Lecture 13: Pastoral Leadership and Church Structure (Part 2)
II. Pastoral Leadership and Structure (cont.)
We are building a case for structure. The church needs to be structured. It is an organism and the organization must always serve the organism. All too often it is flipped and the organism is serving the organization. What does that look like? That looks like when we start to be bound by the constitution and all kinds of other policies and procedures that become more important than the actual work of ministry itself. I’m not going there, for sure, but I am saying that if the church is going to be effective and if a pastor is going to be effective, there has to be some structure. There has to be some order.
There has to be structure and order in its own life and there has to be structure and order in the church itself. What we have tried to say so far is what order and structure that takes is going to look different, depending upon the denomination or the church you are part of. We can say that all churches have in common, whether they are Presbyterian or Congregational or Episcopalian - I should say, Episcopal – is that they all have leaders. There is in scripture clearly, Paul speaking to leaders and other writers of Scripture addressing the church and addressing leaders. Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders” he says, “…as those who must some day give an account.”
C. Know the main scriptural texts for each structure (cont.)
We see leaders in scripture. We see deacons in scripture. This is where I find it gets a little bit confusing. In one sense, we are all called to do the work of the ministry, of service. Again, back to Ephesians 4: “God has given the church gifted leaders to equip the saints to do the work of service,” of serving, diakoneo. The point is that in one sense we all have this deacon role in the church.
We also see in scripture as we are in this section in the main scriptural text, that deacons did apparently comprise a formal group from the very beginning. We see this in Acts chapter 6, verse 6. There was this designated group that were separated from others that were designated to particularly deal with the temporal, physical needs of the church. Paul addresses them, refers to elders and deacons in the church. Philippians 1, 1 Timothy 3, there is this small description of them. This formalized group seems to have been a collection of men and women.
So, leaders, deacons. Here is the third category that I want to talk about and that is elders. Scripture speaks quite a bit about elders. Elder, I think you could fairly say, is the common leadership term in The New Testament, first mentioned in Acts chapter 11, verse 30. Elders seems to be a role that goes back to The Old Testament. Elders typically back in the tribal culture in Israel were those who were more mature, older, were those with the wisdom to lead, those who had therefore the highest role in a tribal society.
It seems like in The New Testament that role moves into the church and elders became the highest office. Elders who have this role, we need to break the term down itself into other terms such as leading, overseeing, protecting roles.
Then there is, again, the pastor. The question is – and I think this is a big question and we touched on this already - are pastors and elders distinct? Some would immediately say if you take Acts 20:28 and Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Peter 5: 2-5, you see almost this interchange of elder/pastor. Elders are shepherding. Paul tells the elders in Acts 20:28, to shepherd the church. 1 Peter 5 tells the leaders in the church to shepherd the people. What trips us up maybe – trip might not be the right word – but Ephesians 4 actually uses a noun to suggest that it is an office itself. I’m not arguing and making the case that this is something that is clear in scripture, I don’t think it is so much. Some might say, “You are arguing for the office of pastor because you were one for 33 years.” Maybe that has a little bit of bearing. But in my mind anyway, I think I can make a distinction here in scripture and certainly through church practice. I do see an elder function that is different from a pastoral function. Yet, el
ders are spoken of by Paul much more than pastors. Paul seems to speak of pastors only one time here in Ephesians chapter 4.
Which then raises the question, which we won’t deal with here, of can you have women pastors? We often say there are not female elders because that role seems to be clearly male oriented from 1Timothy 3. Some could argue that pastors can also be females from the standpoint that these other roles were not just male in orientation. I’m kind of side-tracking a moment to say, if you take pastor as a distinct office, it does open up the question, then can there be female pastors? That question does not surface so much if you don’t see pastor as its own office.
Back to elders. We know, looking at scripture, that elders must be mature. As Paul puts it, they must have an aspiration. He starts 1Timothy 3 by saying, “If one aspires to be an elder” which means this, that when we think about leaders in the church and we think about elders in particular, one of the first qualifications I want to know is, do you want to be an elder? If we are trying to beg and talk someone into the task, someone who might come in begrudgingly, they have already disqualified themselves according to 1Timothy 3. I should add here that I get a little bit suspicious if on the other side, a person is desperate to be an elder. There might be a power issue going on. So, what are the qualifications? Tell us. There has to be an aspiration. There has to obviously be a seasoning, a maturity, 1Timothy 3:6. There needs to be Godly character, which Paul lays out in 1Timothy 3:1-13.
Here is my observation. We often stop here until we look for someone with character qualities and we say, “This person should be an elder.” That is not enough. There should also be this very important question, is there a leadership gift here? The fact that Paul makes it clear in Romans 12, 1Corinthians 12, that leadership is one of the gifts means that when we look for someone to be a leader in the church, it is not just character, as important as that is; but is this person gifted to lead? After serving on numerous boards over the years, many of them I inherited, I saw myself at times going, “This person has fine character, but there is no leadership in his bones, he shouldn’t be here.” Just as, on the other side, some can be really gifted, gifted leaders, but not have the character to go with it.
When churches look for elders, they should ask the questions. I always wanted to ask three questions here. Does this person meet the character qualifications of 1Timothy 3? Does this person have the giftedness that Paul speaks to in Romans 12 and 1Corinthians 12? And maybe one other piece that I don’t want to just assume here, is there is a track record of good judgment, of wisdom? because that is so important. Someone who can discern. These are some of the qualifications.
Then there are the duties that an elder is involved in. When we look at scripture, here are some of the duties elders do. They teach, Acts chapter 6, Acts chapter 20, 1Timothy 3, verse 2. An elder has to be someone who has a certain ability to teach, to handle the Word of God, and do that with a certain skill. Certainly elders need to do the work of oversight, of guarding, protecting. They will one day give an account. They should be those who sometimes are out in the foyer, meeting new people and watching carefully for wolves that might sneak in in sheep’s clothing. So there is this oversight.
There is then the shepherding we know attached to elders, that we have already looked at. The verb, “shepherding” comes out of the role of elder. Which means that we should look at elders as those who have oversight and leadership skills, then shepherding, caring skills that are courageous enough to admonish when they need to, and correct.
Then certainly we want to look for those who have certain governance skills, who steward the resources. I do want to make a point here that elders are not just those with fiduciary responsibilities, who just manage the budget and make the budgetary decisions. That cheapens the role of elder. They are shepherds together with the pastor and with the staff. But they should have certain financial skills if they are going to lead the church because the fiduciary role falls largely on them.
What we do see is that there is this plurality of elders in I think every church model I can see in scripture. It calls into question some of the church models I grew up in where the pastor is the elder and then there are the deacons and the trustees. Actually when I came to my last church, a fairly large church, there were no elders. One day I asked the deacon board, I said, “Where are the elders in this church?” “Well, Pastor, you are the elder.” I said, “I’m not the only elder in this church.” In fact, when we look at scripture, there is a plurality.
Actually, what had happened in my last church was that the deacons were actually doing the work of elders. We just changed the language because they had already fulfilled the qualifications and they were doing the fiduciary and the leading and teaching roles. I think it was just an inherited structure that never got changed, which often happens in the church. Churches that start very small, you have someone who is leading. You have a group over here that maybe are doing a deaconing role and then it grows more and you keep the same nomenclature. Once we changed that, everything got a lot better. It then raised the question, do we need deacons? That was a harder question frankly because we said, how do you say this person is a deacon and this person isn’t, if everyone has this responsibility of ministry of service. I’m not trying to argue that we shouldn’t have deacons; but I am saying I’m not sure that we have to have a deacon board, if you will. People who do the deaconing work in the church, for sure.
Some elders are called to a pastoral office and carry out the duty of preaching. Others may serve as pastors. Again, I would make a distinction in the roles, though here is a little bit of the challenge. I have found in my last two churches, when I speak to elders and say, I don’t want you just to be fiduciarily responsible and that is your principle role. I want you to shepherd with me. The scripture says that elders do this shepherding work. I found that here is the problem: If I elevate and broaden the role of understanding of elder, there begins to be a little bit of confusion. Then it feels like I’m a pastor too, so what distinguishes me from you? Why do you get paid and I don’t get paid?
I remember in my church in The Netherlands, I was with the church board chairman of the elders one day, which will tell you a little bit about our relationship. He said, completely out of the blue, “What gives you any more authority than I have? What makes you different from me?” A little bit of that question came out of my intentionality to take this board out of a pure fiduciary role into more of a shepherding role. It can get confusing. What distinguishes a pastor from an elder? I think that is a fair question. Generally speaking, we have separated a bit by saying pastors have more the function of leading the ministry itself and fulfilling the mission and the vision and the day-to-day work, that most elders cannot do because of their jobs and other roles.
D. Be aware of both the necessity and dangers of structure
The third guideline in terms of structure is recognize again the necessity and the dangers of structure. As I have mentioned, organisms need structure and structure requires leadership. Churches that grow will need more and more structure and they will need to restructure as I just noted. In Acts chapter 6 the church was growing, they needed to think about their structure.
As the church grows, the structure that is, say, particularly pastor centered, will become obsolete. There needs to be a broadening of leadership roles. Adding a staff will also change things. Be mindful, however, as the church grows and you add structures, that you don’t add layers and then before you know it, over time we sometimes call this ministry creep, happens; and you end up with a mess. This happened to me when I came to The Netherlands. It was only a church of about 300, 350 people. The problem is in an expat environment where people typically leave every two to three years, they just kept adding different roles and adding things, and this was the structure of the church. Listen to this. We had elders. We had a deacon board. We had an elder/deacon board. We had as I recall, almost 40 committees. It was a wonder the church was able to make any decisions.
After about a year, which is a long time in an expat church, I had at least the credibility to go on a retreat with the leadership and say, “We need to restructure.” By the time we were finished, it was pretty amazing actually that everyone was willing to do this, we ended up with one board. We took away elder/deacon, took away deacon board and just went with one board and reduced from 40 committees to six. Suddenly ministry got a whole lot easier. That is just because of this danger of things evolving and adding. Like snakes, churches need to occasionally shed their organizational skin; or like structures that can be like wineskins which reach their potential and then there needs to be a new structure to hold the new wine. Churches need to do that as well.
Standing committees. We forget standing committees. From the very beginning, their role was to be temporary. But then they become permanent and standing committees need to stop being committees. The point is, the leaner the organization, the more effective it will be. It is really important that when we think about structure, we watch around us how this ministry creep happens.
We will talk more about how churches can end up serving the structure in our next session.
What is the difference between elders and deacons?
Question: You just differentiated elders and pastors. Could you go back and differentiate deacons and elders. You have had some experiences with some powerful deacon bodies and you have reshaped them. I am primarily interested in the fiduciary responsibility and the time consumption associated with those two things.
Dr. Johnson: 1Timothy 3 makes some differentiation as Paul lays out his qualifications of elders, the qualifications of deacons. Scripture makes a distinction between the two. My question has been, while an elder board needs to come together, to work together, I’m not convinced that the same thing applies to deacons. Any time a church has two boards or more, I think there can be a confusion of authority.
It is sort of like, in an old structure in Baptist churches, there typically were the trustees and the deacons. The trustees handled all of the fiduciary matters and the deacons were leading the church. I remember observing some deacon/trustee wars. If the trustees didn’t like the direction the deacons were taking the church, they would hold back the funds. These kind of things happened. Watching that enough taught me that I think the healthiest church says, we just need one board. When we have more boards, it becomes confusing.
Question: I have a clarification and two questions. The clarification is, I think I figure out where you are going. It sounded at first like you were saying that there really aren’t deacons. What you were saying is that you don’t see the need for a deacon board. Everyone is involved in serving ministries relative to their spiritual gifts. There are some that are more focused and I guess that is what we can call the deacons in 1Timothy 3, but that does not necessitate a board. Am I understanding you right?
Dr. Johnson: Yes. I’m not saying that a deacon board is wrong, if the church wants to have a deacon board as part of the structure, since deacons certainly have a role in scripture. That is great. But I am not convinced it is necessary to have designated deacons who meet together.
Part of our problem is, as the more we understood the deacon task, we started saying, this person is a deacon, and pretty soon we had this gigantic list. In fact, I could see people saying, I’m doing sort of this deaconing role, how come I’m not in this group? We decided to just encourage the whole church to carry out a deacon role. As I said earlier, I am reacting a little bit from that experience in two or three board churches.
Back to my church in Holland, I was running around to the deacon board, to the elder board, realizing that the elder/deacon board had the greatest responsibility or authority, but they all had certain authority. You constantly had to ask yourself, If I do this, am I stepping on the toes of this board and its authority, or this board and its authority? I am a really strong proponent to say, if you want to have a healthy structure in a church, have no more than one board, or I think it can be very problematic.
Question: You had talked earlier about the gift of leadership. You go through 1Timothy 3 with the qualifications of leadership. You have all the qualifications of character. Then you have the qualifications of competency, they have to be able to teach, have to be able to manage people. The thing that is not in !Timothy 3, I’m not sure it is in any other passage, is the calling element. Is there such a thing as a gift of leadership or are the gifts more, this kind of leadership or that kind?
The thing that I struggled with early on is, can you have really good people that meet all of the qualifications of I Timothy 3 and they don’t have an ounce of ability to make a decision? In other words, they are not leaders. My experience was, yes, you can have really good people that are not leaders. Maybe I’ll ask the question this way. If you were setting up the guidelines for identifying and nominating elders, would you put the gift of leadership or the calling of leadership as one of those?
Dr. Johnson: Yes, absolutely. When I met with our nominating group, they would always ask me before they would work through nominations for elders. For example, they would say, “Pastor, can you help us here think through some of the guidelines?” Historically it was easy just to say, let’s just go back to 1 Timothy 3. But because of my years of experience, what I share with the nominating group is, finding someone who meets the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 is not enough. There has to be the giftedness of leadership. It was not hard to defend because it is a spiritual gift when you look at Romans 12 or 1 Corinthians 12. Which then raises the question, then if somebody is gifted in leadership, what should we look for?
My working definition of a leader is three things: A leader is someone first of all, that people follow. So if you believe you have the gift of leadership, then ask yourself this question, who is following you? If no-one is following you, that is probably not your gift. The second piece of the definition is, a leader is someone who influences. People who have the gift of leadership make impact. They come into a room, when they speak, people listen. They influence. They speak and things change. I look for someone who has that skill, that ability, that gift I guess you would say. I think the third fundamental definition of a leader is, a leader is someone who is directional, who knows where they are going. Any leader I have known, a credible leader, have a sense of calling, they know where they are going. They have been summoned by God and they are calling people to follow, and people are following because they exude something of this influence.
When I would sit with a nominating committee, I would say to them, “I want you to think about the men who have followers, who have influence in this church, who if you ask them, ‘what is your vision, where are you going, what is your vision for your life and what is your vision for this church? ‘” If they go, “I haven’t really thought about my future” or “I have no idea where this church should go,” they are not a leader. People who are leaders have a sense of that and I think it does go back to calling or summoning. Leadership is a gift. It can be learned to a certain extent, we know that. But I do believe nonetheless it is a distinguishing gift.
Question: In the APEST model where does the buck stop? At the end of the day, who determines, this is the position of the church? Is it the apostle, the prophet or the elder?
Dr. Johnson: As I mentioned, that was a question that I did not believe Alan heard from Michael Frost answer very clearly. I remember some of my interactions with him. In fact, they stayed the night in our home once and we had a long discussion. I had just finished this paper that I had presented to The Theological Society, in which I was raising some of these questions, are these offices still for today? The big question I had in my paper is, Where does the buck stop? I would think that he would say, it doesn’t stop with anyone here. You work and work, you collaborate and you think it all through, then you decide together. I would say after leading for 35-40 years in church, it doesn’t work. Ultimately somebody has to say, I’m making this decision. If you do that too much, that is probably abuse of authority and that is not learning how to collaborate. There are these moments and they should be rare, but nonetheless they are there, when somebody has to stand up and say, “We’ve listened, we have been all
over the place, we have put our best arguments together. This is what we are going to do.”
Question: So who is that? Is that you? Is it the elder board? Is it you in concert with the elder board?
Dr. Johnson: In the structural model I’m building here, I do believe that ultimately it is the lead pastor. I think he has a distinctive role from everyone else. In my last church I was the only one of the pastors who was also an elder. I think it was a recognition that the pastor is not just the pastor, he is also an elder, but he is not just the elder. In a certain sense it was structured.
It is like the husband who says, “Look, I’m the head of the home. This is what we are going to do.” If you do that very often, that probably is a signal of a pretty weak marriage. I think a healthy marriage is where a husband very rarely has to say that because they are so entwined and together and knit in heart. I think it is true in ministry if you are knit in heart with the rest of the pastors and the elders. I really can’t hardly remember a time I said to the board and staff, “This is what we are going to do.” It was almost all collaborative.
If I think of one, it probably was when we were dealing with this very difficult issue of women’s role in leadership. We were a church that was a real mix of complementarian and egalitarian and all over the place. There was never going to be unanimity when we chose to take on this very difficult question. At the end of the day I had to say, “This is where we are going” knowing that not everyone was going to agree.
Question: Just to follow up with that. Is that something that could have been designed in the bylaws so that ultimately the people involved knew that that was your position?
Dr. Johnson: Yes. An addition to the bylaws. I think you would want to know that, for sure, before you exercised authority that is not yours. There is a wonderful book by Bolman and Deal called “Reframing Organizations.” I will be very brief to say that a leader has to have four sets of glasses. He needs to be able to put on this pair of glasses and what he sees is the structure. He has to know what the structure is. Coming into a church he needs to very early on ask, In this flow chart, where am I? Am I here? Am I somewhere here? Am I here? What is the expectation and what do the bylaws declare?
Bolman and Deal say the second set of glasses is the human frame. What is the morale? What is the heart? where are people? The third pair of glasses, the tricky one, is the political frame. What politics are going on here? Who are the resistors and who are the cheer leaders? What am I going to have to negotiate? How many chits are in the bank for the decisions I make?
The last set of glasses are the symbolic frames, which is, a leader has to see the symbols, the history, what have been the traditions here? I learned the hard way not putting that pair of glasses on, that I tried at times to lead without knowing the history and the story. I think where leaders get a lot of credibility is when they can stand up and say, “We need to do this because I go back to when we were once a church of 12 people in a room, remember that? It was 1906. No, you probably don’t, you weren’t there. But these people had a passion for the city and they took great risks. We saw this when they met over here and they built this building and they had these amazing dreams. What I am saying to you, church, is that we dare not stop the story.”
I remember one lady describe me. I was the thirteenth pastor of my first church. I will never forget, one night she said, “Pastor, we all know you are the renter, we are the owners.” She was not trying to be mean, but that is how they saw. I was just another one coming through. Part of it was because I didn’t learn to speak in that language. I was trying to lead this church, this 80-year-old conservative Baptist Church that was stuck in the mud, that was dead in the water, to a vision for the future. There was a lot of pushback, a lot of resistance. People hated change. Where I lost my voice was, if I had said, “Our tradition has always been about change, always been about risk. Why would we stop now?” I think then I would have been viewed by this woman as an owner, a co-owner. But I was always the renter because I didn’t put on those glasses. That is a long answer.
Back to the first one, structure. This is why I’m spending time with structure. You have to know the structural frame. You have to put on these glasses and know what you are dealing with. If you don’t realize you are here and that you are not taking authority and giving decision making and leadership, you are failing the church. But if you are here and you are trying to do that, you are going to get a lot of resistance and pushback. Actually, it starts in the candidating process itself.
I think a wise pastor says, “Let me look at your policies and procedures and your flow chart. I just need to see where I am in this.” Then you have to be able to answer the question, am I okay to fit in that structure?