Can Elders and Preachers Live Together in Harmony?
In my last post, I compared minister-elder relationships to Dr. Seuss’ story of the Zax, who reach an impasse and refuse to budge or change their course of action. Now I’d like to move on from talking about conflicts or disharmony, and instead share the joy I have in a relationship with my elders now. I share this in hopes that others can get a vision for a good relationship between elders and preachers.
Robert and I have coffee together weekly. He’s a close friend who joyfully, respectfully, and mercifully keeps me accountable to God, my job, my family, and the elders. We talk about family, movies, books, current events, history, and our struggles and failures. We laugh a lot, and we leave one another with a smile and a hug, and spring into our lives with more joy than before.
Mark dropped by the church office this week, just to say hello and encourage the staff. Our elders don’t drop by to try and tell us how to operate the day-to-day church life. They humbly trust and empower us to lead the daily operations. In years past, an appointment with an elder might knot my stomach or send me into a tailspin for the rest of the week. But when I see Mark pulling up, I don’t have a stress response. Mark is a businessman, a CrossFit trainer, and he doesn’t have leisure time to chat long, but he is also respectful of my time. He shares encouraging and kind words, smiles, laughs, and he’s off to CrossFit training. My elder is more buff than me, and I’m fine with that.
John is building me an oak desk! How cool is that, for an elder to build a preacher a desk? John says he’s doing it because he loves me, and I’ll proudly work and write sermons from that desk. John is known as one of the most gentle and loving men in our church. Whenever I visit the homebound and bereaved, they say, “John came by earlier this week.” I can never seem to beat John to the sick and dying.
Jeff and I talk most Fridays. As a psychiatrist, he’s intelligent, always wise and measured in his words, questions, and responses. But when I talk to Jeff, I’m talking to a friend and cohort in believing the church can really be what Jesus wanted it to be. Since joining our church as a teen, Jeff is the longest running member and elder, he knows where the skeletons are buried and has experienced loads of frustration, yet his love for the church seems to grow fonder as the years roll on.
All of the elders to whom I submit, who oversee and supervise me, are full of ideas, vitality, faith, joy, love of God and neighbor, and the fruit of the Spirit. They exemplify the characteristics Paul outlined in his letters to Timothy and Titus. We meet monthly, and communicate throughout the week about matters we need to discuss, but we try to lead in non-anxious ways that keep in perspective that God is in control and that we are not. I love them and enjoy working with them. That’s where harmony in a church begins. How can we as leaders expect a congregation to behave if we ourselves don’t behave? If leaders backbite, triangulate, use power and position, and work with human effort and ingenuity rather than seeking out God’s vision of the world, then how can we expect our congregations to do anything differently?
So how can leadership teams experience the same kind of harmony you see reflected in the stories I’ve shared about my elders? Here are some suggestions. I hope you’ll find some wisdom to encourage you in your own relationships in church leadership.
Stop treating prayer like an agenda item. If prayer is just a way to open and close meetings, then join the Rotary Club and do some actual service in the community. Preachers and elders must pray and live lives of seeking God on behalf of the churches they lead. Dr. Evertt Huffard (Harding Graduate School of Theology) taught me the following principle: When God calls a minister to lead in a church, God first calls the minister to pray for the church. In prayer, leaders seek God’s holy way, the Spirit’s guidance, the mind and nature of Christ. In prayer we ask not, “What would Jesus do?” but, “God, what are you doing?” Conversations, meetings, emails, texts, phone calls, and visits are not about how to fix people or do damage control—they’re about how to turn ourselves and people we lead Godward.
Get out of debt. Our church was in debt for 35 years. After many years of blaming the people before us, we took responsibility for next steps and asked God what we were supposed to do about this problem that seemed to strain every conversation and wrench us away from every new attempt at renewal or mission focus. We asked God for each next step, for daily bread of wisdom, and God provided. We don’t claim every step was inspired, but we followed the way of wisdom together, asking God to lead us out of debt. We ended up selling our building, becoming free of our debt, moving out, and leasing a school auditorium for our Sunday services. (This story of getting out of debt is an entire article or even book for another day!)
Admit your role in the problem. Until you admit you are part of the problem, the problem will always be there and you will be frustrated, believing falsely that somehow this conflict or failure in the church does not involve you. Whether you are a minister or elder, you contribute to the problem or the solution to the problem. Learn a different language that accepts responsibility for sin and failures, and call on God for wisdom to find a way out of whatever you are experiencing as a problem in your church. If you skip the step of seeking God’s ways, then you will find the devil’s ways appear right before you. Satan seems to enjoy working with great churches who make their plans and then ask God to bless them. Likewise, when we act and expect to always justify our actions with, “I’m doing God’s work,” we may find that we are really doing the devil’s work.
Can preachers and elders get along and work together in harmony? Yes! I have written for the purpose of sharing joy in the relationship I have with my elders. I hope in some small way I’ve given you a new or different perspective that encourages you to come closer to fellow leaders and, most importantly, to God.