We come now to the concluding post in this series. We’ve suggested that building healthy teams of elders requires giving attention to agreements, abilities, atmosphere and accountability. With this post we add the fifth “A”: Assignments.
No team of any sort can function properly if the members of the team don’t know their roles and assignments. In basketball you don’t want the point guard attempting to play the center’s role or the center bring the ball up the floor. Nowadays centers step out to shoot three-point shots and the 2-4 positions are essentially interchangeable. But even though the game has changed a great deal there still needs to be a clear sense of roles and assignments. So it is with teams of pastors.
Who Runs Point?
Some traditions, like the Brethren, do away with distinctions between members of their elder teams. Every elder is an elder and there is thought to be equality and parity between them. Some less traditional evangelical churches have also sought to close the gap between the traditional “senior pastor” and the other pastors on the team. There’s much to commend this direction for both the “senior pastor,” the other elders, and the entire church.
However, if increasing equality and parity is to be a healthy development, there still needs to be a clear sense of assignments. Chances are not all the pastors are good Sunday morning preachers, for example. Not all of the pastors are equally adept at shepherding the sheep. Some pastors may be better leaders. So the key is to recognize that God gifts the leaders differently and each leader’s gift is essential to the team (see, for ex., 1 Cor. 12). Parity does not equal uniformity.
I’m inclined to argue that we need a pastor among the pastors. Someone to run point on the team, calling plays and getting the other team members in position to be effective. A point guard is the coach on the floor. We traditionally call that person the “senior pastor” or “lead pastor.” Whatever the title, effective teams have a clear leader.
But a point guard is not the entire team. A point guard remains pretty ineffective without all the other players. So, the first person who must understand their role and their limits, is the point guard. Calling for a leader among leaders is not the same thing as calling for an autocrat or dictator who simply does what he wants and bends others to his will. In fact, that’s not a team at all.
So a healthy team will have a leader among the leaders, a “first among equals,” if you will. In a healthy team that leader will not stand off like Mt. Kilimanjaro, intimidating and imposing, frightening off all but the most courageous or reckless. No, he’ll be more like a speed bump in the parking lot. He stands out a little, but others can override him if needed. Others may override him, but they’ll do so gently lest they wreck the suspension. A good team of elders clarify the leadership role among the leaders. They choose a point guard. This could be the “senior pastor” or it could be the chair of the elders. The main point is to make this role clear and identify its responsibilities.
Who Designs Plays?
Basketball is life. So let’s keep using it as a metaphor.
A good team knows it’s X’s and O’s. It has plays the team practices and executes in a game. But those plays have to be called and signaled. An effective team has one signal caller off the floor and one signal caller on the floor. There’s constant communication between the coach and the point guard who learn to think alike and to share this aspect of leadership.
In a lot of traditional churches there’s the sense (whether stated or implicit) that the pastor listens to God and then informs the church of the plays. In really unhealthy situations like this, pastors cannot be questioned and other leaders may be suspected if they differ on some matters. I think there’s a better way.
Without question, Christi is the Lord of the church. He is the Head Coach, if you will. He calls the plays through His word, not through mystical communion with only one person. This means all the pastors have a part to play in making sure the leadership hears from the Lord and knows the play. All the pastors must study the word together. All the pastors must pray. All the pastors must engage in conversations about the needs and direction of the church. They must hear and lead together even if there’s a point guard. The point guard’s role isn’t so much to dictate the decisions but to call the team into a huddle for prayer, study, discussion and decision-making. It’s safer and more effective that way—even if it’s less efficient and sometimes more frustrating for autocrats and egomaniacs.
What does this look like practically? Well, consider the preaching schedule as an example. In a healthy team, the main preaching pastor will periodically ask the eldership, “What do you think are the teaching needs of the church?” Or, “What book of the Bible do you think we should study next?” That discussion brings in the input of the team and allows the entire eldership to contribute to the main teaching ministry of the church. The main preaching pastor can take that feedback away in prayer and reflection, choose a direction, and communicate with the elders and the church. Chances are a conversation among the elders will set a direction longer than the next sermon series but perhaps over the next year since it’ll yield more than one idea or need. This is how plays get designed in a healthy team.
Who Gets the Rebounds?
A good rebounding team puts itself in position to win. Defensive rebounds keep the opponents from taking multiple shots at scoring while offensive rebounds usually lead to easy second-chance points. Rebounding isn’t so much about athleticism as it is heart and technique. Good rebounders hustle into position, give up their bodies, and box out.
On an effective pastoral team there will be good rebounders hustling to catch the sheep (to mix metaphors) and to put them in position for spiritual success. This will look like a clear shepherding strategy assigning each shepherd some sheep to watch.
The best resource I know on developing an effective shepherding strategy with assignments to each pastor is Timothy Witmer’s, The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church. Different churches will have different approaches. It’s critical to find one that fits your particular congregation. But, in my opinion and experience, it’s helpful to divide the congregation into mini-folds assigned to each pastor. Any member could seek any pastor for care or help, but in this mini-fold approach the congregation is made smaller and every member knows they have one pastor primarily responsible for keeping up with them and accessible to them. This moves the shepherds closer to the sheep and shortens pastoral response times whether it’s positive discipleship (offensive rebounds) or seeking the one that leaves the ninety-nine (defensive rebounds). A healthy team has clear shepherding assignments.
Team Meetings and Games
It’s also helpful to make sure pastors have clear assignments when it comes to meetings. There are, of course, pastors’ meetings to conduct the shepherding and leadership of the church. Those should be published ahead of time and the expectation should be every pastor’s attendance at every meeting unless illness, work travel or some other suitable reason prevents. These are the team meetings that decide game plans.
Then there are the public meetings of the church—worship gatherings, Bible study, members’ meetings, small groups, and special services. Healthy teams clarify whether every elder must attend every meeting of the church. That’s easier to do if you’re in a smaller church with one main worship meeting and perhaps few special services. It’s more difficult to do if you have multiple services and a church calendar full of meetings. So, consider your congregation’s meeting life, your eldership’s size, and determine what makes sense. Then make it an assignment for the pastors.
Then consider the assignments during the meetings. Are there certain assignments that pastors must complete in worship services? For example, will the pastors lead the Lord’s Supper or will you have members play a role? If you have multiple exits to your worship location, will the pastors each have an assigned door so they can greet the sheep as they exit and “watch over” them in this simple way?
Some of this gets figured out over time through trial and error. So be open to trying things and changing things. If you land on some assignments that work for a season, don’t think they must remain forever. The main thing is to find what works for your team and church at a given time and make the assignments clear. That clarity increases effectiveness. May the Lord make all our elder boards healthy and strong for the glory of His name, the joy of the ministry, and the blessing of the sheep!