Two days ago our church membership voted to install our first board of elders in who knows how long. (I’m told that 200+ year-old Middletown Church had elder governance once upon a time, but it has not in recent history.) Establishing leadership from a plurality of elders has been one of my ministry goals since arriving here in August 2009, and as I’ve shared with some over the last 3 years about the process, I continue to receive questions on the nuts and bolts. The reality is not all that sophisticated, honestly.

I wish I had a carefully formulated strategy behind our transition, but I do not. The most important ingredient in this process is a church community already determined to do what the Bible says to do, and this spirit of submission to the Scriptures was not something I gave them, but something they had already developed before I came, something trained in them by the Spirit through the three evangelical pastors before me. I simply capitalized on it. But given the ingredient of a biblically receptive congregation, here are the steps that I took, emphasizing up front that the key pastoral ingredient is patience:

1. I began by teaching the existing leadership team (in our case, the board of deacons and deaconesses) about biblical governance. I suggested books to read (see resource list below), passed around copies of articles and essays, emailed them links to peruse, showed them in the Scriptures the basis for plurality of elders in leadership, and just talked through it with them, answering a bunch of questions and concerns.

2. When the deacons were adequately informed and prepared for the next step, I preached through the issues in our worship service, in a series I called “Church Matters.” In one particular sermon I explained the need for plurality of elders. I continued seeding more awareness of the need in subsequent sermons and talks a bit here and a bit there.

3. A month in advance of our annual meeting last year (2011), I explained that I was going to propose adding to our bylaws the establishment of an elder board. I handed out position papers that I wrote on both elder leadership and the role of women in leadership (explaining why we would continue to have women deacons but would not have women elders).

4. I answered a lot of questions in that pre-meeting time in private meetings with church members.

5. Annual meeting arrived. Members voted unanimously to adopt elder leadership.

6. From fall 2011 to fall 2012, we took nominations for elders from the congregation based on the biblical qualifications required. I interviewed and assessed all candidates.

7. 6 weeks ago I presented the stable of elder candidates for our first elder board. I asked if anyone had an issue — of personal conflict or knowledge of a defaming sin — with any of the men to let me know in advance of meeting. (Nobody did.)

8. Two days ago at our 2012 annual meeting the membership voted unanimously to approve the stable of candidates as presented.

Voila, we have plurality of elders as leadership now. The whole process took 2 years — 1 year to prep the existing leaders and then the congregation and get the bylaws changed, and 1 year to receive nominations and assess candidates.

God has been really good to us.

Your mileage in the process may vary, of course, but this is a rough outline of how it was handled at Middletown.

Resources we found helpful:
Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons by Thabiti Anyabwile
A Book on Church Leadership You’ll Actually Read by Mark Driscoll
Biblical Eldership by Alexander Strauch
– a bunch of 9 Marks stuff, including the book The Deliberate Church by Mark Dever and this journal article “Moving from a Deacon-Led to an Elder-Led Church” by Phil Newtown

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7 thoughts on “From Pastor to Pastors: Our Church’s Transition to Plurality of Elders”

  1. Moe Bergeron says:

    Jared, Excellent! I have a not too complicated question. Will the new board entertain a two tier system of pastor with/and elders or will there be a true equality of all elders where all elders are ordained, provided ordination certificates and considered pastors on an equal footing with one or more who will be salaried?

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Moe, as the only vocational elder and as one distinguished from the lay elders as “The Pastor” in our bylaws, I will be the leader of the board and seen informally as a “first among equals,” but in voting matters I will have one vote and majority will rule. We are an elder-led but membership-governed church, though, so there has not been and will not be a top-down authoritarianism.

      One of the things I have sought to do more and more at our church, which is in a historical context where the pastor does ministry and the people kind of “receive,” is develop a greater sense of the priesthood of the believer, hand off the preaching at times other than when I’m out of town, and create a healthier independence of the congregation from the pastor. Moving to plurality of elders is one way to facilitate this.

  2. Jacob Riggs says:

    Did any deacons become elders? How did the role of deacons change?

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Jacob, yes, one deacon became an elder.

      The role of the deacons will not change too significantly, as we have always been congregationally governed. In essence, this move multiplies my role/position, dispersing the responsibility of spiritual leadership and expanding the wisdom. There are some “eldery” things the deacon board has been doing that they will no longer do, but there’s not too much, actually. They have been and will continue to be largely managers and administrators of the service areas of our church (benevolence, missions, building maintenance, etc)

  3. Flyaway says:

    I’ve wondered why so many churches have gotten away from Elders and Deacons. Seems to me a smart way for Christians to use their gifts–some people are teachers while others are good at service.

  4. Jared says:

    Can I just say that I am thankful to know that you are in Vermont at all. I live in the South, where there are a billion churches. It seems like I hear all the time that people are going to Atlanta or Dallas-Ft. Worth to plant a church and make it a billion and one churches. So I’m glad you’re in Vermont. Thank you.

  5. The Believer says:

    In our case here in the Philippines, majority of the most “successful” and fruitful churches are those that are led by our Senior Pastors, that although there are elders that help in the deliberations and planning of church matters and concerns, and our Senior Pastor has just one vote to give, we most likely follow the leadership of our Senior Pastor…there are those that are really “governed” by elders and deacons, and they have a say even to the style of preaching of the pastor, and have even unseated pastors who do not conform to their preferences, and I personally know a church that’s been a couple of times divided (church splits) when their pastor was “unseated” by the elders.

    I respect how yours may effectively work there in the United States, just merely stating that the opposite seems to work well in our setting here.

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Jared C. Wilson

Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter.

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