Where the Administrative Buck Stops

By LeRoy Lawson

“Oh, we’re all equal. It’s just that Roy is more equal than we are.” That was how Rex Dernovich described the relationship between elders and senior minister in Central Christian Church. The ministers at the Phoenix-area meeting might have thought he was joking, but he wasn’t.

The elder chairman’s quip goes to the heart of what attracted me to accept Central’s call in 1979. The eldership had carefully thought through the leadership issue that rips apart too many churches, and decided they needed a minister who, as they said, can “lead us to become the flagship church for our area.”

Central’s elders had settled the issue that torments too many organizations: Who’s in charge here? Or, to adapt that famous line from President Harry Truman, Where does the buck stop? They realized final authority resides in the eldership, but that they couldn’t, as a committee, guide the church’s growth. They were calling me to do that.

Christian churches and churches of Christ generally agree that final human authority rests with the eldership. That wasn’t true in the very beginning, of course, when the apostles were in charge of things. But as they passed from the scene, the developing congregations, which were patterned after Jewish synagogues, naturally followed the lead of their elders. My guess is that in those house-church days, an elder led each group, with the leaders of the various groups constituting the eldership of a city or area.

This simple organization worked fine, although there were the usual all-too-human disagreements and challenges. (If there hadn’t been, we wouldn’t have most of the letters in the New Testament.)

In many places, this organization still works fine today. But we all know of instances where it has broken down. At least part of the problem has to do with where the buck stops.

First, though, a disclaimer. This article is neither about the work of the elders nor the work of the lead pastor. So rich and varied are the tasks assigned to each in the modern church that we can’t do justice to the subject in a brief article.

Second, a warning. My assignment is very limited, but it’s about the most difficult of all aspects of church governance: how the pastor (call him pastor, senior minister, preacher, brother, or whatever) and the official board (call it eldership, board of elders and deacons, “the board”), get along with each other. Or don’t. And why.

A friend of mine has a solution to the tensions that often pull boards and staff apart. Get rid of the eldership, he says. He’d even abolish the term “elder.” Some preacher friends think this is the ideal solution. No board meetings. No cranky elders to pacify. No elders’ wives to placate. Paradise.

On the other hand, some elderships have tried getting along without a preacher. “We’ll just take turns preaching,” they say. “We’ll make our decisions jointly,” they say. “We don’t need any hired hand telling us what to do,” they say. These churches are small—or will be in time.

I’ve known some churches that functioned quite well without an eldership; I’ve also known some to get along for awhile without a preacher. But for the vast majority of congregations, both preachers and elders can contribute greatly to the body’s health.


So if your church is like most others, you have a minister (or staff) and you have a governing body (eldership). You want them to get along, and you want to know where the buck stops.

We are ready, then, to propose an answer. It’s not original with me. One day an elder at Central Christian passed on an article from his professional magazine. He was in health-care management. The article was about how the governing board and the CEO could most effectively function in nonprofit organizations

The author was John Pearson, who has had 30 years experience as a CEO of such organizations as Christian Management Association, Willow Creek Association, and Christian Camp & Conference Association. As president of John Pearson Associates, he continues to apply his expertise in helping CEOs and boards to work together.

I didn’t know who he was when I read his article more than two decades ago. I just knew that what he said about CEOs and boards in nonprofit organizations made perfect sense when applied to church governance. (You must not take offense when I draw a parallel between a corporate CEO and a church’s lead pastor. Leadership is leadership and organizations are organizations. There are too many similarities to quibble over vocabulary.)

Pearson’s advice is illustrated by this simple scheme:

Four simple letters, but they make all the difference in how a church functions.

The letters on the left represent the two major types of boards, and the letters on the right stand for the two major types of CEOs.

Boards tend to be either Policy or Operational. That is, they want to deal either with large, fundamental issues regarding vision, values, and mission of the body (P); or with operational matters (O)—how much should be spent for what, what kinds of programs should take place and when—in other words, the details of the operation.

The letters on the right represent the two primary types of CEOs. Some are Leaders. They are go-getters, initiators, visionaries, persons with the ability to draw followers. They like being in charge and function best when they are.

Followers, on the other hand, prefer to take direction; they wait to see what the board wants done and then carry out their instructions. They usually like pastoral work and the quiet of the study.

There is nothing inherently right or wrong about either kind of board or either kind of CEO. But it must be understood that there are good mixes and bad mixes.


Here are the good ones. When a Policy board calls a Leader to “take charge,” the board also grants the leader the authority to do so. In church organizations, this means the board delegates to the minister responsibility for programs, budgeting, personnel, and the other day-to-day tasks involved in running the church organization.

When an Operational board calls a pastor, it expects that person to preach, teach, baptize, evangelize, and do the other tasks related to shepherding the flock. It reserves to itself such matters as budgeting, care and maintenance of the building, various programs, and other day-to-day tasks.

The Operational/Follower combination can work very well—and does—in small churches. Most elder-led congregations have adopted this option.

The Policy/Leader structure in some form will be adopted as a church grows. All megachurches, even those with strong elderships, require it. (You can’t lead a large group of people by committee.)


Here are the bad mixes. And here is the source of many church splits.

If you have a Policy board with a minister who is basically a Follower, nothing much happens. Each is looking to the other for leadership. I should have said nothing much happens initially. But in time, a leader will arise in the board or in the congregation who will take charge, perhaps lead a rebellion, and demand the “ineffective” preacher be replaced. (But the preacher may not be ineffective so much as he is just in the wrong place being expected to do what he is not gifted to do.)

If you have an Operational board with a Leader in the pulpit, be prepared for an explosion. The preacher expects to be allowed to take the initiative, but the board expects to hold the reins tightly. When the strong ministerial personality runs headlong into the strong operational board (and its one strong dominating personality), you have the case of the irresistible force and the immovable object. And the church suffers.

What is so heartbreaking about these clashes is that they are not seen for what they are. Instead, people start calling names, impugning each others’ character, quoting and misquoting Scriptures, and doing everything but facing up to the simple fact that the governing body and the called leader are mismatched. Each demands the other be and do what the other can’t be and do.


My 20 years at Central Christian were fruitful because, when the elders interviewed me for the senior minister’s position, they acknowledged who I am (L) and promised to be what our growing church required (P).

They kept their promise. As a result, they got the best I could give without demanding I become like someone else. They still have my gratitude.

I do quite a bit of church consulting these days. One of the first things I try to assess is whether the board is a P or an O and the minister an L or an F. If they haven’t got this part right, nothing else will help much; if they have got it right, together they can have a peaceful and productive ministry.

LeRoy Lawson, a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and member of the Publishing Committee, is international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship.

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