The Deep, Dark Secret of Elders and Leadership Boards

The Deep, Dark Secret of Elders and Leadership Boards January 26, 2022

The Secret

For years, I was a part of churches that were led by “Elders.” These were men that were ‘called’ by God to lead the church and make decisions that protected the ‘flock.’ Elders were supposed to be the men of integrity, those that had shown themselves approved in their walk with God, and were ‘elected’ to the office by the church to serve. In the contexts that I served in, they were always men, because that is the theological construct that the church held to, that men were to be ‘the leaders.’

I served alongside of these men for years. I was a “Paid Professional Pastor” who would be allowed to attend the elder meetings, while not officially having a vote around the table because I wasn’t an elected elder. My Lead Pastor would tell me often that I still had a vote, as my ‘voice’ mattered in the meeting. This was later proven to be completely untrue. In the last days of my time at the church, the lay elders made several key decisions without hearing my voice on the issue as any type of vote. I don’t blame them or even think that they ultimately made the wrong decision. But looking back, I can see clearly. Our elder board had a deep, dark secret that we could not let anyone find out, as it navigated decision making in our local context. The secret would end up splitting the elder board in half, with several men and their families leaving the church and multiple attenders being caught in the crossfire of a church ‘domestic’ dispute. It was a dismal end to a catastrophic attempt at leading.

The secret was two-fold. 

1. Our elders were never trained to or ready for the types of decisions that they were forced to make in leading the church.

2. They were not vetted for chemistry, competency, or character.

Holding these two secrets close to the belt was imperative for continued movement forward. If people knew these secrets, who were part of our church, they would simply leave the church. People leaving our church would render the entire venture a failure. Without giving from week to week from the people in the congregation, we would have had to close our doors.

Our Elder Board would have been a Terrific Business Team, but was a poor “Religion” Team.

We had some of the best business professionals as part of our Elder Team at nearly all of the churches that I served in. They were entrepreneurs who had figured out the successful business model. Each of them were familiar with marketing, analysis, engineering, and sales. All of them were savvy in a business sense, allowing for lively discussions when it came to money management and business decisions in the local church. They were the ‘cream of the crop’ in the business world. But, despite one of our elders adamantly arguing that it was, the church is not a business. It’s not God’s ‘business.’ Instead, the church is a collection of people that are following Jesus. And sometimes business decisions don’t make sense when following Jesus.

I specifically remember a business decision that we made as an elder team that involved helping those in need. We had the opportunity to feed homeless people and help clothe them in our city. We made the decision to not support the cause financially as a church, because the money that we would have spent needed to be spent on helping our church grow. The argument was that if we grew our church, we would be able to better support opportunities like this in the future. Looking back, I’m certain that we made the right business decision, but also certain that we offended God in the process. The Book of James is pretty clear about what true religion is.

We could have started one of the most dynamic business ventures in our city or state, with the men that were part of our team. However, looking back, I wonder if maybe we would have made different decisions, had the secret been revealed and dealt with with a systematic approach to a systemic problem.

A Systemic Issue, maybe an American Issue.

The American Church seems to have adopted the approach of the capitalism that completely engulfs our culture. The thought process is “The most successful people in business surely should be the most successful people in other aspects of life.” But that may not be the best way of putting into a leadership team in a local church. The local church and leadership must decide a few things, to offset the temptation to place high functioning business leaders in the top leadership positions at a church. I would suggest the following as a way to confront the secret that we held for years that ultimately led to a deep floundering of a local church.

A Way Forward

1. Our elders were never trained to make or ready for the types of decisions that they were forced to make in leading the church.

We needed leadership training in place to properly equip potential leaders for the work of ministry. This would need to be biblical leadership training centered on scripture and giving great handholds to the men and women (I would argue that women should lead in all contexts in all offices) that were invited into the process. The gatekeeper of this type of training would need to be very aware of how each person was progressing in their biblical leadership development. We lacked any type of leadership training that was intentional, apprentice based, or biblical in nature, instead relying on the leadership qualities that were developed outside of the local church context with no regard for biblical ethics.

I’m sure that there are American Churches that have been successful at developing leaders within a biblical context and placing them into the positions of authority and leadership. Learning from these particular contexts is really important for the church that struggles with “Business Type Leadership Placement.” If a church was able to find another church that was successfully training and teaching leaders from within the church, they might have a change to grow a leadership culture from the inside out. Sure, leadership training outside the church is also valuable and a necessary part of living life. But why is that the church doesn’t have a leadership tract or training and every other major organization that is successful does? Is it because we are too proud or arrogant to offer or accept this type of training? Maybe it is because the church largely operates on a volunteer basis and so this leadership training doesn’t seem feasible if we aren’t paying people (a construct of capitalism)?

Imagine sitting in a room with several high capacity businessmen and trying to make a decision on how to handle a messy affair that was happening within your church. The men in the room have no biblical training in this area or in any area for that matter, and there only point of reference comes from the workplace. One of the leaders says that it would be best just to kick the offending party out of the church and move on. Another argues that we need to care for all involved. Another argues that we aren’t going to be able to communicate this to our church because it would be too ‘messy.’ Still another contends that this will cost far too much money for us to get involved personally with the situation and we should help pay for a professional counselor to step in. Our elders were never trained to make or ready for the types of decisions that they were forced to make in leading the church. Had they been, it could have been different.

2. They were not vetted for chemistry, competency, or character.

My best friend in high school went to the army and became a veteran who fought in Afghanistan in the mid 2000’s. When he was done with his tours, he settled down and was going to work for one of the agencies in our government. They did a complete 360 degree probe into his life, going back to those that knew him at birth. They wanted to know all the people that he knew, and knew him. They wanted to know what decisions he made as a teenager, how those decisions affected him as an adult, and the psychological effects of those that were in relationship with him throughout. I remember the interviewer that was on the phone with me asking questions that I didn’t even know the answers to, because they were deeper than my relationship with my best friend, ever went.

In the church, our process consisted of someone ‘nominating’ another individual and then that person was often put to a vote in front of a congregation that they barely knew. Very few of the people that voted for this ‘elder’ actually knew the person. They didn’t know their capabilities, their tendencies, or the decisions that they had recently made in their personal lives. I look back at the early church, and because they seemed to live life together, they would have known each other, intimately, and in such a way that nominating the actual leader with competency and character would not have been difficult.

The real issue here is probably that the church, or those involved in a church, are not allowed to be authentic enough with those that are a part of their religious community to really KNOW another person. We treat church as an event in the American Church instead of as a set of imperative relationships for the survival of our livelihood and families. The early church had to survive together to be able to make it through another day. We have to survive a week between the church event, and largely that is absent the local church that we are a part of.

Chemistry with other leaders was never evaluated in my own experience. This led to many personality clashes that could have been avoided.

Competency was based on what the person had accomplished everywhere but the local church and was significantly undervalued as an asset in leadership.

Character was unknown, because, for the most part, people in our church didn’t know one another.

Hoping for a Better Leadership Team.

If you are a leader at a church, you are in a position to rethink these issues and make change happen. It takes a culture change, which is harder than you think and costs more money than you knew that you had. It’s not a good business decision, but it may be the best decision, to put into place systematic thinking and behaviors that ultimately lead to a more healthy and biblical approach to leadership placement and development. Your leadership team has the chance to function as a high level team that serves Jesus instead of a collection of business minded men seeking to make the church more money.

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