Before we discuss our own church leadership structure, it may be helpful to briefly review church structures throughout history.
Over the millennia, the church has utilized a variety of organizational forms. One thing we have learned from history is that there is no perfect organization structure. Every leadership model possesses valuable strengths. But, as long as humans are involved, all of them also possess weaknesses. We do not claim that our new leadership model is without flaw, but we do believe that its strengths make it worth pursuing.
Another factor worth considering is that the success of any leadership model depends upon the quality of people involved. It is significant that we find more passages in Scripture regarding personal character than we do regarding organizational structure.
To illustrate the diversity of leadership models utilized by the church over history I will give a few examples. At one end of the spectrum is the hierarchical structure, exemplified by the Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church, where final authority for decision-making is found outside the local church. There is the Senior Pastor model, quite common in smaller churches, where the Senior Pastor leads the church. At the other end of the spectrum from the hierarchical structure is the congregation-led church where everything must be voted on by the whole congregation. And then there are elder-led churches, of which Cole Community Church is an example.
It was in the early 1980’s that the congregation of Cole Community Church voted to officially become an elder-led church. For most of the time since the early 1980’s Cole Community Church utilized a variant of the elder-led structure, in which the Senior Pastor was both a member of the Council of Elders and an employee of the elders. The Senior Pastor was the person responsible for the daily operations of the church. The Senior Pastor was the leader of the staff, the primary teacher on Sunday morning, the primary spokesman to the body, the primary spokesman with the community, and generally the perceived leader of the church. The elders were somewhat like a corporate board, responsible for direction of the church and delegating operational aspects to the Senior Pastor and staff. Even though it sometimes appeared that the Senior Pastor made all of the big decisions for the church, it was actually the Council of Elders that made the strategic decisions.
Over a long period of time the elders had been studying passages of Scripture regarding the responsibility and role of elders. As we contemplated the passages and prayed about our proper response to them, we became convinced that the elders needed to take a more active role in the leadership of the church.
The elders also conducted other research into leadership models. We interviewed a variety of people from other churches and cities regarding church leadership models. We read a book, “Eldership in Action,” that many of you have read. We also took advantage of Cole Valley Christian School’s research into policy governance for school boards. In addition to all of this external research, we have talked to many of you, individually and in small groups.
Other considerations also entered into our discussions. As we thought about the historical job description for the Senior Pastor position we realized we were putting the Senior Pastor in a difficult spot. Cole Community Church is a teaching church, and we place a high value, and high expectation, on the sermon. Sermon preparation requires a large investment of time and effort. But at the same time we also expected the Senior Pastor to supervise our fairly large staff, which also takes a lot of time and effort. In addition to the time element, sermon preparation and staff supervision require different skill sets that are not always found together in the same person. Thus, in practice, the breadth of responsibilities and high expectations led to over-work, frustration, and a feeling of isolation for the Senior Pastor.
As we considered the input from all of these sources and contemplated what God is calling us to do, we came unanimously to the conclusion that God was calling Cole Community Church to the multiple leadership model. This new model is really just a variation of the elder-led model we had been using. Cole Community Church continues to be an elder-led church, but with the change that we do not have a Senior Pastor. We believe that this model is consistent with Scripture, and we believe that it has strengths making it suitable for our situation.
The Multiple Leadership Model
As we explore the multiple leadership model, it is best to start at the top. All organizations have an owner. The owner is the person or people the organization tries to please. An owner’s voice takes precedence over all other voices. For example, a for-profit organization is owned by the stock holders. In the case of the church, Scripture clearly points to Christ as the owner. He is the one we try to please. He is the one we listen to. Colossians 1:18 and Ephesians 1:22 describe Jesus as the head of the church. Acts 20:28 tells us that He purchased the church with His own blood. So at the top of the leadership model for Cole Community Church we have Jesus.
The cynical among us will be saying at this point, “Oh sure. All churches say that Jesus is the head of the church, but they don’t really live that way. Church leaders get distracted by their ministry, by the culture, by making money, or by building their own power-base, and they pay no attention to their supposed owner.”
In fact, Scripture forcefully points out that all people are sinful and inclined to wander. We learn that power without accountability is bad. It is not good to have a single person at the top with too much power and too little accountability. Believe it or not, corporate governance researchers, although they do not use the word sin, have come to the same conclusion about human nature that Scripture declares.
So then, how do we make sure that the owner’s will is actually done in the organization? Corporate governance research shows us that organizations need a board or council composed of multiple people who are commissioned to understand the owner and to make sure that the organization follows the owner’s will. That is also why the board or council is not composed of a majority of paid staff. The board members are to be focused on what pleases the owner, and not place their focus on what pleases the staff.
In the case of the church, who are the leaders commissioned with making sure that the owner’s will is done? The New Testament uses the term “elder” to describe the leaders of the churches. From our study we have concluded that Scripture indicates the need for multiple elders, as in Acts 14:23, whose character is consistent with 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, and who work together trying to discern the Lord’s will for the church.
Each elder individually is called to seek the mind of the Lord. Then in our meetings we pray and discuss matters, with the intention of seeking the mind of the Lord together. We pursue each other to understand what each one is thinking and why. We seek unanimity in our decisions. Although it is a time-consuming process, we believe that it is a better way to discern God’s leading than depending on one man to discern the Lord’s will.
Given that the elders are commissioned with understanding the Lord’s will for Cole Community Church, it is important to use great care when selecting an elder. Elder candidates are selected and evaluated by the Council of Elders. We look for men who are already doing the work of an elder, by serving in some form of leadership in a ministry at our church. They must meet the requirements of elders as set forth in 1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9, and 1 Peter 5:1-3. The actual process has varied over time, but in general we spend some time evaluating the prospective elder and only after all of the elders agree that God (as in Acts 20:28) has called this man to serve on the council do we call him to be an elder. The vote must be unanimous.
What About the Senior Pastor’s Responsibilities?
Since our new model does not have a Senior Pastor, we can separate the responsibilities of Sunday morning teaching from those of staff supervision. For Sunday morning we asked Jackson and Rodd to be the two primary teaching pastors. We wanted more than one teaching pastor so that the teaching load could be shared, and so that they would have the time and the focus in order to do a good job with the teaching.
The other half of the Senior Pastor’s duties, staff supervision, has also been reassigned. We have asked Steve Evans, one of our administrative pastors, to lead the pastoral staff in implementing the elder’s vision for Cole Community Church. He speaks for the elders as our staff makes day to day decisions. Additionally, each elder is assigned to be the primary shepherd of a staff pastor by being involved in the pastor’s life. That elder also works with their assigned pastor to assist with the shepherding of his/her ministry.
Like all leadership models, this one has strengths and weaknesses. We will continue to refine the model as we learn. Because of the multiple leadership design, in this model we really emphasize that Jesus, not an individual pastor or elder, is the owner and leader of Cole Community Church. The elders are commissioned as Christ’s under-shepherds with the responsibility to listen to the Lord and to guide the church in the direction that He leads. The pastoral staff serve under the direction of the elders, and are paid a salary so that they are free to spend their days doing the day to day work that needs to get done so that Cole Community Church can do the ministry that God has called us to.