An Alternative Polity: Gifts

Legitimate leadership in God’s church stems from the Spirit equipping church leaders. Individuals lead churches not because of personality or in-born competencies or Dale Carnage courses and seminary degrees but because of the leadership gifts Christ has poured into their lives.

Acknowledging the different leadership roles God has ordained for the church is good. Recognizing the people God has called to fill those particular roles is better. But distinguishing between the various roles and understanding how God has gifted different people to lead in different ways is best of all.

Gifting and Leadership

God never calls someone to leadership responsibilities without equipping the one called. To Moses, he gave signs and words and a spokesman. To the prophets, he gave clear and detailed messages. To Peter, he gave courage and eloquence and an extra measure of the Spirit.

We should anticipate and expect that those who are called to function as leaders in the church today will be equipped with the necessary spiritual gifts and competencies to lead effectively.[1] We should also expect that the leadership gifts given to the church will be diverse.

The alternative polity model I am proposing suggests four different leadership roles comprised of differently gifted individuals focused on different aspects of the church’s work:

  • “Shepherds” are the relational heart of the church. They nurture and mature and mentor God’s people.
  • “Managers” are the structural backbone of the church. They ensure that the ministries and resources of the church are coordinated, organized, and focused.
  • “Teachers” are the knowledgeable tendons of the church, connecting the church’s members and ministries to the church’s central message.
  • The “minister” is the prophetic voice of the church, ensuring that the church remembers its mission and expands its reach.

Three of the identified leadership roles involve “elders.” I recognize three distinct kinds of elders because the New Testament does so. When the Bible refers to specific responsibilities and skill sets for “elders,” it often references three clusters by using three different titles: shepherd (poimhn), teacher (didaskaloV), and manager/overseer (episkopoV).[2] One of the identified leadership roles includes “minister” because I believe God intends and gifts evangelists to have a significant place at the leadership table.[3]

Let’s dig a little deeper into each of these roles.


Shepherding leadership cultivates charactered lives and intimate relationships within the body of Christ. Shepherds invest themselves in members of the body. They “know the sheep and the sheep know them,” and they use this knowledge to move members towards godliness. Think John.

Shepherds are equipped to provide spiritual care. They are encouragers, empathizers, counselors, listeners, comforters. They visit the sick and the hurting. They walk around in the messiness of sinful lives.

While shepherds can and should respond to changing circumstances, challenges, and crises in the lives of members, their prime work focuses on spiritual formation. They nurture people into maturity. They intentionally form mentoring relationships with members that allow them to develop others. They are constantly looking for opportunities to help members grow.

And while shepherds enjoy focusing on individual sheep, they are also concerned with the church community. They value unity, harmony, peace, and love. They are peacemakers. They work to create a community where members love each other as Christ has loved them.

There is a “dark side” to shepherding leadership. Shepherds tend to dislike risk and be suspicious of change. They don’t want to rock the boat or make members uncomfortable. The feelings and opinions of the flock, rather than theological or missional imperatives, tend to drive their decision-making. They are inclined to a kind of navel-gazing that does not pay attention to the world outside. They would rather avoid, deny, and (if all else fails) suppress conflict.


Managing leadership understands the value of cultivating processes within the body of Christ. Managers invest themselves in the systems of the church. They know how to encourage the church to be effective, efficient, disciplined, and focused. Think Jethro, the Apostles during the early days of the church, and Paul in his writings.

Managers are equipped to organize and coordinate the work of God’s people. They are recruiters, analysts, motivators, facilitators, talent-spotters, administrators, evaluators, leaders. They understand how groups function (or fail). They appreciate the power of synergy. They know the importance of delegation.

The prime work of managers focuses on ministries. They are committed to help the church function effectively so it can do its kingdom business. They are able to distinguish between essential and peripheral projects, effective and unproductive ministries, efficient and wasteful processes, skilled and incompetent leaders.

Managers are most concerned with the church’s systems and processes: staff, ministry coordination and oversight, committees, policies, leadership structures, finances, church calendar, and long-range planning. They do not value systems and processes in and of themselves (they are not wonks!). Rather, they so value the purposes God is pursuing through his church that they want to see ministry done effectively, synergistically, and with maximal impact. They are committed not only to doing the right things but also to doing things right. They work to create a community where every member uses his or her gifts to benefit the body and the world in which we live.

There is a “dark side” to managing leadership. Managers tend to be controlling, to be overly detailed, and to micro-manage. They can value fine-tuned systems above spiritual development, shepherding, and teaching. If they are not careful, managers can be dismissive those who do not appreciate the power of organization and coordination. Concerns about efficiency or effectiveness can lead managers to neglect the feelings of others and show impatience with the need for ministries and ministers to mature. They can be driven by pragmatic concerns rather than theological principles.


Teaching leadership fosters a kingdom perspective and world-view within the body of Christ. Teachers are concerned to help people think in Christ-like ways, to value heavenly things, to understand Scripture, and to be familiar with the theological principles that guide our lives. They know the Faith and have the skills to help others know it. Think Ezra, Hezekiah, Barnabas, and the writer of Hebrews.

Teachers are equipped to “keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience” (1Ti 3:9) and to “entrust” those truths to “reliable people” (2Ti 2:2). They are readers, thinkers, students, conversationalists, speakers, writers, practitioners, disciple-makers. Teachers are the “rabbis” of today’s church.

Teachers’ prime work focuses on helping fellow Christians integrating faith and life. They are not content to simply propagate knowledge; teachers strive to impart wisdom. Theirs is not solely an academic approach; teachers are very concerned with the practice of truth in real life. They see themselves, the church, and the world from God’s vantage point and communicate that perspective to others. They live out principled commitments in their personal lives and encourage others to do the same. They encourage Christians to know what God wants and to live obediently to him. They use a mix of modeling, public teaching, and personal mentoring to encourage a hunger for holiness in others.

But teachers also have a responsibility to the church as a whole. They function to help the church understand its mission and ensure that the church operates according to biblical principles. They help the church understand the “big rocks” of the kingdom and live out of those spiritual priorities. How should the church react to the problems of divorce or racism, the rampant materialism of our culture, the need to engage a secular society, or the opportunity to dialogue with Muslims? Teachers help the church navigate through such matters using a biblical compass.

Teachers are most concerned with the church’s beliefs. They value the central truths of “one body and one Spirit … one hope … one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God” (Eph 4:4-6). They work to create a community where members are unified over essentials, accepting about disputable matters, and loving in all things as an expression of the greatest truth.

There is a “dark side” to teaching leadership. Teachers can be disputatious and strident—doctrine matters so much to them it can sometimes matter too much. They can become rigid in their beliefs and insist on a similar rigidity in the church. Because teachers are often intelligent, well-read, and well-spoken, they can be overbearing and dismissive of less “thoughtful” people. If “knowledge” does not mature into “wisdom,” teachers can be didactic, theoretical, and generally insufferable.


Ministerial leadership cultivates mission and direction in the body of Christ. Ministers cast vision, motivate movement towards congregational goals, and equip members to contribute to the congregation’s momentum. They feel strongly the call of God to lead the church as a whole to the Promised Land. Think Moses, David, Paul.

Ministers are equipped to provide visible, public, and motivational leadership. They are encouragers, motivators, prophets, cheerleaders, entrepreneurs, visionaries. They help members understand the call of God on their individual lives and on the church as a whole. They keep the church focused on, valuing, and moving towards the “main thing.”

Ministers’ prime work focuses on getting and keeping the church on track with the purposes of God. They hold the church’s compass and keep the church true to its course. They protect against diversions and distractions and detours. They set the congregation’s pace and measure the congregation’s progress by godly mile-markers. Though ministers are concerned with stragglers and do not want to leave anyone behind, their proper place is at the vanguard, continually leading the way into new territory.

Ministers lead through public teaching and preaching; identifying, empowering, and mentoring other congregational leaders; modeling a personal commitment to the purposes of God; and working with shepherds/teachers/managers to establish, plan for, structure around, and focus on the goals God has for the church in general and the local congregation specifically.

There is a “dark side” to ministerial leadership. Ministers tend to value mission over people, to become so task-oriented that members suffer. They can be driven and fail to recognize the need for pacing and rest (for themselves and for others).  They can overestimate a congregation’s capacity for work, risk, and change. They can be impatient with members who slow the church down or question the church’s direction. They can grow discouraged (even depressed!) when the journey gets difficult and progress is slow.


Lacking an effective theology of spiritual gifts, Churches of Christ have been vague about the role those gifts play in our congregations—particularly leadership gifts. Does the Spirit still gift people to lead God’s church or are leadership gifts now synonymous with natural competencies, developed skills, and accumulated experiences? Do different kinds of leaders have different kinds of gifts? Or should we expect every leader to have them all?

The idea that church leaders are “gifted” by God, that he continues to prepare people for his own good purposes, and that equipping for leadership can only result from the Spirit’s work is (again) pragmatically foreign to our movement—we don’t often use that kind of language or think in those terms. So too is the notion that certain gift-sets tend to cluster together … that God makes leaders with particular skills and sensibilities that uniquely equip them to lead in certain ways … that no one leader is equipped with every leadership gift … that one set of gifts make it difficult for leaders to appreciate (much less practice!) other sets.

However (as with a theology of calling), these notions are appealing to us precisely because—knowing and trusting Scripture as we do—they seem so biblically valid.


[1]     See The Logistics of Calling for more on this subject

[2]     The idea of a “homogenized elder” role—each elder being equally capable of (and interested in) shepherding, teaching, and managing—is deeply ingrained in the traditional model of church governance. The reality of a distribution of gifts among elders is, in fact, actively resisted in the traditional paradigm … resisted in spite of our own experience in the matter. We know that not all elders are effective teachers. Not all elders are sensitive care-givers. Not all elders are capable managers. When we recognize and “play to” the particular gifts of particular elders, we are not engaging in favoritism or partiality … we are simply recognizing the facts of life regarding the distribution of gifts within an eldership. Not every leader will possess every gift in equal measure.

[3]     If the “homogenization” of the elder-role is problematic on the one hand, the exclusion of the minister-role and its associated gifts is equally problematic on the other. Ministers bring something unique to the leadership mix:

  • The calling to be an evangelist.
  • The leadership qualities required of someone who is going to be effective as a speaker/champion/consensus-builder.
  • Knowledge (and hopefully expertise) in areas directly related to a church’s functions (based on the minister’s education, reading, experience, net-work of fellow ministers, etc.).
  • The luxury of full-time focus and attention on church matters and members.
  • A perspective that will (or should) see beyond the bounds of a local church to kingdom horizons.