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Several years following 2003 ushered in a time of unsettledness, upheaval, re-examination and uncertainty within most churches of the ICOC movement. Some things connected with this time have been good, and some have been bad. Without going into the reasons for the upheaval and the judgments of what has been good or bad, suffice it to say that church leaderships have been faced with a major decision about how their various components are going to interface and work together. These components may be comprised of elders and evangelists, or evangelists and a board of directors, or some other combination of leadership groups.

Two mindsets about how these groups interface are reflected in the title, one being a balance of power concept and the other being a team concept. The balance of power concept is well reflected in our government, with its legislative branch, judicial branch and executive branch. Most of our citizens don’t trust any branch in isolation, but have reasonable trust in the three working together, for they form a balance of power—a system of checks and balances that limit any one of these branches from having too much authority and influence.

This concept most closely approximates the mindset that developed among many leadership groups in our movement’s recent history. Elders or boards of directors were urged to stand up more against the evangelists and to limit their power. Certainly, we often had situations in which the evangelists had too much authority, and in which group or team leadership was lacking. This issue was addressed pretty thoroughly in our book, Golden Rule Leadership. Although the evangelist’s one man rule was wrong, other approaches can also be wrong. Since having elders is the biblical ideal, our comments will be addressed to leadership groups involving an eldership, although in churches without elderships, the board of directors may be involved more directly in the “balance of power” approach in their relationship with the ministry staff.

The elder/evangelist relationship is one of the most important aspects affecting the health and effectiveness of a church, and for that reason, Satan has developed a number of plans to hinder it. Providing a historical perspective of elder/evangelist relationships in the Churches of Christ, including the ICOC, might be a good starting place to help understand the challenges. Historically, the ICOC grew out of a campus ministry setting within Mainline Churches of Christ, and ended up with certain baggage from that era. The elders within the Mainline groups were definitely seen as the decision makers for the church, the ones who “hired and fired” the preachers and made just about all of the major decisions for the church – often with little input from the fulltime ministers. Since the elder role was viewed as more positional and authoritative in nature than as functional – with the elders being “over” the ministry people—the relationship between the two types were more often than not adversarial in nature (even if sensed more than spoken).

That is the setting in which I spent most of my early ministry years. In all of my experience in those churches, the elders were by design and function a separate entity from ministers, and did not see themselves as a real team with me or with the ministry leaders generally. That was one of the most de-motivating settings in which I have ever served, and probably the reason that preacher tenure in those churches was decidedly short in the large majority of congregations. The longest I ever survived in one church under that system was four years. Just thinking back to my own experiences in that setting immediately raises my blood pressure and acid production!

Of course, extremes begat extremes, which is exactly what happened in the ICOC in its early days. Evangelists resented the one-sided control exerted by elders, and reacted in the opposite (and equally wrong) direction. The following quote comes from my article “Motivation: Guilt or Grace,” written earlier this year (and now on the web site, as well as other web sites):

Second, leaders of those traditional churches were not to be trusted, for they quite often represented the opposition as persecutors. In those churches, elders were unquestionably the leaders in control, and for this reason they were to be trusted least. The carryover into our movement in terms of mistrusting elders cannot be denied. The highly influential role of elders in the NT church has not yet been duplicated in our movement, although some progress has been made in recent years. The current clamor in the wake of Henry Kriete’s letter has produced more change in the role of the elder than the Bible produced in prior years—to our shame.

Leadership style in our movement is another phenomenon that has been influenced significantly by those campus ministry days. In planting a new church or working in youth groups, including campus ministries, the leader is the “go to” person by design. As disciples age, they must be treated in age-appropriate ways, which should include leaders developing leadership groups instead of remaining one-man, top-down leaders. We have been extremely slow to learn this needed lesson, as the Golden Rule Leadership book emphasizes repeatedly. Without rehashing the point, the campus ministry era influenced our leadership style in ways that simply must be changed if we are to move forward effectively, especially in older, larger churches.

In my Mainline church days, I was an evangelist in an elder-dominated environment, and in my early Boston days, I was an elder in an evangelist- dominated environment. Both are extremes and both are unbiblical, impractical, unproductive and spiritually unhealthy. And both are reactionary in their developmental stages. No sooner than one extreme is thrown out does the other seek to come in. At the present time in our movement, some elderships (or other non-staff leadership groups) are unquestionably following the Mainline extreme, and havoc is being wreaked. We must avoid such extremes, or we will reap the same consequences that some are now reaping.

Being an avid football fan, I can’t help but use a sports illustration of the team concept. My favorite team is the New England Patriots—three time World Champions! (Fans of other teams, please forgive my bias!) The three main roles of this team are reflected in its offense, defense, and special teams. They don’t think in terms of “checks and balances” at all—although they have different roles, and when they are not on the field, they are cheering on the ones who are. The respect they have for one another is obvious, and they are totally supportive of each other. They are willing to play on another part of the team if needed, no matter what their normal role. Their dominant mindset is well reflected in the old saying, “All for one, and one for all!” Shouldn’t those in various leadership roles in the church have this same team mindset?

My first experience in a discipling church was in San Diego back in the mid-1980s. It was certainly the most biblical (and joyous) situation of which I had ever been a part. I came in as lead evangelist when in my early 40s, and soon thereafter was joined by co-evangelist Gregg Marutzky (then in his late 20s). George Havins and Ron Brumley were serving as elders at the time. The four of us formed a leadership team that worked together beautifully. We met weekly, often with our wives, and led the church as a team. Although the elders told me when I agreed to come there that they understood that I would be discipling them, we in fact discipled one another as equals. None of us thought in terms of who was “over” whom. We saw our roles as distinct, but overlapping in many ways. The evangelists focused on leading the charge evangelistically and the elders focused on meeting the needs of the flock. With both perspectives always co-joined, we planned as a team and made decisions as a team. There were no “elders only” meetings and no “evangelists only” meetings, and the elders normally attended the weekly staff meetings.

I believe that the best decision making process is the one that is most inclusive of different perspectives. I have advocated the inclusion of the elders’ wives in elders’ meetings on a regular basis, although the expectation should not be that they attend all meetings. But no matter what, I want to know their female perspectives before finalizing decisions. I feel exactly the same way about getting the perspective of those whose full-time job is ministry. Look at it from their viewpoint. For years, in the absence of elders, the evangelists were responsible for about everything that went on within the church, and were involved in about everything in one way or another. They were certainly involved in making the decisions (often too involved in an exclusive manner, as I argued in Golden Rule Leadership). But that was seen to be their job. They were right in the middle of everything, by design and job description. Now all of a sudden, elders are viewed by many as those at the helm, making decisions into which evangelists may have little input. The evangelists helped to raise up elders, and by virtue of appointment, elders are overnight seen by some as the main decision makers. This approach, left unchecked and unaltered, puts us on a course that bodes significant challenges, if my past experience in this area can be trusted at all.

I spent many months after the Kriete letter trying to get ministry staff people to understand what the members were feeling and why. Those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see what the real issues were, I recommended taking off of staff. Some such decisions were very complicated, and tremendously painful to them and to me. In the case of those who understood the issues, or wanted to understand them, I worked (and am working) to try and help them change. In recent months, I feel most compelled to help non-staff people understand what the staff folks are feeling. Whatever any of us did to implement the systemic sins imposed on us from above, we did it with a heart to serve and to see the world saved. Most of us were hurt by the system as much or more than we hurt anyone else as we passed the system’s sins down the ranks. Now we not only have to deal with the hurts imposed from above, we have to deal with our hurts about what we did to others. Yet, we feel called by God to do what we are doing. Those who remain on staff (a small percentage of those on staff two years ago) are serious about changing ourselves and the church. But we continue to feel the mistrust, suspicion of our motives, and sometimes downright disdain from some that we are trying to serve. I don’t think most of us who have not been on staff even begin to understand the pain and discouragement those of us on staff often feel.

I have strongly supported the establishment of biblical elderships, and am very grateful for our group in Phoenix. Having at least one elder/evangelist on the ministry staff is a safeguard toward which all elderships would do well to strive. The connection that this provides with “both sides of the river” is invaluable. I was privileged to work in harmony with both elders and ministry staff in Boston during my later years there. We weren’t perfect by any means, but one thing that elders/evangelists did was to remain united and continue to figure out ways in which they could function as a team. They are still doing that, from what I hear. On the other hand, you can find examples of elderships and evangelists that are anything but a team. The latter case is going to occur when elders allow the vocal minority—in or out of the church—to influence their thinking more than the ministry staff does. Elders who have never served on staff before have the greatest challenge here, in hearing all sides and being even-handed in proceeding. But that is why we are elders—to use our wisdom and knowledge of human nature gained by virtue of our age to help the family of God behave as the family of God. May our Maker help us to accomplish that worthy goal!

—Gordon Ferguson (February 2005)