The Decision-making Process of the Local Church

Introduction – Not long after I had surrendered to the call of ministry, I started to become aware of a number of “inner-struggles” that existed in many, good fundamental churches. Because my Dad had been in educational ministry, I had overheard various discussions in which Dad (Dr. Jerry Tetreau, President – International Baptist College) would reach out and encourage various hurting believers from all over the country, who were being wounded because of an errant “decision-making process, ” in that particular ministry. As I continued to develop in my theological and ministry training, I became alarmed at the frequency of what I considered to be poor, and at time disastrous, interpersonal relationships in many ministries between “pastors,” “deacons,” and members of the congregation. My decade in the pastorate has unearthed the finding, that this problem persists in many churches because of (I believe) a gross misunderstanding of the “decision-making process of the local, New Testament Church.” I have dedicated the last 3 years of my academic work, plowing through the Scriptures, searching for God’s heart on this topic. This work is in connection with my D.Min. Final Project at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Plymouth, Minnesota.

My motivation is, first, to glorify God in understanding His will on this critical topic. Second, it is to aid any church (of which I am a part), in understanding and then implementing a “decision-making process” that honors the teachings of God’s Word. Third, to make a dent in the continual “friendly-fire” casualties that occur regularly in many good churches, because of ignorance or other sad motivating factors, that sometimes exist in the hearts of leaders and laymen alike. The following is an abridged outline that explains how we understand the Decision-Making Process to intersect with the pastors (elders), deacons, and individual laymen, and laywomen. It is a description of what we are trying to accomplish at Southeast Valley Baptist Church in Gilbert, Arizona. It is not my purpose to undermine those who differ on various elements of the way we do this at SVBC. It is my purpose to call the church to examine how much of this process is patterned from God’s word, and how much is patterned from other influences (such as a democratic and/or republic form of government, management structures from corporate America, the decision and command structure of the US military, etc.). Today many extremes exist in answering the questions of “who” and “how” decision-making should happen in the local, NT church. The following is a short list of three such extremes:

 

1) Extreme #1 - “Pastoral Dictatorship Extreme

  1. The Problem: In this extreme the pastor or elder has what is called, “The Messiah Syndrome.” Here the assumption is that all decisions must have the senior pastor’s stamp and /or okay before they can legitimately be implemented. Often the underlying conviction is that the “pastor always knows best.” Often these “men of God,” lead with a harsh and unloving demeanor. This is not to suggest that a pastor (especially a senior pastor) can never be forceful or show strong emotion in his leadership. It is to say that he is to have that energy checked by a personal code of conduct and character that is consistent with 1 Tim 3.

 

B. What God thinks about this attitude:

The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by constraint but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock…(1 Peter 5:1-3).”

 

2. Extreme #2 – The “Board-Run” Extreme

A. The Problem: Here a small group of individuals (in our circles usually comprising of “deacons,” and/or “trustees” chosen from the laity) determine all or certainly most of the decisions for a church. The problem is similar to the former one except this one involves more than just one person in this misfortunate system of governance. Often the attitude from this “board” is one of “I’ll get my way,” as opposed to “May I serve you?”

 

Note: In Extreme #1, the pastor is abusing his authority. In Extreme #2, the pastor is abused by being stripped of his rightful authority! Typically the congregation is also stripped of its authority in this system as well! They become hostages to the will of a few! This may not always be a visible problem if these men are God-loving and fearing men. It becomes especially disastrous when they are not!

 

  1. What God thinks about this attitude:

“…The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves…(Luke 22:25-26).”

 

3. Extreme #3 – The Congregational/Democracy Extreme

A. The Problem: While legitimately there are a few important decisions that must be made by the congregation at large, these congregations are under the self-deception, that they are to instruct the leadership on what to do, instead of being willing to submit to God-ordained and placed leadership. Often the assumption in these churches is that the relationship between pastors and deacons is the equivalent to the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of American government. In other words, deacons serve a two-fold purpose: 1) they represent special interests of groups (this often generates a kind of ecclesiastical form of “lobbying” and “politics” in these types of churches) within the congregation and 2) they provide balance of power.

 

B. What God thinks about this attitude:

Remember those who rule over you who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct(Heb 13:7)

 

The author of Hebrews continues:

“Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you (Heb 13:17)

 

Here is our attempt to be biblically balanced in the Decision-Making Process:

Elders/Pastors/Overseers:

1. Their role as defined by Scripture: Key Passages: Acts 20:17-35; 1 Thess 5:12-13; 1 Tim 5:17-22; Titus 1:9-11; Heb 13:17; Jam 5:14-16; 1 Pet 5:1-4.

  1. “Shepherd” – We get our word “Pastor” from this term. The emphasis here is on feeding, protecting, and tending in illness.
  1. “Bishop” – The word literally means “overseer.” The emphasis here is on an administrator. The elders are to be the chief overseers of the spiritual sphere of ministry details (This is in contrast to the deacons who are to be the overseers of the physical sphere of ministry details – Acts 6).
  1. “Elder” – The word speaks to leadership.
  1. “Teacher” – Out of the many functions of the Elder/Bishop/Pastor, a fundamental emphasis is that of communicating biblical truth to God’s children. This is evident in several ways (notice in Eph – “Pastor/teacher,” notice Christ’s admonition to Peter – “feed my sheep!”)

2. Their areas of “decision-making” (authority) based on their “role” (responsibilities)

A. Pastors should have control over the pulpit ministry. In other words neither the congregation nor the deacons are to instruct the elders as to who should or should not teach and/or preach in the pulpit of the church. This is not to say that a deacon or a laymen does not have a right to communicate when he disagrees with an aspect of the pulpit ministry. Neither does this mean that it is incorrect for anyone to have a suggestion as to special speakers, missionaries, etc. This is to say that it is the elder’s responsibility to oversee the communication of truth to God’s people. (We will mention this again later, but the deacons will have a part in the decision-making process of bringing special speakers because of their general oversight of the finances.)

B. A second area of “responsibility” laid on the shoulders of the elders/pastors is that of determining, based on information gathered, who should minister in what ministry. (This will intersect with the decision-making category involving each individual. Because of our doctrines of “priesthood of the believer,” and “individual soul liberty,” it would be incorrect for a pastor to “instruct” or “command” an individual believer to function in this role or that. However, the elders should challenge or give individuals the opportunity to serve where they are gifted. It is then the responsibility of the laymen to consider whether or not this indeed is what the Lord wants for them by way of ministry). The practical result of this is the ability to make budget recommendations to the deacons, based on ministry need. The deacons should be willing to follow budget recommendations by the elders. However, it is the deacons’ responsibility to make sure the financial budget request is both in balance with the existing budget and that it is also fiscally responsible.

  1. The pastors/elders are given the responsibility to set the “vision” and determine the “mission” of the local church.

D. The pastors/elders are responsible to oversee the accomplishing of ministry

objectives: Worship, Instruction, Fellowship and Evangelism.

 

E. The pastors/elders are given the responsibility of overseeing the settlement of church-discipline matters. In some cases it may be necessary to involve the deacons as well.

F. Based on the information gathered from the NT, it was other elders, not deacons or even the congregation, that held oneanother accountable. In other words, it is not valid for a deacon or a member of the congregation to take it upon himself to be the pastor’s, “accountability.” That’s not to say that a pastor can never confide in a deacon or layman, it is to suggest that as far as the ministry and personal life of the elders, they are to hold one another accountable. It is however

true, that as a group of leaders, the elders are accountable to God and their church for their leadership and lives. This also does not mean that it would be wrong for a deacon or a member of the congregation to approach an elder over a disagreement or a personal difference. It would be certainly wrong for an elder to skate around such an encounter by using his position as a shield against such confrontation. (“How dare you question me – don’t you know, I’m a pastor!”)

G. While the deacons are to have the practical oversight of the church budget and ministry, elders should have freedom to spend monies designated in areas of their personal oversight. At SVBC the leadership of each ministry has been granted the freedom to spend up to a certain budgeted cap before needing approval by the executive leadership (This cap may increase or decrease based on the growth and size development of the church). Expenditures would of course need to stay under the cap given by the approved annual budget. Any spending above the budget cap would need to be approved by the Executive Leadership Team.

3. Internal authority structure of the eldership team

 

Throughout Scripture there are paradoxes. The Word of God is both a human-written book as well as a God-breathed book. Jesus of Nazareth is seen as 100% God and 100% man. Another paradox exists in this issue of the internal authority structure of the elders team. A good way of describing this is by looking at the trinity. On the one hand the “ontological trinity” teaches us that God the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit are totally equal. On the other hand the “economic trinity” teaches us that God the Son submits to the will of the Father. This is a close (not perfect!) illustration of the internal authority relationship within the team of elders.

A. Clearly there is “one office.” This suggests that on the one hand authority is clearly shared between the elders. There needs to be a commitment to the process of unity and consensus. The elders must hold each other accountable.

B. Also clear is the scriptural evidence of the “first among equals.” Even though nowhere in Scripture do you see anyone being called a “senior pastor,” evidence exists that there was some sort of hierarchy for purpose of “function” (not status). Notice the following evidence for this:

1) The qualifications listed in 1 Tim 3:1, 8 (bishop is singular, deacons is plural)

2) The role of James in the Jerusalem Church

a) At the Jerusalem Council, Acts 15

b) At Paul’s Report to the Church, Acts 21

3) The “angels” of Rev 2-3. The message is aimed at a single “messenger.”

4) The work and character of God – God has forms of hierarchy in other God-ordained institutions.

 

D. All this means practically, is that the “senior pastor” functions as the leader of leaders. One will not find elders in the NT “slam-dunking” decisions without the unity and consensus of the other elders. There of course will be a handful of decisions that the “senior pastor” and only the senior pastor should make (such as to what text to preach from, when to call special meetings, his work schedule, etc.). However, again it would seem prudent to ask for the wisdom of other men even on these issues that he, and he alone must decide. This also does not mean that other elders cannot instigate decisions regarding ministry. You can see a similar relationship with the apostles. Just because you had 12, then the 3, then the 1 (Peter), didn’t make the other 11 less than an apostle. For that matter it didn’t give them less authority, nor did it mean they where less spiritual! Even though Peter exercised great leadership, many would argue that others were more consistent in their spirituality. The biggest contributing factor here would be the individual’s recognized “leadership,”“giftedness,” “ability,” and “calling.”

 

E. The result of this at SVBC is that the elder team should be willing to submit to the elder who is ministering in his primary area of ministry. At the same time, each elder has authority to exercise leadership in other areas of ministry. Each elder must fight two extremes: the tendency to have his hand in everything or the tendency to be entrapped in his single corner of the church!

 

4. Process of “discovering,” and then adding to the team of “elders

 

A. The present elders become aware of an individual’s “characteristics” and “calling” (a God-placed desire to the pastoral function) and the possibility of them joining the elder team at SVBC.

 

B. These individuals can be discovered in one of two contexts (just as we find in the NT):

 

1) These individuals are already a part of the body of SVBC. In many cases these individuals have already received theological and/or ministerial training and experience.

 

2) In some cases the elders will discover an individual not associated with SVBC, but who demonstrates the call, characteristics, and willingness to be a part of the eldership team at SVBC.

 

C. The process of bringing an individual to official “eldership” status is as follows:

 

1) Communication between the prospect and the elders takes place that there is a desire to join the elders team.

 

2) Process of communication and interview (involving first the elders, then a combined session with the elders and deacons) to see if there is philosophical, and theological compatibility.

3) An understanding and agreement of the basic role that will be played by the new elder.

 

4) A period of time is set (to be determined by the elders based on each situation), in which the leadership and congregation can watch and determine if indeed the individual should function officially within the elder team.

 

5) Once the executive leadership (involving all of the elders and deacons) of SVBC has arrived at consensus that the prospective elder should be a part of SVBC leadership, a special Sunday will be set up where the elder will preach, and then share his philosophy of ministry and goals. Following that will be a question and answer period where he will field questions from the congregation. After that, the congregation will vote. Those receiving an overwhelming majority (percent needed will be determined by the elders – each situation may be different) will join the eldership team at SVBC.

 

6) Those who are rejected will be given a written reason as to why. In some cases, the individual may need to work on a personal area of his character. In some cases the issue is only timing. The leadership may determine that more time is needed. Unfortunately, there may be some cases where the leadership and/or congregation believe an individual is not qualified or is philosophically and/or theologically incompatible.

 

5. The issue of compensation for eldership

 

Clearly the NT teaches that a local church is under obligation to pay their pastors well. SVBC is committed to doing all it can to fulfill the responsibility of honoring God’s servants with financial compensation. However, the NT also demonstrates that in many cases the Lord desires for his leaders to be fully or partially “bi-vocational.” This in no way diminishes his office or authority as pastor! If anything it raises his level of honor. The decision of the level and type of compensation is determined by the combined leadership of SVBC. The goal of the SVBC is to pay as much as we can to as many of the elders as we can, based on a variety of criteria (such as the financial health of the church, life and family needs of the elder himself, level of ministry-responsibility, faithfulness to his tasks, and the proficiency of his office). In some cases individual elders may request to be either volunteer, or part-time, based on God-ordained employment and life-situations. The following are the three categories of compensation:

A. “Full-Time” Salaried Staff

 

B. “Part-Time” Salaried Staff

 

C. “Volunteer” Staff

 

The level of work expectation will be reflective based on the level of compensation. This will be clearly communicated in a mutually agreed upon “job description.”

 

 

 

Deacons:

 

1. Their role as defined by scripture: Key Passages: Acts 6:1-6; Philippians 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8, 12; Romans 16:1; 1 Tim 3:13.

 

A. “Deacon,” or “Servant” (lit. “servant”) – The context of Phil 1:1 demonstrate that the term “deacon” by the time of the writing of Philippians (ca. A.D. 61), “deacon” was an official office as discernible as the “bishops.”

 

B. “Serve,” “minister” (verb)

 

C. “Service,” “ministry”

 

2. Their areas of “decision-making” (authority) based on their “role” (responsibilities)

 

A. The key distinction, based on the information gathered in Acts 6, between the elders, function and that of the deacons is not ministry, (clearly based on a quick glance of the qualifications and characteristics both of these groups are to be involved in various realms of ministry); but rather “spheres” of ministry. The spiritual leadership (then apostles, today elders) are to primarily give

attention to ministry of the Word and prayer. In other words, the elders are to oversee the spiritual sphere of ministry. Also clear from the mentioned passages is that the office of deacon was instituted in order to assist the elders in overseeing the physical sphere of ministry. The clearest motivation for this was to free up the spiritual leadership to spend the necessary time and attention on the ministry of the Word and of prayer.

 

B. The deacons in the early church were responsible to oversee the business of finance. The Greek term “tables” in Acts 6, most likely refers to tables used to count and deal with finances. A good translation of Acts 6:2 would read, “It is not right for us to neglect the preaching of God’s word in order to handle finances.” This also seems consistent when one considers the context of Acts 4:34-35. It seems clear that these first deacons (sometimes called, “proto-deacons”) demonstrated oversight of the finances by:

 

1) Collecting money and goods contributed to the needy (Acts 4:34,35,37; 5:2).

2) Distributing the money or goods to the needy (Acts 4:35).

3) Ensuring that the church justly and fairly distributed the money (Acts 6).

4) Coordinating the church’s overall financial affairs and ministries of mercy (Acts 6).

 

The point of all of this to the contemporary churchEven though technically the elders have been given the responsibility of general oversight (including issues dealing with finance) of each congregation, practically the deacons should be the chief financial overseers of a church, not the elders, nor the congregation. (One of the reasons why deacons are to be men, “full of the Holy Spirit”) In this case it seems right that the elders and the congregation be willing to submit themselves to the “day in/day-out” financial decision-making of deacons. This is not a problem for a Spirit-lead pastor, or a Spirit-lead congregation! It is very difficult, perhaps impossible for a flesh -filled pastor, or a flesh-filled congregation! Churches that cannot trust deacons with this level of authority need to examine whether or not they have biblically qualified deacons! Churches thathave pastors that cannot trust qualified deacons with this authority, need to examine whether or not they have qualified pastors!

 

Final Note: When applying this aspect of deacon-oversight to the physical resources of ministry, it seems consistent to conclude that it falls on the team of deacons to oversee the upkeep and care of other physical resources (such as buildings, vehicles, equipment, etc.). This is not to say that the deacons are to do everything (This is a great place to plug “gifted” men and women of the

congregation into the ministry structure of a local church. This is also a great area to allow young people the chance to work toward a missions trip, etc.).

 

C. Also clear in the text was the deacon’s responsibility to make sure that those in clear need within the Christian community were taken care of. They oversaw the ministry of mercy or benevolence. While the office of deacon does inherently have authority (delegated by God, not the pastor nor the congregation!), the textual emphasis is not on being a “boss,” but rather a “servant.”

 

D. Deacons are to have been “discovered” by others in the congregation, and “approved” by the leadership (then apostles, today elders – Acts 6). It would seem unbiblical for leadership to just “appoint” those who will serve as deacons without congregational inpute. This is done many times in churches by pastors who are looking for spineless “yes” men, who will always be loyal (nothing is wrong with “loyalty;” the problem is “blind loyalty”) to every wish of the pastor. Typically these are pastors who do not evidence the spirit that NT demands be found in elders. Often these spiritually and emotionally abused congregations led by such, “men of God” (so-called!) become so beaten down, the leadership becomes verycultish. The sad point here is that these congregations become bewitched in thinking that these men are to be mindlessly followed and obeyed. They often do not realize that God has given them the authority to throw such leadership out the door! When some figure this out, they often leave (or get thrown out by the pastor himself!).

 

E. Deacons are not required to be involved in the “spiritual sphere” of ministry (hence the missing qualification “apt to teach,” that does exist for the elder – the only difference found between the two offices). This does not mean that deacons cannot or should not minister in the spiritual realm vs. the physical realm (notice the personal ministries of Stephen and Philip in Acts 6 and following).

 

3. Process of discovering, and adjusting the team of deacon: See SVBC Constitution.

 

Laymen:

 

1. Their role as defined by scripture: Key Passages: 1 Peter 2:5, 9; 1 Cor 12:4-31

 

A. Priest

 

B. Minister

 

C. Member of the Body

 

2. Their areas of decision-making (authority) based on their role (responsibilities).

 

A. One of the big theological foundations for this category (each laymen’s authority in the context of local church ministry) is that of spiritual gifts. If one understands the NT teaching on spiritual gifts, it is evident that every believer has been given gifts which are to correspond to local church ministry. Who is best suited to make the day by day, ministry decisions for those ministries? The elders? The deacons? Without a doubt, believers who have been given “gifts” for various ministries are better equipped to make the many decisions found in that ministry. Of course if the elders or other lay leaders have a concern, the individual laymen or laywomen should be willing to submit to their authority. However, there should basically be little interference. Interference should come only when the direction of the lay ministry is headed for danger.

 

B. Scripture is also clear that while women have authority to function within local church ministry, their authority is limited in that it does not place men underneath their jurisdiction. This would preclude women from serving as leadership heads such as elder, deacon, or any other office of headship. (This does not mean that they could not serve as advisors on a service-oriented, ministry team or committee.) The only exception would be a ministry leadership position that only involves the oversight of women or children. See 1 Cor 11:3; 1 Tim 2:9-15; Titus 2:3-5

 

Congregation:

 

1. It’s role as defined by Scripture: Key passages: Acts 2:42-47; Acts 6:1-6

 

A. “Congregation”

 

B. “Called-out assembly”

 

2. It’s areas of decision-making (authority) based on its role (responsibility)

 

A. A clear point of Scripture is the responsibility a church has to examine closely who should or who should not be in positions of authority and leadership.

 

B. Additionally clear is the fact that the congregation needs to be discerning about what is being taught. (Acts 17:11)

 

C. NT churches demonstrated “collective will” by giving amounts of aid to specific local fellowships. It seems reasonable, in keeping with this practice of the early church to allow and encourage congregational inpute on significant decisions dealing with finances and other monumental decisions. This is not to say that the elders and/or deacons should abdicate their leadership in these important matters.

 

3. Its area of responsibility to others in the context of decision-making in a local church ministry

 

A. The congregation is to submit to the elders in the area of spiritual leadership and church ministry (Heb 13:7, 17).

 

B. The congregation is to submit to the deacons in the areas of the physical sphere of ministry.

 

C. The congregation is to submit to lay leaders, leading in the areas of their ministry strengths and giftedness (Eph 5:21 – Paul here teaches mutual submission is an evidence of being Spirit-filled).

 

Conclusion: The Method of “Decision-Making,” in the local Church

No matter who a local church determines is responsible to make decisions, Scipture indicates by way of command and example how decision-making should proceed. There needs to be a commitment to several procedures:

 

1. A corporate and individual commitment to prayer

 

James states in James 1:5, “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” It would seem evident that especially at the crucial times of decision-making, God’s children should

give themselves to seasons of prayer and fasting. When this doesn’t happen, often the attitude is, “Well I have authority for this decision, and I think we should do this, or that.” This is tragic if these important decisions are made hastily without prayer. When this is done, it typically indicates a spirit of pride not humility!

 

2 A corporate and individual commitment to humility

 

Many of the “power-struggles” we read of in the gospels between the apostles, were due at least in part from a prideful spirit. Christ, on many occasions, had to take time out of his ministry to rebuke his disciples for such attitudes. It is imperative when a leadership team is working through a decision, that all of the participants have a teachable, approachable and humble attitude. It seems impossible for a “man of God” to continually have a non-teachable and stubborn attitude and at the same time be biblically qualified for either the office of pastor or deacon.

 

3. A corporate and individual commitment to the idea that the will of “Christ” is to be

preeminent in a local church!

 

Paul makes it abundantly clear in Colossians 1 that Christ is preeminent in the church because of his work of creation and redemption. John warns the readers of 3 John about a church leader by the name of Diotrephes, for “he loves to have the preeminence among them…” The point of application here is simply this: every layman, deacon, and pastor must be willing to submit his will to the will of God. If and when a believer (no matter what his function in a local assembly may be) is more concerned about his will be followed than God’s, he sets himself up as an idol. This idolatry seems especially criminal when one uses his so-called, “God-given authority” as a clock to set his own agenda without considering if indeed that is God’s will and direction.

4. A corporate and individual commitment to the process of “consensus”

It is imperative that the God-ordained idea of a plurality of leadership be allowed to function as one sees illustrated in the NT. (Notice the Jerusalem council of Acts 15). Here God’s men worked and prayed through a debated spiritual issue until they arrived at what they understood was God’s answer. This simply does not happen if all you have is the “slam-dunk” approach to decision-making, or the “pure democracy” approach to decision-making.Please Note: Again, this does not mean there are no “leaders” to direct the flow of consensus.

 

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