Pastor and Council Teamwork

As I Was Saying

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As a specialized transitional minister, I serve at churches whose pastor recently departed. A pastor might leave for various reasons, such as accepting a call elsewhere or retirement. But I’ve observed that with growing frequency there is another reason: pastors and councils are deciding to part ways.

One frequent factor centers on differing expectations for the responsibility and authority of the pastor in relationship to the council. This might seem rather surprising. After all, Reformed churches have a heritage stretching back for centuries. The relationship between a pastor and council is spelled out in Christian Reformed church order.

In Reformed understanding, a pastor is called by God and accountable to the Lord and at the same time called by a church and accountable to the council. In our tradition, elders and deacons have been accorded an equal voice and vote and dignity with the pastor. Our church order takes seriously the words of I Peter 5:3: that pastors are to be shepherds of God’s flock—not lording it over those entrusted to you.

So why have differing expectations recently caused friction in some churches? Perhaps some view our church order as advisory. So they feel free to adopt other approaches or structures that seem to better suit their church situation.

For example, in larger churches, elders and deacons might work full time and meet once or twice a month. They cannot keep up with all the issues and decisions that arise day by day. Further, a large church tends to have a larger council. And the more people around the table, the more time it takes to discuss matters and make decisions. That proves to be poor stewardship of the precious time of busy leaders.

Some larger churches have moved toward more staff-driven leadership. The senior pastor and staff are given more responsibility and authority to make decisions. Meanwhile, the council tends to broader issues of vision, direction, and major decisions.

In some traditions the pastor functions more like a CEO. Often such pastors have the authority to hire or fire staff or make significant expenditures. I recall the approach of a large neighboring church where I served. When a new senior pastor was called, all the staff were expected to submit their resignation so he could build the staff team in the way he wished. As pastors join the Christian Reformed Church from other backgrounds, they might bring varied expectations of leadership.

When a pastor and council hold differing views of their responsibility and authority, it readily creates friction. If unresolved, teamwork is undermined. This can be a factor causing a pastor and church to part ways.

In reflecting on this problem, a few biblical and pastoral thoughts come to mind. First, God’s Word provides a lot of freedom in how churches may function. The Bible doesn’t include a book of church order. Around the globe we find an amazing variety of churches and leadership styles. We should embrace the considerable freedom God has provided to design a structure suited to our particular church and its mission.

Second, while facing larger church dynamics or assessing leadership models, let’s treasure the biblical principles embedded in our Reformed heritage and church order. One principle is accountability. Even the most gifted, trusted pastor benefits from healthy, biblical accountability from the council. On the flip side, councils benefit from healthy accountability provided by their pastor, their classis, and church visitors.

Another principle is teamwork among a church’s leaders. In the early church, a team of apostles and leaders made key decisions. Teamwork provides wider wisdom. Since all believers have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, all can help discern the leading of the Spirit. That’s why major church decisions are presented to the full congregation for a voice and vote.

Further, shared decisions can shield a pastor from undue blame. I think of a church that had some major budget reductions and had to trim one of its full-time pastors. The council left that decision to its senior pastor. When he made that difficult decision, he received some criticism for it.

Finally, given the diversity of leadership styles today, it is crucial to be crystal-clear on the expectations of responsibility and authority between a pastor and council. Clear, shared expectations are vital to foster healthy teamwork, to avoid friction, and to bring God glory before a watching world.  Then there might be less need for transitional pastors like me.

About the Author

Neil Jasperse is a specialized transitional minister currently serving Faith Church in Nashville, Tenn.

See comments (3)


Neil, as a first time elder, this is very much appreciated.  What would further assist would be some practical precedents of sorts.  No offence to Grand Rapids, but I find so much denominational material to be massive and not that helpful.  

If you could follow this up with real, pointed practical suggestions that have worked for churches:

1.  Clearly deliniate executive decisions from those of church council generally.

2.Clearly deliniate church council decisions from those needing congregational meeting approval.

3.Further to your last paragraph, what are some guidelines that have worked as far as saying to the pastor 'this is absolutely in your wheelhouse" versus "you really need to consult with church council on that"


John A. Tamming (Owen Sound, Ontario)

It's called a "job description". What is crucial is that one person on council is a leader, gifted with character, competence and courage. As a wise person once said, "It is often easier to enter a relationship than to exit a relationship". Also, do not underestimate the influence of those who have been led astray. 

For context, I served for six years as stated clerk of classis and served at least 7 or 8 terms on council, usually as chair. I have been witness to dysfunctional search committees and council members who don't take their roles seriously.

The disconnection between pastor and council can be traced back to the search committee process. In my mind, search committees do a poor job of creating a church profile and then a preferred job description for the pastor. Churches tend to select pastoral candidates based on what the congregation/council wants, not what it needs.

I have just recently joined an executive search firm that deals with Christian non-profits, including pastors. I have helped church councils/search committees walk through their church profile and then go through a thorough job description process.  Firms such as Chapter Next do an excellent job.  The outside firm promotes the job position extensively, wades through a stack of applications, and presents the search committee with their top four choices. Then it's in the search committee's hand.

Having been part of the search committee process at the congregational level on numerous occasions, we typically went through the CRC Yearbook, determined which pastors had served their congregations for about 10 years, and began calling.

Church culture today is much different. There is no typical church culture nor a typical pastoral profile.  This takes work and a keen sense of the kind of pastor that best suits the church's mission, vision and goals. Bring in experts to make sure that it's a match ... before a pastor is called.  In fact, several churches undertake Birkman (character) tests on both the prospective pastor and the chair of council to make sure that it's a match.

A pastor's role within council: Canadian law forbids a pastor from being chair of the elder board or council. A pastor is an employee and therefore may not preside over a meeting of council. The proper functioning of a church is the responsibility of council. A pastor may recommend the hiring of a potential administrative assistant, ministry director or associate pastor, but council must make the appointment. Elders are overseers of pastoral care and preaching. That's Church Order.

Some larger churches have appointed senior executive pastors who take on a more administrative function when it comes to church programs and church growth.

A pastor as a CEO? That's simply not biblical, nor does Church Order allow that abuse of power.

So, the bottom line: Engage in a thorough search process -- bring in experts who know how to match a highly qualified pastor to a church's specific ministry focus. To do otherwise is to set up months or years of avoidable conflict.

As stated clerk, I was witness to too many churches where Article 17 was used to part company. That process does very little to promote unity and to expand our Christian witness.