I believe that pastors/elders/overseers are to give leadership to the congregation. I am also a congregationalist, which means that I believe that pastors/elders/overseers are accountable to the congregation and that congregations should attain consensus upon important decisions, as measured by processes that permit members of the congregation to give input, ask questions, offer different points of view for consideration, and decisively indicate their agreement (or, conversely, their disagreement). The New Testament puts before us both the authority of the pastors and the authority of the congregation. Because the ultimate authority in the church belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ, both the authority of elders and the authority of congregants is derivative and limited.
That’s all great in theory, but as a pastor trying to serve Christ to the best of my ability, how do I know when to assert my authority unflinchingly, and how do I know when to defer to the wishes of the congregation, even when I believe them to be wrong.
As an excursus, I’d like to note that addressing this question will be helpful for you no matter what system of polity your church employs. There is no system of polity under which you can safely get everything that you want. Even if the members of the congregation can only vote with their pocketbooks and their feet, those are two pretty powerful ballots. Even Roman Catholics face the baseline realities of congregationalism: The shepherd is no leader if the sheep are not following.
So, to borrow from the immortal theologian Kenny Rogers, how do you know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em in ministry?
Provide Bold, Courageous Spiritual Leadership
As a shepherd of the sheep, as an elder of the congregation, as an overseer in God’s Kingdom, the primary responsibility of the pastor/elder/overseer is the spiritual health of the individual members of the congregation. In these areas, I believe that the pastor needs to lead and, in many cases, needs to be indefatigable.
In preaching, never let anyone but the Word of God dictate to you what to preach or what not to preach. Preach the Word. If someone tries to keep you from preaching the Word, make them fire you or shut up, one or the other. I’m dead serious. If you get fired because you refuse to let your preaching get censored, there are only two possibilities as to what just happened. Either (a) you were NOT preaching good, sound, biblical sermons, in which case you deserve to be fired—God needed you to be fired—and the right outcome has taken place, or (b) you WERE preaching good, sound, biblical sermons, and you leave that place with your head held high, looking over your shoulder as you depart in order to watch the Holy Spirit write “ICHABOD” over the doorway, in which case you deserve to be set free and sent somewhere better. The only bad outcome is if you permit some petty local tyrant to silence the voice of the Lord among His people. Be bold about defending the integrity of your preaching.
Now, of course, there’s a difference between those who tell you WHAT to preach and those who try to help you learn HOW to preach. Don’t take BAD advice to heart about how to preach, but don’t be afraid to learn something new, either.
In matters of morality and ethics, be uncompromising. If a church asks you to do something illegal or immoral, don’t cave in no matter how much pressure they put on you. If you learn about something that needs to be reported to the police, don’t even ask anybody whether you ought to report it or not. Just do it.
In matters of sound doctrine, be bold and unflinching. There are two levels to consider here. First, there are those core and certain doctrines of the faith about which you should permit no compromise whatsoever in the church. If you’ve wound up in a church that will not endure sound teaching, then change them or make them change pastors. I’m talking about Trinity, gospel, baptism, racial equality, and other such things that your congregation and your personal study have identified as core doctrines of the church. Don’t back down or compromise on them, and require purity in the church on these things. On the other hand, there are those matters that are uncertain enough for careful and conscientious believers to come to different opinions. On those, you will live and let live in the church, but that’s a two-way street. No matter how minor the doctrine, never alter what you believe under duress. No matter how minor the doctrine, you sully the office of pastor and sell truth to the highest bidder if you will let anyone coerce you on a matter of doctrine. You are a spiritual leader in the congregation. In the way that you discharge that leadership, you should communicate that spiritual things matter.
In matters related to the winning of the lost, the equipping of the saints, and the care of souls, the pastors/elders/overseers of the church should be in unquestioned leadership. That’s why the church has pastors/elders/overseers: In order to oversee these ministries. Take responsibility for the spiritual well-being of the people in the flock. Make the imprint of your leadership certain in the ministry of the gospel by being a soul-winner and by leading your church to seek out the lost. Do not be hesitant to lead individuals to grow in their walk with the Lord, even when that includes challenging them in areas of observed spiritual weakness. Be humble in doing this—they’re observing your spiritual weaknesses, too. Nevertheless, do not fall into the trap of mutually consent to spiritual mediocrity.
Of course, in each of these categories there will be items of varying severity or importance. The key aspect of these spiritual questions, however, is that in all of them there are many legitimate occasions for you to be unyielding—to stand up after a 99-to-1 vote in the affirmative and say, “I don’t care if I am the only one voting this way; I’m still not going along with this.”
Lead Gently in Temporal Matters, Willing to Yield When Necessary
With regard to facilities, there are few, if any, non-negotiables. Facilities are nice. Facilities are helpful. Facilities are not necessary. Consider what God accomplished in the first-century church without any church facilities. If you want to build but the church says no, then don’t whine and whimper, don’t rage and retaliate, don’t sulk and stew. Instead, say, “Thank you for permitting me the opportunity to share my vision for the facilities of the church, but now the church has spoken, and I will fully support the direction that we have chosen. The matter is behind us now. We’re going to move forward and it is going to be amazing what God is going to do with the facilities that we have right now.” Why would you let the physical address of your meeting house get in the way of your spiritual ministry of the gospel?
If the Ladies’ Decoration Committee wants to put hideously ugly carpet in the Fellowship Hall and the church sides with them…well, wait a minute…if you took a fight with anything like a “Ladies’ Decoration Committee” all the way to the business meeting, then may God help you…but anyway, if they carry the day, then bless the Lord for ugly carpet and move along. That’s equally true, by the way, even if before you were a pastor you were the leading carpet salesman in the MidSouth for ten years running. You’re not that anymore; you’re a pastor now. Your primary job is the spiritual condition of souls.
With regard to finances, you need to be careful about the way that you lead. The pastor’s attitude about money figures prominently in the qualifications for the office, and that’s not by accident. Don’t be demanding with regard to your salary (I wouldn’t impose this upon others, but I’ve never allowed a search committee to tell me what the salary would be, and I’ve never, ever asked for a raise). Don’t go my-way-or-the-highway about budgetary matters in the church.
A lot of the preaching about deacons that I heard in my younger years was fond to point out that the scripture charges deacons to be in charge of ministry, not money. That’s a sound observation, but somewhere along the way in New Testament 101 I missed the part where the New Testament gave pastors/elders/overseers charge over the money, either. I see a lot of elders these days taking even major financial decisions out of the hands of the congregation (if nobody in the congregation knows that the pastor has a private jet, I’d say they’re pretty much out of the loop on even the major financial decisions), but what in the New Testament makes the elders the monetary kingpins of the congregation? If the congregation decides to defund one of your pet projects or to spend some money you didn’t want to spend, don’t throw a hissy fit. Smile and move along quietly. Be cooperative.
But the financial situation affects the spiritual situation, you say? Friend, you’ve been deceived by the marketplace of American Evangelicalism. You don’t have to read much history or travel to many poor places of the world to see that the vast sums of cash that we spend on ministry is not making us any more spiritual than the people in poor little churches scattered all over the world. Be a person of faith. See beyond the material things to the spiritual things. Let God supply your needs.
One exception I’d like to mention: The church does expect you to be on the lookout for any funny business that might be ongoing with the church’s finances. Protect the integrity of the church with regard to money. That’s a spiritual matter, not a temporal matter. Die on that hill, if necessary. But when it simply comes to decisions about financial priorities, if it comes down to a showdown, defer to the congregation.
Defer to the congregation in matters of church discipline. Christ explicitly commanded the final step of church discipline to the congregation, not to you. The exception? If it comes down to a matter of law rather than a matter of fact (there’s a big difference between “We don’t think he committed adultery” and “We don’t care that he committed adultery, because we don’t think adultery is all that bad”), then you have to stand uncompromisingly on the truth of God’s word.
Now understand me: I have NO PROBLEM with your seeking to influence these decision-making processes as they go forward. I’m just saying that you have bigger fish to fry. Would I have an opinion about a building program at our church? Yes, I would. Would I be involved in that process? Absolutely. Would I seek to influence the church’s decision. Without a doubt. Would I jeopardize my ministry over it? No siree Bob. Would I willingly sacrifice a single ministry relationship over it? I would not.
Be Humbly Accountable to the Congregation
People in the congregation (more than a single individual) have biblical warrant to call you out on your sins and failures. They aren’t disobeying God when they sincerely do that; they’re obeying the commandments of scripture. What’s more, if you can keep from being defensive and can listen to the people whom you serve, you’ll be a mile ahead of the rest of the pack, because you’ll learn a lot. Even from the bullies in the bad congregations you’ll likely learn some things. Yes, out of the bitterness of their hearts they are going to criticize you no matter what you do in those sorts of churches, but they’re just lazy enough to pick your weakest spots against which to levy their criticisms, usually. Even if they are poorly motivated, they give you a chance to learn about yourself along the way and to improve your ministry.
I Peter 5:1-7 has been in my mind and under my eye throughout my writing of this post. This beautiful passage first charges us as pastors/elders/overseers (and this is one of the passages that employs all three terms) to lead boldly in our office in the church. It then follows up by warning us not to be haughty. Finally, the great Cephas tells us, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on Him, because he cares for you.” Don’t worry about raising yourself up. Be humble, even when it strikes you down. God has promised to pick you back up.
And the fact remains, suggested by our hamartiology, demonstrated by our history, and anticipated by our ecclesiology: Pastors NEED accountability, just like anyone else. Elders who answer to nobody? That’s asking for trouble. Accountability to the congregation will keep you honest and will make you a better man. Embrace it.
So how am I doing on all of this? A “Physician, heal thyself!” is certainly in order. Everything I learn about the office that I hold causes deep conviction and a sense of unworthiness in my heart. But together with Paul, I’m amazed and elated that God would, in spite of my deficiencies, count me worthy and put me into the ministry. Although I have not lived up to this standard as I should, this is the standard toward which I am striving. Without reservation, I commend it to you.