By Stephen Bond
The Bible is surprisingly vague with regard to organization in the local church. It’s clear that God intends each local congregation to have a plurality of elders in leadership. We see this, for example, in Acts 14:23 as “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church” (note that elders is plural). It’s also clear that mature Christian character is what matters most for elders. The qualifications for elders mentioned in 1 Timothy and Titus deal almost exclusively with character.
Beyond those two broad characteristics—more than one elder, all of mature/good character—
the Scriptures are essentially silent. I believe there is no clear biblical paradigm for how a church is to be organized.
However, most Christian churches in America operate as if there were a specific “right” model—and they believe their church uses it. In this model, elders typically are elected by the voting membership of the church. Each elder serves a term of three to five years, and he usually may be elected to a second consecutive term before he must rotate off for at least one year. This model typically has a chairman of the elders who sets the agenda, moderates voting among the elders, and presides over congregational meetings. Yet, even though this model is sacrosanct in many churches across our nation, none of it is required by Scripture.
I believe the Bible is vague about structure because God did not intend the church to have a “one-size-fits-all” organization. In the church I serve, for example, we have no congregational elections of elders, no term limits, no chairman of the elders, and the elders do not make decisions by voting. I believe these factors have been instrumental in allowing us to experience more than a decade of sustained growth and leadership harmony.
We have no elections.
Elders are not elected by our congregation. In fact, we have never had a congregational vote of any kind. Instead, elders are selected by the current elder team after careful and prayerful consideration. This process takes months of deliberation. It is not done hastily, because we are aware that the well-being of our church flows directly from the health and chemistry of our elder team.
We prayerfully consider men with strong Christian character who have a track record of servant leadership and who have demonstrated alignment with the vision and values of our church. Wives are also taken into consideration. More than one potential elder has been passed over because of an overbearing or gossipy wife.
Once a potential candidate is agreed upon by the current elder team, he is approached by the senior pastor to enter a period of consideration. This involves several months of face-to-face mentor meetings with the senior pastor and any of the current elders who wish to participate. We read books and discuss them together. Questions are answered. Faithfulness is tested. Chemistry is evaluated. At the conclusion of this “period of consideration,” if the candidate appears to be a good fit, he is invited to become a “provisional elder” for one year. In this interim capacity he participates fully in the fellowship and ministry of the elder team. After one year, a provisional elder becomes a permanent elder if the elder team continues to sense this is God’s direction.
While this elder selection process may seem tedious, it has resulted in many years of harmony and synergy within Summit Christian Church’s elder team. This has allowed our energies to be focused primarily on positive kingdom initiatives instead of dealing with internal strife.
We have no term limits.
We have no term limits for our elder team, nor are elders forced to rotate off for a year. Some men have been on the team since the church began. We have added new elders through the years. Some have moved away, and others have chosen to step off for personal reasons. But we have never arbitrarily mandated that an elder leave the team because “his term was up.”
The reason for this is simple: once we have gone through the hard work of carefully assembling a well-fitted team of godly elders, we see no wisdom in interrupting this chemistry by having someone depart for a season.
It seems to me a main reason churches have term limits is to be able to “get someone off” the elders who probably should not have been on the team in the first place. However, in that case, the term-limit system can actually delay a more timely removal of an ineffective or cantankerous elder. In contrast, it seems wiser to take greater care in the initial selection process.
In addition, having an elder serve his first year as a “provisional elder” has given us a secondary fail-safe mechanism to quickly remove a potential problem elder before he causes significant damage.
I believe maintaining unity and synergy in the elder team are of utmost importance. These are mission critical. If a church experiences dysfunction, it usually originates first in the leadership. Similarly, if a church experiences fruitfulness and blessing, it begins with the missional focus and loving community within the elder team.
We have no chairman.
That is, we have no chairman other than the senior pastor. At Summit the senior pastor is the senior leader in the church—for both the elders and the staff. The senior pastor sets the agenda for the elder team and presides over their meetings. We do not have congregational meetings—but if we did, the senior pastor would preside. The senior pastor also leads the staff team. This allows the church to have one clear leader and eliminates the all-too-frequent debate about whether it is the elders or the staff that lead the church. In our case, both elders and staff help to lead the church under the unified leadership of the senior pastor.
I once served at a church that had the traditional model of organization. The chairman of the elders and I had a dynamic relationship that allowed the church to flourish. Within five years the congregation doubled in attendance. The chairman was a very strong leader in his own right, but he understood that his role was to empower me, as the senior pastor, to be the primary leader of the church. He was not a “church boss” who tried to “keep me in my place.” He was wise, empowering, and helpful. As long as he was the chairman of the elders, the organizational model worked well.
But after five years of robust church growth, the “empowering” chairman was forced to rotate out of his role as elder due to term limits. A new chairman took his place. He was well-meaning, but had an entirely different approach to his role as chairman of the elders. Within a few months it was clear I was no longer “the leader” of the church. The situation eventually became untenable, and for the good of the church, I resigned.
Reflecting back on that season, I’ve concluded it’s very unwise to base the well-being of the church so precariously on the relationship between the senior pastor and the chairman of the elders. The traditional model for church organization inevitably leads to two silos of competing church leadership (elders versus staff). In this scenario, either the elder team or the staff team ends up dominating. But with unified leadership under the senior pastor, both teams can work in harmony and move in the same direction.
We have no votes.
Summit’s elder team makes all its decisions by consensus. We have never taken a 5-3 vote, or anything like it. If we do not have consensus, then we do not make the decision. Either we wait until we reach consensus or we adopt another approach. Clearly, we could not do this if we had an obstructionist or controlling elder. This is another reason we protect so carefully the chemistry of the elder team. Making decisions by consensus also means our elder team only makes decisions for churchwide issues. All the day-to-day operational decisions are made by the staff.
We organize for progress.
I believe a church’s organizational structure has a direct impact on its missional fruitfulness. One reason some churches do not grow is because their organizational structure impedes growth rather than fosters it. At Summit we have attempted to organize our elder team to minimize internal conflict and maximize advancement.
The key is to be thoughtful about organization structure. It is unwise to blindly assume that “the way things have always been done” is necessarily the most effective way that things could be done.
Stephen Bond serves as senior pastor with Summit Christian Church in Sparks, Nevada.