How to Organize Church Authority

Sheep and shepherd
(Evgeni Dinev)

Understanding offices and courts is very important for structuring leadership in a large church. At Mars Hill, we continue to have three offices of leadership: elders, deacons, and members. But we have an ever-increasing number of “courts.” These courts are given authority to make certain decisions.

For example, sheep-focused leaders at a local church function as courts that decide on matters like church discipline cases, who has been converted and is ready to be baptized, who should and should not marry, who should and should not divorce, who should become a member or deacon, and who should lead Community Groups and Redemption Groups.

Similarly, flock-focused leaders across our entire church function as courts that decide on such things as our benefits package, human resource policies, real estate negotiations, sermon series, budget details, and how we organize specific ministries.

Mars Hill’s Story

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In the early days of Mars Hill, we had very few courts. We met in one location with not many people, and our court of elders met weekly to make most decisions for the entire church. In time, as the church grew, this single court became literally impossible. Today, things are far too complex for such a simple structure, and it will only become more complex if Jesus decides to keep adding more people and churches to our family.

Most churches reportedly consist of 70–80 people, which is about all a dedicated pastor can care for. For a ministry to grow, the leader needs to stop trying to care for all the people personally as a sheep-focused shepherd. Instead, he needs to start ensuring they are all cared for by becoming more flock-focused and raising up other shepherds who are sheep-focused.

Admittedly, this was an emotionally tough transition for me. As the founder of the church, I felt responsible for everyone and everything. I worked for free the first three years, pouring all that I had into our broke little church plant. I care very deeply for our people and want good for them. I was the only paid pastor on staff until we had about 800 people. I did the lion’s share of counseling, hospital visits, and weddings. I did have some unpaid elders who helped, but I carried most of the pastoral load.

Caring for Your People Well

The truth is, although I loved our people, they were not as well cared for then as they are now. I have limited energy, experience, and expertise. The longer I am in ministry, the more deficient I feel and more certain I am that I’m no Jesus.

Today, we are blessed to have various courts led by specialists. I was a generalist doing my best, but I could not care for our people and raise up leaders until we established courts with leaders who were specialists training other specialists to make various decisions for the well-being of our people.

It was like the days of Moses, when he was holding court and the line stretched on forever with people waiting to have their cases heard (Exodus 18). His father-in-law Jethro wisely told him it was time to raise up other leaders to care for all the people. Any ministry with a lot of meetings and a backlog of decisions to make knows exactly what this feels like.

Why You Need Specialists

Serious problems arise when the principle of courts is neglected. Imagine the chaos that would ensue if, in the civic realm, family court judges started rendering verdicts on traffic-related cases, or if traffic courts started rendering verdicts on banking or property disputes. Similarly, serious problems occur when a sheep-focused leader at one church starts pushing their verdicts onto another church or a flock-focused support ministry, or if the reverse happens.

We are a large team of specialists, not a team of generalists. Those with shepherding gifts are entrusted with overseeing the care of our people. Those with administrative gifts are entrusted with the stewardship of our resources. Those with the gift of teaching are entrusted with instructing our people. Those with the gift of leadership are entrusted with leading leaders who care for people. Those with musical gifts are entrusted with leading us in worship.

But it’s not helpful when the accountants start telling the vocalists what key to sing in, or the guitar player gives the accountants his off-the-cuff interpretation of IRS requirements.

As Paul says, we are a body with many parts, and we all need one another.

In Authority and Under Authority

What courts require from leaders is humility and trust. We have to be humble enough to each be under authority as well as in authority, deferring to other leaders and courts in areas that are not in our jurisdiction. And we have to trust that Jesus is over all that is Mars Hill, and that the Holy Spirit is in every leader at Mars Hill.

We have to trust that the leaders will walk in wisdom, seek counsel when they are stuck (both from our church and other churches), and learn from their mistakes as we learn from ours. We must be constantly praying for our church and, as opportunity arises, making every effort to know and love leaders across the entire church.

In the end, a big church is a lot like a big family. It’s more complicated, for sure. But it’s nice to have brothers and sisters and a lot of leaders who love and care for the people.

It’s humbling, yet liberating to see people with gifts that exceed yours love and care for the family, much like a parent in a big family gets to see the older kids step in to lovingly look after and invest in the younger kids. When this happens, it’s not that the parents are no longer needed. It just means that the family is doing well.

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