What Pastors Want From Their Elder Board

Ways to strengthen this pivotal relationship

Gather a group of pastors, and if you can get them talking honestly, what are some of the issues that weigh most heavily on them? I believe that, sooner or later, you will hear stories of interpersonal struggles. More often than you might think, the relationship between pastor and elder board is a tenuous one. So I humbly offer some suggestions on how an elder board should relate to its pastor.

Hire him with your eyes open.

With the best of motives, churches can unintentionally treat hiring a pastor like preparing for a date instead of a marriage. Each side puts its best foot forward, which means that hard questions can go unasked and unanswered. Too much is assumed, and excitement over a candidate’s strengths can cause search committees to leave important areas of ministry and life unexamined. Still less examined are the weaknesses each party is bringing to the new relationship, which will inevitably come to light when living life together.

Do your church and your future pastor a favor and talk about the church’s and the candidate’s ministry weaknesses—even failures. Sound theology and common sense tell us that they exist. And you will each see them soon enough if you hire him, so why not go into the relationship with everyone’s eyes open?

A pastor needs to know that his fellow elders care for him personally as well as professionally.

I find there is no better way to invite openness and transparency than by modeling it. So I encourage the church to start the conversation by sharing first. This step requires the elders to have given serious, previous thought to the topic. If the candidate is less than willing to be equally transparent, proceed with caution.

The greatest gift you can give your church is to call a pastor who has been humbled and then walked through that humbling to see and experience God’s grace and redemption. The greatest gift you can give your new pastor is a church and an elder board that have done the same.

Love him well.

It is clear that Scripture calls on elders to love and shepherd God’s flock. Unfortunately, elder boards can forget that the flock includes their pastor. The pastorate is a professional position, yes, but it is also familial. So a pastor needs to know that his fellow elders care for him personally as well as professionally.

What does this look like? The elders I serve alongside truly seek to flesh out 1 Corinthians 13—treating me with kindness, patience and affection. They have done this in any number of ways. Several years ago, I was thrust into a new pastoral leadership role I had not sought, but welcomed, in order to help walk the church family through an extremely difficult time. This meant stretching myself in various ways, and the elders in return gave me a long runway to get off the ground. Corrections were always constructive, and their expressions of appreciation for my gifts gave me confidence to press on.

After that stressful season passed and I had settled into the new pastoral role, I was offered a Sabbath of rest, reflection and worship. The elders had specifically retooled our traditional pastoral sabbatical from what it had been previously (a time of primarily study or professional development) in recognition of my pastoral needs.

It is absolutely vital for an elder board to give its pastor clear, honest and gracious feedback on how things are going.

I still remember one elder’s admonition: “Take this time to rest, to catch your breath, to take a long look back on God’s incredible faithfulness to this church over these past few years and to take satisfaction in the role you played in seeing that come about.”

The elders’ care and familial affection continues, and its investment shows dividends in the stability of all our pastoral staff.

Tell him the truth.

Everyone has some idea of how a church should work. From the music style, to what people wear, to how to respond to the latest crisis in the news, there is no shortage of suggestions on how to “do church.” With such a constant stream of suggestions and at times outright criticism, it is easy for pastors to tune people out over time, if simply for emotional self-protection.

Therefore, it is absolutely vital for an elder board to give its pastor clear, honest and gracious feedback on how things are going. Of course, feedback is always better given and received if relationships are marked by love and transparency (see the last point). This feedback should be both informal and casual as well as structured and part of a regular pattern. I have told my elders that I welcome and expect them to talk with me if I have some issue I’m unaware of, so I can address it.

I have watched pastors leave churches after a build-up of simmering tensions not addressed in a timely manner. Unfortunately, our church has also seen this dynamic at play and experienced the pain.

So in 2012, our church leaders chose to move away from what had been a fairly perfunctory review process for senior leadership, incorporating little if any constructive criticism. Instead, we established a more thorough process that invites input from staff, congregants and elders; elders also consider whether the pastor should continue in the current role or step into a new one. (Read “Are You Ready to Transition From the Pastorate?” for more details.)

I will confess: There have been a few moments of fear in essentially laying my job on the table and leaving it up to the elders whether or not I pick it up again. But it is incredibly encouraging and empowering to know I am serving because the Lord is continuing to call me to this church family—not simply out of inertia or complacency.

Don’t exempt your pastor from the life of your church.

It is not unusual for elder boards to allow their pastors to opt out of aspects of church life. For example, a church that sees small groups as crucial might nonetheless allow the senior pastor to not attend one. Whatever the rationale (He’s so busy … It would feel odd for him to sit under someone else’s leadership …), the effect is that the pastor is cut off from the day-to-day life and relationships of the church.

Years ago a young, successful pastor told me his elders had decided he didn’t need to attend a small group any more. Everyone was looking to him to lead and answer all of the questions, so for the good of the group, he would just stop attending. I expect the real issue was more the pastor’s inability to let others lead, if the truth be told. Several years later, I sat with the church’s associate pastor as he dealt with the fall-out from this pastor’s secret sins, confessing the mistake that he and the other elders had made in allowing the pastor’s isolation.

Don’t leave all the dirty work for your pastor.

At Creekside Community Church, our pastors are expected to attend a weekly small group and, if at all possible, not be in leadership. We want their spouses to have a large say in where they attend, since pastor’s spouses are often the least cared-for people in the church.

Another example involves service. When there’s a church workday, our pastors serve alongside everyone else. I can’t tell you the number of folks who have thanked me for showing up and getting dirty with them. Whatever means are critical to your church’s spiritual growth and discipleship should be critical for your pastors as well. Truth be told, we might need it the most.

Make sure you have skin in the game.

Pastors must navigate any number of cross currents in their church. Some folks put them on a pedestal and treat them with unnecessary deference. Others expect the pastor to tailor his sermons, services and programs to their individual preferences, and they get upset when it doesn’t happen. Others simply communicate a low-level apathy, reserving their excitement for their latest vacation or sports event.

The elder board should be the last place any of the above attitudes appear. It’s an incredible gift to a pastor to know that he’s not out there serving alone, but that his elders are thinking about the church, are praying for its people and its health, and are willing to expend themselves for it.

Some practical pieces of advice: Don’t leave all the dirty work for your pastor. Hard conversations shouldn’t always be his responsibility. Offer to pick up the slack in areas where he is not as gifted as you are. Be a regular at elder meetings and church events. It’s incredibly discouraging to show up for a church-wide event and realize the elders are AWOL.

Elders, your pastor doesn’t need your unwavering loyalty, nor does he need a “loyal opposition” to keep him in check. He needs those who will serve alongside him, be willing to stick out their necks along with him, and remember that he is just as human and fallible as you are.

If you have additional suggestions for board members, please comment below.

Read “What Board Members Want From Their Pastor” for an accompanying perspective.

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