20 Tweet-sized Lessons for the Chairman of the Elders
Editor’s note: For more on this topic, listen to this Pastors Talk episode on chairing elders’ meetings and this article of frequently asked questions.
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By God’s grace, I’ve had the joy of serving as the chairman of the elders for the last three years at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. Knowing I was the youngest of the brothers on the elder board (I still am), I knew my wisdom in leading meetings was scant compared to those around the table. That’s why I’ve been taking notes on lessons I’ve learned as chairman; sometimes, I’ve learned these lessons the hard way!
What follows are 20 of those lessons. Most of them are simply matters of prudence and not necessarily biblical principle. That said, while an elders meeting isn’t a worship service, I pray these lessons will help your elders do all things “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
1. One of the main ways you serve your church is by chairing the eldership.
Most pastors would rather spend time with church members than plan an elders’ meeting, but the latter is still pastoral work. Being the chairman takes time and energy, and it’s easy to feel like you’re off the pastoral front-lines, or that you’re eldering less. But you’re not; you’re just eldering differently, and your service in this regard can hugely bless your church.
2. You’re part-pastor, part-referee, part-air-traffic-controller, and part-janitor.
The chairman before me helped me understand that the chairman wears multiple hats. You attend and participate as one of the pastors, so you still have something of a voice in these meetings. But your voice should be limited in the meeting because you’re also refereeing it—you’re saying what is and isn’t in bounds for conversations, you’re letting guys know how long we will and won’t talk about something. While your voice is limited during the meeting, you have a larger voice in shaping the whole meeting’s agenda. That’s because, as chairman, you’re the air-traffic controller. You say what comes into the meeting and what doesn’t; you determine which conversations will take off and which conversations need to keep circling the runway. This work can get messy, and sometimes as chairman, you’ll have to make sure other elders are following up on action items they’re supposed to do outside the meeting, lest things fall out of order quickly. Hence, the janitor hat.
3. Know the rules of the game. In other words, understand the rules and procedures of your meetings.
Do your elders meetings operate by Roberts’ Rules? Are they more informal? Whichever it is, know how your elders meetings operate, or unnecessary messes will ensue. Imagine a referee trying to officiate a game when he didn’t know the rules. I remember one time an elder made a “privileged motion,” and I—the chairman—thought to myself, “Uh, what the heck is that?”
4. When you have the most control, you realize how little control you have.
You may have the most control over the meeting as the chairman, but sometimes it’s clear that the meeting will take a turn you didn’t expect. In these moments, you realize you are not in ultimate control of the meeting. Brothers, some meetings simply will be messy, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Ministry is messy, so elders meetings will be, too.
5. Hindsight really is 20/20.
Don’t beat yourself up over meetings not having gone according to your ideals. Just plan the next one and keep chairing.
6. When someone asks you a question, they’re not necessarily doubting your leadership.
This one was big for me as the young guy. Guys would ask why we’re doing something in a certain way, and I would take it personally. But could it be they were just genuinely asking for clarity? Yes! So don’t assume someone is second-guessing you or your leadership simply because they ask a question. Don’t get defensive. Don’t let your confidence take an unnecessary hit and start second-guessing yourself. The truth is…
7. There are many ways to carry out a task (or steer a conversation) and they all have pros and cons.
Some guys might think one way is better, others might think another is better. Pick one and stick with it until it’s clear you’re wrong.
8. Straw polls are rarely useful.
The chairman before me loved using straw polls, usually to take the temperature on a conversation. I tried this, but I just never seem to be able to pull a straw poll off without making things…awkward. So, this is really just a humorous note-to-self to remember that tactics for chairing a meeting are like Saul’s armor. Some chairman may do it one way—others, another.
9. Let people know they’re welcome to speak freely to you.
Being confident in your leadership doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cultivate feedback. So create feedback loops. One way to do this is to try and have at least one lunch with every elder and get his thoughts about how things are going. Make sure they know you want to talk about the eldership at lunch so they have time to think and give meaningful feedback.
10. Beware of “bike-shedding.”
Yes, it’s quite possible to have godly elders and to waste time at elders meetings. Why is that? The bike-shedding effect provides one explanation. Here are some other pointers on how to run a good meeting and why doing so matters more than we think.
11. Efficiency is good, but it’s not the primary goal, and it can become an idol.
No one wants to waste the elders’ time, but we must remember that efficiency isn’t everything. We’re not looking to hear from the Lord, “Well done, my good and productive servant.” And yet, it’s easy to be so focused on running a good meeting that you neglect devotion to the right things, like prayer (Acts 6:4). I remember once there was an elders meeting where we had a thorny issue to discuss, so I planned to cut the section of the meeting where we pray for our members. It so happened that we got through the supposedly thorny issue quickly, but I still decided to have us forgo praying for our members. I adjourned the meeting so the guys could get home earlier. The meeting felt so short, so nice, so efficient without that clunky time of praying for our members! On my way walking out of the meeting, Mark Dever leaned over to me and said with a smile, “Be careful with cutting that prayer, man. It’s a drug that’s easy to get hooked on.” I was convicted. I don’t think (nor does Mark) that we were in sin for not praying for our members that evening, but I will say a meeting hasn’t happened since where we’ve cut that section.
12. You should be doing a lot of work the board doesn’t see.
I’ve found that most of my work as chairman isn’t steering the meeting so much as it’s planning the meeting, and the meeting after that. I try to keep a Word doc of all future scheduled elders meetings and make notes on when we need to discuss what (e.g. “In May, we need to discuss the budget”). This helps me know what’s coming when.
13. As chairman, you will be the casualty of behind-the-scenes confusion.
Sometimes you will be caught between two elders debating a matter behind the scenes, and it won’t be clear how they want to proceed or when or how to involve the whole eldership. The process for a decision might stall, then, when other people were expecting it go forward, and folks will look to you to see what the hang-up was.
14. Are you a facilitator or a leader?
I remember when I first started chairing, an elder pulled me aside and said, “It’s good for you to show up to meetings and simply facilitate discussion, but I would love to see you give us some leadership as to what we should be thinking and talking about as elders.” That gave me a bump of confidence to try and help shape meetings, rather than simply facilitate them.
15. You serve the board by making decisions for them sometimes.
I don’t mean you should operate as if you can single-handedly make decisions on pastoral cases. I mean that sometimes, the board is helped when you decide on a practical matter. For instance, at any given time, we have 25-30 guys on our eldership. I remember once asking the brothers for issues they would like to talk about throughout the year (e.g. divorce, age of baptism, race.). I didn’t get much feedback, so I made the call on what we’d be talking about at meetings that were more issues-focused. Or when there’s an emergency meeting, instead of polling each elder for when they can meet (seeing as we need to meet quickly and it would be a while before I could hear back from everyone), I sometimes say, “Guys, we’re meeting Saturday afternoon” and leave it at that.
16. Identify problems before trying to resolve them.
Sometimes a couple of elders may think there’s a big problem in the church, and they want the whole eldership to talk about it. These elders may be right, of course, but they’re not necessarily right. If every elder doesn’t agree there’s a problem, you can have some confusing and difficult meetings. So, make sure the elder board (or at least enough of the board) agrees there is a problem and whether or not there’s a way to resolve it before you lead the group to act on a solution. Or at least make sure it’s clear to everyone that they don’t agree there’s a problem before you go forward.
17. K.I.S.S. Keep it simple, stupid—and keep it short.
Generally, shorter meetings are better meetings. I’ve never had an elder’s wife write me and say, “I wish you would make the meetings longer.” I’m surprised how often Occam’s razor is correct when it comes to discussions for the eldership: The simplest way to have the discussion is often the best.
18. Don’t send information to the eldership until you feel comfortable.
“Calmness will lay great offenses to rest” (Eccl. 10:4). Rarely do decisions need to be made quickly. I once felt pressure to send a brother’s memo out to the eldership as we needed to make a decision relatively quickly about something. Turns out, the memo had sensitive information in it that I wound up sending to the wrong people because I was rushing and didn’t read it carefully. Always understand what you’re sending out, and why you’re sending it out, and to whom you’re sending it.
19. As chairman, you have a unique chance to shepherd the shepherds.
As chairman, you’ll naturally have conversations with guys about their roles on the eldership. You’ll have conversations about whether a brother is too busy to serve or how he’s feeling about other pressures that may lead him to step down (e.g. “I need more time with my family.”) These are wonderful opportunities to encourage the shepherds, who—like the sheep—need encouragement! Of course, there are also times when you need to have a hard conversation with an elder (e.g. “Brother, I think you’re thinking more for yourself than the board”), but in my experience, this has been rare.
20. Trust God.
I hope this is rare, but there will be difficult meetings you dread leading. You may lose some sleep over it. Chairmen, if any of us lack wisdom what should we do? Ask, and it will be given us (James 1:5). Take heart, God really will build his church (Matt 16:18).