How Our Church Uses Elder Governance

By Gary L. Johnson

The psalmist got it right when he wrote, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). God created our bodies in remarkable ways.

For example, the average heart has a cardiac output (i.e., volume per minute) of 1.1 gallons of blood. That means the heart moves more than 1,500 gallons of blood each day—that’s roughly 30 million gallons in a lifetime.

We are fearfully and wonderfully made.      

When I play with my grandchildren, I am also reminded that God created us to grow. My grandchildren run faster and jump higher with every week that passes. Their bodies are growing. The human skeleton is an amazing aspect of our human bodies. It provides the necessary internal structure for a growing body to expand and function effectively.

In a similar way, God created the church to grow as more individuals become followers of Jesus Christ. It is God’s will and design for the church to expand. For that to happen, there must be an internal structure to the church that accommodates growth. We call such a structure the polity of the church, a system of governing.


A New Approach

A relatively new approach in governing the local church is a polity known as Elder Governance. We implemented this internal structure at The Creek (Indian Creek Christian Church, Indianapolis) a number of years ago, and we have found it to be both highly functional and effective. Elder Governance at The Creek was inspired by the thinking of Dr. John Carver, the internationally known creator of Policy Governance.


When a profit or nonprofit organization operates with Policy Governance, decisions are made in keeping with policies established by the board, and those decisions reflect the vision and values of the leadership. Once the board establishes policy, it provides both responsibility and authority to individuals on the staff to operate the entity as long as they do so in keeping with the policies.

Policy Governance is greatly concerned with outcomes or “ends” that focus on a set of “means” or methods for accomplishing the hoped-for outcomes of the organization. Moreover, using Policy Governance, members of a board will strive to develop trust with the constituents of the organization, while developing unanimity among themselves.

Similarly, elders at The Creek lead using a modified format of Policy Governance. Elder Governance is an internal structure in which we lead by establishing policies. Once those policies have been articulated, they are given to the staff to implement—along with the authority to lead.

Elders here do not micromanage the staff, but have created an environment of trust and unanimity. Day-to-day operations are not the concern of our elders. These responsibilities, and the authority needed to get them done, have been given by the elders to people who are capable of accomplishing these important tasks. We have found this to be a more effective internal structure that enables the church to be healthier—and a healthier church grows.


Necessary Structures

In Acts 6:1-7, we read of how the Greek-speaking widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food in the Jerusalem church. This prompted the apostles to take action—decisive action. They examined the situation and created a new internal structure by delegating responsibility and authority to men. Once it was implemented, the church continued to grow both numerically and spiritually.

It is our belief that the same can—and must—happen today in the 21st-century church. New internal structures can be developed that will enable the local church to function more effectively, and as a result, the church will grow.

A farmer wants to increase his harvest, just as a businessperson wants to increase profits. These individuals do not use methods that are outdated and ineffective. Likewise, we want the church to grow with more individuals coming to a saving knowledge of Christ. To that end, we have developed a hybrid system of Policy Governance—and it is producing results.


Four Functions

Based on passages from Acts, in our system of governance elders have four primary functions: they establish policy, provide oversight of pastoral care, protect the doctrine of the church by being involved with the teaching of the Word, and lead the ministry of prayer.

In Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council of elders and apostles established a policy by which the Gentiles were to be evangelized. This policy was given to Paul and Barnabas to take back to Antioch to implement. In Acts 20, the elders of Ephesus were charged by Paul to be shepherds of God’s flock, meaning to have pastoral oversight of the believers. As elders, we lead by example in this regard, and have created an environment for others to serve in pastoral roles among people in need.

In Acts 6, the apostles devoted themselves to the ministry of prayer and the Word. In the same manner, we lead the prayer ministry of The Creek, while remaining engaged as teachers of scriptural doctrine of the church.

Not only do our elders focus on these four activities, but these activities also form the agenda of our meetings. If something comes to the attention of the elders, it must fit in one of these categories—and if it doesn’t, that issue is delegated to people who serve in that area of concern.

As I walk through the grocery store, I notice literally dozens of products with labels declaring them to be “new and improved.” Some of these products have been around for years, and they remain popular with consumers because they remain “new and improved.” Marketing executives develop advertising strategies of “new and improved” as a way of saying, “Stick with us because we are constantly working to make things better.”

In much the same way, leaders in the church should communicate to people a similar truth, “We are constantly working to make things better—so stick with us.” As leaders of the Lord’s church, we must be faithful to the trust given to us (1 Corinthians 4:2), and one way to be faithful is by looking for specific ways to more effectively structure the church.

To help further describe our polity to you, an electronic version of our Elder Governance documents is available for free download (just click here). The document includes an excerpt from our bylaws describing the process by which we select elders.

Also included in the document is our peer evaluation form. While serving as elders, we hold ourselves mutually accountable to one another by conducting annual peer-evaluations.

The church exists to pick up where Jesus left off. Jesus came to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10), and now, it is our turn to do the same. An essential element in doing so is to create a healthy church where numerical and spiritual growth can take place. A healthy, growing body calls for a healthy skeleton or internal structure. For us that’s called Elder Governance.



Gary Johnson serves as senior minister with Indian Creek Christian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana. In addition, Gary serves as director of pastoral leadership studies at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.

He is collaborating with James Estep (Lincoln Christian Seminary), David Roadcup (Cincinnati Christian University), and College Press to produce a series of books to help train and develop elders. The first volume, available this year, contains a chapter on Elder Governance.

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