There are few experiences in life more satisfying, fulfilling, and joyous than serving the Lord on a church leadership team where:
- Each member respects and trusts every other member.
- There is no confusion over responsibilities and roles, and each person works diligently to uphold their part.
- There is a diversity of giftedness, backgrounds, and perspectives, which is highly valued.
- Each member is mature: spiritually, relationally, and emotionally.
- Each member is motivated by love, practiced through humility rather than wielding power and control.
- Each member’s goal is to follow Christ’s lead and to pursue that which is in God’s best interests for the church as a whole.
- Inevitable disagreements are resolved by seeking mutual understanding through gracious dialogue, and finding reasonable solutions.
- God is glorified in the unity of the team and effective leadership of the body.
Sadly, in too many of our churches, all of that seems more like an impossible dream than a potential, much less experienced, reality. Yet, with God “all things are possible,” and He doesn’t call us to a standard that He will not enable and empower us to attain. It requires dependence on Him, intentionality, persistence through obstacles, and a long-term perspective — but it most certainly can be done!
The limits of this blog don’t permit me to mention all that is needed to go from where most of us are to where we long to be in our church leadership experience. However, we can start by addressing one area where the organizational structure of many churches serves as an impediment to effective church leadership. It is this — too many churches have too many boards.
By design, boards are decision-making groups which exercise some level of authority/oversight over others. Over time, multiple boards became common in most churches. The typical boards are elders, deacons, and trustees. Others have also emerged including executive and general boards, which often include representatives of the other boards or the combination of all boards. More often than not, the existence of multiple boards leads to the confusion of or competition for the functional responsibilities in the body. They can also lead to unhealthy silos where one group takes care of spiritual issues and another takes care of the financial (including the budget) and “business” functions of the church, as if those two things should ever be separated.
IS THERE A BETTER WAY?
Without questioning the positive intent of the persons who created those organizational structures, I would suggest that to find the better way, we only need to return to the model of the early church where there was one, and only one, board to oversee all the functions of each local body. It is clear from the New Testament that the norm for every church was an elder board comprised of multiple members. That’s why it was so important to be clear on the type of individual who should be chosen for such an important role (I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; I Peter 5:1-4). Yes, it was clear that deacons also existed, but they always served in specified ways under the authority of the elders.
One significant benefit of a single decision-making leadership team (i.e. elder board) in the church is that “responsibility confusion” is greatly reduced. In EFCA churches, we practice congregational governance. That means that the committed members of the church vote on the highest level decisions that need to be made, including major purchases (e.g. land and buildings, hiring the lead pastor, the annual budget, etc.). But it is untenable for any large group of people to research, discuss and come to effective conclusions on most of the decisions that must be made in the operation of any church. So, they delegate that function to trusted, mature individuals who can make wise recommendations on major, church-wide decisions that the congregation can confirm or reject. That would be the single leadership team which carries out both the recommending function to the congregation as well as overseeing the myriad other decisions that don’t rise to the congregational level.
A significant point that is often misunderstood as it relates to elder boards is plurality. The multiple elders who serve on the board all serve as equals and only carry spiritual authority in the church as a group. In other words, individual elders do not hold spiritual authority. They do not function as “bosses,” nor do their individual opinions and preferences carry spiritual or decision-making authority. This is a huge safeguard for the church to protect it from those who may possess wrong motives, succumb to sin, or manifest hidden character issues and unwise decision-making.
However, a church doesn’t have to be very large before there are too many decisions, including ministry operations, for the single leadership team to make. What then? Again, it’s a simple matter of delegating specific functions and responsibilities to either individuals or teams under the authority of the single board. In either case, these may be any combination of staff and/or volunteers. Acknowledging the long history of deacon and trustee boards, it is permissible for those to continue, as long as it is understood that they serve under the elder board, make recommendations to the elders rather than final decisions, and they receive direction and assignments from the elders.
However, I strongly encourage the creation of teams to replace all boards other than the elder board. Why? Teams are much more flexible and adaptable than boards because most boards are filled by election for one or multiple terms rather than appointment. Also, it is generally expected that boards make decisions while teams work to determine and implement solutions. So, even if their redefined purpose is clear at one point, misunderstanding can creep back in over time. Teams may be comprised of regular members along with temporary members (skilled specialists) to address particular situations. They may or may not have elders on them. Examples of teams: Worship, Tech, Human Resources, Facilities, Finances, Stewardship, Children’s Ministry, Men’s Ministry, etc. As churches grow and employees increase, staff may take over the leadership of or even replace some teams.
Much more can be said to flesh out how we can adapt our organizational structures to better enhance the joy and fruitfulness of ministry. I invite the opportunity to discuss this further with any of our churches and leaders!
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