Section 3 of The Deliberate Church dealt with the process of gathering elders. In Section 4, the final section of the book, the authors talk about what the elders do when they meet. How should pastors handle the spiritual business of the church?
The first thing discussed here is the importance of unifying the elders around God’s Word and prayer. This is the “stating the obvious” part that unfortunately is not all that obvious in many church leadership meetings. Perhaps we begin our meetings with the obligatory petition for God’s guidance. Or, we may even spend a bit longer in prayer, interceding for one another or for the more obvious issues in the church. But I think it is a good thing to ask ourselves if we really value the place the Word and prayer have in our pastoral leadership.
Here’s how the authors do it at their church. Elders’ meetings begin by reading the Bible. This is “not mindless or unreflective reading, but thoughtful reading that is looking for reasons in the text to praise and thank God” (p. 174). The elders each then offer a brief prayer of praise. Next the elders join in prayer, first for each other, then for individual church members (using the membership directory), and then finally for the corporate body (praying for health and not just size). A good, practical suggestion for how to do pray for the church at large is to memorize the prayers that Paul prayed for the churches (e.g. Eph 1:15-23; 3:16-19; Phil 1:9-11; Col 1:9-14; 1 Thess 3:11-13; 2 Thess 1:11-12).
Another aspect of uniting the elders around the Word, though not specifically related to the actual meeting of the elders, is the importance of the elders studying the Word together. For example,
Periodically an issue will arise in the congregation that requires some biblical study on the part of the elders. Don’t waste these opportunities! These can be some of the richest and most rewarding times in the life of an elder body. (p. 174).
If we are concerned that our congregations aren’t interested enough in theology, perhaps we should see if the elders are leading the congregation to be so. By studying relevant biblical issues and then presenting them to the church as an elder council, the elders are able to model what it means to shepherd the congregation in a biblically responsible way.
Only after the elders have united around the Word and in prayer are they ready to move on to other areas. The authors say that spending quality time in the Word and in prayer takes them almost two hours! Again the elders must ask themselves if they are truly “devoted” to the ministry of the Word and prayer (see Acts 6:4). But moving on (chap 20), church’s that have staff elders as well as non-staff elders will need to work hard to reduce the disparity of knowledge that exists between them. One thing that can be done is prepare the agenda and relevant reports at least a week ahead of the elder meeting and distribute it to all the elders. The goal is to get all elders up to speed in advance of the meeting.
So what should the elders talk about? The authors offer three “categories for conversation” to help steer the discussion. First is member care. This includes updates on who is joining the church and who is leaving the church. But much attention focuses on the “care list.”
The care list is simply an informal list of people whom the elders have recognized as needing special attention for a variety of reasons. Periodically a person is put on the care list because of a particularly extreme kind of trial. More often, though, the care list is used to keep track of those people whom the elders have noticed as being delinquent in attendance over the course of a few months or as being involved in scandalous sin that will require church discipline if not repented of quickly. p. 181.
In larger churches the elders need to go over the membership directory systematically so that no one falls through the cracks. This kind of work is part of the spiritual oversight required of elders (Heb 13:17) and is the best way to practice church discipline. It is also a reason why plural elders is so necessary; no one pastor could possibly do this kind of intentional oversight on his own.
The second category of conversation in the elders’ meeting deals with the administration of the church. While this may be “deacon work” primarily, the elders need to know the overall status of things like finances and facilities.
The third category is ministry and missions where the elders consider things like missionary applications, short term mission plans, proposals for new church ministries, benevolence, constitutional revisions, and church planting. “This is where the elders work to ensure that the spiritual vision of the church is realized,” the authors tell us, “and that the spiritual direction of the church is maintained” (p. 183).
After all is said and done in the elders’ meeting, it will be important to assign certain elders with the task of communicating with the deacons and staff about decisions that have been made.
Chapter 20 concludes with a brief discussion on the annual budget process, and also with a word about modeling good leadership meetings by inviting others (e.g. pastoral assistants and interns) to attend the elders meetings to quietly observe the process.
The final chapter of this book deals with how decisions are to be made in the elders’ meetings. As the authors explain, “The most heated and divisive moments in a church’s life often come at critical decision making moments” (p. 189). So it is very important that we have an approach to handling decisions, though no approach can prevent every possible conflict.
First of all, it is helpful to emphasize that the senior pastor does not need to chair every elders’ meeting, or members’ meeting for that matter. By sharing the leadership of the meetings, the senior pastor can communicate that he is not power-hungry and that he does not view the pastorate as a CEO position. “Pastoral authority is like soap—the more you use it, the less you have left” (p. 190). Pastors then should lead with the Word, “not simply with the strength of your personality or opinions” (p. 190). They should model good character in speaking graciously and must be patient rather than insisting on having things done their way.
Still, we need a good way to observe order in handling matters. The authors advise the elders to begin discussing a matter by having the issue addressed in a one-page, specifically written memo that all elders can review a week or two before the meeting. Then at the meeting the motion needs to be seconded. In a smaller elder body all elders can be asked for their thoughts. The chair determines the length of the discussion, so “each must be patient with the others, and each must know when to back down for the good of the group” (p. 193).
When the chair feels like the discussion has proceeded far enough, he may call for the vote. Unanimity does not need to be the requirement for action (except perhaps in the case of elder nomination); instead, voting gives all elders an opportunity to practice humility, especially when they do not get their way. They must treasure the unity of the body more than their own ideas, and they must learn to not take being voted down personally.
I find the authors to be at their best in this discussion about elders. It seems to me that this kind of deliberate pastoral oversight of the church is sorely lacking in the average church today. The authors have done us a service by giving us some good practical advice for how we might approach leading our churches in a more healthy way. In my opinion the greatest need we have, and the one we should always begin with, is a devotion of the church’s pastors (elders) to the Word and to prayer. Perhaps we have simply tried to govern our churches without depending upon God for way too long.