Moving to Elders: A Suggestive Strategy
written by Neal Thornton, Senior Pastor (December 7, 2022)
*This post may be seen as ill-timed given the approaching Christmas holiday. However, our deacon body is currently in conversations on issues of polity, which this post is meant to help.
This past August our church heard a series of morning messages on church polity. We entitled the series, “Polity: Church Structures in Baptist Life.” There were five messages in all, the first three on biblical structures (Congregation, Pastors, Deacons), while the last two were on the extra-biblical (Teams and Groups).
The messages weren’t the standard fare of biblical exposition. Rather they were more like formal talks meant to bring our people up to speed at a general level on basic, biblical structures of church polity. Our leadership, mainly pastors and deacons, had been deliberating these issues to one degree or another for over three years. At their encouragement, I felt it best to bring such information to the congregation at large.
I proposed three goals for each talk: present the biblical material, define the current reality of our church, and offer remedial suggestions for a more biblical polity at Coats Baptist.
I gave a lot of information during those talks, as was the goal. As a consequence, however, there wasn’t time to give further explanation on many of the points presented. As priority was given to the biblical material, less attention was given to the suggested applications that I proposed.
In this post, I seek to compensate for the lack of explanation given for one particular section of material in the “Pastors” talk: a strategy for moving to elders. At the close of my August 14 message, I simply listed seven potential steps that a church like ours could take should they choose to move towards a model of pastor (elder) polity. In the space below I expound on those steps.
How could we move to a plurality of pastors (elders)?
Seven potential steps:
1. Assess and define the current reality of our polity.
The first thing a church must do before they change their polity is to define their current polity. In short, a church must know where they are before they chart a course to where they want to be. Get your bearings, discover the narrative, understand current operations, study the history of the church. As we have said before, we need to know the historical consequences of the current structures. At the same time, consider possible outcomes if the structure was to stay the same.
In our church the “define reality” conversation is formally owned by three main groups: pastors, deacons and the Strategic Vision Team (SVT) — a team of seven individuals placed by the nominating committee who are charged with considering and casting vision for the church as a whole. In short, church leadership—whoever they may be—needs to know current reality. That may be as simple as knowing the complete answer to the question, “How are decisions made?” That reveals a lot.
2. Teach and apply the biblical material on elders.
No church should ever change their polity unless they are convinced that it is biblical. It is a grave mistake to make a change because “the pastor said so” or “the church down the street did it” or “someone read it in a book.” The list goes on. Again, teach, teach, teach on what the Bible says on polity. Only when a church leadership is convinced of a biblical position should they begin formalizing a plan forward.
For our church, the deacons are the lead deliberative body. Though charged to serve, the deacons often operate as quasi-elders. Therefore, any change in polity must have their support and approval. If our church ever makes a significant polity change, the deacons will have to be its sponsor. It is then imperative that the deacons define reality, know the biblical teaching, and are in agreement that a change to elder polity is advisable.
3. Utilize informal functional elder candidates to lead in ministry.
Pastors are not appointed as much as they are recognized. It is never the ordination of the pastor, or the deacon for that matter, that really makes them fit for the office. Instead, the ordination is simply the formal affirmation that they are already functioning in that role. In short, for a man to become an elder (lay-pastor), he needs to already be “eldering” in the church. Therefore, pastors need to always be looking for those types of men. That’s just leadership development 101.
When those men are identified, give them responsibilities. Allow them to test the waters in pastoral ministry. Give them preaching assignments. Ask them to teach a class or Bible study. Bring them along on home and hospital visits. Perhaps bring them into a counseling appointment if necessary. Let them feel the weight of pastoral ministry. Give them privileges to expose their character (1 Tim. 3:1-7).
4. Gain consensus on new polity structure from leadership circles churchwide.
A change in church polity is a seismic shift in both culture and structure. Perhaps no other change is more foundational to how a church operates and performs its ministry. Church polity shapes the soul of the church—both corporately and individually—protecting and promoting the gospel. Changing polity therefore is a big deal and requires the very soul of the church to be on board.
How should a church change its polity? My first words would not be verbs but adverbs — carefully, slowly, prayerfully, kindly. You understand the point. Yes, we need strategy, yes we need a plan, but the implementation of that plan is perhaps the most important. We’re dealing with people, God’s people, who are sheep. We must lead, not drive. We must teach, not demand. We must care, not coerce. In short, everyone in the church from the pastoral team to the once-a-month attender should have ample opportunity to learn and contribute to change in church polity.
5. Present lay-pastor candidates to the church for prayer and consideration.
Pastors are servant leaders. They are men who lead in the realms of doctrine, direction and decision. Their ministry is one of leading, feeding, caring and protecting the flock of God (1 Peter 5:2; cf. Psalm 23). Such is no small task and comes with character qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9), and rightfully so. He must be competent (“able to teach” 1 Tim. 3:2), but his character is his qualification.
The church needs to see such men, not to vote and install them, but to catch a vision. They need to put flesh on the precepts of Scripture. As argued above (#3), such men should be no surprise to the congregation. Men who may formally become elders should already be serving in such a posture and capacity. The church should have a sense of already being “pastored” by these men. We are not to be “hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Tim. 5:22).
6. Write and recommend newly written bylaws.
Once a church has begun to work through the previous steps, it will become evident whether or not a change in church polity is a real possibility. Such a change is a process of both spiritual and physical labor, neither one of which is easy, the former preceding the latter. However, there does come a time for manual work and that of crafting new church documents. We are a confessional and a constitutional people who operate from written texts. How a church functions should be documented for all to see and subscribe. Well-crafted documents should be an asset to every church.
Churches must decide the who and how of crafting new documents. Though it may be typical to create an “ad hoc committee” for such a task, that is seldom best. When it comes to the actual crafting of the documents (not the approval of them), fewer minds are better. Name a craftsman, someone who can author the document, and a curator, someone who can gather and organize information, then turn them loose. Those who have been casting the vision for the change, who have owned the process and know the material, are best equipped to create new documents. It’s likely that pastors and a few lead deacons make up this team. Then, after a final draft is complete, it should be shared for review and critique.
7. Take church documents and pastoral candidates to the congregation for official approval.
To arrive at this moment signals a transformation that has taken place within the church at large. Many months, if not years, of teaching and applying Scripture have readied the church for a change in polity. If the church is now at this seventh step, the assumption is that the church now believes a plurality of pastors is not only biblical, but also helpful and needful. It’s the right move to make.
We are a Baptist church by conviction and constitution. We therefore practice congregational church government. That means the congregation governs itself. No formal change to polity will take place without their approval. In a church as ours, no such changes have been made, nor will they ever be made, without congregational approval. Church documents remain intact until the church says otherwise.
As a leader, I must insert here that I would never suggest recommending a motion to the congregation without a great deal of certainty that it would succeed. The vote really should be more of a formality, an affirmation of sorts, that the church wants to make such a change in polity. The vote should be the easiest part of the process, and a celebratory one at that.
I pray this post helps us think through a possible strategy for moving to elders (a plurality of pastors). Such a move has not been decided, but is now only a matter of discussion. Again, our deacon body must make such a decision. Our current pastoral team is simply aiding them in that conversation. The above material is intended to help our deacons, as well as our church at large, in their discussions. Together we study, we talk, we pray, all for the good of the church and to the glory of God.
May we heed with the prayer of the apostle Paul:
“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)