“Elder meetings don’t have to suck.”
Many people don’t believe me when I tell them this, but it’s true.
When I meet somebody who has served as an elder, I ask, “How were the meetings?” Almost universally, the next reaction is an eye roll and a sigh. “Well… not great.”
Stories ensue about late-night meetings that drag on and on, rising tension and arguments, and political negotiations that rival all the dysfunction of Congress.
There is a better way.
I’ve been part of an elder team for over 13 years and we’ve been through a lot:
- adding elders
- losing elders (to resignation and death)
- merging with two like-minded churches
- multiple fundraising projects and building initiatives
- firing staff
- seeing the church grow from a few hundred to almost two thousand in attendance
- navigating all the unprecedented aspects of a pandemic
- losing hundreds of people
- reaching hundreds more
- and on and on.
Some moments have been tougher than others. But through it all, we’ve had a strong team and enjoyed working together. It’s possible.
I want to provide you a step-by-step guide for elder meetings — really for being a functional elder team — so that your church can be healthy, your leadership can be unified, and serving as an elder is life-giving and joyful rather than a slow, agonizing death by a thousand paper cuts.
My Presuppositions About Elders, Elder Teams, and Elder Meetings
Before I get into the step-by-step, you should know where I’m coming from. Here are my presuppositions when it comes to an elder team:
- Jesus is the Senior Leader of the church. He builds and sustains it. It’s His church.
- Having godly, courageous, skilled, and unified leadership is essential to church health.
- Elder is an office, not an identity. The elders are those officially serving on the team.
- A person does not need to be an elder to have influence or leadership in the church. There will be excellent leaders who do not hold the office of elder.
- Eldership should be a great joy and a life-giving experience. It need not be destructive to a man’s spiritual vitality, family, ministry, or quality of life.
- As the church grows in size and complexity (additional staff, ministries, campuses, etc), the structure and function of the elder team will need to experience change and reorganization.
- The leadership structure of the church must be flexible enough to get the right people to the table for any given decision.
- Elders are the male leaders of the church who are synonymously called pastors, bishops, and overseers throughout the New Testament. While the various words are used interchangeably, they each refer to a different aspect of the same role in the same office. Therefore, the elder team will consist of both paid and unpaid elders.
- Elders must consistently demonstrate the character qualities described in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:6-9.
- In addition to godly character, elders must demonstrate competency (the skills involved in shepherding) and commitment, as well as share a high level of chemistry with the existing elders. This does not mean that the elders will all have the same personalities, temperaments, or gifts, but it does mean that they will have the ability to joyfully work together as committed ministry partners.
You may not share all these presuppositions, but I wanted to get them on the table. And — even if you disagree on some of the specifics — this guide will still help you.
Step #1: Clarify — What Do the Elders Do?
Any time we have a meeting, we want the meeting to help accomplish the purpose of the group involved. We never want to meet just to meet.
If you have a small group meeting, clarify what your purpose is for small groups. If you have leadership training, clarify the purpose of the training.
In the same way, we have to design our elder meetings in light of the purpose of our elder team. So… what do elders do?
The Basics of What Elders Are Responsible For
On one level, the big-picture function of elders is clearly laid out in Scripture:
- Oversee the Congregation (1 Peter 5:2; 1 Timothy 5:17). This likely means guarding the church’s doctrine, mission, vision, and values, overseeing financial integrity, long-range planning, and holding the Lead Pastor accountable.
- Tend to Needs of the Flock (Acts 20:28). This looks like regularly participating in church life, leading and teaching in different spheres of influence, investing in other leaders, praying for the church, visiting those in need, and more.
- Be on Watch for Trouble (Acts 20:29-31; Hebrews 13:17). This looks like knowing Scripture well enough to discern counterfeits, being discerning toward those who threaten the body, exercising church discipline, and evaluating any mistakes we might make.
- Live the Normal Christian Life (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:3). This looks like exemplifying Christian character and modeling godliness in family, vocational, and church life.
These functions are essential.
But how they flesh out — especially in the oversight of the congregation — depends a great deal on the size of the church, the number of elders, how many paid staff the church has, and more.
Getting More Specific On Elder Roles and Responsibilities
Depending on the size of the church, elder teams tend to have one of four functions in terms of how they oversee the church.
Think about it on a spectrum.
Stage 1 — Doing the Ministry
In a brand-new or very small church, the elders are often the ones doing much of the ministry. They’re setting up chairs, hauling in gear, greeting people at the door, leading every small group, and showing up at the hospital. As a church grows, elders often keep doing things like this, but in the early or smaller stages, the elders are the main ones doing all this.
Stage 2 — Approving the Ministry
As the church grows, the elders often move from being the main people doing the ministry to those who approve the ministry. Will the newcomer class be tweaked? Can the students go out of state for camp? What curriculum should the small groups use? Should we add a second service? At this stage, the elders are often answering these questions and making most of the key decisions. (The more staff elders a church has, the harder it is to leave this stage)
Stage — 3 Reviewing the Ministry
As the church grows and staff is more empowered to make decisions, the elders move into a reviewing role. They try to keep a pulse on what’s happening and provide feedback to the Lead Pastor. They make more recommendations, but fewer decisions.
Stage 4 — Direction-setting for the Ministry
In the final stage, the elders are functioning at a very high level. They approve the budget, guard the values, vision, and doctrine, and hold the Lead Pastor accountable. They must remain biblically qualified men, but they often function more like a “governing board” of the organization.
Important Notes Regarding This Spectrum of Elder Roles and Responsibilities
Some important notes regarding this spectrum:
- None of these is more “right” or biblical or moral, but you have to be on the same page. Each of these approaches is a valid option (provided that you’re holding to the basic expectations of elders listed above), but having elders who are functioning in different stages will be a disaster.
- That said, many churches with multiple staff will end up functioning in the “reviewing the ministry” phase. The sooner the elders can begin operating there, the smoother the transition will be.
- The more staff elders a church has, the harder it is to leave the “approving the ministry” stage. Staff inherently are in the weeds making decisions, and too many staff elders will keep the elders in that phase.
- It’s emotionally difficult for elders who make the journey through the various phases. Change always involves loss and pain, and many elders will at some point miss a previous stage.
And here’s the biggest takeaway when it comes to elder meetings:
Decide what phase you want to function in and set your meetings accordingly.
An Exercise for Getting All Elders On the Same Page
A number of years back, I handed our elders papers with this spectrum and explained it. I asked them to draw an “X” where they thought we were functioning now and to draw a “✓” where they thought we needed to be functioning a few years from now.
It was a good exercise to get everyone on the same page — and it set the stage for designing meetings appropriately.
How Elder Responsibilities Take Shape
For us, we’ve landed somewhere between reviewing and direction-setting. And, with the help of Larry Osborne’s book, Sticky Teams, we identified how it impacts the way our elder team responsibilities take shape:
- Pray regularly for the congregation and staff. Like priests who go before God on behalf of the people, one of their primary ways to serve the church is through intercession.
- Keep a finger on the pulse of the congregation. Like shepherds who smell like sheep, they should know people, love people, and have a sense of what is happening in the lives of people.
- Provide wise counsel to the Lead Pastor and senior staff. Like godly sages, they can offer a perspective that is easy to miss in the day-to-day of ministry.
- Be a crisis team in waiting. Provide the church the security of knowing that if a genuine crisis hits, we’re ready. Like firefighters playing cards in the firehouse, they are prepared, connected, and ready if the bell should ring — and some days, bored enough almost to wish it would ring.
- Approve the big-picture budget. Like a husband who is responsible for the household and trusts his wife to steward resources wisely, the elders set the parameters and give freedom to the staff to use resources in ways that are good and responsible.
- Carry out church discipline, in harmony with the pastoral staff. Like parents, they step in and discipline wayward members as needed.
- Entrust ministry design and day-to-day leadership to the Lead Pastor and staff. Like the owner of a sports franchise, they set the tone and empower the GM and coaches to succeed.
- Hold the keys of accountability. Should something go amiss with the Lead Pastor or staff, the elders can step in. Like brakes, they can immediately stop something that shouldn’t be happening (though brakes shouldn’t be ridden constantly).
So… in light of these functions, now we can design elder meetings that fit.
Step #2: Pick An Elder Meeting Rhythm
Now that you know where you want the elder team to function, you can decide the frequency and rhythm of meetings.
If you’re functioning in stages 1-2 (doing or approving), then you probably need more frequent meetings. You’re more in the weeds of information and decision-making, so more frequent meetings are more important.
If you’re functioning in stages 3-4 (reviewing or direction setting), frequent meetings with lots of details will keep pulling you back into the weeds. Meeting less frequently for less time will actually help you more faithfully stay aligned with your function.
At the church I lead, we’ve landed in a rhythm that seems to be working. We meet twice per month:
- Monthly “Business Meeting.” Here we have a defined agenda and talk through the issues facing our church (often things like budget, staffing issues, discipline situations, key initiatives, plans for church plants, etc.)
- Monthly “Shepherding Meeting.” Here we shepherd one another, share personal updates and pray, read an article that might encourage or sharpen us in some way, and experience brotherhood.
For us, these meetings are for 90 minutes on a weekday morning (5:30-7:00 am). The disadvantage is that it’s very early. The advantages, however, are that meeting before work keeps us focused and on track, and doesn’t take away much in terms of family time.
Of course, occasionally we have to do an impromptu meeting based on some unforeseen circumstances or crisis (this happens once or twice a year unless there’s a pandemic 😆). Because our regular meetings are crisp and relatively infrequent, these extra meetings aren’t too burdensome.
Step #3: Consider the Physical Environment of Your Meeting
What do you want your elder meetings to feel like? Like a group of friends hanging out? Like a corporate board? Like a church small group? Like work? Something else?
Any of these could be fine. But if you hope it feels like a group of friends hanging out and instead it feels like you’re facing a parole board… well… it might not be too fun.
As you think about where to do your meetings, pick a physical environment that fits your desired experience.
You know the power of a physical experience. Rooms with natural light feel energetic. Rooms with white walls and fluorescent lighting feel like a hospital. Our physical space has a dramatic impact on our expectations and experiences of an environment.
For us, we want our elder team to feel more like a small group/friends who are leading together rather than a highly corporate board experience.
So, even though we have a conference room at the church, we don’t meet there.
For many years, we had every meeting at Village Inn. It’s hard to take yourself too seriously when you’re wolfing down pancakes and bacon.
More recently, we’ve been meeting in a room on our church campus that has couches and sitting chairs — it feels like a living room — because it creates an environment conducive to how we want to behave.
Step #4: How to Run an Effective Elder Meeting in 7 Steps
When it comes to the Elder Business Meeting, how can you run it effectively? It is your main gathering point and the primary space where your elder team will feel like an elder team. You want to do it well.
- Determine who will lead the meeting. In some traditions, there’s an elder chairperson. For us, I run it as the Lead Pastor (or, if needed, I ask somebody else to lead a specific meeting).
- Send a written agenda at least 24 hours before the meeting. It allows those who are slower processors to gather their thoughts and think through their input. Make sure this agenda is based on issues that are appropriate for the kind of leadership the elder team is going to provide.
- Pray together. Maybe it seems obvious, but this is the Lord’s work. It’s His church. You need His voice. Invite God to speak and work in the time together.
- Work through the agenda. As you move through the topics, be clear about what is needed for each topic: nothing (it’s just an FYI), a decision, input for a decision somebody else will make, feedback, perspective, wisdom, etc. Being clear on the desired kind of outcome helps the meeting move forward with clarity.
- Invite input from those who don’t jump in right away. Every group has eager beavers who never stop talking as well as people who never speak up. Be sure to ask for the quieter folks to share their perspective. If you’re a Lead Pastor, you often need to resist the urge to speak quickly — your voice will often carry more weight and disincentivize interaction.
- Make clear action items on the basis of the meeting. These might involve additional future agenda items or communicating a decision to other people or assigning a project to somebody. Whatever the case is, make sure you know what everyone is supposed to do on the basis of the meeting.
- Put it in writing and share it with the group. It is helpful for two reasons: (a) frequently somebody is missing who needs to know what happened in the meeting and (b) sometimes even the people who were there forget what was discussed or decided. It does not need to be minute-by-minute notes that require a court reporter, just a high-level recording of the agenda and the outcomes.
Get a copy of the PDF we use for productive elders’ meetings. Use as is or modify to suit your needs.
Step #5: Develop Outside-the-Meeting Communication
Part of the reason elder meetings often are a drag is that too much is shared that could be shared in other ways.
Endless updates drag on and on and should be communicated in alternate ways. We use Slack as a tool for our elders to communicate — but you could use a group text chat or email.
Every week or two I try to communicate a bullet list of FYIs, updates, and issues for them to be in the loop about. Additionally, any of the elders are free to share personal updates, ask questions, or loop us in on anything we should know.
Our elders frequently share personal updates and requests for prayer. All of it keeps us more united and aware of what’s going on in each other’s lives.
Step #6: Have an Offsite Elder Experience Annually
In addition to normal monthly meeting rhythms, schedule at least an annual time away as an elder team. Call it a retreat or an offsite or a getaway — the name doesn’t matter.
But get away from the normal routine and be together for 24-48 hours in a new spot.
Sometimes these getaways are a good environment to work through a longer-term question or have conversations about vision and direction that require more than a 90-minute meeting. It could be a moment to talk about things like:
- What’s our vision for the next three years?
- What do we hope anyone who attends our church for more than 3 years experiences in their time with us?
- What’s most important right now?
- What are the brightest spots in the church that we have to replicate?
- And so on…
Other times, there isn’t a big agenda and the goal is simply to be together.
It microwaves and intensifies your relationships, builds and increases trust, allows you to laugh and make memories together, and reminds you, in the words of Zack Eswine, “Building relationships and sharing our lives together is part of our agenda and is no waste of time.”
Additionally, do other fun things throughout the year.
One of our elders hosts a bourbon and bonfire night a few times a year. Or we’ll go play Top Golf together. Or we’ll go out to dinner.
Be sure to set aside some modest church budget for these outings and retreats. It’s a worthwhile investment in the health and unity of the church’s leadership.
Step #7: Review and Adapt
I think that the reason the Bible gives so few specifics about how elders are supposed to function is so that local churches have the flexibility to adapt based on their specific needs.
What’s not up for debate: a plurality of high-character leaders who sacrifice for the good of the church.
What can change: everything else.
So pay attention to what’s working, what’s not, what can be improved, and what used to work but just isn’t meeting the needs anymore. Change and tweak until you have what works better.
You don’t have to do this alone. Pull aside one or two elders from time to time and ask them what’s working and what could be improved.
And then do it all over again.
Final Thoughts On Elder Meetings
Church leadership doesn’t have to crush your soul — or the souls of those sweet people who God has provided to serve as elders.
One of the sweetest blessings in my ministry as a Lead Pastor has been serving with the men who have been my fellow elders. They have supported me, challenged me, and led our church with wisdom time and again.
Running effective elder meetings may seem daunting, but it’s not as complicated as you might think. Make it fun, be intentional, and adjust as you need to along the way.
If you have specific questions that aren’t covered in this guide, send me an email. I’d be happy to interact with you about them.
I also offer coaching for pastors or elder teams who need help. If you’d like a free introductory call to discuss your situation, you can schedule one here.
I’m rooting for you!