A Theology of Governance

A Question of Polity

For the past several years, ministers have been walking away from pulpits at an alarming rate. Not just anyministers … some of the most seasoned, trained, experienced and competent among us; an entire generation of men who were speaking at lectureships, writing books, and preaching at the largest congregations of Churches of Christ in the country; well-known and influential preachers in our brotherhood.

I could give you a list of twenty-five names and you would recognize them as among our best and brightest.

These minsters haven’t gone to other pulpits. They haven’t stepped into different, supportive roles on church staffs. They haven’t transferred to other denominations to continue their work there.

They’ve walked away from local church work entirely.

Some have taken on new professions: the law, business management, sales. Many have moved into “para-church” organizations: missions support, counseling, consulting, non-profit ministries, educational institutions, etc.—still involved in ministry, but not in the context of the local church.

If you talk to these men about their transition, if you ask why they moved away from the salary and status and security of their pulpit positions, you’ll hear several reasons given:

  1. Some will tell you they were bone-weary; tired in body, mind, and spirit; burned out, used up, nothing left. Ministry will do that to you as anyone who has filled a pulpit role can attest.
  2. A few will confess to some moral failing—an affair, tampering with pornography, alcohol abuse, stealing—that undermined their credibility and ended their effective ministry. Ministers are not exempt from (in fact, might be uniquely susceptible to) temptation and the dangers of poor coping mechanisms.
  3. Others might mention family pressures, or a loss of meaning and significance in their work, or a gradual accumulation of estranged relationships that prompted their decision to walk away. The stresses of ministry can erode confidence and purpose and trust.

But if you keep talking to these men, past the presenting problems or the symptoms that drove them out of church ministry, you’ll hear a common thread—a shared distress—that keeps coming up. When mentioned, it takes the listener by surprise because it is so unexpected. It’s not an item that would appear on most church members’ top-ten list of troublesome issues facing the church today.

But, for preachers and ex-preachers, it is a pressing and problematic concern … an issue that lies at the root of their disaffection with the preaching role and their discouragement over the future of Churches of Christ. No, it’s not the theological divide that seems to be widening among our congregations. No, it’s not frustration with debates over instrumental music while a world is tearing itself apart. And, no, it’s not even disgust with ministry too often reduced to an obsessive focus on budgets, buildings, busyness, and butts (in the pews).

Here it is: polity model.

Polity: a form of church governance; the way a church is organized to do its work; an organizational structure that defines human roles and authority for leadership and decision-making.

If you listen closely to people who are leaving our pulpits, you will hear a fundamental and overwhelming concern with the way our congregations are led, the implications of that for their own work and calling, and the limitations of our chosen polity model for kingdom effectiveness.

Among Churches of Christ, the predominant polity model focuses on the role of elders and looks something like this:

In this model, elders hold ultimate human authority and leadership responsibility in the church. They meet, make decisions, determine congregational theology, set ministry priorities, hire and fire staff, establish programs and budgets, plan for the future, evaluate effectiveness, approve or veto initiatives, and manage whatever problems or conflicts arise. All other leadership roles and offices of the church derive their authority and purview at the delegation of the elders. In our churches, the buck always stops with the elders.

And that’s a problem.

Don’t get me wrong: the vast majority of the elders I know are good, sincere, dedicated, self-sacrificing, Christ-loving men who are giving their best efforts to leading their churches. They take their responsibilities seriously. They love the church and the people who comprise it. In the main, those who are leaving our pulpits do not question the motives or intentions of the men who have served as their elders. The questioning of our church polity model has nothing to do with the character of elders or with the rightful role elders play in the governance of the church in Scripture.

Rather, this questioning is rooted in a very real concern that the “rightful role” for elders we have traditionally discerned in Scripture does not, in fact, tell the whole story of leadership in the early church. Nor does it take into account a theology of giftedness and calling that is central to the Bible’s teaching about spiritual leadership. (More on both of these subjects later.) Nor does it acknowledge some clear and widely-recognized limitations faced by elders in their attempts to lead.

What is concerning about our polity model is not that elders are limited in certain ways but that those limits are not counter-balanced and moderated by other acknowledged and authorized leadership roles.
Here are nine limitations of elder leadership, offered for your consideration. This list is offered not as criticism but as observation. (Once again, I love elders.) As you will see, many of these “limitations” spring from the realities of how elders are chosen, how they function together, and simple group psychology. Most of these “limitations” are, in fact, good and necessary … or, at least, unavoidable. What is concerning about our polity model is not that elders are limited in certain ways but that those limits are not counter-balanced and moderated by other acknowledged and authorized leadership roles.

  1. Elders are selected primarily on the basis of character/pastoral/relational qualities rather than leadership qualities, for those are the characteristics emphasized in the passages most often referenced during an elder selection process (1Ti 3 and Tit 1).
  2. Not all elders have the gift of leadership (Ro 12:8). Yet elders without this gifting are never-the-less expected to assume the leadership mantle. I have witnessed many good, sensitive, compassionate shepherds greatly frustrated by discussions of necessary leadership issues—setting vision, developing policies, and managing resources, for example—because they had neither interest nor inclination to spend time on such matters. And I’ve seen necessary leadership issues rushed or ignored or fumbled because some elders had no patience for anything that didn’t involve praying or pastoring.
  3. Elders sometimes have little knowledge of or experience in some key aspects of leadership: keeping the main thing the main thing, exercising the discipline to focus, developing proposals and strategies, planning initiatives, communicating plans, recruiting and involving volunteers, implementing plans and monitoring progress, defining and evaluating effectiveness, etc..
  4. Elders often have little education or training in areas critical to a church’s growth, health, and faithfulness … matters such as theology, worship, missions, counseling, organization and management, spiritual gifts, church history, discipling and mentoring, conflict negotiation, etc..
  5. Elders have relatively little time to devote to the oversight of a church. These are busy men, in the middle season of careers and family, with many demands on their time. After the time and energy they devote to work, family, and their personal shepherding duties, there is little left over for “managing the affairs of the church.” This paucity of elder bandwidth (time, attention, energy) comprises a major challenge in moving churches forward.
  6. Many elders have little understanding or appreciation of how to function effectively as a group. While some work done by elders is accomplished individually (e.g., counseling, praying, comforting), there is an aspect of their work (specifically related to leadership) that must be done communally—with fellow elders. Yet basic meeting skills are too often lacking. (See http://timwoodroof.com/information/effective-elders-meetings/ten-keys-to-effective-elders-meetings/healthy-meeting-habits/.)  Getting to a decision can be excruciating. And more difficult group dynamics (e.g., conflict, group-think, breach of confidentiality) can paralyze elderships.
  7. Elders have constituencies. They enjoy long-term, intensely personal relationships in the church. There are peers they are sensitive to and feel protective of. While this is a good and necessary thing, it tends to encourage elders to hear every discussion and view every decision through the filter of their primary constituency: “How does this affect them?” “What will they think if we do this?” But what about other groups? The youth? Divorced people? Minorities? What about the host of broken and lost people outside the walls of our churches? Who will speak for them? Who will make decisions that favor them—even if it means angering the people who sit next to us on Sundays?
  8. The reality of constituencies (among other factors) encourages elder leadership that is inherently conservative. Not “conservative” in a theological sense … “conservative” in the sense that elders tend not to “rock the boat,” step on comfort zones, kill sacred cows, shoot ineffectual ministries, etc. Elder leadership is naturally biased towards the status quo, the past and present (rather than the future), the church’s current membership instead of its possible membership. This is not (again) a bad thing. But it is something that cries out for balance if churches are to be effective in their God-given mission.
  9. The entire focus and function of a group of elders can change dramatically by adding new elders to the mix. Because many churches have no formal process for “vetting” elder candidates, no written “rules of engagement” or statement of principles and priorities that guide elder leadership, and no regular and rigorous procedure for self-policing, the leadership of our churches is constantly vulnerable to the next elder selection process. Most of us have witnessed churches that turned on a dime—changed theological focus, fired a minister, alienated segments of the congregation—after adding new elders.

I point out these limitations not to criticize elder leadership or to in any way suggest that such leadership is illegitimate. [All leadership roles have inherent limitations: Apostles could be wrong (e.g., Peter and James on the Gentile issue); there were very few of them to stretch around a growing church; most of the Twelve were focused on Jerusalem; etc.] These elder limitations are listed, rather, to address a fundamental flaw in our usual polity model: a single leadership role (elder) that holds all spiritual authority in our churches with few checks and balances in place to meaningfully address inherent limitations.

These are the matters that keep coming up in conversations with people who are leaving our pulpits—not a dislike or distrust of elders, but a lament that our polity model does not supplement and balance the leadership of elders with other legitimate and Christ-ordained roles of leadership … a regret that other leadership  roles (with their own strengths and limitations) are not given a seat at the leadership table of our churches.