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Walking in Step
Elders and ministers can lead successfully together if they share these four priorities.
Thirty days after my 30th birthday, I became the preaching minister for a small-town church in the Midwest. My baptism into Christ had taken place only nine years earlier, and I had not been involved with church in any way before that. Now, with limited experience, I was expected to lead a church with an average attendance of about 345. I was excited—and scared.
My first Sunday, the elders came to me between Sunday school and the worship service for prayer. They prayed for my family, my preaching, the worship service, and the salvation of souls. When the prayer meeting was over, the chairman said, "Now you are the quarterback, and we are here to run interference and to help. Please do not get involved in things that might hold you back. Call on us and we will be there."
Later I told my wife that I suspected the prayer meetings and helpful attitude would last about three months. However, when I closed my ministry there 13 years later, the weekly prayer meeting was still taking place, and the attitude of encouragement was as strong as ever.
I owe much to those men. They respected the pulpit ministry, and they exercised wonderful oversight over that local congregation. They all were football fans and they talked football language—a team spirit. They also gave me a place of leadership on the team. All this resulted in a remarkable ministry for that church—a strong ministry that continues to this day.
I have continued to find that high level of quality within the eldership of the churches I have served. Only once have I heard a voice raised in anger during an elder/staff meeting. That voice was mine, and I apologized to the entire group the next day in the presence of the congregation. I immediately received a note of encouragement from the elders, and we continued to serve as a team.
My experience the last 25 years has been within a church structure in which deacons lead ministries within the church, and the elders and full-time ministry staff form the leadership team giving oversight to the congregation and church programs.
Elders know they have oversight of the congregation, responsibility and guidelines are delegated to the staff, and deacons supervise designated ministries and involve people in service.
There are at least four elements I've seen that are necessary for a leadership team to work together well.
The leaders with whom I serve understand that no decisions will be made until we first hold a prayer meeting. Our team allows 20 to 45 minutes for prayer at the beginning of our meetings, because we find there is a great difference between praying for God's guidance in our decisions and making decisions and then asking God to bless them.
It is a mistake to think that elders and staff can be friends in the decision-making process if they are not friends socially. So it is necessary to create opportunities for fellowship among the leadership team. Fellowship for leaders might include everything from retreats to simple social functions in homes, all of which can be legitimately included in the church's budget. The plans for fellowship may be varied, but there must be plans. Fellowship is the glue that holds everything together.
The word overseer, one of the words we translate "elder," can be defined as "to look over with compassion." A compassionate leadership is necessary if we are to develop a caring congregation. A caring congregation, in turn, will be concerned about evangelism and edification. More practically, my experience suggests that compassionate men will be leaders and not controllers. Their primary concern is the health of the congregation, not the enhancement of their own personal agenda.
Leaders must know where they are and where they are going.
Years ago I flew a small plane that had an instrument called the Omni directional signal. It would guide me, in flight, to designated Omni stations, and it was very useful in determining my location at any given time. I found, as a general rule, it was easy to fly to my destination once I knew my location.
Too many leadership teams do not know where they are, where the church is positioned in the larger context.
They may know, for instance, the church's average attendance but know nothing about how attendance is distributed among different age groups. This lack of knowledge will hinder their ability to provide for future needs or take advantage of present opportunities.
The team may know the amount of weekly offerings without knowing what percentage of the members are giving, or what ministries beyond the church are receiving significant funds and energies from people who are part of the church. They may know little about the debt load of the church.
This lack of knowledge may lead them to overlook the need of stewardship teaching, or to overlook opportunities to partner with ministries that church members already have a relationship with.
Too many leaders make the mistake of attempting to cast a vision without being aware of important facts. Knowing the present condition of the congregation will help determine what direction to go and what should be reachable goals. Know where you are; know the facts.
Vision exists on a foundation of faith; we must expect God to do something. Because a goal is something we intend to do with God's help, our goals must be large enough to compel us to look to God for our power. It is tragic to find some churches that seem to have no goals except to have services again next Sunday.
When leaders work together as a team and seek to involve people in ministry, both inside the church and beyond, the Lord's work will go forward. However, their work together must be characterized by prayer, fellowship, compassion, and vision. These things make up the necessary ingredients for a leadership team and will cause them to lead with a living faith in God.
Ben Merold is senior minister with Harvester Christian Church in St. Charles, Missouri.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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