We are fearfully and wonderfully made. Our bodies are comprised of systems designed by God that enable us to enjoy the fullness of life. Our skeletal system gives us shape and support, produces life-giving blood cells, and stores necessary nutrients, such as calcium. Without our internal structure, our bodies could not grow and function effectively.
Just as God designed the body to grow and function, he designed the church to do the same.
In 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Paul described the church as having many parts, like a human body. An essential part of the body is our internal structure, or polity, enabling growth and effective function.
In Natural Church Development, Christian Schwarz calls church leaders to focus on qualitative growth as opposed to numerical growth. After completing research of more than 1,000 churches in 32 countries on six continents, Schwarz identified eight quality characteristics needed in the local church, wherever it exists in the world. One of the eight traits he identified is functional structure.
In this week’s issue, Don Green introduces us to an internal church structure derived from Policy Governance. He helps us see parallels between Policy Governance and what can be called elder governance. Some years ago, Indian Creek Christian Church (“The Creek”) transitioned its polity to elder governance, and it has benefitted our congregational health. Here’s how we adopted elder governance, how it works for us, and how you could adopt it.
How We Adopted Elder Governance
I became acquainted with Policy Governance while serving on the board of trustees at Lincoln Christian University. At the time, LCU was transitioning from a traditional board structure to John Carver’s governance model. It was then that our elders studied how Policy Governance could be adapted for use in the church.
We affirmed the principles and values of Policy Governance: developing mutual trust, speaking with one voice, leading with policies, using a results-oriented approach to board operations, delegating responsibilities and authority to others, and establishing well-defined systems of accountability.
As we studied Scripture, we saw a situation in the early church’s history that demanded a change in internal structure (Acts 6:1-7). The apostles were serving the believers through the “prayer and the ministry of the word” (v. 4), while overseeing the benevolence ministry. The apostles followed Old Testament mandates, making certain that disadvantaged people (i.e., widows and orphans) had food to eat. Yet, as the church grew exponentially, the apostles failed in feeding the Greek-speaking widows, who were often overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
The apostles acknowledged this problem and proposed a change. As the spiritual leaders of the church, they knew their primary responsibilities were to prayer and the ministry of the Word; in order to effectively serve in those areas, it was necessary to change the internal structure of the church by creating a new level of servant leadership.
Seven spiritually mature men were chosen—all with Greek names—to care for the benevolent needs of Greek-speaking widows. All of these men, who were known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom, were given responsibility and authority to oversee this ministry through the laying on of hands.
The apostles then focused their leadership efforts on spiritual matters, and this enabled the Word of God to spread. New believers were added to their number, including a large number of Jewish priests. First-century Jewish historian Josephus wrote that there were four tribes of priests, each consisting of roughly 5,000 priests, and of these 20,000 or so priests in Jerusalem, a large number became obedient to Christ (Josephus, Against Apion 2.8 LCL).
Why were more people won to Christ? Leaders changed the internal structure of the church. They remained unified, and the number of new Christians multiplied. Yet today, many churches have an internal structure that is restrictive and hurtful by its very nature. A church board mentality tends to micromanage people and fosters division. When motions are voted on, someone always wins, and someone always loses.
At The Creek, our elders recognized principles in Acts 6 that reflect those of board governance: The apostles looked for results or outcomes (i.e., feeding of widows). They delegated responsibility and authority (i.e., set apart seven men). They established mutual accountability (i.e., everyone had work to do); they spoke with one voice (i.e., unanimity reigned). Mutual trust was evident.
What worked then can still work now.
How Elder Governance Works for Us
The apostles in Acts 6 devoted themselves to spiritual leadership tasks, and our elders, following the elder governance model, do the same. We stay focused on four primary tasks: (1) establishing policy, (2) the ministry of the Word, (3) the ministry of prayer, and (4) oversight of pastoral care. If an issue does not fall into one of these four categories—such as financial and administrative matters—another leadership team handles it. These responsibilities—and their accompanying authority—have been delegated by the elders to individuals capable of leading in these areas.
Elder governance establishes policies that the staff uses in the day-to-day operation of the church. But this doesn’t mean the staff must wait on the elders for direction. In fact, our staff often helps in creating policy drafts that are finalized and formally adopted by the elders.
For example, our elders established a policy for selecting people who are permitted to teach and lead small groups, classes, and Bible studies. Our adult discipleship team follows the policy in recruiting, equipping, and deploying people capable of teaching Scripture. Rather than micromanage people, our elders delegate responsibility and authority to individuals who carry out policy directives as they serve in areas of spiritual gifting and calling with mutual accountability.
Elder governance focuses on the ministry of the Word. Elders must have a strong knowledge of Scripture, and they must teach Scripture so that the body becomes biblically literate. As our culture strays further from biblical truth, elders must guard the doctrinal purity of the church. In Acts 20, Paul warned the elders in Ephesus that from among them, some would become false teachers (v. 30). After Paul left Ephesus, he urged Timothy to “stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer” (1 Timothy 1:3). Who were these “certain people”? Elders of the church! Paul’s prophecy in Acts 20:30 came to pass. Elder governance demands that elders devote themselves to the ministry of the Word.
At The Creek, our elder governance focuses on the ministry of prayer as our elders intentionally and persistently lead by example. They arrive at our campus before services on the weekend to lead different ministry teams in prayer, they host a midweek gathering of people who intercede for hundreds of prayer concerns submitted weekly, and they are readily available to pray with anyone who requests it following worship services. Elders must develop a reputation among the believers as being powerful in prayer (James 5:16).
Elder governance emphasizes oversight of pastoral care. In Acts 6, the apostles did not absolve their care for the Greek-speaking widows. To the contrary, they made certain the widows were fed. Our elders devote themselves to care for emotional, spiritual, relational, and physical needs of people, and administer church discipline when necessary. They recruit, equip, and release those with spiritual gifts of mercy and compassion to serve in pastoral roles. They endorse the compassion-based ministries of Stephen Ministries, hospital/shut-in calling teams, DivorceCare, GriefShare, Celebrate Recovery, and more, publicly setting apart people to serve in these ministries.
Years ago, ABC’s Wide World of Sports opened each week with snippets of sports highlights while the announcer spoke of “the thrill of victory. . . .” Then, over footage of a ski jumper violently crashing at the bottom of a take-off ramp, the announcer would say the familiar words, “. . . and the agony of defeat.”
What viewers did not know was the ski jumper chose to fall. The surface of the ski run was too icy, and he knew he would land past a safe landing area, risking his life and those of spectators. Changing his plan was painful, but actually jumping could have been fatal.
Changing the internal structure of the church is hard and painful. In choosing this change, we can experience “the thrill of victory” with more coming to Christ, as occurred in Acts 6. In choosing not to change, we risk experiencing “the agony of defeat.”
Gary Johnson serves as senior minister with Indian Creek Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is coauthor of elder training books and digital curriculum, and cofounder of e2:effective elders, a ministry to encourage and equip elders (www.e2elders.org).