As a seminary student I was taught that there were three types of local church governance (“ways in which decisions are made,” is a good way to explain it):
- Episcopalian – From the Greek word, episcopos (An overseer or manager as in Acts 20:28). This is church government from the top down, as in the Roman Catholic Church, or, of course, the Episcopalian Church.
- Presbyterian – From the Greek word, presbuteros (An older or mature man, usually translated “elder” in our English Bibles, as in Acts 20:17). This is church government from a team of mature Christians.
- Congregational – The idea that the congregation itself is the ultimate authority (under God, of course). Congregationalism makes the congregation “the boss.” In extreme versions the congregation is expected to lead the congregation through meetings in which any member can make proposals “from the floor.”
I was taught that any mixing of the three made for uneasy bedfellows; they were viewed as being mutually exclusive.
I quickly learned that in the real world, most congregations have a church governance system that is some sort of combination of the three types.
It hasn’t been a flawless transition by any means. Many congregational churches have struggled with making leadership from elders work, as I’ll illustrate below.
But it can work, and here’s how:
(1) The elders must demonstrate that this is a Biblical conviction.
Churches which make this change must believe that it is what God wants them to do and they must be able to support this change with Scripture. The worst thing church leaders can do in the process of a transition to elder leadership is to give members any reason to believe that the move toward elder governance (not a good idea to call it “elder rule”) is merely a power grab by a few individuals (usually men) who don’t want to bother with congregational votes.
In other words, the pastor must teach it, teach it, and teach it some more, and the elders-in-transition themselves had better understand the Biblical arguments as well.
(2) The elders must meet the qualifications of I Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
Most importantly, they must be blameless (or above reproach) which doesn’t mean sinlessly perfect, but it does mean without glaring faults. If we want congregations to take elder leadership seriously, the elders must take the elder qualifications seriously. Most believers will gladly follow truly qualified leaders, but they will rebel against the authority of unqualified leaders. Changing somebody’s title from “deacon” or “trustee” to “elder” won’t make him an elder!
(3) The elders must love the people.
If newly minted elders don’t want to be treated as mere board members, placeholders or powerbrokers, they must make sure that they genuinely love the people and know how to show it. People will follow shepherds who love them (John 10:1-13).
(4) The elders must not be a “closed learning loop.”
A closed learning loop – also known as in-group thinking or four walls thinking – is a way of describing a group of individuals who listen to themselves and each other but pay no heed to outside voices. Good elders seek input from a broad variety of sources and they listen to these voices patiently.
(5) The elders must trust and delegate to qualified, empowered leaders of both genders.
There are many varieties of elder leadership, but generally speaking, the foundational ministry of this group is to provide loving leadership to the congregation, while looking to Christ as their own loving, living, guiding leader. Individual elders need not be involved in the hands-on management of ministries, and normally, it is not effective to have ministry leaders accountable to the elders as a group.
There are many opinions about this, but usually, it simply works best for trusted, empowered, qualified leaders of both genders to be accountable to a pastor, who is, himself, accountable to the elders.
(6) The elders must lead through concentric circles.
Here’s an unfortunate scenario I’ve seen many times. A large, conglomerate church board is replaced by a small group of elders (usually males). In short order, leaders of ministries and former board members feel disempowered and discouraged. The elders get good at making closed learning loop decisions (as above) and making proposals to the congregation which have not been tweaked and tested with a second-tier, concentric circle of leaders.
Solution? Form a larger group of leaders which meets with the elders bi-monthly or quarterly. (Give the elders the month off from their private meetings.) This is a great time for the pastor to teach, for the elders to “float” proposals and listen carefully to the feedback they receive, to coordinate calendars and to laugh, eat pizza and have some fun. This group doesn’t have to have voting authority, but if the members are heard and respected, the meetings will be invaluable.
(7) The elders must be trained in order to do this well.
I said it earlier, but changing a job title from whatever it was to “elder” doesn’t make anyone into an elder. All of this must be taught, and in most cases, it’s the pastor who must do the teaching. Pastors who want to transition their churches – for all the right reasons – to elder leadership, should start with patient and prayerful teaching and training. When future elders and congregants alike start asking the pastor when this change is finally going to happen, the time to put this thing to a vote has arrived.