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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

Balancing Relationships Between Staff and Non-staff Elders

How should staff elders and non-staff elders relate to each other?

To be more specific:

  • How should staff elders balance their roles and the multiple hats they wear? For example, a “senior pastor” may be both fellow elder and supervisor, with other paid pastors as both his fellow elders and supervisees.
  • How can a staff elder handle being under the senior pastor’s authority in day-to-day ministry and then, when the elders gather, view him as an equal?
  • How can a senior pastor create an atmosphere in which fellow staff elders can speak freely among the elders as a whole without fear of later reprisal from the senior pastor?”

Some churches seek to resolve these tensions by having “pastors” who aren’t elders, and having the senior pastor as the only paid elder. However, Scripture uses the terms “elder,” “overseer,” and “pastor” synonymously (e.g., Acts 20:17, 18; Tit. 1:5-9), and teaches that every local church should have a plurality of elders/pastors/overseers (e.g., Acts 14:23). In other words, every pastor is an elder and every elder is a pastor. Therefore, this attempted solution seems out of accord with Scripture, and seems to reflect the idea that there is really only one pastor of the church. Why would a church exclude from its eldership those whose lives are given 24/7 to the care and feeding of the flock? But that’s a subject for another article.

How then should teams of elders seek to resolve these tensions? I gathered our team of staff pastors in my office and asked them to talk about it. They do an excellent job of handling this tension in a godly way. Here are some key suggestions that have come for my personal meditation and from my conversation with them.

1. Freedom for staff elders to share among all the elders begins with the senior pastor’s encouragement.

The wise senior pastor trusts his fellow staff pastors and wants to operate as a team. Iron sharpens iron, and fellow staff elders are a precious source of reliable counsel. God can use them to sharpen us and sometimes check us with needed cautions. A senior pastor should encourage the other staff pastors to speak their minds and not react proudly when they do.

There have been occasions when I have gone to a fellow pastor after an elders’ meeting and encouraged him not to be reticent in sharing because I am in the room. I may not like everything they say, but I need to resist pride in my heart and believe that we are all God-called shepherds of this church. Is there ever a time when other pastors should hold back? Yes, we’ll come to that later.

One of our Pastors told me about the first time he could remember expressing to the elders an opinion that differed from mine, about 15 years ago. He did so with fear and trembling, afraid what might happen the next day. But nothing happened. In fact, the opposite of what he feared occurred: I told him I was fine with him saying what he did, even though I did not fully agree with it. He realized then that the elders, including me, were serious about the plurality idea. As a result, he felt great freedom and an even stronger desire to be supportive.

2. Absolute equality among the elders is not realistic.

Absolute equality, whether among the staff elders, non-staff elders, or the eldership as a whole, is simply not realistic. For example, because of his prominent teaching and godly example, a senior pastor will probably have more influence than any other elder. So he is a kind of primus inter pares, first among equals. This awareness will often help a fellow staff elder to maintain the balance in the elders’ meetings. The idea that “We’re all equals here” does not justify a rebellious, mutinous attitude.

Which brings us to the times when a staff elder should be reticent to disagree with the senior pastor in elders’ meetings. Often the staff elders as a group will have discussed issues related to the church, as well they should, and hopefully have come to a consensus. When that discussion has taken place and the senior pastor or another staff elder brings that recommendation to the elders as a whole, that is no place for a “minority opinion” that would undercut the senior pastor or the consensus of the staff elders.

However, there have also been times when I know that one of the other staff pastors has had sincere questions or concerns, and I have asked him to share that with the elders. A wise pastor knows when to disagree and when not to disagree with his senior pastor. Often a private discussion would be more edifying than a public dispute.

3. Other staff elders: Remember the burdens the senior pastor bears.

One of our other pastors told me that it is good for him to be reminded that there are unique pressures and responsibilities that fall on the shoulders of the senior pastor. He bears burdens that no one else has. (When he said this, another of our pastors who is a former senior pastor said a hearty amen.) Therefore, one responsibility of pastoral staff is to be Aaron and Hur to the senior pastor, to uphold him and seek to make his ministry successful. This can be done very effectively by showing support in the elders’ meetings.

4. Every pastor should strive for the unity and health of the body.

When all the staff pastors are concerned more for the health and unity of the church than for their own agenda they will be careful to display Christ-like humility in their dealings with one another. If the church’s full-time pastors cannot demonstrate loving servanthood toward one another, how can they expect their fellow elders and the church as a whole to do it?

A suggestion to senior pastors: if you haven’t already, talk with your fellow staff elders and clearly tell them what your desires and expectations are for them in the elders’ meetings. Let them know that frank disagreement is okay when done in the right spirit. Encourage them not to always look to you for the lead in what to say. Give each one the freedom to be an elder as you are.

And a suggestion to other staff pastors: don’t be quick to disagree with your senior pastor. When you feel you must, disagree in a way that enhances unity and doesn’t sow the seeds of division.

Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God, the good of the church, and the good of your fellow pastors.

Walter Price is senior pastor of Fellowship in the Pass Church in Beaumont, California. 

January/February 2013

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Topics: Leadership