Congregational & elder-led models both work, pastors say
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--Veteran pastor John Yeats has served both pastor-led and elder-led Southern Baptist churches, and gives stern advice for churches seeking to transition to different forms of church government: “Do not take this issue lightly.”
“All you have to do is look at the event that happened at Germantown Baptist Church to discover that unless a church is ready to change its polity, it’s very difficult to take an existing church into a different model,” he said of the May 7 vote that defeated an attempt to transition Germantown, one of Tennessee’s largest SBC churches, to an elder system of church government.
“I had the joy of pastoring both kinds of models. And one of the things we found is that there is a way to serve God with a clean heart and be biblical about it,” said Yeats, who now serves as director of communications for the Louisiana Baptist Convention. “You can be biblical in a [typical] congregational church and you can be biblical with an elder-led congregation.
“But to demonize either one of them is an error on our part.”
Yeats said the difference in the two types of models does not concern major theological differences, but instead churches seeking to find the most faithful model to the New Testament.
“There are some great people on both sides of the issue. It is not a Calvinism versus Arminian issue. It is not a liberal versus conservative issue,” he said. “It is an issue of trying to determine what is the most biblical method of government for our local churches.”
PLURAL ELDER-LED CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH
Scott Miller, senior pastor of Graceland Baptist Church in New Albany, Ind., one of the largest SBC churches in that state, serves in an elder-led congregational model of church government, a system that was in place before he arrived at the church three years ago.
“I believe that any church organizational system is only as effective as the spiritual character of its members,” he said.
That’s why he said he believes the Bible puts much emphasis -– in passages such as 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5 –- on the character of the church’s spiritual leaders in leading the church.
“The great focus is on the spiritual life of the leader,” he said. “They [the passages] don’t speak a lot to function and job descriptions.”
Graceland’s elder-led system of government includes an elder board of up to seven men –- five of whom they prefer to be lay elders, the remaining two staff elders, Miller said.
“The way it operates here is, of course, Christ is the Shepherd, the leader of our church. The senior pastor is His undershepherd,” he said.
Miller, along with the other six elders, comprise the elder board at Graceland. The senior pastor is the leader of the elder board “by position,” he said, but the elder board does not make all the decisions in the church.
“In our congregation, we do have congregation involvement in decision making,” he said. “In particular that includes the approval of the church budget, the calling of the senior pastor, and any decision that involves the purchase of property or construction of buildings or financial indebtedness on the part of the church.”
Rather than being solely a ruling or administrative type of board, Miller said Graceland’s elders function in more of a ministering role, particularly in intercessory prayer.
“The first part of every elders' meeting is invested in praying over the individual and corporate needs of the body," he said. "Our elders make themselves available during the ministry time at the end of and in between the morning services to intercede for individuals' needs."
“Our goal with the elders is to stay focused on the big picture, which includes God’s vision for the church, the implementation of that vision, acting as a shepherd role as we see encouraged in 1 Peter 5, which is a great passage on task of the elders,” he said. “When we think of shepherd, we think of someone who protects the sheep and helps feed the sheep.”
The elder-led model at Graceland, Miller said, has several advantages. One in particular is giving leadership opportunities to qualified lay members, he said.
“It gives lay people a significant leadership role in the life of the body, which is a great thing to do for people who are volunteers in ministry. It provides a great opportunity for team ministry, which I think is a growing trend in churches.”
The elder-led model offers the pastor and the church staff a level of accountability, he said.
“That’s one of the things that I enjoy with the elders is they provide some accountability for me,” he said “They are a good set of ears and eyes in the congregation, and they can represent the laity in a unique way.”
An elder-led model also allows the church’s deacons to “focus on serving in ministry," he said.
“We do have deacons and I just love how they are involved in what I consider to be the Acts 6 model of servant ministry,” he said.
The chairman of the deacons is asked to be a non-voting liaison member of Graceland's elder board, which helps communicate the vision of the board to the larger body of the church and provides input into the needs of the congregation, Miller said.
TRADITIONAL PASTOR-LED CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH
Senior Pastor Marty Comer leads a traditional congregational Southern Baptist church that predates both the Southern Baptist Convention and its home state convention of Tennessee -– Sand Ridge Baptist Church in Lexington, Tenn., founded in 1828.
“We believe authority ultimately lies with Christ and [He] exercises that corporately through the body,” said Comer, explaining his church’s congregational polity, typical of most SBC churches.
Although his church operates in a single elder-led congregational system, with a deacon body, Comer said he would not use that phrase to describe it, or use the term “elder” as others do.
“Our church would not refer to their pastor as an elder,” he said. “It’s simply not a part of their vernacular. They understand the terms to be synonymous but prefer the traditional terminology.”
Comer's role at Sand Ridge is to be the “shepherd, preacher, vision caster," he said.
“As pastor my responsibility is to cast the vision for the church, to lead them in fulfilling the mission statement for our church,” he said. “And the deacons are supportive of the mission statement and supportive of what we’re doing. But they are servants alongside the rest of the body and to the rest of the body.”
Sand Ridge has a business meeting once a month where the congregation meets to vote on specific issues, although the church is moving toward holding them once a quarter, he said.
Committees and other groups are given authority to perform certain tasks without overall approval from the body on every decision, Comer said.
“We have committees. We have a board of directors. We have people who are delegated functions from the body so that the body doesn’t have to vote on every issue,” he said. “That [having the entire body vote on every issue] is chaos.”
“I think pure congregationalism, a pure democracy is untenable. You have to have a system and order,” he said. “But we do try to maintain principles of congregationalism even when other groups have been delegated certain functions within the church.”
The key to that, Comer said, is ensuring that the church body “retains the right to vote on whatever it chooses to as long as it doesn’t violate Scripture and [our] governing documents.” Major issues, such as approving the budget, calling and terminating of staff, selling or buying property, all are voted on by the congregation.
Although the congregational form of polity is sometimes “a messy system” and requires patience, it is one Comer sees rooted in Scripture.
“Simple or efficient or not, I think it’s the biblical model for the church,” he said, pointing to passages like Acts 6 where the church made decisions as a whole. “And I think you need to stick to that.”
With congregational polity, Comer said, all the church members are seeking God’s will on issues together.
“Everyone may not agree with every minute detail of what’s decided, but after the body speaks we can go forward knowing we’ve sought the will of Christ and joined Him in doing what God is doing in our community,” he said.
One advantage of a congregational system of polity is that “every member understands that they are part of a larger body and they have a voice in the direction of the congregation,” he said. "Congregationalism taps into the gifts of the entire body to do ministry."
Comer believes that the “elder rule” style of polity, considered by many to be a Presbyterian style of church government, “goes against our Baptist heritage."
“I think on the grassroots level Baptist people are still Baptist people,” he said. “We’re traditional, congregational, missions-focused, and committed to proclaiming the Gospel and most Baptists aren't interested in arguing about how they are governed."
And although Comer doesn’t see churches lining up to debate church polity -- citing the paralyzing effect it can have on churches -- Comer said the issue of polity within Southern Baptist life may be an important underlying Baptist distinctive.
“Congregational polity may be more at the heart of our Baptist heritage than people are willing to realize,” he said. “It may be more of a cornerstone distinctive of Baptist life than we've thought about. It’s vital to who we are as Baptists.”
Yeats said one of the major issues within the debate on church polity is trust -– whatever the congregational expression.
“Let’s just be straightforward about it," Yeats said. "Most people want to trust church leadership to make the right decisions. And their lives are so full and so cluttered with everyday decision-making with family, church, government, business, they just don’t have time to get involved in the day-to-day operations of a church. And they are just willing to trust the Lord and trust church leaders to take care of that process.
“And if you cannot trust church leaders, what other human can you trust?”