Selecting and Leading Your Church Elders

Church elders and those in spiritual authority must be like-minded in Christ.
Church elders and those in spiritual authority must be like-minded in Christ. (Getty Images )

I have been blessed to serve with the best board members and key leaders I know, truly extraordinary men and women, but not everyone is as fortunate.

From secret meetings against the pastor to elders and deacons who would rather build a new kitchen than reach the lost, it's tough to lead in those environments. These are more extreme examples, but nonetheless far too common.

So what can be done to assist the pastor and ultimately protect the church from difficulty with the board?

We can help individuals earn the honor to be elders, deacons and overseers. (I'm using the terms elder, deacon and overseer in a broad and general way.)

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1. Don't give in to politics, popularity or pressure. Your church may be part of a system where it's tough to make a change with those who serve on the board, but as pastor, you are a leader with influence so don't give up.

Stand firm for what is right. It may take time but lead with the long view in mind. Get the right leaders on the board, and the wrong ones off. You may not be able to change the system, but if prayer can move mountains, it can also move people off the board.

If you can't influence a church bully by yourself, get some help. I'm confident there is someone in your church who will stand with you for godly principles and yet with the leadership finesse to not start a church fight.

2. Set the standards high. Always start with Scripture. (Study all of 1 Timothy 3 for a more complete context.)

"Likewise deacons must be serious, not insincere, not given to much wine, not greedy, keeping the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let them first be tested; then, being found blameless, let them serve as deacons" (1 Tim. 3:8-10, MEV).

When assessing who should join the board, remain on the board, or leave the board, asking these questions of each one will help you tremendously.

Here are four essential qualities toward earning the honor to board level leadership:

  • Pure motives. This is not about perfection, but purity of heart. Is the person able to lead for the good of others rather than push a personal agenda? It's true that determining which ministry should be priority can be a subjective call. But one spirit, team unity and mature love are never subjective. It's easy to determine which leaders live out those qualities. Furthermore, divisiveness is never subjective; it's always destructive and easy to identify.
  • Devoted prayers. All elders, deacons and overseers should be prayer warriors. Prayer must be considered fundamental to a spiritual leader's life. Does the person pray for what burdens God's heart for the sake of the kingdom and the overall good of the church? On a more personal level, is he or she quick to confess, forgive and seek after the bond of peace? All of these are fruit of genuine prayer.
  • Settled loyalties. An elder does not have to agree with everything the pastor says to remain loyal. But once a decision is made by the board as a whole or the pastor, there must be 100 percent loyalty at a heart level. It is a leadership misstep when someone declares: "I'm loyal to God, not the pastor. I do what God says!" That extreme over-leveraging of God as a spiritual trump card does not earn anyone the role of church leadership. We are all loyal to God, and under Him, we also have human authorities to whom we submit. If we cannot submit and follow, we cannot lead.
  • Serving heart. Giving definition to serving as an elder or deacon, be that a board member or not, is essential. Serving at this level means they are prepared to carry spiritual responsibility and represent the church in a manner that brings greater appreciation and respect for the ministry. And most importantly, are they prepared to step down if asked? Always discern their readiness to surrender their authority. Anyone who fights for their power or authority should not serve in that capacity.

3. Develop from the heart to the heart. Whether your board members are a true gift and blessing or causing heartache, investing in their leadership development is of vital importance. Make that your gift to them.

Approximately once a month, (maybe every other month), outside the board meeting, huddle up and don't do any church business. Pray together and help them grow as leaders. Select an excellent leadership or spiritual life book and move through it together. Take a chapter or two at a time. Ask two questions: What are you learning? And how are you applying what you learn? If you want to teach a brief leadership lesson (not a sermon) with discussion, that's great!

The governing body of your church and those with spiritual authority must be of one mind and one heart, fully committed to the mission and supportive of you.

Dan Reiland is the executive pastor at 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He previously partnered with John Maxwell for 20 years, first as executive pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, then as vice president of Leadership and Church Development at INJOY.

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