These are thoughts shared with the TPC ruling elders some years ago, but I have decided to make them public here with the hope others in church leadership will find them helpful.
Pastors are required to be leaders of men. They must shepherd the shepherds, helping ruling elders do their work in the congregation effectively. They must lead the session so the session can lead the church. But today, we face a crisis in leadership, both inside and outside the church. Those who have been entrusted with leadership often have a failure of nerve, and thus fail to take charge and act decisively. Would-be leaders fail to cast vision and then implement that vision. In our culture, when leaders do try to take charge they all too often do so in self-serving, arrogant, and short-sighted ways, acting as tyrant-leaders rather than servant-leaders. True leaders don’t just make decisions, they take responsibility for those under their authority and the decisions that affect them. Sadly, today, many in positions of leadership like its perks, but don’t want to be held responsible for anything. They blameshift, make excuses, or invent new ways of escaping accountability.
Leadership in the church is a uniquely masculine endeavor. Pastors must be men because pastoring is a manly, masculine work. In our day, many pastors have become effeminate (which is why it’s no surprise many churches have now started allowing women to fill the pastoral office or take part in pastoral duties, such as liturgical leadership). Their unwillingness to actually take charge, or to take a stand, or to take responsibility, is crippling to the entire church. Others, in an overreaction to this “pastors as the third sex” phenomena, overcompensate by throwing their weight around, bullying their congregations, and refusing to humbly listen, repent, and learn, even when it’s obvious they’ve gone the wrong way and gotten lost.
In light of the situation we face, I would like to offer a few untidy, unsystematic thoughts on ecclesial leadership. These thoughts are mainly directed to my own context as a pastor in the CREC, but perhaps others will find them helpful. Sessions, led by wise pastors, need to be able to make decisions (often unpopular decisions). They need to know how to implement those decisions. And they need to know how to back up and undo their decisions when it becomes painfully obvious they have made a mistake. My goal is to take lessons I’ve learned from decisions we’ve made at TPC, good and bad, and share those lessons with other elders. This paper is directed to other men in positions of church leadership, though certainly laymen in the church might benefit from “overhearing” such a conversation.
First, I want to reflect on how we make, implement, and explain/defend decisions. When we make a decision, especially one that has a major bearing on the life of the congregation, it's important for us to understand the seriousness of it. When big decisions are made, what happens in the meeting itself is only the half of it. The other half is how we present and enact that decision in the life of the congregation, especially if the decision is going to face controversy or criticism.
In particular, I think it is vital for us as elders to understand and remember how sessions rule. In traditional presbyterian jargon, elders rule jointly, not severally. In other words, sessions as such make decisions, and when a decision is made it belongs to each elder as a member of the session. The decision is not the majority's decision, it is the session's decision, and so even those in the minority have to get on board with it. This means an elder is bound to own and support a decision of the session even if he voted against it behind closed doors. (A session is not like the U.S. Congress in this respect.) If an elder is on the losing end of a decision, he can resign if his conscience demands it (e.g., if he believes the decision involves serious sin), or he can appeal the decision to presbytery (if he beleives the session has acted unbiblically or unconstitutionally), or he can publicly support the decision the session has made (even if he continues working to overturn it behind closed doors). This is simply a matter of mutual submission to one another. We should avoid a public airing of our private disagreements. Think of an analogy from family life: A husband and wife may have their disagreements over some parenting issue, but as far as the kids are concerned, the parents should speak with a single voice. They can continue to work out their differences in private, but before the children, they should present a unified front. If they don't, the children will quickly learn to play off mom and dad against each other, with predictably disastrous results. As leaders, we must be publicly united. If we fail to get on the same page and work from the same script, we can hardly expect the rest of the congregation to remain united. A divided session will inevitably produce a divided congregation.
Suppose Elder Bob argues in a session meeting against the elders making decision X, and in favor of making decision Y. He presents arguments A, B, and C against X and for Y. At the end of the day he is outvoted, and the session adopts decision X. The next Sunday, a non-officer hears of the decision and wants to talk to Elder Bob about it. He says to Elder Bob, "I think you guys made a mistake when you chose to do X. Did the session even consider arguments A, B, and C? You should have done Y instead." At that point, Elder Bob can respond in one of two ways. He can say, "Yeah, I actually made arguments A, B, and C in the meeting. But they voted against me. I can't believe it. I agree with you -- the session made a terrible mistake. Due to this bad decision, our church is going down the tubes. If only they had listened..." Or Elder Bob can say, "Yes, the session did consider all those arguments, and they do carry weight. I sympathize with what you're saying, and it wasn't an easy decision. But at the end of the day, the session prayerfully chose to go a different direction with this decision and now we're asking for your support in it." Elder Bob can either make hay of his disagreement with the other elders or he can hide his disagreement out of respect for and submission to the session as a whole. The right path -- the path of unity and peace for the church -- is obvious. [Sidenote: I do think elders have the freedom to speak frankly about what goes in session meetings with their wives, including ways they may have been outvoted. That's part of being "one flesh" -- husbands and wives will share things with one another that they cannot share with others. But even then we need to take great care, and remind our wives that they are privy to privileged information that should not be passed along. We also have to consider how knowing certain things might affect the way our wives relate to others in the congregation and not burden them with things they really can't do anything about. A man in leadership should remember that his wife is the weaker vessel and he should be careful not saddle her with more than she should be expected to bear; generally, men should protect their wives from anxieties, rather than compounding those anxieties.]
Presbyterians do not believe in one man rule (the way, say, Episcopals or Roman Catholics do). Rather, we believe that multiple elders should rule "as one man." Presbyterians insists on a plurality of elders in a local church, but not a plurality of voices -- the several elders should speak with a single voice to the congregation. This is the genius of presbyterianism: the church is ruled by a multitude of counselors who are able to speak with a united voice. We can have a cacophony of voices in private session meetings while issues are under deliberation, but the cacophony must give way to a unison voice once a decision is reached. Most of the time in our session, we make decisions unanimously because we’ve worked through an issue to the point where everyone has had their say, everyone has listened to what others have had to say, and we’ve deliberated and prayed until we’ve reached one mind on the matter. But that does not always happen, and it would be unrealistic to expect it to always happen. The only unanimous vote I can find is Scripture is when the crowds cried out “Crucify him! Crucify him!” so there is nothing sacred about unanimity, and it may even be dangerous (e.g., it could be a sign of “groupthink”; it has been rightly said that the demand for consensus often castrates leadership). There is absolutely nothing wrong with a split vote on most issues, provided the majority will continue to respect the minority and the minority will offer public support to the majority. Again, that’s the beauty of Presbyterianism: plural leadership speaking with a single voice. It is a commitment to mutual submission that makes plural leadership possible. The congregation cannot "obey its leaders" (Heb. 13) if those leaders are contradicting one another. If a session has as many voices as it has elders, the whole church is going to be divided against itself. For us as elders, that means each of us must submit to the session as a whole, or separate from it for conscience's sake. Either submission, or separation -- there is no third alternative, in which you are allowed to be a free-wheeling elder, publicly criticizing the session while remaining part of it. (Appeal to presbytery is possible in some instances, but while the appeals process proceeds, the elder will need to be in submission.) In a helpful article (http://articles.logospressonline.com/blog/?p=18), Doug Wilson is talking about Christian school boards, but what he says is just as applicable (in fact, more so!) to church sessions:
Most Christian schools operate under plural leadership – usually under the authority of a school board. Now Jesus taught that no man can serve two masters. How can this be reconciled with plural leadership? The pattern of plural, corporate leadership is certainly bibilical (it is required in the church, for example). So how is it possible for administrators, teachers, staff and students under this plural authority to keep from being pulled in different directions, and all by people equally “in charge”? Tragically, in many schools this pulling in different directions is a pulling apart.
In order to remain biblical, all forms of plural leadership must speak with a single voice. Several examples should serve to illustrate the principle. Suppose a school board is in the process of selecting a line of textbooks. Suppose further there have been vigorous and thorough debates in the board meetings about the value of this publisher versus the value of that one. The day comes, however, when the vote is taken, and the school board has made its decision. Now, the board member in the minority must not only submit to the decision (which he obviously has to do anyway), he must also support it....
There are times when submission to human authority does constitute disobedience to God. No human authority is absolute; no human authority legitimately commands unquestioning obedience. But if it is impossible to submit to a school board, then it is impossible to stay on that school board. If it is legitimate to stay, then it is required to submit. We cannot take a middle ground and say that this is a big enough issue to allow us to be noisy and unsubmissive and small enough to allow us to remain.
Now, to say each elder has to submit to the authority of the session as a whole and that we must speak with a single, unified voice to the congregation is not the same as pretending that our decisions are infallible or above criticism. No human authority is absolute or inerrant, and that certainly goes for our session. When we make a decision that proves to be controversial, we can certainly sympathize with those in the congregation who criticize it (though hopefully we will also defend it!). We can admit there are good counter-arguments and patiently hear them out (though hopefully we'll also explain the session's rationale!). We can even say we'll reconsider (and we've proven a willingness to do that!). But it's still crucial for us to present a united front. As has been pointed out before, the congregation will never be more united than its leadership, and if we are divided against one another, there is little hope for holding the congregation together. If the congregation sees us as officers dividing into factions, unwilling to support the decision we've supposedly made together, then any hope for moving forward as a church body is lost.
In light of the above, here are a few practical points to consider. Officers need to be careful about "thinking out loud" when it comes to discussing decisions that have already been made. An elder's private speculations in conversation with a member can do a lot of damage if that member thinks that particular elder is speaking for the whole session, or criticizing the session as a whole. Elders also need to do their best to patiently listen to folks (that's part of shepherding, after all), but cannot hesitate to defend the decisions the session has made (that's leadership, after all). We might also need to gently remind our wives that they hold positions of prominence in the congregation by virtue of being married to an officer, and so they also need to choose their words carefully. Quite often, the comments of an elder's wife will carry "official" authority for people who hear her speak, whether she realizes it or not, and she can do unintentional damage by not realizing how powerful her words are in the context of the congregation. If an elder's wife criticizes a decision of the session, the members at large might not only see her as unsubmissive to the session, but also as out of fellowship with her husband -- never a good thing!
None of this rules out ongoing conversation with the congregation about particular decisions. Good sessions are composed of good listeners. The session needs to speak with a single voice to the congregation, but it also needs to be attuned to the various voices speaking in the congregation. A good session will know its people well, will anticipate how a decision will be received by them, and will be serving the body in such a way that it is building up trust. The more a session has deposited in the “trust bank” the better chance the session has of not bouncing a check when it makes a decision that ruffles some congregational feathers.
Second, it's important for leaders to actually lead. That sounds radical, I know! Actually, what I'm getting at is the dreaded tendency of leaders these days to "lead from behind" -- which, of course, is not leading at all. This is the tendency of sessions to lead via poll taking or surveys. It is an overly cautious, timid approach to leadership that confuses serving through leading with "leading" by serving. As an elder, the gift you have to give to the congregation is leadership. You serve the congregation by exercising that gift. If a session does not take charge of the congregation and lead it where it needs to go, that session is failing to serve the body. We must ask ourselves: Are we serving by leading (as we should)? Or leading by serving (a sign we have had a failure of nerve)? Yes, we must be servants -- but some people so emphasize the "servant" side of the servant-leadership model that the "leader" part gets diluted or lopped off altogether. Jesus served his disciples precisely in leading them -- he often served them in ways they did want or even know they needed to be served, and he often led them to places they did not want to go. We do not find Jesus constantly checking in with the disciples to make sure they approve of how is leading them. Of course, we are not Jesus, and we are not going to be infallible. But the point is that Jesus has chosen us to be his representative to this body, and to lead it in his stead and in his name. I can guarantee you that if Jesus was leading TPC, there are people who would complain, murmur, and push back at times. That's just the way it is.
If we think the congregation "knows best" then we should be a congregational church and put everything up for congregational vote. But we're not a congregational church. We're a presbyterian church. We were chosen to be officers precisely because we have qualifications and callings that stand out from the rest of the congregation. We are expected to "know best." That doesn't mean we can't glean all kinds of insights from interactions with non-officers, who often have tremendous wisdom to share. It doesn't mean we can't do things like surveys and straw polls to gauge the will of the congregation on a non-theological issue (as we have done and continue to do). But it does mean the burden of leadership -- of making the decisions that will shape the future of our congregation -- rests on us. There is no escaping that burden. Presbyterianism is intrinsically opposed to an egalitarianism that would give everyone's opinion in the church equal weight. Presbyterians are committed to rule by presbyters (= elders). We believe that there is such a thing as wisdom and that wisdom should be rewarded with authority. We are not egalitarians who think everyone is an expert. We are not egalitarians who oppose any and all hierarchy. No, we believe God established a hierarchy in the local church for the good of the whole body.
When we accepted the call to leadership, we took on the sacrifices it would bring -- sacrifices of our time, sacrifices for our families, financial sacrifices, etc. We also took on the challenge of having to make difficult, complex, and often controversial decisions for the congregation. Leadership in this arena is not like that in the business or political arenas. On the one hand, while many of our decisions are relatively mundane, others have a real bearing on the Spiritual health, and thus eternal destiny, of souls entrusted into our care. That's never the case in business or politics. On the other hand, we don't have the same kinds of leverage that leaders in some other spheres have, so our power is primarily exercised through service and suasion. If an employee displeases his boss, he can get his pay docked or lose his job. But if someone in the congregation goes against our counsel, we usually have no recourse at all except to plead and pray, until and unless an issue rises to the level of church discipline (which is obviously rare), and even then our only weapon is excommunication which looks foolish in the eyes of the world. So there are unique challenges and stresses that come with leadership in the church. Church leaders are vulnerable in unique ways compared to other types of leaders; church leaders are simultaneously powerful and powerless....but our sufficiency is found in the Lord. Leadership in the ecclesial arena is not for the faint of heart or thin skinned. It's not for the impatient or short-tempered. It's not for those who cannot handle conflict in a constructive way, who cannot take criticism without striking back, or who cannot work through disagreements in a mature fashion.
What are leaders supposed to do? It is up to leaders (particularly the pastor, but in conjunction with the other elders) to cast the vision for the church, working to shape the overarching philosophy and direction and culture of the church's ministry and community life. Leadership is responsible for Spiritual care/shepherding, for seeing to it that the Word is faithfully preached and the sacraments appropriately administered (including discipline that removes the unrepentant from the table). In all, church leaders are responsible for a wide range of tasks, and we are accountable to God for how faithfully we perform them (Heb. 13). When it comes to the life of this community, the buck stops with us.
The main thing I want to stress here is that we have a responsibility to lead the flock in whatever course of action we believe is best for the congregation. We have to be proactive, not merely reactive. In many cases, if we do not act at all, we have acted, and that action has consequences for which we are responsible. (A failure to exercise church discipline when it should have been done is an example of this. That would be silence and inaction in the face of evil.)
Leaders need to understand, as a matter of practical wisdom, something about the way in which communities function. Most people will be resistant to a change, even when good arguments are made. Only a few can be innovators and early adopters. The rest will lag behind until the change begins to look absolutely inevitable or seems to be safer than first thought. Of course, to be a leader, by definition, means you have to be among those on the leading edge, who can see what needs to be done to prepare for the future and act accordingly. To be a leader means you have to bear the brunt of opposition from the majority who will resist the change for a while. Generally to try to convince the majority to adopt a change right off the bat is useless. Most people aren't wired that way and will need time to adjust.
Of course, leaders have to also be ready to deal with criticisms of their decisions. Part of being is a leader is dealing patiently and kindly with people who have the audacity to think they can dismantle in 2 minutes a carefully and prayerfully made decision, talked through by men chosen for office because of their wisdom, and deliberated over for months. Such is life. We must be thick-skinned and tender-hearted.
Leaders need to be self-aware of their own personality types. They need to be conscious of their strengths and weaknesses. Each session needs to look at its corporate personality. Often times, a session is composed of men who want to be liked, who want to avoid conflict, and who don't want to rock the boat. Those are great qualities in many ways and can help keep the peace in the congregation. At the same time, they make the session vulnerable to "leading from behind." Instead of really charting out a course we believe God wants us to take, even if it means wrestling through some differences with folks in the congregation for a while, we are prone to default to a perceived majority (or to the loudest complainers as the case may be) and function more like a congregational church.
If we're only going to do what is evident to most everyone in the congregation, why are elders needed at all? Why not become a congregational church? No, elders cannot escape the responsibility of being the ones who make the decisions, for better or worse. We cannot roll it off our backs onto the congregation. We have to make a decision and own it. Even if it is a controversial decision.
Maybe an illustration will help, taken from Tom Wolfe's classic book, The Right Stuff. Chuck Yeager was an up and coming test pilot when the biggest aviation challenge was to break the sound barrier. The problem was that when it had been tried, it had proved fatal. At close to Mach 1 speed, planes would start to do funny things. Controls would freeze up. Instruments would go haywire. Some planes shook so bad they fell apart. Engineers began to speculate that there must be some kind of "sonic wall" or "sound barrier" that couldn't be crossed. Well, along came Yeager, a young man blessed with a extra helping of "the right stuff." Not being an engineer (in fact, he had hardly finished high school), Yeager was free of any complicated theories about a sonic wall. He had a hunch that hitting the speed of sound would be volatile, but after you crossed through Mach 1, things would settle down and become placid on the other side. So, working for base pay of a mere $283 per month, Yeager took his life and the controls of the Bell X-1 into his hands, and went on a supersonic speed test flight. On October 14, 1947, he took his plane close to Mach 1 and he began to experience all the usual instabilities....but then he blasted through them to break the supposed "sound barrier," on to a speed of Mach 1.05. What did he find on the other side of the speed of sound? It was incredibly serene and beautiful. His hunch had proved correct. A lot of shake and rattle gave way to calmness for the pilot with the courage to push on through the perceived barrier.
Often times as leaders we’re afraid to make decisions because we're afraid of what's on the other side. My hunch is that if we're willing to press forward, if we're willing to push through the perceived "wall," we can find it placid and peaceful on the other side. We might have to endure some momentary shaking and craziness on the way, but it'll be worth it if we stay the course. Do not let the fact that some people will think decisive action is arrogant or unloving be a barrier; work through those issues with disgruntled members, but do not give power to a few complainers to veto what is best for the congregation as a whole.
Third, and most importantly, is what we at TPC have called (conveniently!) “the Trinity way.” Our motto for some years has been: ”Trinity Presbyterian Church: Where the Trinity is not just a doctrine but a way of life.” Character is always important for officers. Virtue is more important than giftedness. Holiness is vastly superior to personality or charisma. This is what "the Trinity way" is all about. Here's the big picture: Man is made imago Dei. That means we are made in the image of the Trinity. The Trinity is the original, man is the copy. That means human life is in some way patterned after the Triune life of God. In a fallen word, man has become a cracked mirror, no longer reflecting God's glory and love back to him, as he was designed to do. But the church is humanity 2.0, humanity restored. In the church, the pattern of the Triune life is to be on display (John 17:20-23). So, how does God live? If we can answer that question, we will know how the church should live.
In the Scriptures, especially in John's gospel, we see the members of the Trinity loving, serving, and glorifying one another. The Son, Jesus, makes it clear he has come to glorify the Father. He confesses "the Father is greater than I" and he submits himself to the will of the Father. He says everything he knows he (in some way) learned from the Father; he only does what he has seen his Father doing. But at the same time, we see the Father glorifies the Son. The Father "submits" to the Son's request for glory (John 8:54, 17:1). The Father lavishes his love and glory on the Son, ultimately giving the Son a name above every name (Phil. 2:5-11). Where does the Spirit fit in? The Spirit comes to glorify the Son, who in turn glorifies the Father (John 16:14). But perhaps we can also think of the Spirit as the glory the Father and Son share, as they give love to and receive love from one another. This is the life of God: The one God exists in three persons, as a communion of love, in which no person glorifies himself, but seeks to glorify the others. God does not seek his own glory per se; rather each member of the Trinity seeks the glory of the others. When God made us in his image, this is what he had in mind for human life.
This is "the Trinity way." This is what the church should be. We should be a mirror of the Trinity -- a community where we give love to and receive love from one another, in the Spirit. We should be diverse, yet united; distinct in gifts and roles, yet sharing a common life through the gospel. We should put other's interests above our own, doing nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but acting in humility and love towards one another. In short, we do not live to glorify ourselves, but to glorify others in the body.
All of this must start with the leadership. We are to be icons of the Trinity in our personal lives, in our families, in our church offices. If we live this way, we can hope and expect it will flow out -- through the Spirit -- to the body as whole. And in this way, our church can become a congregation that lives up to its name.
Many theologians today are skeptical of using the Trinity to construct an anthropology or ecclesiology. And no doubt, this is somewhat justified, given the way "social Trinitarianism" has been used to justify all kinds of crazy anti-biblical conclusions. But we cannot completely get away from the Trinity as a model for human life in general and church life in particular because Jesus has prayed we would be one, and would indwell one another, as the Father and Son are one, and indwell one another (John 17:20-23). All that to say: a church that fulfills the "the Trinity way" is a church that will fulfill the prayer of Jesus in John 17. And what could be better than that?