THE BIG CHALLENGE FACING SMALL CHURCHES (6): Elders Wanted
THE BIG CHALLENGE FACING SMALL CHURCHES (6): Elders Wanted

By Matt Johnson

If many people with leadership gifts and experience attend your church, then your pool of potential leaders is deep. If your church is comprised of people who have little leadership experience or skill, you’re facing a completely different situation. You may have great workers with great hearts, but you may not have competent leaders. It is possible this dynamic contributes to the size of the church.

How can the small church cope with a dearth of potential leaders? My response is mostly anecdotal.

The church I served until recently, Levittown Christian Church, is in a lower-middle-class, blue-collar community outside Philadelphia. For whatever the reason, the church had no natural leaders.

The process we undertook to identify and develop leaders might be helpful to other small churches.

In the face of not having a plurality of called, committed, and qualified elders, LCC took the bold step of having no elders. This is guarding leadership in the extreme, but the church thought it better to have no elders than bad ones.

This arrangement is not ideal, but it has benefits. For one, it forced me to seek prayer support and counsel from spiritual leaders outside my church. Looking beyond our congregation for help compelled me to think bigger than my own congregation and helped me avoid insular attitudes. I also never had to face a toxic person in a position of high authority.

A church without elders is not the long-term solution. So we started a leadership development initiative. I worked closely with ministry team leaders to help them grow in their leadership skills. Since they all have jobs, I found creative ways outside of monthly meetings to help them develop these skills. Some of these ministry team leaders will likely enter a more extensive elder training program in the future.

We also worked through a strategic planning process with the help of a consultant. By the time it concluded, we had a group of people who grew in essentials and sacrificed opinions. We were left with a teachable team who handled conflict with maturity. We had ministry leaders with a new sense of purpose and mission, and a new willingness to share that purpose and mission with other volunteers in the church.

LCC is still a blue-collar and lower-middle-class suburban congregation. But the church is committed to leadership that is appointed by calling, proved by commitment.  

Matt Johnson recently began serving as director of community engagement with Johnson University. Prior to that, he served many years as pastor with Levittown (Pennsylvania) Christian Church.

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Two Unhealthy Leadership Recruiting Strategies

Small churches sometimes recruit leaders in unhealthy ways.

1. Missionary leadership is like missionary dating. Church leaders are guilty of this when they say such things as, “I believe Carl would be more active in the church if we made him a deacon.” Even though we know leadership is an honor reserved for mature servants, sometimes we turn it into an incentive for attendance.

2. Propitiatory leadership occurs when church leaders feel the need to please every involved family. Leadership appointments are made because the church leaders are afraid someone will leave if they are not in a leadership position.

If missionary leadership is misplaced hope, then propitiatory leadership is misplaced fear. Both are unhealthy for any church.

—M.J.

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