Leading the Leaders (Someone has to Steer)

Imagine a business where “musical chairs” is used as the management model. The key executive role turns over regularly … a different President each month. Little regard for training, experience, gifts, and skills. Little regard for consistency, stability, and effectiveness. Instead, egalitarianism is the prime leadership value—everyone needs to have their time in the President’s chair whether they are equipped to sit there or not.

Would you expect such a business to run smoothly, keep a firm focus, and make a steady profit? Would you ever imagine that “musical chairs” could prove an effective way for a group of people to manage a company?

Yet this is precisely the model we (often) adopt among groups of elders. We recognize (however reluctantly) that someone has to lead the leaders: there are agendas to set, after all … meetings to schedule … cats to herd. Yet we approach the issue of “leading the leaders” with great concern.  We are suspicious of anything that smacks of preferential treatment and favoritism—even among ourselves (perhaps especially among ourselves). There is an unstated fear that one elder, if permitted to lead other elders in their deliberations, might prove too influential, too partial and prejudiced for the welfare of the church.

So, instead of addressing this leadership role theologically, we default to an egalitarian ideal. We could ask questions like, “Which of us has God best equipped to lead us in effective discussion and decision making?” “Who among us has the spiritual gift of ‘administration’”? “Are there one or two of our number whom God has granted special and extensive experience in leading meetings and helping groups function?”

But the solution we most often employ is democratic rather than theological. “All elders have the right and responsibility to wear the mantle of chairman. It is only fair that each elder takes his turn in this role. We need to pass the Chairman role around among ourselves regularly and frequently. Let’s assign leadership alphabetically, on a rotating basis, meeting-by-meeting or month-by-month. In this group of equals, ‘fairness’ is the governing priority for assigning the leadership role.”

I understand why elders move in this direction. As Americans, we are bred to appreciate egalitarian ideals. As disciples, we trust humility (that keeps us at the foot of the leadership table) more than a confidence in the calling and gifting of God (that might draw us to the head of the table). As progeny of the American Restoration Movement, we find the whole question of the Spirit’s gifts and calling immensely troubling. And, as broken human beings, there is enough pride in us all to covet our own turn in the chief seat—whether or not we can make effective use of it once we are seated there.

We’ve heard the horror stories of ‘chairmen gone wild.’ We know the importance of checks and balances to any system of power—political or spiritual. Given a choice between the rock of inefficiency and the hard-place of abuse of power, we’d prefer to flounder on the rock thank-you-very-much.

However, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the cost of this egalitarian stance is anything but exorbitant. Loss of focus and consistency. Vacillation of leadership style. Disparities in leadership skills and effectiveness. Confusing hand-offs. Dropped balls. Failure to follow through. Agendas with changing priorities. Different meeting rules and divergent meeting management. Uncertain decisions. Unclear communications.

When leadership of the elder group is passed (sequentially and regularly) to different men—with different personalities and preferences … with varying levels of leadership skills and experiences … influenced by diverse constituencies and sensibilities … with assorted understandings of and commitments to the stated goals and directions of the church—the result can be nothing other than confusion and ambiguity and ineffectiveness.

The Necessity of a Leader for the Leaders

First, let’s be clear about the need for a role like ‘chairman of the elders.’

If elderships are to avoid the amoebae-like gropings of any collection of leader-less people, someone must be willing (and the group must allow that person) to provide direction, boundaries, and disciplines.  There is a need for such leadership before meetings: scheduling, setting an agenda (esp., planning meetings with the vision/mission of the church in mind), determining the number and priority of discussion items, rounding up the information/people that will allow for good decision-making. There is a need for leadership during the meeting: working through the agenda in a disciplined way, limiting discussion, keeping the conversation focused, quashing detours, encouraging participation by all, discouraging over-participation by the few, ensuring that discussion draws to a timely and decisive conclusion. And there is a need for leadership after the meeting: follow up, holding people accountable for assigned tasks, communicating with impacted people and ministries, evaluating decisions, keeping an eye on the horizon for new opportunities or challenges (to name just a few!).

I’ve know elder groups who believed they could do all this through some sort of loose consensus—without resorting to any formal leadership role at all.  “We’ll just figure this out as we go along.” These elders were fooling themselves. And the results were awful.

Most elder groups, however, admit the need for some kind of leadership role among themselves. But they effectively undercut that role with their egalitarian ideals—ignoring the reality that few of their number are actually gifted and skilled to provide this kind of leadership, and (as a result) asking people who have neither the time, talent, or temperament to assume this leading role on a regular basis. But it gets worse. Not only do we habitually have the wrong people doing this important job; we make sure that no one person (wrong or right!) has a chance to do the job for long enough to be effective. We keep the tenure of “chairman” so abbreviated, there is no possibility of developing momentum, a working rhythm, and good meeting habits. Even when someone suited to the task fills this role, he doesn’t have enough time to shape an effective group process. “Oops! It’s the end of the month! Let’s see who’s up next in the rotation!”

Think of what it would mean for our meetings if:

  1. we identified the elder best suited to lead the group effectively, an elder of character and kingdom consciousness …
  2. we invited and gave permission to that elder to do the leadership work essential to the group’s effective functioning, and …
  3. we then allowed his leadership a long enough time-frame for him (and us) to hit a stride, develop a rhythm, and fall into some habits encouraging effectiveness.

Characteristics of a good chairman

Effective leadership depends on charactered and spiritually-gifted leaders. Deciding to appoint and empower a ‘leader of the leaders’ is a good idea, but only if the elder group is able to identify the right leader.

As you consider your fellow elders and discuss who God might be calling to play this leadership role, there are a few characteristics that should shape your deliberations:

  1. This person should be someone who has the gift of “administration” (or—in some translations—the gift of “leadership.” See Romans 12:8). Whatever this gift involves, surely it permits an elder to “direct the affairs of the church well” (1Ti 5:17) and to “manage God’s household” (Tit 1:7).
  2. The right person would be spiritually mature and experienced. His leadership would be permeated by a deep sense of the purposes of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit and the mission of God’s people.
  3. He would be strong enough (in personality, vision, and maturity) to facilitate an effective meeting even when diverse and strongly held opinions are voiced.
  4. He should be thoroughly familiar with the history of the church and with the leadership history of the elders: past decisions, policies, church governance documents, etc.. He should know the vision and mission of the church by heart and be passionately committed to pursuing that vision.
  5. He should be able to draw out responses from everyone at the table in a way that organically leads to consensus among the participants … or makes clear the fundamental divide that faces the group.
  6. He should be savvy enough to know when it is time for elders to stop discussing and make a decision. He should know when a decision is arrived at by consensus or when a formal vote is required. He should also be wise enough not to force a decision but to understand the importance of “tabling” an item for later prayer, discussion, and resolution.
  7. He should be able to follow up on decisions, communicate with people and ministries who are impacted by those decisions, and hold people accountable for responsibilities delegated to them by the elders.
  8. This person must be able to avoid favoritism, opinionated stances, and partiality in any form. He must be willing to treat his fellow elders with absolute respect and fairness. He must consider himself the servant of the elders (in particular) and the church (in general).
  9. He should be willing to resist an elder (or any other party) who may be pushing a personal agenda or bias. Just as he himself avoids partiality and dogmatism, so he is committed to protecting his fellow elders and their decision-making process from the partiality and dogmatism of others.
  10. He should be a person who values the team as a functioning unit, believes in their collective wisdom above his own, and refuses to exercise undue influence in the decision-making process.
  11. He should be willing and able to devote the time required (in and out of meetings) to meet his leadership responsibilities effectively.

Finding such a leader, entrusting him with spiritual authority, empowering him to lead the rest of the elder group, submitting to and supporting his leadership as an elder group, and giving him enough time in this leadership role to encourage good meeting habits, is challenging. There will be dangers and difficulties involved.

But the alternative is even more difficult and dangerous. The absence of leadership is every bit as harmful as the abuse of leadership. But whereas allowing someone to exercise strong leadership may result in an abuse of power, not allowing someone to lead will certainly result in confused, ambiguous, and meandering leadership—if something “confused, ambiguous, and meandering” can be called leadership at all.

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.