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Lay Elders Are Not the Shepherding JV Team

This article has also appeared on The Gospel Coalition.

My leadership teeth were cut in a denomination where non-vocational elders didn’t exist. It wasn’t simply that our tithing base provided the luxury of full-time pastor-elders. We believed a compensated clergy was biblically supportable and resulted in a far more efficient, connected eldership team. The fruit, to my thinking, was that it was the most effective way to shepherd the church.

I believed it. I taught it. And I wrote it. And I staffed according to it.

But what I missed was a lot.

This is not a confession, nor is it a critique of the group I pastored. I’m incredibly grateful to God for the ministry path he created for me and the people with whom I shared it. Also, it’s not like I was embracing a sinful practice, or publicly crusading against lay elders while diabolically cultivating a power-hungry eldership posse. It was nothing that calculated.

I’m not returning to my Presbyterian roots and busting out what I still think is a dubious division between “ruling” and “teaching” elders. Churches with paid-only elders are a minority, but I wouldn’t suggest they’re sinful or self-serving. I spent 27 years working that model, and there are undeniable benefits. More importantly, there are plenty of passages encouraging the church to support those they call (see Matt. 10:10Luke 10:91 Cor. 9:8–1412–14Gal. 6:61 Tim. 5:17–18).

Yes, some elders should be compensated. But I now believe it’s highly important that some are not. Here are four reasons why.


1. Wider Protection

On a fallen planet, compensation influences every environment it touches. When a governing body comprises exclusively men whose financial future is tied to the organization, it can tempt them toward expedience and can render them less circumspect on certain kinds of important decisions. I’m beginning to see that it may be noble, but it’s still naïve to manage a staff while assuming humility or relationship can overrule the influence of these economic and political dynamics. I know, I was that naïve leader.

What I’m learning is that lay elders look through a lens less clouded by how certain decisions might affect next year’s budget or next week’s attendance. It’s not about being more godly and supernaturally impervious to income and attendance stats. They are positioned, however, to be less influenced by them. Unencumbered by how decisions affect salary or standing within the church, the lay elder is uniquely positioned to protect the interests of the church, and also any staff who may come under unexpected criticism.

I recently spoke to a pastor who was divorced by a wife who rushed headlong into a wall of unrepentant sins. Though the pastor was cleared by his elders (most of them non-vocational), the church was scandalized by the divorce, and people voted with their feet. Membership dropped, income plummeted, and the church ran aground on the shores of chaos. The pastor offered to resign. But the elders believed he was called to preach and, despite the Monday-morning stats, they felt the church’s future was best secured by protecting his role. So they strengthened him through their prayers and encouragement, and called him to stay lashed to the mast until the church came through the storm.

That was several years ago.

The pastor is now happily remarried, and the church has bounced back strongly. I recently asked if he thought he would still be pastoring his church if all of the elders were vocational and under the squeeze of the rapid decline in attendance and giving. “Probably not,” he said. He observed that when a congregation raises serious questions about a staffer or unpopular decisions (like his) need to be made, it’s a comfort to know there are elders in the room whose job or economic future is not tied to the way they vote. I think he is right.


2. Stronger Investment

In some Christian traditions, pastoral ministry is seen as both a calling and also a career path. This means men can spend a few years pastoring in one place and then move forward to another church. I’m not criticizing the practice, though the ambitions driving “career” can easily corrupt the soul of ministry.

I’m simply recognizing that when churches become pastoral career boosters, the revolving door of leadership can destabilize. Since non-vocational elders are not building a life around paid ministry, they become more deeply invested in their local church.

When paid elders move on, lay elders remain. And as they stand their post, they become custodians of the rich gospel story that sounds forth from their church. Though one can imagine cases where rigid elders protect dead traditions, in a healthy church it’s more likely that their experience, long-term relationships, and institutional knowledge will smooth transitions and aid productive change.


3. Deeper Wisdom

It’s simple economics—a compensated eldership means a smaller group. Plurality is determined by church finances, not church needs. This can mean the river of wisdom runs narrow, more hazardously shallow. But more counselors provide a safer passage. “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14). For the safety of wisdom, we need an abundance of counselors.

“Abundance” is an admittedly abstract term. Statistically, most churches across the globe are small. When we make the role of elder contingent on the church’s budget rather than the qualified men who aspire, we basically create a model where the only churches who enjoy an abundance of elder-counselors are Western and affluent. Applying “abundance” to eldership doesn’t necessarily unveil the ideal size of a plurality, but it does suggest a number beyond what the church can compensate.

For those who might argue that it’s just too much to call a layperson to the rigors of eldership training and assessment, I answer with the words of Alexander Strauch:

Some people say, “You can’t expect laymen to raise their families, work all day, and shepherd a local church.” But that is simply not true. Many people raise families, work, and give substantial hours of time to community service, clubs, athletic activities, and/or religious institutions. The cults have built up large lay movements that survive primarily because of the volunteer time of their members. We Bible-believing Christians are becoming a lazy, soft, pay-for-it-to-be-done group of Christians. It is positively amazing how much people can accomplish when they are motivated to work for something they love. I’ve seen people build and remodel houses in their spare time. I’ve also seen men discipline themselves to gain a phenomenal knowledge of the Scriptures. The real problem then lies not in men’s limited time and energy but in false ideas about work, Christian living, life’s priorities and—especially—Christian ministry.


4. Broader ‘Take’

A “take” is a perspective acquired from a unique vantage point. Lay elders bring a marketplace and civilian “take” to leadership discussions; one distinct and, I would argue, necessary for some types of strategic decisions. It’s been said that a church is not simply a community and a cause, but also a corporation. This just means that if you want the mission to succeed, you need the organization to support it.

Pastors tend to be wired for community and cause. So the corporation part, with all of its graphs and policies, is often assumed or ignored. But many non-vocational guys traffic each day in a world that understands the connection between corporation and mission. This “take” supplies the eldership with advice that can be organizationally strategic and biblically shrewd (Matt. 10:16Luke 16:8).

There’s something else too.

Paid pastors often get the polished sides of people. Postmodernity may be in full blossom, but people still think twice before dropping “F” bombs in the presence of a staff pastor. But lay elders don’t typically elicit the same filtered or forced spirituality from folks. The church perceives them more as “us” than “them” (i.e., paid pastors).

It’s not about greater humility or accessibility from guys on the payroll. The paid-clergy/laity gulf has never been merely an organizational problem. It’s a divide that runs right through the human heart. The presence of non-vocational men on the eldership acknowledges this reality and seeks to wisely bridge the gap.

It’s also not about converting the church into a mini-republic to ensure there is church representation within the eldership. I think it’s more about church identification by the eldership. Lay elders can easily identify with the triumphs and temptations, the wisdom and weakness that visit the church from 9 to 5 each day. The sheep experience greater care. By harnessing lay elders to paid staff, the eldership can better know the condition of the flock (Prov. 27:23) and “pay careful attention . . . to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28).

Not Minor Leaguers

Non-vocational elders are hardly the magical key that unlocks the polity perplexities dogging evangelicals. Every polity model has its kryptonite. Lay elders are not the JV team for real eldership. If a man is an elder—paid or unpaid—the same requirements and responsibilities apply. We do not want to create a sub-tier of spirituality or commitment to the local church. Non-vocational eldering is not part-time eldering.

But after working closely for the last four years among churches with lay elders, I wish I had a do-over. The value of broader wisdom, deeper insight into the marketplace, unique perspective on church health, and freedom from economic concerns now appear absolutely vital.

May God send us sturdy, spiritual, homegrown, marketplace-savvy lay elders to love the staff pastors, strengthen the plurality, and better stabilize the local church on the Rock that never fails.

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