How to Enact Elder Governance

by Jared Johnson

We received numerous requests for “next steps” following Pastor Hennig’s comments on shepherding two weeks ago.  We have helped numerous churches make the change from an “elected office” leadership paradigm to what we call “elder governance.”  You may also download this paper from our site explaining the foundations of elder governance further, all from the pages of Acts.  Both linked resources above are free. 

Here are the few steps we would suggest if your congregation wants to pursue elder governance. 

1. Acknowledge appropriate limits.  
Recognize that this process will require time.  Depending on your congregation’s leadership history, it could range from weeks to years.  Don’t get discouraged as you take one step at a time.  Your current elders, servants (i.e. “deacons”), etc., should continue filling their roles of servant-leadership.  Making a switch in the leadership paradigm of your church does not automatically require anyone be “fired!”
 
2. Ensure bylaw compliance and build agreement.
You may need to take some specific action(s) according to your current bylaws.  If they outright prevent the congregation from using an elder governance paradigm, you may even need to amend your bylaws – thus a possible years-long process.  Begin teaching and talking about this among the leadership and congregation to build buy-in.  But also be aware that, especially in congregations with a very long-time “democratic” paradigm, there are bound to be some individuals opposed, even stridently.  Walk with them, talk with them.
 
3. Identify and Recruit  
As your elders continue doing what they’re doing, identify those tasks that need to be delegated, then recruit capable volunteers to whom the elders will hand off the non-elder-governance tasks.  A very common example is the church’s budget.  Elders set the spiritual tone of the congregation; nowhere in Acts (nor the full NT) do we see elders managing the minutiae of a congregation’s assets.  If the elders are scrutinizing every line item from the checkbook at each meeting, recruit an office manager, accountant, etc., to help the church administer its budget.  This does not mean the elders have abdicated financial oversight.  It means they’re devoted, primarily, to spiritual matters.  They shouldn’t spend any time debating whether the $17.99 snow shovel was over-spending versus $13.99.  Prayer > payments.
 
Other arenas can be given to volunteers; budgeting simply seems to be the most frequent.  Other duties to delegate could be building use / rental inquiries, benevolence / food pantry (see Acts 6!), following-up with visitors, filling communion cups, etc.
 
Recruit capable volunteers for the tasks your elders are planning to give away.
 
4. Communication: Write & Teach.  
A written plan diminishes opportunity for complaints and fault-finding in the future.  Put everyone on a literal same page.  A step-by-step plan can be simple and direct, i.e.:

  1. By April 30, recruit:
    1. qualified volunteer to oversee budget.  
    2. an elder to meet with new Finance Servant monthly.
  2. By May 15, update bank with Finance Servant’s name:
    1. signature authorities 
    2. online login 
    3. debit/credit cards that need to be issued and/or shredded
  3. By May 15, inform Offering Counting/Deposit team of new role and person filling it.
  4. June 1 and ongoing: continue operations with new Finance Servant overseeing rather than elders.

Make time to teach about elder governance as well.  Create an information packet.  Hold Q&A sessions.  Engage the people, showing why this model better-follows the pattern established in Acts, rather than mimicking branches of government. 
 
5. Monitor boundaries.
As you create and enact your new governance paradigm in the congregation, opportunities will arise to default to old habits.  Resist them.  Lovingly remind all involved – an elder who falls back on an established pattern, a new volunteer who may think they’ve been given more leeway than intended – that there’s a new way of doing things.  Assume the best unless evidence shows otherwise!  It’s easy to assume we have the right motives; we should extend that grace to others who lead alongside us.
 
Monitor the change your congregation just made; go into it expecting that periodic recalibrations will be needed.
 
Above all: soak the whole endeavor in prayer.  

Elder governance can provide the structure that will unleash the people of a congregation to use their gifts for the glory of God, expanding His Kingdom.

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