregation. I’m not sure why “imposing elders” was associated with what I have written here.

12 Dave Miller January 10, 2013 at 5:07 pm

I sort of introduced it as a side issue that then it kind of took over the comment stream below. I did not intend to say that you were advocating that.

13 Matt January 10, 2013 at 2:57 pm

Just a question out of historical curiosity – if there’s a linguistic distinction between the roles of elders and deacons, and knowing local churches in the New Testament had multiple elders/pastors/bishops, then why has the SBC not followed that practice and apply those distinctions in the local church while also having multiple elders (I assume most churches have multiple deacons)?

14 Ryan Abernathy January 10, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Max,

I think that’s a very good question. My opinion from my studies of elder led vs. congregational government over the last 10 years have led me to believe that it has to do with the unique situation we find ourselves in here in America. We are a republic and have a democratic form of government. The “everyone gets a vote/voice” form of church government has its roots in America and has spread to other nations via our missions efforts. You cannot find one place in the NT where the church came together and had a vote where majority ruled. It did not happen.

So to answer your question as to why the SBC has not followed that practice, in my opinion, they allowed their cultural preferences to override scripture in this instance.

There are some very good reasons for this cultural preference- especially considering how our nation was formed. And, their are some good arguments for a level of flexibility in developing church government/leadership in making it fit with the cultural expressions of leadership of the day. It’s not a make or break doctrinal issue in the same way some doctrines are- such as salvation.

15 Jerry Smith January 14, 2013 at 12:23 am

I’m just an old country pastor with only a 12th grade public school education that stops in here once in a while & reads a bit, hardly making any comments. I don’t want to debate this issue with you nor anyone else. I would just like to point out a couple of things for you to consider being as you said they could not be found in the Bible.

There’s several times within the pages of the Bible when the local church makes the decisions, one of them being when Paul tells the local church to take care of a matter.
Please check out who the “they chose” is referring to, you might want to go to the Bible & start reading at the 1st verse.

Ac 6:5 And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and “they chose” Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch:

The “they chose” is the members of that church, that is the members of that church chose these men, not the pastor or pastor’s, not a committee of men, not a board of deacons, not a group of elders, not even the apostles.

Also consider exactly who Paul is referring to when he says, “ye are gathered together” in the verse below

1Co 5:4 In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, , and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ,

You might even want to go back & read starting at 1 Corinthians 1:1. If you do you will find that during this chapter he is addressing “the church of God which is at Corinth.” So with that we can know when Paul says the words, “when ye are gathered together,” he is addressing the “the church of God which is at Corinth.” That is he is instructing the members of this church when they come together to take care of this problem, he is not instructing the pastor or pastor’s, not a committee of men, not a board of deacons, not a group of elders.

Its seem clear to me from these verses, & others that may be found in the New Testament that God’s has given the authority to the local New Testament Church, not the pastor, or pastor’s, not a committee, not a board of deacons, not a group of elders.

16 John Wylie January 14, 2013 at 1:37 am

Jerry Smith,

I hope you don’t take this question the wrong way, but are you a Landmarker?

17 Jerry Smith January 14, 2013 at 2:54 am

What difference would that make, isn’t it about doing things God’s way & not our way?

I simply put before you 2 cases from the Word of God, the Holy Bible which is our guide to follow Christ where the members of 2 churches during the New Testament days made the decisions. After you stated it was not on the Bible.

18 John Wylie January 14, 2013 at 4:53 am

Nevermind I was just trying to understand what your theological perspective is because it impacts your interpretation. Also, just to let you know it was Peter and not Paul in Acts 6. But if I had to guess you are definitely a Landmarker.

19 John Wylie January 14, 2013 at 5:05 am

Actually Jerry I never said anything about whether or not congregational government was found in the Bible. You would do well to pay attention to who’s speaking. It’s the first rule in Bogard’s book. :)

20 John Wylie January 14, 2013 at 11:52 am

But one thing is for sure, for every passage that you can use to show congregational government I can show you two that show an elder/pastor form of government. You will never convince me that everyone voted in the early church.

21 Robert Vaughn January 14, 2013 at 3:30 pm

Hi, Bro. John. You hint at what you disagree with, but I would be interested in knowing what kind of church government you envision, biblically, and do you think that congregational government and elder/pastor government are or must be mutually exclusive?

Thanks.

22 Jerry Smith January 14, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Excuse me, A quote from your post:
“You cannot find one place in the NT where the church came together and had a vote where majority ruled. It did not happen.”

Yes, you said it did not happen, yet it did.

Yes, but you said it could not be found in the Bible where the members of the local church made decisions. Maybe you & others do not want to find it. Yet it is found in several places besides those I pointed out. Sorry but your not the authority, Jesus gave all power & authority to His local church. I know, for some that makes no sense, but God’s way is not mans way. Plus there’s many that hates God’s ways. Also the old Devil is doing everything he can to keep man from doing things God’s way.
Matthew 28:18-20, Matthew 16:19, gives the authority to Jesus’ local churches. Oh, I know, many feel it was given to the apostles, if it was, them it died with them. For no where within the pages of the Bible does Jesus give them the authority to pass along the powers given to them by Himself to anyone else.

If a local church is smart enough, filled with the Holy Spirit that’s leading them, to call you for their pastor, them they have enough smarts, leading of the Holy Spirit to run the affairs of that church without you lording over them.
Besides, with them making the decisions you will not be accused of doing wrong & covering up. Be sure to avoid all appearances of evil 1 Thessalonians 5:22, that’s difficult to do if your lording over the church members.

The pastor is a special person, called by God, many times to do a thankless job. Anyone can lord over people, but not anyone can lead a local New Testament Church in the manner Jesus set His Church up. Only those who are called by God can lead a church in the right spirit when it’s the local church that posses the authority. And when this man does this job as God has called him to day, generally that church will love their pastor. Not so when a pastor is lording over them. There will always be questions.
NO, Jesus does not tell the members of His church to follow the pastor unquestionably. If you’re the lord of the church them they have to follow you in that manner. But if you’re the undershepherd & you leave God Word taking them down the wrong path, them they can send you packing. And they should be able to do this. After all the members of that local church is the local church, it is they who support that church & without them there is no local church for you to undershepherd, pastor.
Some men just don’t want to admit it but when they’re not a pastor of a local church they have no authority. The local church has the authority to go, teach, baptize, teaching all those things Christ taught us & told it to do. That local church also has the authority to send out missionaries to do mission work & start others churches.

23 Jerry Smith January 14, 2013 at 5:19 pm

The local SBC Church in the town about 6 miles down the road from my house has a member led congregation. And I know of many other SBC Churches that’s lead in the same manner. I believe there has been some on here that said their church was led in this manner. I suppose you would brand them a landmarker. You shouldn’t, they’re a Bible led local church trying to do that which please the Lord.

Amazing at the number of people that loves to place brands on both churches & Christians. I suppose they do so in order to say they’re not following the Bible. Of course I’m just guessing! I can not know the intent of anyone & do not claim to.

In Christ,
Jerry

24 John Wylie January 14, 2013 at 6:36 pm

Jerry the quote you used was made by Ryan Abernathy and not myself. Thanks. And I know all about the label comments but if the label were not accurate you would has said so. So once again are you a Landmarker? Are you ABA of BMA?

25 John Wylie January 14, 2013 at 6:59 pm

Robert,

Sorry I’ve been away from the computer all day but thanks for the question. I would say the biblical form of government would be Jesus rule. I believe that is lived out by the lead of the pastors/elders who are accountable to the church body for their conduct.

Landmarkism places all authority in the hands of local church members and they like to use Matthew 28 to prove that proposition, but I can’t find in that text where Christ ever relinquished any of His authority. Also, it is clear when we read 1 Corinthians, and Revelation 2-3 that churches can make wrong decisions that God does not honor.

People like Jerry think that the pastor exhibiting any leadership is “lording over them”. But when I read the scriptures God gave pastor/elders to lead in the church.

Heb 13:7 Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.

Heb 13:17 Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.

Heb 13:24 Salute all them that have the rule over you, and all the saints. They of Italy salute you.

1Th 5:12 And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you;

The Acts 6 text is a classic example of the church obeying the directives of the apostles. I do believe that elders are accounatble to the church for their conduct and doctrine. 1 timothy 5:19, 20; Col. 2:8

I believe the church is neither a pastor/elder dictatorship nor is it an American form of democracy.

26 Robert Vaughn January 14, 2013 at 8:06 pm

Thanks, John. I’m not sure how far apart our respective visions would all in actual practice. I would describe my ideal “church government” as unified decision making in the church under the leadership of plural elders who teach and lead. Unified decision making fits well with New Testament principles like unity, one-anothering, regenerate church membership, servant leadership, and the church as a body of gifted members. Modern practice which looks like an American democracy is not biblically defensible. Congregationalism that ignores godly leadership and biblical exhortation is not found in the holy Scriptures. Neither are one-man (or a few men) dictatorships.

I’m pressed for time, but if you’d like you can read in more detail HERE. You can click on the “Congregationalism” category for related articles.

27 John Wylie January 14, 2013 at 9:09 pm

Robert I appreciate very much your article. I find it to be reasonable and well written. I largely agree with what you have written.

28 Dave Miller January 10, 2013 at 3:08 pm
29 Max January 10, 2013 at 3:32 pm

“… the church’s consensus is essential in the conduct of church affairs.”

Amen Dave!

We have an elder-led SBC church in our community … the “elders” are in their 20s-early 30s. The new lead pastor was somewhat dishonest during his interview with the search committee when responding to questions about his view of church governance. After quickly recruiting like-minded new members (and elders) from the area, he was able to move the established church away from congregational polity to an elder-led model (elder-rule, actually). The first congregational vote indicated the church body did not desire to go there – they felt they had a very effective pastor/deacon/congregation way of taking care of the Lord’s business. But new members out-voted the old members a few months later in a second vote on the issue – the result was much weeping and gnashing of teeth and a church split, with several long-time members leaving the church they loved and financed. I realize age doesn’t always equal wisdom when selecting “elders”, but it helps. Oh, the place is packed out on Sundays now with a bunch of young folks, but a crowd doesn’t equal a congregation and they are having trouble paying the bills since the tithers exited. Whether pastor-led, deacon-led, or elder-led, such leaders ought to have at least a little common sense on their resume before they attempt to shepherd a church.

30 Dave Miller January 10, 2013 at 3:41 pm

I have seen similar things happen in churches.

I would observe the following:

1) Be honest with the search committee about whatever agenda you have, especially if the agenda involves changing the church significantly.

2) If you have a significant change agenda, you should consider starting your own church.

3) The issue (to me) isn’t deacon/elder/pastor leadership, but honesty and integrity in dealing with your church.

31 Matt January 10, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Everyone has an anecdote, whether positive or negative. Men have come in, established elder-run/elder-led churches are have failed to shepherd the people. Men have come into deacon-run churches and have been driven out for silly things. Congregations have acted poorly with their congregationalism and split over silly things. These are horrible and regrettable experiences no matter what your ecclesiology. There are elder-led churches do take into account the congregation and won’t put anything forward in a meeting that the congregation has not been taught on, counseled on, and not disruptive. There are Bible Churches that are elder-run that do the same. It’s is not the case that all churches that try to capture the New Testament data there there were a plurality of elders/pastors/bishops in each church that held some sort of authority in distinction to the deacons and congregation are power hungry and abusive.

32 Dave Miller January 10, 2013 at 3:50 pm

I’ve not done a scientific study, but I’ve observed that “anecdote” pretty frequently.

33 Dave Miller January 10, 2013 at 3:54 pm

And, for the record, if I was starting a church it would have some form of limited elder leadership. In our new bylaws, the pastoral staff is the shepherding body (we avoided the term elder) and we made provision for lay shepherds to become part of that if the church so chose and the men were biblically qualified.

So, I am not against elder-leadership. I am not thrilled with:

a) the way it is approached in many churches that are led to transition to elder rule, and

b) the almost messianic rhetoric about elder-leadership employed by many. We had a speaker at our state pastor’s conference (big name) who basically presented eldership as the panacea for all church ills. That has just not been my experience – either in studying scripture or in observing the reality in churches.

34 Frank L. January 10, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Dave,

I’m with you. Right now I am in a church where I would love to have elders, but quite frankly, I don’t have one man that I would be confident putting my personal stamp of approval on.

We run about 125 on Sunday.

I have some “good” men, but none that reach the level that would justify being an “elder.” I’m considering their personal lives (what I know), their personal practices of devotion, and their general theological knowledge.

Mind you, I’m not being overly critical I don’t think. I’m just saying there are no clear “stand outs.” That also applies to those who might serve as deacons.

Yes, I understand this is not a very flattering statement to make about my church. I’m wondering if it is true of more churches than mine?

35 Matt January 10, 2013 at 4:29 pm

I think you and I have had different church experiences.

36 Dave Miller January 10, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Of course, that is true.

37 Dave Miller January 10, 2013 at 4:40 pm

I will remind you that I have no axe to grind either against elder leadership or against the Calvinists who often promote it (not exclusively, of course).

I am in the Calvinist camp (though probably on the outskirts of it) and my church has the provision for “lay shepherds” in our bylaws – which I wrote.

So, I’m not just some guy railing against the conspiracy to Calvinize the SBC, or whatever.

But I can neither deny that this happens: That a preacher with an agenda interviews with a church without revealing his agenda, gets hired, then splits the church in seeking to impose that agenda. It has happened. I don’t know how rare or common the practice is, but it exists and it is wrong when it happens.

38 Jess Alford January 10, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Dave Miller, You have it together on this one, not that you didn’t on the other posts. Sir, you couldn’t be more right, and this post couldn’t be written any better. I don’t care if a church only had two members, one would be an Elder.

Excuse me, not Bible, but sometimes, just sometimes, I wish a pastor could vote in business sessions and his vote counted as 49%. The devil made me say that.

39 Frank L. January 10, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Jess, just a note: I’ve been in situations where even with a vote of 49% I might not carry the day :)

40 Chris Roberts January 10, 2013 at 3:58 pm

This is something I’ve said as well. Most Baptists are familiar with the idea of deacon-led churches, because they are so common. The problem here is while the Bible speaks of elders doing elder work and deacons doing deacon work, in many Baptist churches, deacons are doing elder work and no one is doing deacon work.

Personally, I don’t elevate the issue of polity as much as some. I do think the model found in Scripture is elders (as in, not just the pastor) and deacons but I don’t think the Bible enforces this model as a necessity. A church can be faithful with just deacons, or with just elders, or with just a pastor, though I think each of these falls short in various ways (especially the last one). I think the reason the Bible does not impose one particular form of church government is because situations differ. What a church needs in one place may not be what a church needs in another place. Nonetheless, we should learn from the method of the early church and if we differ from that method, we’d better have a good reason for doing so.

41 Dave Miller January 10, 2013 at 4:10 pm

“…in many Baptist churches, deacons are doing elder work and no one is doing deacon work.”

It scares me because I have made that statement almost verbatim more than once.

42 Frank L. January 10, 2013 at 4:51 pm

Dave,

Right on. As I said, I have no one in my church doing either.

There is a real problem of “commitment” that I think is killing many SBC churches. This cause people with a minimum amount of maturity carrying a maximum amount of authority.

That is a disaster in waiting.

43 Ben Coleman January 10, 2013 at 5:22 pm

On the other hand, it sometimes seems to me that the deacon work is often done more by people like the janitorial staff and the secretaries(maybe we should be requiring the secretaries and the janitorial staff to meet the qualifications of a deacon?). If Acts 6 is any indication, the purpose of the deacon is to make sure that the spiritual leadership of the church is not so burdened by administrative duties and the practical requirements of running the church that they can’t “devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word”. Those of you who are pastors, how does that generally work out? Are those burdens being lifted from you, or is it more like more burdens are piled on?

44 Frank L. January 10, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Ben,

My support staff is excellent so at this point in ministry, I’d have to say I have more time to devote to prayer and study than ever before. The administrative duties still take more time than I’d like.

I don’t think in that regard, however, my situation is typical. I don’t think most congregations really value the “ministry of the word.” They prefer, it seems to me, the “ministry to their tables.”

I hate to sound so negative, but I think what most churches really want is a Chairman of Deacons instead of a pastor. In some situations, that position actually carries much more weight than the pastoral position, for a number of reasons.

45 Ben Coleman January 10, 2013 at 5:46 pm

Chris, I think I have to agree with you about not elevating polity too much. I get the impression that, far too much, we prioritize getting authority structure right over getting the attitude with which we exercise authority right. We act (and often preach) as if getting the structure right is the important thing: just do that, and everything will just work. I have to disagree with that. If you get your structures right, but those in authority exercise that authority with arrogance and ambition, you’re much more likely to have an unmitigated disaster on your hands than if your structures are off, but those who are in leadership are the kind of humble, servant, not-regarding-their-positions-as-something-to-be-grasped leaders that scripture teaches us to be.

46 Randall Cofield January 10, 2013 at 4:30 pm

Pastors/elders are charged with the spiritual over-sight of the congregation and with the feeding of the flock. Add to this the responsibility of every pastor to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry” of the gospel, and the lone pastor’s job quickly becomes overwhelming.

When the Pharisees grumbled about the nature of our Chief Shepherd’s shepherding, He spoke this parable:

Lu 15:4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety–nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?”

Sheep wander, shepherds pursue. Faithful shepherds pursue every wandering sheep.

Does this not virtually require a plurality of shepherds in congregations of any substantial size?

47 Dave Miller January 10, 2013 at 5:09 pm

I would agree.

48 Bennett Willis January 10, 2013 at 4:39 pm

I helped set up the “structure” in the Baptist Church I used to attend. We attempted to make it committee led and accountable to the congregation. The committee on committees was selected by at large voting on the part of the congregation and committees had a maximum time an individual could serve on them before the person had to take a “year off.”

It worked pretty well but we tended to drift (as you pointed out) toward the pastor being overly responsible for things. If you keep the committees working, I remain convinced that this is a stable way to operate a small church. It definitely keeps someone from deciding that they (and maybe a few others) run things.

The deacons were supposed to do deacon things. They could make recommendations (which were almost always accepted) and they had the advantage of being a group that could discuss things from all points of view without causing issues. We had no elders in the formal sense of the word.

If we had a soft spot, it seems to me that it was in the pastor accountability area.

49 Bennett Willis January 11, 2013 at 12:32 am

In our case, the authority rested with the congregation. Anything that was “serious” could come to a vote by the congregation. The budget draft was given to the congregation about mid-December and a meeting was held where any line item could be reviewed. Salaries were public. Sometimes they were discussed and I don’t think this ever resulted in a reduction–and sometimes gave an increase.

Having a totally transparent budget took a lot of the stress out of the organization. Money is the root of lots of problems and if everyone knows where it comes from and where it goes things are less stressful.

50 Stephen Beck January 10, 2013 at 10:15 pm

“The question is what you will call that group, how much authority they will have, and whether they will be selected, qualified and commissioned according to biblical standards.”

I think this was the key statement in the post. Call them what you want, give them whatever level of leadership that is within scriptural bounds (lots of leeway here I believe), but make sure you take the time to pray, pray, train, teach, and pray some more over finding qualified, high character men.

51 Bruce H. January 11, 2013 at 7:13 am

If a church can trust its leadership it is ruled well.

Speaking of committees, the last one I was on I was elected the chairman. Our task was to remodel the old worship center into the new fellowship hall. It was going to be a large undertaking because it involved some Sunday School Class rooms. We worked on the layout for almost 4 months until we had a majority approval. We then called in the Sunday School leaders and allowed them to view what we wanted to present to the church but wanted their input. We made adjustments. We called the Kitchen Personnel together to view the kitchen layout and asked for their input. We made adjustments. Finally, we invited the deacons and wife’s along with the pastor and his wife and presented our plan asking for input. We made a pot of gumbo and talked about the plan. We walked through the building pointing out the plan. We made final adjustments. Then we presented it to the church and it passed. Everyone was excited about how the committee wanted everyone involved in the process. I think it built trust in the people. Most committees I have seen like to be behind closed doors. Same could be said about deacons, elders and pastors on the negative side. When there is an openness about the issues, when the church is requested to pray for specific things and when the people are brought into the picture there seems to be contentment. It is risky, but necessary.

52 Bob Cleveland January 11, 2013 at 9:17 pm

Dave, let me add my “Amen” to the other folks who’ve said you’ve gotten your head straight on this. I agree from 50 years’ observation in churches, that there are those people whom the congregation do look to for wisdom and leadership, regardless of any designated position. And the bible itself says there’s victory in an abundance of counselors, so what leader wouldn’t take input from the entire congregation in matters in which their input would be important?

I think any good church leader would do that. Not that it’d be the determining factor, always, but certainly important.

Might it also be true that the admonition that an Elder be able to teach be a reflection more of their Spiritual depth than of their Spiritual giftedness?

(If I can still comment here, seeing that I bought a 2011 NIV Bible today…..)

53 Louis January 14, 2013 at 3:17 pm

Great points, Dave.

Elders exist, whether they are acknowledged as such. And the congregation has control, as well.

These debates are often about nomenclature.

I agree also that it would be best if Baptist churches recovered the proper biblical roles for the biblical names.

Deacons, for example, are servants appointed to tasks that did not involve teaching the word and spiritual oversight.

Elders, have teaching ability and spiritual oversight.

These debates are also about process. How decisions are made. Where the question is first posed, and where it is settled. And which questions are taken up by committees vs. the entire church.

I was fortunate enough to help start a church 20 years ago. We set up the structure the way we thought the Bible says, and have run with it since then. We had no previous culture or tradition to overcome.

If I were going to another church that had a different history, I would be very careful about trying to make changes too soon.

There is a lot of leeway, in my opinion about how

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