One of the more common troubles that trips up church elder boards is the “Curse of the Rubber Stamp.” You may know what I mean: One group of elders, often the lay elders, feel like they are being asked to “rubber stamp” the decisions of the staff elders. And they grow to resent that impression. Over time, disunity and discord creeps into the elder board, and some of the lay elders determine to stop supporting the staff at all, and to check them at every turn.
Now, to be perfectly honest, we should probably recognize that, in any organized group, some people will have more information than others. That’s a fact of life. And the ones with more information will be more involved in decision-making. But that reality doesn’t have to become a curse. Even if it’s unavoidable that different elders will play different roles on a board, the disunion, discontent, and outright suspicion are avoidable.
HOW TO AVOID THE CURSE OF THE RUBBER STAMP
Here are a few pieces of advice for both staff and lay elders that I have given to men on my own elder board in an effort to avoid the Curse of the Rubber Stamp.
First, staff elders:
1. Remember that there is no biblical office called “Staff Elder.” The men who serve with you, whether they spend fifty hours a week at the church building or fifty hours a week working downtown, are elders, full-stop, just like you are. Of course there are different roles that various elders will fill, but there is also a biblical truth to keep in mind here: a man who has been called by the church to be one of its shepherds will ultimately give account to the King for the well-being of the flock.
That is an important point for staff elders to remember as they sit around the table with other men: when the Day comes, King Jesus will not ask only the staff elders for an account, he will ask the elders. Remember that, and it will keep you from thinking that you alone are responsible for the church—and therefore that you alone should determine its direction.
2. Discourage the middle from going mushy. Encourage every elder in your church to take responsibility for thinking hard and speaking confidently about the issues that come to the board. Neither the church nor the staff elders should want an elder board filled with men who—for whatever reason—lack confident opinions and are content to vote for whatever the senior pastor or other staff elders propose. I realize that for many pastors, such a situation sounds like the Promised Land! But really it is not, and left unchecked, it amounts to having no elder board at all. What you as the staff elders should encourage is not a culture of quick acquiescence to you, but rather a board full of like-minded, confident men who share your heart and will think hard about the ideas you propose, not for the purpose of stymying your plans but for the purpose of making them better.
There are a couple of practical ways we try to encourage this kind of culture among our elders. One is for the chairman to frequently go around the table and ask every elder to speak to the issue at hand. Another is that we strongly discourage abstentions in voting. Unless a brother has an obvious conflict of interest, we encourage one another to vote on every question—“You’re an elder,” we say, “precisely because the congregation has called you to do the work of making decisions.” More than once “forcing a vote” has saved us from making stupid decisions, where otherwise 2 had voted “yea,” 1 had voted “nay,” and 4 had abstained!
3. Be willing to lose votes gracefully, even on issues that are important to you. Don’t create a culture on your elder board in which lay elders are “punished” for voting against you. Make it clear that you are able to be defeated in a vote and not take it personally. That will go many miles toward encouraging your elders to take full responsibility for the office the church has called them to.
This happens to me occasionally—not frequently, thank goodness!—at my own church. For example, just a few weeks ago we adopted a budget for the coming year. At one point in that process, I succeeded in winning a vote among the elders to make significant changes to part of our missions strategy.
A week later, though, one of the lay elders on our board found some leverage on another proposal I was making, and proceeded to dismantle—step by step and vote by vote—everything I had won the week before.
Now this was not a minor issue in my mind. I cared about it for several reasons, and I really, really wished he had left it alone. After the meeting, though, I made it a point to shake his hand and hug him, and I even sent an email to the whole elder board the next morning congratulating this brother—tongue-in-cheek of course—for his “brilliant victory” the night before.
You see, I trust that brother deeply as an elder, and I am glad that the congregation recognized him as one. So even as I lost the vote, I wanted to encourage him for fully embracing that responsibility, not signal to him that it would cost him in the future to cross me.
4. Do not be afraid to lead. As I have been saying, different elders on a board will fill different roles. And one of the things the congregation has set you aside to do as a staff elder is to think for 40+ hours a week about the life, direction, and administration of the church. Embrace that!
Come to your elders’ meetings with ideas to put in front of them—not to hang on to your proposals tightly, but to let the other elders pick at them, pull at them, change them, redirect them, or even discard them.
And keep in mind, too, that even if they don’t adopt your ideas wholesale, you have led them by doing a huge amount of thinking in advance and showing at least a general way forward.
5. Finally, remember that, in general, a group of elders thinking together will come to better conclusions than anybody working alone. I am constantly amazed at the way the ideas I and my staff bring to the elders are improved by lay-elder objections and redirections. From financial policies to staffing decisions to missions strategies, the Lord regularly blesses us as a board by allowing us to arrive at conclusions that are enormously better than what I initially proposed.
You as the staff elders might initially think it would be great to have a “Rubber Stamp.” But you actually want to encourage something very different. For the good of the church, your desire should be to cultivate a group of elders who all recognize their responsibility before the Lord to seek the good and faithfulness of the church.
Next, here is a word for lay elders:
1. Don’t be a rubber “APPROVED” stamp, but don’t be a “DENIED” stamp either. More than a few elders believe their role on the elder board is to serve as a check on the staff elders: to hold them back, in the name of prudence, from doing what they want to do. But that is never the role of any elder.
No, the role of every elder—lay or staff—is always to do what is best for the church. That is how you should think: you are an elder in your own right called by Jesus to lead his church. You are not a foil or a check on another elder. So lead. Don’t simply thwart leadership.
2. Trust the staff elders, and encourage them in their leadership. Remember that while you have responsibilities at your own job, the church has called the staff elders to give 40+ hours a week to the direction and administration of the church.
As a lay elder, that’s a huge blessing both to you and to the church as a whole. Encourage those men, therefore, to embrace the responsibility of thinking hard and well about the life of the church. Don’t discourage them from that task by being upset when they come to you with well-formed ideas; celebrate that!
By all means, fulfill your responsibility as an elder by thinking carefully about every idea and every direction, but approach those ideas with an attitude of trust and encouragement, not skepticism.
3. Be sure your overall vision for the church lines up with the other elders. Every elder board—even ones marked by deep love and respect—will have disagreements and divided votes. We should pray and hope, though, that most of those divided votes will be about a particular issue, not about overall vision and direction. Elders will often divide over how to carry out a vision, but it is not good when they divide regularly and in a prolonged way about the vision itself.
For that reason, it is important for you not to let yourself become a rival “center of gravity” in terms of the overall direction of the church. If you find yourself in disagreement with the vision of the men that the church has called as staff elders (or a majority of the elders as a whole), generally speaking, the worst thing you could do is launch a war of attrition against them. That will only result in exhaustion for all the elders and harm to the church as a whole. Unless it is a matter of faithfulness to Scripture’s teaching, it will almost always be better, more godly, and more faithful simply to submit to the majority than it will be to dig your heels into the dirt and try to make their progress as slow and as arduous as possible.
4. Do the work of an elder! That’s what the church has called you to do. They have not called you to rubber stamp the decisions of the staff, nor have they called you to act as a counter-balance to the staff. Rather, just like those who are employed by the church, they have called you to shepherd the flock: to watch out for them, to work for their good, and to seek to build a church that will glorify its Lord and King.
Greg Gilbert is the senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky and is most recently the author, with Mark Dever, of Preach: Theology Meets Practice (B&H, 2012).
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