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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever


How can a pastor wisely transition his church from being deacon-led to elder-led?

A couple days ago I posted an introduction to our "Answers for Pastors" that contained a Q&A from an article by Phil Newton on transitioning a church from being deacon-led to being elder led.

Here's another Q&A from that same article. Do you know a pastor who's working through this issue in his church? Pass it along to encourage him in the work!

How We Do Congregational Care and Oversight, Part 2

The elders are essential to congregational care and oversight. This
should be obvious, because elders, by definition, ought to be caring
for the sheep and exercising oversight. Our elders do this in a few
different way.

First, we pray for people. We pray when called up. We seek to pray for
people when they need help. And we pray for our people at our elders
meetings and retreats.

Second, our elders oversee our growth groups. Ben is the point man, but
most of our elders--a couple elders are excused because they are
involved in our executive committee--are responsible for overseeing a
few growth groups each. This does not mean they lead a group in their
home, though they can if they want.  Oversight means two things. One,
it means that the elders come to the every other month growth group
leaders training session and meet with the leaders under their care.
This is a time to trouble shoot, hear how things are going, and pray.
Two, oversight means that the members of the leaders growth group (see
previous point) are in the elder’s district (see below).

Third, we divide the church into elder districts. The district is first
of all assigned by growth groups. So if Larry oversees two leaders, Moe
and Curly, then Larry has all the members of Moe and Curly’s growth
groups in his district (man is that a rough district). The elder
district also includes members not in a growth group and regular
adherents of the church who, for whatever reason, have not joined.
These names, non-growth group members and adherents, are assigned
alphabetically. The elder is responsible to pray regularly for his
district, and he must make contact with each person in the district at
least once a year.

We do not expect the elders to personally disciple the people in their
districts or know everything going on in their lives. This is why we
have growth groups. But the elder usually has a good feel for the major
issues that have surfaced. Our elders meet twice a month. The second
meeting of the month is our normal business meeting. At this meeting we
always ask “who is in need of spiritual help and/or is not making
faithful use of the means of grace?” Follow up calls are usually
assigned based on the district someone is in.  Three times a year we do
a thorough review of our districts as an entire elder board.

We are blessed to have an active and capable diaconate. At University
Reformed Church, we have deacons and deaconesses. They care for many of
the physical needs of the congregation, especially those that are long
term. So, for example, when a member of the church was diagnosed with
ALS, the diaconate helped to arrange a group of recruits to come over
on Saturdays and take Don out around town.

The diaconate is also where I turn first when people come to me with
financial problems. Often I’ll get people from in our church or outside
of our church who come to the pastor wanting physical or monetary
assistance. When this happens, I try to assess the situation, pray for
them, and then put them in contact with either the chair of our
diaconate or the on-call deacon/ess of the month.


Last, but certainly not least, the congregation cares for the
congregation. This includes meals to new moms, one-on-one mentoring,
D-groups (where our college student leaders meet in the homes of church
families), making use of the email prayer chain, free babysiting,
hospitality, and a thousand other good things that people in most
churches do for each other.

Wrapping Up

Do we have weaknesses? Absolutely. We don’t have a system in place for
making hospital calls. Historically, the church I serve has been very
young and there hasn’t been much visitation to do. But this will change
and we need a better way to do it. Likewise, only recently have we
developed funeral policies and a plan for elders to make follow-up
bereavement calls (after six months have passed). This year we added a
part time biblical counselor to our staff. His work with counseling and
training other counselors is critical. In the near future, I’d also
like to see us (me!) use the congregational prayer on Sunday morning as
a more effective means of pastoral care.

So like any church, we are a work in progress. We will never get to a
point where everyone is cared for just right and there are no more
cracks for people to fall through. But we’ve made big strides in the
past several years. I’m thankful to work with so many wonderful people
who serve the body so well, often better than I can. By God’s grace
we’ve got some things in place.

In closing, let me say I’m always surprised to learn how few churches
actually take member care seriously. You don’t have to do things just
like we do, but every church, and every elder board in particular,
needs to think and pray carefully about how, and if, they are really
caring for one another and fulfilling the responsibilities and
privileges God has given them. We are required by our denomination’s
Book of Church order to ask at our elders’ meetings, “who is in need of
spiritual care and/or not making faithful use of the means of grace?”
It’s a good policy. But I wonder how many churches in our denomination
or yours regularly ask this question. And I wonder how many churches
have any mechanism in place to know who these people are and how to
help them once they are identified.

How We Do Congregational Care and Oversight, Part 1

We aren’t a model church by any means, but one of the things we’ve worked on a lot over the past five years is how we do congregational care and oversight. Even though we have a lot to learn, I thought a glimpse at how we do things might help other churches out there. Obviously, I’m not encouraging you to copy everything we do (though feel free). But maybe some of our trellis work can you help you with your vine work.It’s impossible to completely describe how we do member care because, as in any church, there is so much ministry that happens outside of an official program or avenue. There’s a whole bunch of ministry that I never hear about, which is as it should be. But in an effort to simplify and generalize, let me explain what we do under five headings.MembershipWe stress membership at our church. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of them is very practical. Membership helps us care for people. Without membership it is hard to know who is really a part of our church and who is passing through or just floating around. But when someone joins the church we know this person is committed to our body and we need to be committed to him.What does the membership process look like at University Reformed Church? Two or three times a year we offer a 10 week membership class. This is taught by our Associate Pastor, Ben Falconer, and other leaders he brings into the class. The class covers a lot of material, including our theology, our statement of faith, our membership covenant, our polity, our ministries, spiritual disciplines, spiritual gifts, and how to get plugged in to the church. Ben does a great job of individually asking folks to consider taking the class, whether they plan to join or not. In my experience, people will not take a membership class unless (1) they know membership actually means something, (2) membership is talked about, at least once in awhile, from the front, and (3) they are personally invited.At the end of the class everyone signs up for an elder interview. We usually meet with people in elder teams of two or three. The interviews run about 30 minutes. Some questions always get asked: How did you become a Christian? Why did you come to our church? Who is Jesus Christ? What do you believe about the Bible? What is the gospel?  We try to make the interview as non-threatening as possible. Most often it is a time to get to know new people (and they their elders) and celebrate God’s grace in their lives. Sometimes, however, we need to meet with people again. We will delay their membership if we feel like they aren’t ready, but this is rare.Growth GroupsA few years ago, the elders decided to make growth groups (i.e., small groups or home groups or cell groups or whatever you call them) a central part of our church’s ministry strategy. I’m not sure of the exact figure, but I would guess around 70% of our members are in a growth group (we have about 300 members; we had 450 in worship last Sunday).Every church does small groups a little differently. Our groups, most of which meet every other week, focus on assimilation and fellowship. This isn’t to say they don’t have content or that we don’t care what they teach. We know what they are doing, but we don’t dictate what they do. Most groups work through books or books of the Bible. But we don’t look to growth groups as a main teaching ministry. Growth groups help new people find a place to belong and be known. They help people forge God-centered friendships. Growth groups are the first line of defense (and offense!) in loving one another.I already mentioned Ben, our associate pastor. He is invaluable in this whole area of member care, especially when it comes to growth groups. We tried doing a full-on growth group ministry with volunteers, but we found that even with our best volunteers driving the thing, it was hard to keep momentum going. So we put a staff person in charge of the ministry a few years ago. This was key. Ben recruits leaders, trains leaders, starts new groups, and actively plugs people into new or existing groups. Running an effective small group ministry takes constant care and attention. If you just start some groups and stand back, most of your groups will dissolve within three years. There needs to be someone responsible for keeping the ministry together and moving forward.Tomorrow: the final three headings (elders, diaconate, congregation), plus some concluding thoughts.

Mike Wants Answers about the "Senior Pastor"

Thanks for calling us out, Mike. With so many churches moving toward a plurality of elders this question needs to be addressed.I see no biblical evidence for the language of "senior pastor." The most charitable view is that the adjective "senior" has been concocted to recognize that there is a man who by virtue of his role as the primary teacher of the church exercises more leadership than others. The less charitable but perhaps more accurate view is that the adjective has been used to promote a corporate style of leadership within the church--pastor as CEO. Regardless of what title is used there is something to be said for the idea that there is a "first among equals" among a church's pastors.A couple years ago I was in contact with a church looking for a preaching pastor. Because of some issues they had with the previous pastor they mentioned to me that they were changing their model of leadership. The administrative pastor was going to be the "senior" on staff with the preaching pastor reporting to him.This concerned me. In no small part because of a talk by Don Carson on elders. He said that we should expect an unusual amount of authority to accrue to the pastor who is primarily entrusted to teach the congregation. The word of God, when rightly taught, is powerful. Those who teach often and well will be looked to more for counsel, guidance. Regarding that church, I thought it was a recipe for congregational disaster to create a leadership structure that automatically put the main preacher explicitly under the authority of one other pastor.Even in a church with a plurality of elders, where every elder shares the responsibility for shepherding the flock, the shepherd who teaches the most will be, in some sense, unique.Sure, I think the term "senior pastor" can be unhelpful because it can imply a superiority that is not biblical. Whatever that preacher is called, though, I think it is legitimate to expect a hard-to-define-yet-present amount of authority residing in the primary preacher. On this topic, I appreciate Ben Merkle's comments in his book, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons:The "first among equals" principle [which I advocated above] must be exercised with great care. It is important for the "first" among the elders to understand his role. If he seeks to take advantage of his prominence in a way that elevates himself, biblical eldership will not function properly. As the elder who is the most visible because of his teaching and preaching responsibilities, he will be able to influence the congregation in ways the other elders cannot (174).So, on the basis of texts like 1 Timothy 5:17 I would suggest we not abandon this idea of "first among equals" even if we abandon the title "senior" pastor.

Leadership and Elder Training

This coming Sunday, we're planning on nominating two men to serve our congregation as elders.  I'm excited because both of them come from a different culture (one is Zulu, the other a lawyer).  I am really excited and thankful to God for these men; the current elders desperately need help and I am sure these men will be very fruitful.Anyway, I wanted to point out three resources that have been helpful to me in terms of training elders:First, The Elder and His Work by David Dickson.  This is a 19th work updated by George Kennedy McFarland and Philip Ryken.  It's really quite good and very practical (though be forewarned: it contains Presbyterianism).Second, The Ordained Servant is a journal put out by the OPC to provide resources for training elders and deacons.  I'm not sure if they're still publishing it, but they've to back issues through 2005 online for free!  Peter de Jong's article Taking Heed to the Flock: A Study of the Principles and Practice of Family Visitation is particularly challenging, more as a reminder of our duty than as an exact plan to be followed.Finally, and more briefly, check out  this one page outline of leadership expectations put together for the Edge Network (a part of The Crowded House ).  I'm using a modified version of it with a our men's leadership group tomorrow.  Very good stuff. 

elder terms

At last week's Iowa 9Marks Workshop, someone asked whether our church appoints elders for life.  What do you guys do? What works? What doesn't? Why?

Does a non-believing wife disqualify a prospective elder?

Yep...probably.  In answering this question I'm assuming the non-believing wife is NOT a member of a church and understands herself to be an unbeliever.  In this case, I don't think we would consider long the husband's candidacy.  Why? 

1) One of the ways we evaluate a man's qualifications for elder is by looking into his home.  This particular home would likely NOT function in a deliberately Christian manner.  In other words, the aroma of Christ would be partly there and partly absent in the home. 

2) The man is to live an examplary life, literally be an example to which younger believers can model their own lives.  The difference between a believing husband and an unbelieving wife would strain the model and create a fractured example. 

3) The church puts its own reputation at risk.  It is one thing for one spouse to come to Christ and join a local church.  I think it is all together different for that man then to be named a leader -- the man's associations then come into play. 

We at 9Marks are fond of saying the church must be distinct from the culture; this scenario muddies that desired line of demarcation.

I'm shootin' from the hip here.  I have personally benefited from a plurality of elders in my own local church (have been corrected and informed many times!) and stand open and ready to receive more data and correction.