The How of Transitioning to an Elder-Led model

In a previous post we discussed the “why” of making a transition to an elder-led model. In this post we’ll share some insights, as well as some principles and practices that are indespensable in how you are to make such a transition.

We have served in several churches over the last twelve years all of which were in a senior pastor led model. Several of these (read “not all) have been extremely healthy churches led by God-fearing men who loved Jesus and the church and were men who were unbelievably humble and competent. So I do not believe that leading the church to transition to elders is an absolutely necessity. Too many pastors categorize an elder-led model as a tier-1 issue and many times forfeit the unity of the church in favor of such a transition. Don’t do that. If you do, you’ll be guilty of doing something the Lord hates: sowing discord among the brothers (Proverbs 6:19b).

That being said, here are several principles and practices that need to be present as you seek to transition a church to an elder-led model:

  • There must be a commitment to publicly and privately teach the Bible. The Bible is the tool that the Spirit of God uses to teach, reproof, correct and train (2 Tim 3:16-17). Therefore, your main “strategy” should be to open up God’s Word and show them what it says and allow the Spirit to do His work.
  • Develop a comprehensive plan which communicates to the congregation the breadth and depth that such a transition requires, as well as your loving care and pastoral concern.
  • There must be a commitment to communicate in multiple ways and in various ways, as no church is a homogenous church. There are probably several generations present in the church where you serve which plays into how you communicate, whether it’s through written form (notes, blog posts, e-mail, etc.) or in various capacities (open-forums, one-on-one or two or three gatherings, etc.); being a skilled communicator is indispensable in making a healthy, God-honoring transition.
  • Realize that a spirit of unity and love are more important than a church government change (as right and good as that may be). When we work hard at unity we’re obeying God’s Word (John 17:21; Phil 2:2-5; Eph 4:3). In addition, a commitment to unity and love will help the leadership discern how fast or slow to make such a transition.
  • You must attempt to win over your critics. Notice, I didn’t say, “win your critics.” As Jesus wasn’t able to win over everyone don’t think for one moment you’ll be able to. But you can seek to win over your critics by engaging with them and not avoiding them; by lovingly, tactfully and appropriately answering their questions; by being approachable and most importantly, by exuding an attitude of humility—no one likes an arrogant pastor.

In no way are my words comprehensive and exhaustive regarding all the details surrounding a possible transition to an elder-led model. My personal experience at Oak Park took almost two years. There was a lot of praying, discussing objections and insecurities, answering questions, clarifying and dispelling caricatures, and teaching and preaching various passages, all of which took place over those two years. The commitment to pastor the flock (Acts 20:28) and to do so humbly and lovingly translated into a 93.5% vote of affirmation to make the transition to an elder-led model. Not all churches have that type of story. God was and has been kind to our little gospel-outpost.

We’d love to hear any feedback from you. Thanks for reading!

By Chase Sears and Nate Millican

3 thoughts on “The How of Transitioning to an Elder-Led model

  1. Nicely done, Nathan.
    Having grown up in churches led by strong pastors with a board of deacons, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’ve seen a pastor who, when nominations for the deacon ballot were turned in, simply went through them and discarded any name he felt wasn’t supportive of him. It wasn’t too long before the deacon board was much smaller (as was the church) and comprised completely of men who would never take a stand against the pastor.

    On the other hand, I saw a church in which the deacons felt it was their job to keep the pastor in check. Talk about ugly. Seems to me the best balance was a pastoral staff (not just one pastor, unless you’re in a very small church) that was willing to listen and respect the deacons/elders (and I know there’s a lot of discussion about whether or not those words are synonymous) when they voiced a sincere objection to anything. You are right, no one likes an arrogant pastor.

    At some point, I’d like you to go into the deacon/elder topic. Is there a difference in position or authority? Interesting conversation, I assure you.

  2. “you can seek to win over your critics by engaging with them and not avoiding them; by lovingly, tactfully and appropriately answering their questions; by being approachable and most importantly, by exuding an attitude of humility”
    Every single business, church, and marriage I’ve seen struggle had the symptom of the leader not doing exactly what you describe. “Avoiding them” (and praying God makes the problems go away?) seems to be the default course of action. I also think there is a great lack of stories and examples of this in leadership/management books. If you ever write a book…

    • Tapp, so true my friend. I’ve seen it around my dozens and dozens of times where people exude an unbiblical approach to critics, issues, problems, etc. AND I’ve seen it in my own life too. Have you ever read crucial confrontations OR crucial conversations – great books.

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