Without exception, all of them shared how they spent a significant amount of time and energy training and equipping their boards of directors — everyone but me. The group made an indelible impression on me. They forced me to acknowledge the obvious: every organization needs effective leadership, and that leadership has to be cultivated.
I determined to change the way I trained officers.
People elected to serve as officers in the church come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Their professional training does not necessarily prepare them to be leaders in the church. Some skills are transferable, but leading a church is different from leading a bank. What do they need to know?
As pastors keep busy visiting hospitals, preparing sermons, attending meetings and teaching classes, the training and cultivating of the board may sit on the back burner. But, what if such training were to move it up? What if we were to design a training program that really prepared deacons and elders to lead the church, to function as a team? What if the officers would design their monthly meetings to be more stimulating rather than draining? How different would the session and board of deacons look after three years? How would our ministry change?
Most new officer nominees want to build the knowledge and skills to lead well. A window of opportunity — a teachable moment — appears. Too often the other leaders (pastor and existing officers) squander that moment by offering little guidance, thereby lowering the bar. And that’s where the bar stays. If we raise the bar, those new officers will eagerly rise to it.
Inspired by my leadership colleagues, we have raised the bar at Myers Park, and our officers have risen to that higher level. We have developed a training model that requires commitment and effort, and the payoff has been huge. Now officers completing their three-year term often remark, “I’m going to miss the fellowship of this group.”
We have stepped up our nominating process to be a yearlong effort. We take more time to discern who should be called and to secure the commitment. The Nominating Committee operates as a small group. They study and pray together before and throughout their work – and what once felt laborious now feels energizing to them.
Then we ask our newly elected nominees to attend four, three-plus hour training sessions. Each session begins in the sanctuary with thirty minutes of worship, prayer and communion. This sets the pace. Worship is followed by two 45-minute teaching units, one in theology and the other in polity, with a meal in between. The table fellowship humanizes the process. Each training event crystallizes as the officer trainees move into small groups for a period of sharing personal faith.
Sounds like a lot, eh? We thought so too, especially because it also requires homework. But class members tell us the time flies and how much the course means to them. They become a team.
Other churches are replicating and adapting this model, some with large staffs, others with no staff; some led by enthusiastic pastors, others led by the elders or deacons themselves. The one common denominator essential for all such models is intentionality: You have to resolve to train and be trained.
We’ve also changed the way our regular session and deacons meetings are held. We begin with a meal followed by 30 minutes of worship in the sanctuary (just like in the training). The organization work of business management takes third place, and moves along more efficiently as a result.
Our deacons provide pastoral care. Their first order of business is to cultivate caring skills and sensitivities, so the diaconal bi-monthly meetings operate mostly like workshops.
Our session reads committee reports — one-page, bulleted updates — rather than listening to the droning of verbal reports. The session still oversees all ministries and votes on issues we deem significant. Committees are empowered to do their work without session micro-management. Genuine accountability has grown out of real empowerment.
Each session meeting focuses on just one area of the church’s ministry each month. This gives the board time to wrap its heart and head around one specific ministry, to be informed and to engage those who are serving in that ministry. We invite the folks in that ministry area to join us for supper and worship. We pray for them and they see their elders leading.
Moses could not work alone. Jesus chose not to. Where does that leave us? When we strengthen our leadership team, we strengthen the church. Not only that, but our life changes as well. We ministers and elders get to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12a), not to do it for them or to them. When we invest this time and energy, it energizes us. We belong to a team that shares ministry together. Don’t argue with Moses or Jesus!
You have heard the saying, “If we always do what we will have always done, we will always get what we have always gotten.” The church needs some leadership today. Establish a task force. Draw up a plan. Get the session’s buy-in. Try it. Adjust it. Make it your own. A church, by God’s grace, is only as strong as its leadership.
So, you tell me, should you move officer training and development to a front burner? I did and it has made the world of difference.
Questions for discussion:
What skills do you bring from your background and training that can serve to strengthen ministry in church?
What skills do you feel you lack for serving in leadership of your church?
What schedule of training will you commit to attend, and what homework will you do to become an effective church officer?
Do you think that your session or diaconate need to organize a self-study task force to reorganize from top to bottom?
Steve Eason is pastor of Myers Park Church in Charlotte, N.C. He is the author of Making Disciples, Making Leaders (Geneva Press).