When to Intrude, When to Defer


The relationships between staff (paid) elders and lay (unpaid) elders can create their fair share of dilemmas. When should lay elders defer to staff elders? When should they intrude and call a staff elder’s decision or practice into question?

Consider these three scenarios:

  1. The chairman of the elders, whose works full-time in a downtown law office, is concerned about the direction of the children’s ministry. Since he is responsible to set the agenda for the elders’ meetings, he asks the director of children’s ministry, a female staff member, to submit a report on recent changes to the curriculum. When informed, the associate pastor for family ministry, the staff elder ultimately responsible for curriculum, countermands the Chairman’s request.
  2. A relatively young church plant has three elders: the founding church planter, an older lay elder, and a younger lay elder who hopes to go into vocational ministry some day. They agree to operate by consensus, but increasingly the pastor feels undermined by the young elder’s desire to review his day-to-day decisions at each elders’ meeting. When confronted, the young elder reminds him that all three of them are pastors of the church.
  3. A pastor’s ministry gains prominence, and invitations to speak at conferences multiply. He always consults his wife and staff before accepting an invitation, but the elders are generally informed after the commitment is made. They are encouraged by their pastor’s ministry, but some are concerned that he’s away from the church too much. At the next elders’ meeting, a lay elder asks how often the pastor intends to be away. The pastor answers but leaves feeling attacked.

What do these scenarios have in common? In each case, the relationship between lay and staff elders has become a point of friction and conflict. A staff elder feels that lines of authority and responsibility have been illegitimately crossed by a lay elder. A lay elder feels that legitimate ownership of the ministry is being denied, or limited, by a staff elder. In each case there is no clear agreement about where the lines of authority should be drawn, or what the distinction between staff and lay elder is, beyond getting a paycheck from the church.

When my associate pastor found out that 9Marks asked me to write this article, he mocked me: “There’s a hot topic with a wide readership!”

He may be right—perhaps only a few would be interested in this topic. But in the three weeks that followed, I had no less than three different pastors from three different churches approach me about this issue.

My aim in this piece is to offer wisdom for sorting out what can be one of the most fruitful but also frustrating relationships in the church: the relationship between the elders in the employ of the church, and the elders who sacrificially volunteer their time.

Together they make a powerful and fruitful team for ministry. Staff elders benefit much from the perspective and wisdom lay elders bring to the table. Lay elders benefit from the hands-on management and detailed expertise staff elders exercise. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the Enemy would seek to sow seeds of distrust and discord here. If he can hobble the work of the elders through internal division, he’s gone a long way toward rendering an entire local church ineffective for the gospel.


One cause of the friction that develops between staff and lay elders is that we sometimes unconsciously adopt the corporate boardroom model. In that model, the board of directors, under the leadership of the chairman of the board, sets the overall vision of the corporation. But the board also receives reports from the executive officers of the company. While the officers may sit on the board, it is the board that ultimately holds the officers responsible for their actions. There is a clear chain of accountability: The CEO and his fellow officers answer to the board. The board answers to the shareholders.

Translated to the church, the lead or senior pastor and his staff constitute the executive officers, while the elders constitute the board of directors. The staff elders may sit on the board, but in the end it’s understood that they answer to the board and it’s the board’s job to ask them tough questions, oversee their management, and hold them accountable.

That’s what’s going on in the three examples above. Lay elders are acting like board members whose responsibility is to exercise oversight, to ask tough questions, and to make sure “management” is on the right track. In some cases, the intrusion is unwanted or heavy-handed. In one case, inattention has led to resentment when elders try to engage.

The business world is awash in studies on managing the relationship between the CEO and the board of directors. If a board is overly intrusive, they undermine the CEO’s ability to lead the organization. If they’re inattentive, the CEO is denied wisdom and needed oversight. It’s a delicate balance. And it’s the wrong model for the church.

When the lay elders treat the staff elders as officers to be held accountable, or vice versa, and when staff elders treat the lay elders like a board to be managed and (often) avoided, an unbiblical distinction is introduced into the church. Rather than functioning as spiritual overseers of the church, a ministry team devoted to the Word and to prayer (Acts 6:4), one group of elders functions like the managers or governors of another group of elders.

Given that the secular world struggles with the dynamics of overly-intrusive and under-engaged boards, we should hardly be surprised that those struggles are imported into the church when we adopt their model. We need a better one.


In the New Testament there are numerous descriptions and instructions for the office of elder. But so far I haven’t found any clear description or instructions for church staff, or their relationship to the elders and deacons. The decision to hire staff, whether a single pastor or a team of ministry and administrative personnel, is finally prudential. And yet for most people the church staff are the ones whom they have most contact with and who make the biggest impact on their daily and weekly experience of the church.

To be clear, by staff I mean people who are being paid full- or part-time to facilitate the day-to-day operations of a local church. Some of those staff might be elders. Some might be deacons. Many will be neither. But regardless of what other biblical offices they hold, what makes the staff “the staff” is the paycheck they receive in order to manage the normal operation of the church.

The existence of church staff is not entirely without biblical warrant. The closest we get are the statements by Jesus in Matthew 10:10 that those engaged in the work of ministry are worthy of their keep, and by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:4-12 and 1 Timothy 5:17-18 that ministry workers are like oxen, whom the laws says should not be muzzled while they tread the grain. In other words, people in ministry have a right to earn their living from the ministry. While these verses don’t get us all the way to a multi-staff team, they do clearly teach that at least some people in a local church should expect to be paid for their work of gospel ministry.

First Timothy 5:17 is especially helpful because it observes that the elders whose primary work is preaching and teaching are “worthy of double honor,” that is, to be paid. Apparently Paul understood that some, though not necessarily all, elders would be employed by the local church. Which elders should be paid? At least those whose work is preaching and teaching.

But the point I want to emphasize is that being an elder doesn’t make you staff, and being staff doesn’t make you an elder. They are two different things that in some cases overlap. One man, two hats.

Recognizing this simple distinction has huge implications for the way in which staff elders and non-staff elders interact. All the elders need to be aware of which responsibilities go with which hat, as well as which hat a guy is wearing when we talk to him about his work. Are we dealing with someone in his capacity as a “fellow elder,” or are we dealing with someone in his capacity as a “paid deacon,” whose work enables the elders to give themselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer?


In 1 Peter 5:1-4, the apostle Peter writes,

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder…Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of glory that will never fade away.

The elders of the scattered churches in Asia Minor needed oversight, direction, and correction. Peter gives it to them in the form of a command, as we would expect an apostle to do. Be shepherds. But notice how the command is delivered. Peter addresses the elders as a fellow elder. That’s instructive for us, as we engage our fellow elders. We have not been given authority over our fellow elders. Rather, we’ve been given authority with our fellow elders (v. 2). And that authority is to shepherd God’s flock (vv. 2, 3).

In order to exercise our authority faithfully, there will be times when we need to come alongside each other, to remind, encourage, and maybe even instruct each other about what it means to be an elder. But there is nothing in Peter’s example that suggests we do this as overseers of the overseer. We do this as fellow elders, appealing to our common stewardship and the apostolic message, in the knowledge that there is a Chief Shepherd to whom we will each give an account for our pastoral ministry.


In Acts 6, faced with a crisis of unity due to an operational and administrative challenge, the apostles state,

It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word. (vv. 2-4)

This is the classic text for the institution of the office of deacons. But when we consider it, it’s a fairly good description of what we expect from a church’s staff. We don’t want the elders consumed with questions of payroll administration, building maintenance, and weekly mailings. And so when a matter becomes so time consuming that a volunteer deacon can no longer manage it, we hire a “full-time deacon,” a staff member, to manage the administrative operations.

That seems clear enough when it comes to thinking about a church administrator, secretary, or children’s ministry director. But is it appropriate to think of staff elders, in their capacity as staff, as full-time paid deacons? I think it is.

First, Paul repeatedly refers to himself and other elders as ministers, literally deacons, of the word and of Christ (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:5, 2 Cor. 3:6, Eph 3:7, Col. 1:7, 23, 1 Tim. 4:6). Not that they’re holding the office of deacon, but that their work can be rightly described as diaconal.

Second, consider why we generally hire staff elders. True, they must preach and teach. But it is a rare pastor who is hired to do nothing but preach and teach. Generally, we hire pastors to oversee the day-to-day affairs of the church, manage other staff, execute the vision of the elders, and provide leadership to the spheres of ministry they have been entrusted with. In that sense, much of their work is administrative and organizational. Since it involves managing the teaching and discipling ministry of the church, it is necessary for them to be elders. But the nature of the work itself is diaconal.

So how should elders engage the staff, including the staff elders in their capacity as staff? Once again, I think the apostles’ example is instructive. The apostles saw a need and instructed the congregation to set aside men to meet that need. They made clear what qualifications were required and the general direction their ministry should take. All the widows needed to be provided for in such a way that unity was preserved and the ministry of the gospel would go forth. But they didn’t tell the deacons how to do the job. That would defeat the purpose of having deacons in the first place, which was to preserve the apostles’ focus on their ministry of Word and prayer.

As elders, part of our responsibility is to recognize when deacons, including full-time paid deacons (i.e., staff), need to be put in place in order to facilitate the gospel ministry of our church. We need to make clear to the deacon/staff member the direction and goal of their ministry, and we need to be clear on the qualifications necessary to hold the position. But then we need to resist the temptation to tell the deacon/staff member how to do their job, or even worse, do the job for them.


When it comes down to it, the question of when a non-staff elder should defer to a staff elder and when he should intrude largely depends on which hat the staff elder is wearing. Is the matter fundamentally related to his work as an elder? In that case, as fellow elders, we should love one another enough to be willing to appeal to one another, to exhort and encourage one another, and even sometimes to offer counsel and correction.

For example, if as a lay elder I observe a staff elder neglecting the sheep, I need to come alongside and exhort and encourage him. Not as his boss, but as a fellow elder.

Or think of the example above concerning the pastor whose outside speaking schedule was impacting his pulpit ministry. In such a scenario there is the potential for sheep to be neglected. Yet it would be a mistake for a lay elder to approach the pastor as a staff member who is not working hard enough for the church. That’s your managerial board approach. Approaching him instead as a fellow-elder may produce better results.

At the same time, a senior pastor contributes to the problem by leaving elders out of the discussion in the first place. The issue of outside invitations is not merely a scheduling matter, handled by the staff. It’s a matter of feeding the flock. So the senior pastor should take the initiative by inviting his fellow elders into the decision-making process, or at least giving them a regular opportunity to talk about the impact of his outside schedule on the church.

When elders relate to each other as fellow elders, not only are the bonds of love and respect strengthened, but correction can be given and received.

On the other hand, other issues relate fundamentally to an elder’s work as a staff member. In that case, as a lay elder, I want to make sure we have given the staff clear directions about the vision of the church and philosophy of ministry that we are pursuing. But then I want to trust that staff member to figure out the best way to proceed. If correction is needed, then I might address it with the individual’s supervisor, whether that is the senior pastor or some kind of executive pastor. Often, that is what the senior or lead pastor is hired to do: manage the staff, including the other staff pastors. If I think something has really gone awry at the staff level, rather than trying to reach around the senior pastor and manage his staff for him, I as a lay elder should talk to the senior pastor directly.

In the first example above, the chairman of the elders attempted to manage the children’s ministry staff directly, bypassing the associate pastor and causing him to feel undermined. But what a lay elder should do in such a scenario is raise his concern with the senior pastor, whose responsibility is to manage the staff. Of course, if any elder is concerned about the children’s curriculum, he should address that concern since the teaching ministry falls under the elders’ oversight. But that discussion is a discussion for the elders, not for an individual elder and a staff member. Once the elders have reached a conclusion, they should communicate to the staff the character and direction of children’s ministry they want, and then trust the staff to find and implement an appropriate curriculum. If the staff consistently choose curriculum the elders disagree with, the answer is not to have the elders pick the curriculum for the staff, but to find staff the elders trust.

But what happens when a disagreement occurs with the senior pastor in his capacity as staff, not elder? This is probably the fuzziest area, since the distinction between the two hats is least clear in the person of the senior pastor.

So I want to introduce one more analogy that might help: the work of the elders is a bit like the judicial branch of the U.S. government, while that staff’s work is a bit like the executive branch. (No, the analogy is not perfect, and don’t ask me who plays congress.) The elders in this analogy are like judges who evaluate law in light of the constitution. They make judgments about what the Scripture says and how it applies to the life of the church, its ministry and vision. The staff in this analogy, including the senior pastor, is like the executive branch. They put the elders’ vision into practice.

The point is that the staff cannot set the theological and scriptural vision of the church. That’s the elders’ responsibility. But having set that vision, the staff, and especially the senior or lead pastor, needs to be free to put that vision into practice. They need the trust it takes to actually lead out in the direction that the elders have set.

In the second example with which this article began, the young elder wants to review every decision the pastor makes on the grounds that they are all pastors. But he has lost sight of the fact that, while they are all pastors, they are not all staff. Of course, a wise pastor will seek input and counsel from his fellow elders. But at the end of the day, the elders need to remember that they have hired him as staff so that he will have the time, ability, and freedom to lead.

Unless his leadership compromises Scripture or the mission and vision that the elders have set, they should trust him to carry out that mission and vision faithfully. If they can’t, once again, the answer is not to involve themselves more minutely in the operations of the church. The answer is to find a lead pastor they can trust to implement their vision.

The question of when to defer and when to intrude is never easy and is rarely as clear as the examples I’ve offered. So much rests on relationships of trust and patterns of healthy communication. But perhaps thinking more clearly about the precise relationship we’re speaking into will allow both our intruding and deferring to produce better fruit in the lives of our fellow elders, our staff, and our congregations.

Michael Lawrence

Michael Lawrence is the senior pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon.

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