Are We Creating Elders or Leaders?

Why the Carver Policy Governance Model must be rejected by Christian churches.

A long-running trend among churches of the Restoration Movement (RM), their colleges, seminaries, and publications of the RM, is to speak of, and be concerned with, matters of Leadership. I would venture to guess that for the most part, when speaking of those who organise, govern, lead, control, supervise, do administration, plan, and set goals, the term leader is pre-eminent. When I speak of leadership in this article, I am doing so as understanding a force that is not the same as eldership, not because leadership is a bad term, but it is a term that marks a different trajectory than is marked by eldership.

My question is, when using the language of leadership, if we are not creating a new category, parallel to the one expressed in the New Testament: elder. The language of leadership, in its modern form, can be very confusing: leaders can be autocratic, they can be consensus builders; leaders can work alone, they can work in committee; leaders can push, leaders can pull. Much of the current literature on the subject is concerned with the type or style of leadership appropriate to an organisation. This is, I believe, in part because there are so many philosophies, systems, and models that leadership can take. It’s been probably thirty years ago that I saw an ad for Leadership Journal, saying, “if it was meant only pastors, we’d have named it, ‘pastorship journal.’” This is the shift in terminology, and where it might end, that concerns me.

Some are uncomfortable with the idea of “leadership” rather than “pastorship,” so in the Christian world, it has been suggested that the term “servant” be prefixed to the word “leader,” (servant-leader) so that it is clear that the leader in the church will be like Jesus (“But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”” Matthew 20:25–28, ESV). This needs to be carefully considered when applying it to a ministry, and the question must be raised, “How do I serve, and lead?” A man in leadership must not consider every task as his task. For example, the apostles, who were growing in their understanding of the Gospel, realised that not everything is their place of service. Thus, they choose others to look after the daily distribution of food to the tables (Acts 6:1-7). They served by prayer and preaching.  What must also be noted is that there is no hint that the daily food distribution was considered beneath the apostles; rather, there were two legitimate tasks, and these tasks required two groups of men.

Returning to the parallel category of leader, I suggest that there is a danger in doing so because it creates a class of Christian worker that is outside the understanding of the New Testament church. The New Testament teaches a way by which the church is to be lead, organized, taught, guided, and administered. This task is to be done by the elders of the church, and the ministry, beginning with the eldership, is to be supervised by the eldership.

Within a couple of centuries of the founding of the church, eldership became hierarchical. That is, eldership in individual congregations was supplanted by over-elders, as churches in geographically important places (Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, Rome) began to be seen as having a greater importance and influence. Much of this reflects the thinking of the day, which itself was hierarchical, both from the Roman government and the military.

The early RM rightly opposed the hierarchical government of Protestant denominations. Today, we can still observe the damage as theological liberalism and apostasy reign in denominational headquarters and seminaries and impose false doctrines upon local congregations.

Eldership, as opposed to leadership, is very different:

  1. Eldership is not hierarchical. That is, it does not follow the structure of the government, the military, or corporation. These structures are not in themselves wrong, and they have their place in broader society; but they do not belong in the church of Christ. There should not be a “top-down” leadership structure in the Christian church.
    1. The New Testament uses a military metaphor to describe the Christian life and struggle (cf. Ephesians 6, Matthew 16:18, etc.). Military chain of command is never used to describe how the church functions.
    2. “Gentile leadership” is held up as an example of how leadership ought not to be. (Matthew 20:25-28).
  2. Eldership is not passive. It does not set policy and then hand the working out of that policy to professionals. Eldership must remain involved in keeping with its Biblical mandate (oversight, teaching, defending) in ways that many leadership models will not permit. At this point, a clarification of terms is necessary.
    1. The New Testament office (note: singular!) of elder, overseer, and pastor has been mis-taught for centuries, and that has worked its way into our thinking. What follows is not new from me, but has been restated many times in the history of the church. Culturally, hierarchy is always at the door, and, because it works so well, often invited in. Consider the following:
      1. Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders (πρεσβυτέρους, presbuterous, “presbyters”) of the church to come to him.” (Acts 20:17, ESV). Note the term highlighted. He was calling together the people in charge of the church in Ephesus. These were referred to as elders.
      2. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (ἐπισκόπους, episkopous, “bishops” or “overseers) to care for (ποιμαίνειν, poimainein, “shepherd” “pastor) the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28, ESV). In this verse, Paul is saying that the elders are overseers (bishops). Their task is to shepherd (pastor) the church, who is the flock of God. Please don’t miss this: Paul calls the elders together, and addresses them as overseers (bishops) and commands them to shepherd (pastor) the flock.

Today, a pastor is usually a full-time church leader, who usually preaches on Sundays. A bishop oversees server churches in an area. An elder serves on a church board, and may or may not be involved in teaching ministry.

The New Testament knows nothing of this kind of distinction.

But today, if an elder were to use the term “bishop” to describe himself, it might sound odd, as though he were usurping a role to himself that he did not deserve. If five elders were to say they were pastors, one might think the church had a large staff! But this is hierarchical thinking that is engrained in our thinking today. Consider the terms again:

  1. Elder: a male who is older and more mature in the faith. This term is primarily descriptive of the person.
  2. Overseer: one who supervises the work of the church. This term is descriptive of the role, or function, which is oversight.
  3. Pastor: one who looks after sheep, one who feeds, defends, and leads. This term is descriptive of the task, which is the ministry of the Word and prayer.

Modern thought has separated these so that they describe men in different roles, as though the roles are themselves different.  I do not believe that this can be reconciled with the New Testament model of church governance.

1 Timothy 3:1-7 describes the requirements for an overseer (bishop, episkopos). If an overseer is an elder, and an elder is a pastor, these requirements are describing the expectations for the same man.

  1. In Acts 20:28, overseeing and pastoring are linked. In 1 Timothy 3:2, the overseer must be “able to teach.” Teaching is an integral role for the elder/overseer/pastor.
  2. Titus 1:5-9 again links the terms “elder” (vs 5) with “overseer” in verse 7. Furthermore, the teaching (pastoral feeding) and rebuking error (pastoral protecting) are requirements in verse 9.
  1. Eldership, then, is the following
    1. An office that is held by a man who has experience in the faith, taught, and able to teach. An elder is a man who is old enough to have lived his faith.
    2. Oversight of the congregation, and delegation of tasks to deacons.
    3. Feeding the flock by preaching and teaching.
    4. Defending the flock by rebuking error, both moral and theological.
  2. Therefore, Eldership is not:
    1. Passive, and uninvolved in the teaching and defending ministry of the church.
    2. Hyphenated: the New Testament does not speak of Youth Pastors, Family Life Pastors, Visitation Pastors, Worship Pastors, Music Pastors, Creative Arts Pastors, Sports Pastors, or Senior Pastors (for the elderly). There are roles and tasks in the church that do focus on specific people and needs, but the term pastor should be reserved for men who are in fact, elders.
    3. The New Testament does not speak of “Elder Emeritus,” i.e., too old to be useful but still treated with the honour of having served. It should be kept in mind that age itself is an honour in the Bible, and something to be respected. Elders are removed from office for sin, false teaching, and death. Physical and mental aging may also cause an elder to recuse himself from his office. Biblically, age is equated with wisdom, and so the term for the office implies experience.
  1. Leadership is not necessarily eldership, but eldership necessarily leads.
  1. By removing Biblical terminology, we run the risk of removing the Biblical office and replacing it with something foreign to the New Testament.
    1. Elders teach. Who teaches in your congregation?
    2. Elders direct. Who directs in your congregation?”?
    3. Are people doing the work of an elder, but under a different name? I.e., do you find saying, “Meet Henrietta Finkelstein, our Youth Pastor,” un-troubling when it would be very troubling to say, “Meet Elder Henrietta Finkelstein”? Dear Henrietta may indeed “work with youth” in some capacity, but if she’s a pastor, she’s an elder, and that’s a problem (1 Timothy 2:12).
  1. With the adaption of “Carver Policy Governance Model” (name for its founder, John Carver) by many church boards, church hierarchy returns in full force. The following quotes are from an article supporting the Carver model. The full article may be found here.

“One of the key principles embedded in Policy Governance is that the board holds one person accountable for achieving the institutional ends — the Chief Executive Officer. . . .

 In the Carver model of Policy Governance the board focuses upon developing policy consistent with mission, values, and ends of the organization. Once these are defined, it empowers the CEO, within specific limitations, to ensure that the organizational resources are focused upon accomplishing the desired ends. In the context of a local church, the board (which most often includes the lead pastor) would establish the policies, including the key ends they want the church to achieve. It then hands off to the lead pastor the responsibility to employ all of the resources of the local church to accomplish these outcomes. This model creates significant clarity for the lead pastor and the board as to their respective responsibilities. So long as the lead pastor is guiding the local church to achieve the outcomes within the limitations specified, the board supports the lead pastor in his role. Reporting lines are clear. The accountability of all other paid staff is to the lead pastor, not the board.

Does this mean that other elders or deacons who form the church board have no role in ministry leadership? Not at all. However, if they are assigned a ministry role in the church (i.e. small group leader, facility oversight, member care, etc.), they are accountable to the lead pastor for that role, not the board. They do not report to the board, but to the lead pastor. It may also be the case that the board assigns them a specific board responsibility (i.e. audit oversight, personnel matters, etc.) and in this case they are accountable directly to the board. So the members of the church board need to be clear as to the nature of their responsibilities and to whom they are accountable for their accomplishment.”

I believe this model is popular, because it works. But many things work that we don’t want to do in the church, and the church governance shown in the New Testament ought to prevail. This leadership model is unscriptural, for it creates a hierarchy where it should not; it elevates one elder above other elders, and makes the several accountable to one. Furthermore it creates unbiblical offices, CEO, lead pastor, etc., within the church. It also, artificially and unscripturally, separates the eldership from the office of overseer and pastor. If all elders are pastors, how is it that “other elders and deacons” are “accountable to the lead pastor?” This distinction is unnecessary and unhelpful. It also effectively sidelines the elders of the church from the ministry of teaching and protecting the church.

The standard of eldership set forth in Scripture, beyond the moral standards (which are daunting), is rigorous. To be able to teach and defend the faith takes an investment of one’s life and energy, beyond the simple agreement to serve on a board. If I serve on a board of an organization which is not a church, I understand that there are professionals who are working in the organization to whom I must defer in matters of expertise and skill. I know that that I can only see to it that the general policies of the organization are maintained. But if I am an elder, I have a holy obligation to “be that expert,” at least as far as God’s grace allows, and to be fully committed to knowing God and His Word. Knowing God and His Word, then, I must teach it and defend the flock. This ministry cannot be outsourced to other experts; it is the task of the elders to fulfill.