Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

Revisiting Congregational Leadership (Mar-Apr 2002)

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By George B. Mearns
March-April 2002

What is the role of “leadership” within a congregation? This question has been debated and, sadly, argued over countless times over the years. Members and ministers have been frustrated by managerial decisions made behind “closed doors.” And elders have had more than enough garbage thrown at them from various directions. Yet we seem determined to continue using the same model, ever hoping that the next generation’s leaders will achieve success with it.

I would like to propose another model of congregational leadership. First, however, we must examine the model most commonly found in our congregations today. As a beginning point, we all recognize and agree that Jesus is the Head of the Church (Ephesians 1:22). Next, according to the traditional model, come the elders who rule over the congregation (Philippians 1:1; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Acts 20:28), the deacons (Philippians 1:1), the congregation, and, somewhere in the mix falls the preacher. Our tradition has employed this model for decades. How does it work and is it effective? The answers to those questions seem to depend on who is answering. Elders who see their role as decision makers who control every aspect of the congregation embrace this model. They spend much of their time discussing money, attendance, buildings, and the preacher. Deacons may well be appointed (because the Bible tells us that there are deacons, in the local church) but they have no authority to conduct their work without getting permission for every decision from the elders. Ultimately, the congregation’s spiritual concerns are left to the minister. Obviously, not every elder or, for that matter, every congregation operates in this manner sees things this way. There are elders who give deacons more authority to complete their tasks. And there are elders genuinely interested in the spiritual welfare of Christians more than in the physical plant operations or the amount of money contributed. But on the whole, the first model I described is the one most widely used today.

Therefore, I would like to propose another model. It is based on Jesus’ words quoted in Luke 22:27: “But I am among you as one who serves.” Jesus is the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). The proposed model begins in the same place. Jesus is Head of the Church. Then comes the congregation – the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16). Within the congregation reside the shepherds, deacons, and ministers. The congregation selects these leaders, who in turn become answerable to that very same congregation – flock of believers. . Let’s look at each group and see how this may be a better model to follow.

First there is the congregation. Every member is uniquely important to the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). As such, it is the congregation who decides what is important to itself, or what they need. In Acts 13, the church in Antioch chose Paul and Barnabas and then sent them out. We will look at more of this and how it works and affects the congregation as we go along. With the congregation involved in the most important decisions — the selection of shepherds, deacons, the minister, and missionaries — many members would become more active than they are currently. As both brethren and shepherds learn to understand that leaders are answerable to the congregation, more time and effort will be made to make decisions that are beneficial to all. This will avoid opinions become the “law” of the congregation; because the congregation can question any decision rather than passively sit by and allow unpopular decisions to be made.

Let me illustrate my point. A fictional eldership is unable to get along with the congregation’s preacher. Ultimately, they decide to fire the preacher. In most congregations the brethren sit by passively, with perhaps just a few members questioning the “decision.” And because we have traditionally assumed that the elders control everything, their decision is final. But imagine what would happen if a congregation was to stand up and say, “No! We will not accept this decision. You elders need to work this out!” What if the elders fail or refuse to follow the members’ edict? I know of one congregation that all of the elders were asked to resign. That happened a number of years ago, and at the time I thought it was a “gutsy” move on the part of the flock. But now I think that their request was more Biblical than the popular model we work with today.

The second group is the deacons. If chosen biblically, they are to fulfill a specific task or role, either short or long-term, depending on the situation. Consider, for example, a building expansion. If qualified deacons are chosen to manage that project, when it is completed, they have finished their role and are no longer deacons. Unlike government bureaucracies, they do not perpetuate themselves into eternity. One Biblical example comes from Acts 6, where there was a problem with the Grecian widows being ignored. The apostles told the church to select seven men to resolve the dilemma; the men chosen, deacons, fulfilled their task. To whom were they answerable? The church! Deacons should understand their task, and then be given the funds and authority to accomplish their task as they see fit through the eyes of experience. If the task requires a job description, a budget to work with and the congregation’s trust to accomplish it, then so be it. Deacons correctly become discouraged when they are not trusted to accomplish what they have been appointed to do. How many of us have seen deacons who exist in name only because they have neither direction nor means to accomplish anything without first getting permission from the elders? Most of us have been in settings where elders are doing the deacons’ work. I personally have seen elders so engrossed in building a new “church house” that they routinely ignored the congregants’ spiritual needs. These “shepherds” refused to allow the deacons [several of whom were employed in the construction industry] involvement in the building process. The elders were so concerned about the construction money that they trusted no one outside their circle to handle it. This scenario demonstrates a sad, but all-too-common misuse of available talent, a withholding of trust, and an ultimate power/authority moment for those who believe that their judgment is beyond question.

There is another group that we do not normally recognize: those I refer to as “the gifted ones.” These are brethren who have gifts or talents that they are willing to use to God’s glory. They may not be qualified to be deacons, but they are valuable as Paul describes in Romans 12:6-8. Some are gifted with financial resources to share, others encouragement (see Barnabas as an example), showing mercy, and so forth. They might be elders, deacons, or preachers, but they also exist among the congregation at large. They might be young people, a couple, a single person, or an elderly person. If anyone possesses gifts for building up the church, their gifts should be accepted. I heard of a conversation between an elder and a member of his congregation. The member asked the elder when the budget would be finalized, and the elder answered, “putting together a one hundred and fifty thousand dollar budget takes time and is a difficult process.” The member posing the question happened to be the overseer of a multi-million dollar budget for a chain of grocery stores. This is another sad example of failed “congregational [people] stewardship.” The member’s gifts were not used efficiently [or at all!] Secondarily, the example also reveals an elder who doesn’t know his flock very well.

The next category is the minister. He is seen most by the congregation and it is the congregation’s responsibility to choose and work with them. These conditions mean that the minister is answerable to the congregation. He is to edify and build up the church as well as evangelize. No minister is perfect; in fact, each of us has our peculiar quirks and our method of “doing things.” If a member has a problem with the preacher, the first person he talks with should be the preacher. Too often, though, members rush to the elders and “dump” on them rather than following Jesus’ reporting method (Matthew 18:15). Preachers and missionaries must realize that they report to the congregation. This concept necessarily includes the congregation in listening to, and asking questions of, the minister rather than letting someone else or another entity [elders] “handle” the situation. A side benefit of this method is that it keeps the minister from using the pulpit as his personal sounding board or a bully pulpit to promote his own agenda.

This brings us to the elders, the shepherds of the congregation. Shepherds are selected by the church to oversee and nurture the spiritual welfare of the congregation. Such is their responsibility, and since selected by the congregation, they are answerable to the congregation for their success or failure in fulfilling that role. Shepherds have the responsibility of moving among the flock via visiting, teaching and learning. When elders are selected by a congregation, we often look at the “big” issues: if they are 1) married only once, 2) have baptized children, and 3) are old enough. Rarely do we look at or really consider whether they are patient, self-controlled, not quarrelsome, manages his household well, and is well spoken of by neighbors and co-workers (1 Timothy 3:1-7). How many times do you know of congregations asking for references from the neighbors, co-workers, and others of proposed elders? I think that there are some questions we should ask before we begin the selection process. “Would I be comfortable talking to this brother about intensely personal matters such as marriage, health, or sin problems? Could I approach him, trusting him to keep our conversation between us?” Too often we choose men who are ineffective communicators. We also chose men who overreact or give the impression that they are right and “if you don’t do it my way, I’m not going to talk to you.” Ideally, shepherds should be the first people we talk to about problems. They should know what the flock is thinking, the difficulties that individual members face, and the joys that various members are experiencing. Shepherds should be comfortable with all ages, from kids to the elderly. I know of elders who apparently believe that teenagers should be seen and not heard, because they neither talk to them nor listen to these younger members. Maybe it is because their own children haven’t had a good relationship with them. My son had an experience with an elder that truly discouraged him. He had been at a church camp and had learned a number of things he wanted to share with his fellow teens. His presentation involved a visual demonstration that required the room to be darkened and then lit by candles. He prepared the room and was practicing the presentation when a sister walked by the classroom and saw him. She ran to the elders and said that there was “devil worship” going on in my son’s room. An elder went to the classroom, looked in, and told my son the same thing about “devil worship.” He then instructed the young man to not conduct the class. Did the elder ever ask any questions before passing judgment? No. If he had truly been interested, the elder could have asked the young man what he was teaching, how he was going to present his material, and maybe even have guided him in preparing the class. But the elder possessed neither the communication skills, nor the patience to act as a shepherd mentor. Rather than “protecting the church” from “devil worship” his attitude materially affected my son’s view of elders. Elders who are accountable to the congregation will view every member as important and further that they, the elders, are subject to being asked questions.

Let me sum up briefly. By Biblical description, Jesus is THE “head” of the congregation. The church is a body made up of many members, including elders, deacons, and ministers. Rather than being governed from the top down, the body works together as one unit. We dare not base this model on either the Roman or American forms of government. On the contrary, the body is one and works together as one. The men who fulfill the special roles described in scripture are answerable to the congregation rather than the elders. I think this will help address some of the difficulties facing congregations today.

One, if elders are answerable to the congregation, their decision making will be more in line with the views of the congregation. This will prevent elders from being tempted to become proud or power hungry. Too often elders adjourn to their room, make decisions, and then proclaim them to the congregation. All to often, the congregation not only disagrees with the decision, but also has no idea that the “issue” was even under consideration. Obviously, the congregation is unhappy. How can this possibly occur? It results from the elders not knowing their flock well enough. In one congregation, hand clapping seemed to have become somewhat of a problem for at least some of the members. Other members would signify their joy at a soul’s salvation by clapping after baptisms. One elder opined that this outburst of joy was pure entertainment. In the next bulletin, a brief statement appeared, authored by the elders: “There will be no more hand clapping in worship.” That was it! Nothing was said publicly. A number of brethren were either confused or unhappy about the decision. Sure enough, the subject came up a few months later in a small Bible class. The opining elder was in the class, and when some of the older members asked what was wrong with clapping, the elder sat mute. Though obviously still opposed, he said nothing, and certainly offered no Biblical authority for his opinion. His decision to avoid responding accentuated his lack of communication skills. But more frighteningly, his lack of leadership skills hindered his flock’s quest for understanding God’s will.

How can shepherds come to better know the flock? One way is “simply” to invest time visiting the flock, asking questions, and assessing its spiritual condition. “Can I talk to this elder about my spiritual condition?” The act of visiting the flock forces shepherds from the meeting room and out among the flock; such is the example Jesus ordained for us (Luke 22:27). When deacons have clearly defined tasks, elders are free to engage in the higher-level work of shepherding the spiritual well being of the flock. Visiting is unequivocally one of the most important aspects of the elders’ responsibilities. Visiting requires going out. An elder was once asked how much visiting he did. He responded that every Sunday he stood by the door and greeted everyone who came to the building. Such was the extent of his “visiting.” While saying “hello” at the door is vitally important to the arriving church, it hardly qualifies as “visiting.”

When someone responds to the invitation, the elders should be at their side, nurturing the strugglers or sharing the brother’s joy. I have seen elders pray for someone and then never say another word to them about the situation that prompted the prayer. Such neglect is not shepherding. The Spirit declares that it is the elders who bear responsibility for visiting the sick (James 5:14). I recall mentioning this idea in a study: I said that the first call a sick person should make is to the elders. In accordance with our traditions, some of the class members were incensed “As a preacher, shouldn’t you visit the sick?” Since that response, I have begun to wonder if my incredulous brethren were afraid to call the elders. If so, those men had surely lost the confidence of their flock. If they were not afraid, but merely unaccustomed to leaning on their elders, what a beautiful moment emerged for true shepherding and mentoring.

Elders are to serve, not lord it over the church. So what happens when an elder oversteps his bounds? How is he dealt with? In the tradition model, his excesses are allowed because he is “in authority,” he is answerable only to God. Why, some even believe that God approves of every decision they make. But Paul told us that elders can and should be rebuked if necessary (1 Timothy 5:19-20). Have you ever seen that happen? In our second model, an elder is answerable to his congregation. If he losses his temper, he should come before the church, repent and confess, and possibly be rebuked. I have known of elders who have repeatedly lost their temper over amazingly little things; things they should not even have been concerned about. Yet they still consider themselves to be shepherds or elders. Some congregations have adopted a “service tenure” for men serving as elders. This plan calls for a man to serve a specific number of years, one, two, five, for example, and then be reaffirmed by the church. A plan such as this allows the church to evaluate its leaders and, if finding one or more lacking in Biblical characteristics, refuse to allow the man to remain an elders. Experiencing forced humility can be very trying for a man; yet God’s discipline remains effective for both the individual and the church.

Second, the “new” model allows the congregation to be more involved in their own affairs. One of the most frequent complaints I hear from elders is about lagging Sunday and Wednesday night attendance. In one five-year stretch, I wrote bulletin articles, preached sermons, and taught classes on “attendance” several times each year. Yet the attendance remained unchanged. How did the elders choose to address the matter? Rather than seek innovative solutions, they opted for “more of the same,” coupled with complaining about some brethren’s “lack of commitment.” A counselor’s definition of insanity is “doing the same thing that has never worked before, only doing it harder than before, continuing to expecting favorable results.” In this case, the elders were unwilling and/or afraid to try something different to meet their standards of church attendance. In fact, they refused to even discuss why we had Sunday evening assemblies or what they wanted to accomplish in those assemblies. They held an unshakable definition of “faithful attendance,” and accordingly held everyone to it. Needless to say, attendance has yet to increase, and the congregation still is not involved in solving the dilemma. In the proposed model, when church members are allowed to participate in the decision making process, overall congregational involvement will increase. Will we ever achieve 100% involvement? I doubt it. On the other hand, I do believe that we can exceed 25%. If we undertook to learn why people do not come to the night meetings, vis-à-vis simply labeling them “unfaithful” or “not committed,” it is highly likely that we could offer a worship and fellowship environment that would provide the flock woefully needed encouragement. Our reliance on “guilt trips” and faith assessment has proven quite ineffective in stimulating congregational growth and involvement.

That brings us to the issue of congregational fellowship. In many of our congregations, we neglect the pressing issue of fellowship. Part of the problem stems from the design of our auditoriums. When we sit in such a manner that we are able to see only the back of people’s heads, we can hardly think that we are encouraging fellowship. What we need to see are the faces of our brothers and sisters. While rather utopian, I personally think removing all of the pews and reconfiguring the auditorium in a circle so that we can look at one another would better serve us. The Lord’s Table would become the obvious center of our attention in the middle of the circle. Forgive the digression. Fellowship is an elementary, yet integral aspect of a congregation’s life. It must be encouraged; what family grows in the absence of fellowship and togetherness? Congregational leaders are duty bound to support, facilitate, and encourage fellowship and interaction among the members. They can become highly successful in this endeavor when they themselves begin to move among the flock and model Godly fellowship.

Where is leadership when members cease attending or, more overtly, leave the congregation? Sometimes, leadership is not to be found. Sometimes there are serious issues with communication, attitudes and fellowship. All too often, we ignore the issues -and the people who have those issues. Sometimes leadership stoops to the notion that if someone is unhappy with the congregation, they should leave and go somewhere else. This attitude is overtly ungodly and a slap to Jesus who said that “If be lifted up [crucified], I will draw all men TO me. [Parenthesis and italics mine.] I have walked among elders who displayed that attitude. Rather than confront the issues needing resolution, they opted for the easiest, most impersonal, way out: “go ahead and leave.”
Next, it will encourage the practice of Mt. 18:15 by more people. Rather than always running to the elders so they can “handle it,” brethren would go to the one they need to go to. Too often, elders have been asked to deal with problems that should have been done individually by those involved. And the elders have chosen either to ignore them or get involved rather than asking a brother or sister, “Have you talked to that brother or sister you have a problem with?” How many problems could be ironed out if we just practiced this.

The second model can offer everyone a part in the life of the congregation, and even afford them responsibilities! It stands to make many members more active [less lazy?]. Subsequently the congregation can learn the idea of trusting one another. No individual with his/her personal ideas and desires become dominant.. All would seek to provide what others need [Acts 3 by chance?]. I believe that there is freedom in how it is all put together. How do we select elders and deacons or the preacher and missionaries? Each congregation, on its own, must determine how it selects its elders, deacons, preachers, and missionaries. I submit that it is time for God’s people to adopt a different model, one that involves the congregation as the congregation.

There are some issues that bear consideration. What does the term “leadership” mean? We have “song leaders,” those who “lead at the Lord’s Table,” and those who “lead public prayers.” What authority is vested in such leadership? What is God’s understanding of the terms “authority” and “overseeing?” We may easily be tempted to endow each of these terms with some form of power. But Scripture draws from them the attitude of service. Jesus had “all authority” yet was One who served. Believers are called to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21). We are to become like Jesus Christ. As we mature in those concepts we will begin so see each other as servants, each seeking what is best for the other rather than himself. Surely such maturity would spare us some of the difficulties we see in some congregations today. Psalm Twenty-three depicts a loving Shepherd, intimately involved in the life of His sheep. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who knows His sheep, and they know His voice. God’s people, the “congregation,” should, therefore, seek to cultivate that same attitude: to know one another, always seeking what is best for the other person. (John 13:34f; Philippians 2:1-5).

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