For at least 15 years, Chris Hefner had taught that the most biblical form of church leadership was through a plurality of elders. Yet in the seven years he pastored Wilkesboro Baptist Church, he never considered leading the church to adopt the model.
“I’m a little bit of a pragmatist, in the sense that, if it’s working, then there’s a hesitancy on my part to really pursue a whole lot of change in the life of the church,” Hefner said.
But then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many churches nationwide, the pandemic shuffled the church’s situation. Wilkesboro had an increase in both people who were disconnected to the church and in people who wanted to join. The church needed to think through several membership questions, from how to re-engage the disconnected to how to make sure new members took their relationship with the church seriously.
Normally, Hefner says, this would be a discussion he would have with the church’s deacons. Wilkesboro Baptist has a strong team of deacons who love Jesus and the church, but he notes, they aren’t called nor equipped to have these kinds of conversations.
“So for me, as a pastor of a moderate-sized Baptist church, I can’t have all those conversations,” Hefner said. “For us, a plurality of elders looks like lay and staff elders who are bearing the weight of who can be a member, who should be a member and what does membership look like in our church?”
Transitioning a church to being elder-led can be difficult to navigate for even the most seasoned leader.
Because the transition deals with how a church is governed, it affects nearly every aspect of church life.
In an unhealthy environment, it can easily erupt into a turf war, as lay leaders, staff and the pastor lay claim on the direction of the church.
Hefner knew he served a healthy church, but he still wondered how they’d respond. Being a process-orientated leader, Hefner built a plan to lead the church toward this decision.
Last year, he talked about it with several of his deacons, asking them to pray about it and read on the topic. In leadership meetings this year, he has laid out some of the reasoning, walked through the biblical texts and discussed some issues related to a transition like this. Then Hefner taught through the decision with the broader church family in a sermon series in 1 Timothy, where they looked through the biblical qualifications of an elder.
Once those conversations are complete, the church plans to explore the necessary constitutional changes and consider the right direction on the matter.
Hefner also notes this communication is key because they will remain a congregational church, where ultimately the entire church will have a voice in the change.
“So, the whole church is aware that we’re considering a move like this,” Hefner said. “They have plenty of time to ask questions in preparation for a vote on constitutional changes.”
Matt Capps, the senior pastor of Fairview Baptist Church in Apex, is in the process of leading the church through a similar transition. For him and the church’s other leaders, the move is a matter of biblical clarity.
Capps notes that there tends to be two kinds of leaders in local churches—visionary leaders who focus on the direction of the church and task-oriented leaders who focus on meeting the administrative and ministry-needs of the church. In the New Testament, he says, the visionary leaders were pastors/elders, and the task-oriented leaders were deacons. But in his church, and many other Baptist churches, these roles have been blurred.
“I believe clarifying the roles of deacons will not only honor God—in accordance with His word—but also allow for greater willingness and excitement to serve in these roles and protect from frustration and unintentional burnout among lay leaders,” Capps said.
Despite the change, Capps says Fairview will continue to be “congregationally governed, pastorally led, and deacon served.” But when these roles aren’t clear, he believes it leads to tension, confusion and possibly division in the church.
The transition to a plurality of elders comes as Capps and other church leaders have sought to better align the church’s structure with what the Bible teaches and the growing needs of the changing congregation, while better positioning Fairview to shepherd and send out the people and resources God has provided.
“The realignment of our structure to adjust with the changes in the church does not demean our past,” Capps said. “It simply recognizes a desire to adjust our ministry to our current functioning and a willingness to evaluate our structure based on the biblical principles with our context in mind. To be clear, I do believe that God has provided a general pattern for church leadership in the New Testament, but the particulars of this general pattern must be implemented in a way that fits our local church.”
It has been a little more than two decades since Gerald Hodges led Westwood Baptist Church in Roxboro to make this transition. Since that time, he has helped several other church leaders navigate the change. He urges leaders to be patient throughout the transition.
“You need to take time to make the transition,” Hodges said. “We spent three years teaching, preaching, discussing and doing that within the congregation before we ever took a vote on it.”
Second, Hodges says, it’s important to teach in an expository manner on the topic. He particularly encourages pastors to walk through the Pastoral Epistles, where many of the relevant texts reside, with their congregations.
“Let the members process that in their minds, as the Spirit leads them,” Hodges said. “Just exposit the word and teach it.”
Third, Hodges encourages pastors to focus on character when selecting leaders. He notes this is a qualification for both elders and deacons.
“None of us are perfectly qualified, but the focus on character is a point you cannot get away from,” Hodges said. “I mean, the writer of Hebrews told the church to consider the outcome of their leaders’ lives and imitate them. So clearly, there’s something about these men that distinguishes them. That is their character.”
The big picture
So far, Hefner says, God has used the experience of this transition to remind him of His sovereignty.
“I think there are times in church life where God desires specific adjustments and changes in the life of the congregation, and I think in our context, we were at one of those opportunities, one of those turning points,” Hefner said.
“Not only did I have a sense of what God was doing in my life, and some of the reasoning for me pursuing this change in the life of our church, but when I’ve communicated that to some other leaders that I’ve grown to really love and respect over the last six and a half years, they’ve sensed the same thing. And so, they’ve come along with me, as opposed to working in opposition or contradiction.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tobin Perry is a freelance writer with more than 20 years of writing experience with Southern Baptist organizations. He can be reached at TobinPerry.com.)