Are You Ready for a Radical Change in Church G

by John Purcell

Although the following scenario occurs in the Presbyterian form of church governance, you can change the title to “deacon” or “board member” or any other title and you just may recognize parts of your church’s story.

First Presbyterian Church has a typical session. There are 13 elders who meet once a month for a session meeting that usually goes until midnight, and they often come home feeling frustrated about the lack of productive work done there. They wonder whether all those issues they discuss are the best use of time, but someone has to make the decisions, from major ministry issues to $100 purchasing decisions. They never seem to be unified on ministry issues, so they discuss the same things over and over and then eventually make split decisions that no one is completely satisfied with. And the pastor – well, he doesn’t seem to know how to lead the elders or the meeting very effectively. He frustrated by the feeling that he is in a more or less adversarial relationship with the board. There is some trust with a couple of them, but that’s about all. He suspects that he is entering burnout.

Once or twice a month, the elders must attend a meeting of the ministry committee they are assigned to. Twice a month they lead their small groups, and then they are supposed to be calling and meeting with their “shepherding flock” of 30 families, but they don’t feel like they are doing a good job. It’s not that they don’t want to or don’t try. It just seems like most of their flock isn’t responsive to their shepherding, and they wonder whether they really know how to shepherd. Many also have another ministry they really have a heart for, and they try hard to participate in that regularly. The elders are spiritually and physically tired of giving away to others constantly. But they assume they have to suck it up because there’s no one to shepherd them. Some have burned out and dropped out by becoming “inactive elders.” That’s a time when they go back to being regular church members and their experience isn’t used in ministry. A couple of them have actually left the church to go somewhere where the people don’t yet know they can lead or serve. Are there any real answers to these issues? Is God’s work supposed to be this way?

As I work with churches with boards that have true authority, I witness part or this entire story being played out over and over. The issues represented in this story are these:

Unclear role and authority of the board vs. the role and authority of the pastor and staff

When I listed 20 possible responsibilities of the church board on a leader survey, the average agreement among the board members on each of those was 64 percent (the lowest possible agreement would be 50 percent). When I listed 20 possible roles of the pastor, the board members’ average agreement was 65 percent. There is little agreement on the vision of what the church is trying to accomplish in the first place. So, if we don’t agree on the vision, the role of the pastor or the role of the board, how can we expect to move the church forward?

Confusing the role of the board with the individual role of the officer (elder or deacon) or the individual church leadership role of the board member

In a church environment, as opposed to a business or larger nonprofit, key leaders and officers are serving as the board members, meaning the people who are running the organization are also responsible for overseeing it through the church governance. This is necessary in a church, but it creates a mess.

Confusion between the role of the staff or lay ministry leader and the role of the officer who is “assigned” to that ministry team or committee

If the pastor is expected to shepherd everyone in the congregation, he will not have time to lead the church or will burn out trying to both satisfy everyone’s expectations. On the other hand, shepherding systems where the flock is divided up among the officers are universally failing.

In churches with an elder or deacon governing system, all the elders or deacons are on the board, and that is seen as their main role.


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