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Family or Feud?

Randy Pope November 07 2011

I talk to many fellow pastors who dread the session meetings at their church (or whatever you may call your leadership board). More often than not, it seems to become a tug-of-war, a battle of wills, or a total impasse on getting things accomplished. Pastor’s are worn down and disillusioned about how to lead their session and sometimes, quite honestly, they are fed up with the whole of church governance.

We have a man that had served on our session and moved out of state to attend seminary. He called me one night and said, “Randy, you’ll shoot straight with me, won’t you?” and I said, “Well, of course.” He said, “Please be honest here. I’ve got to know. What I experienced as an elder at Perimeter, was what I saw for real or was there something else going on that I was unaware of?” And I said, “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about, but yes, it was real. What do you mean?” He said, “Were there politics going on behind the scene; were there issues and challenges that I just didn’t see in my three years of serving on the session?” I said, “No, not at all. Why do you ask?” He said, “I thought it was real. I’m in a practical theology class and we were talking about the session meetings in the church. The discussion was about how challenging, how hard and how bad they are. I commented that I had served on a session that was very different than what was being described. I explained that we looked forward to the meetings every month. Randy, the class started laughing at me, and the professor assured me that I was being deceived and didn’t really know what was going on.”

I assured my friend that what he experienced was indeed real. I do look forward to our monthly session meetings and I believe that if you asked the guys on our elder board they would say they look forward to it as well.

Now, I know that we all may differ on our thoughts about church governances. If I can ask you to set those differences aside, for the sake of this post, here’s why I can say that our session meeting is my favorite night of the month. It’s because we’re a family! We model our session like a family, not like a congress. We easily observe that a congress forms parties that battle against each other. And the party that can best use the tools of warfare – debate, Roberts Rule of Order, etc. – typically comes out on top, or at least keeps the other party from “winning” the battle. I don’t know about you, but I never used Roberts Rule in my family! So, let me suggest a few things that can help your session be more of a family.

    1. Have a workable structure, which includes as many elders as are qualified to lead and willing to serve. Obviously, if you have a large number of elders they can’t all serve on your session or you’d never get anything done. But you don’t want to exclude anyone who would qualify as an elder. So how does our church function with 250+ elders? Because we believe elders are called to shepherd the flock, to interview and approve new members to the church, to administer the sacrament of the Lord’s Table, and to teach. All our elders do those things, but only nine (9) serve on our decision making team (EMT) at any one time. Our EMT is a commission that is elected by all the officers and those nine men govern the church. Although this particular point doesn’t have direct application to the family it is important to have a good infrastructure that allows all qualified leaders to serve.

    2. Have a clearly defined job description. It is vital to know what the pastor is to do, what the staff is to do and what the elders are to do. We use two terms to help us in determining whether a particular item should be done by the session or by the staff. They are Policy and Programming. The elders are in charge of policy and the staff is in charge of programming. In a single person staffed church you many need to function differently, but for our multi-person staff this works for us. The main thing is to have a clearly defined roles and responsibilities for who does what, have them written down and refer to them often. How is this like a family? Every member of my family had a job (chores) to do in order for the family to function well. As my kids were growing up they certainly knew who was to do each job and it just seemed to work. It works with your session too!

    3. Have a mutually agreed upon ministry plan. I think it is vitally important for every church to have a written ministry plan. It helps every staff member, volunteer and officer know the direction the church is heading. And when that plan is developed and agreed upon, decisions become a little easier. My kids memorized our list of family values. My wife and I prayed that each of our children would embrace and adopt each of the values listed. That list of values was like a family ministry plan. They were written down and we all could tell you what they were. The collective understanding of those values helped us make decisions, because we all knew what was important. It is equally important that your session uniformly knows what is important, what is the vision & mission of the church, what is valued and what the goals to be reached are.

    4. Have a regularly designated time with and for your pastor. I see this like our family meeting. As the shepherd of my family, I need to spend time with them, finding out how they are doing and praying with and for them. In our EMT meeting, they sometimes ask me difficult questions, exploring how I am doing personally and then praying with and for me. This time is critical if we are going to function like a family! If the session has time with you but not for you, you’re not going to be a family. But if you develop the trust like you’re a family, then meeting with your elders becomes a time of accountability, a time where they shepherd you and pray for you. Affording time for this level of engagement and vulnerability is what separates a policy meeting from a family gathering.

    For example, in our church, each elder on our session takes a month and brings questions to ask me. Questions like: Have you been anywhere you shouldn’t have been over the last month? Have you been focusing on somebody or something you shouldn’t be focusing on? Are you loving your wife well? Are you spending time with your kids? Not only accountability though. They also care for me with questions like: How are you doing? Are you hurting? Are we hindering you in any form or fashion? How are you feeling physically and emotionally? Tell us how we can be a better help to you. My vow to them is that I will answer all questions honestly. After we’ve gone through a season of questions and answers, they gather around me for a time of prayer. I can’t tell you how much this has benefited me personally and as a leader over the years.

    Are you starting to understand why this night is my favorite of the month? One thing though, we agree that what happens during this time stays just among us. We don’t tell our spouses or anyone else. So I feel safe. After that hour, we break for dinner and come back later for our “business” meeting. The reason for the split in time is to insure that the time for accountability and prayer happens or doesn’t become just a tag-on at the end of our monthly meeting.

    5. Orient and re-orient your session. Every year, we take our first business meeting of and go through our orientation. The purpose of our session is “to serve the congregation and its pastor by using its biblical authority as a commission of the elders to oversee the fulfillment of the church’s God-given ministry plan.” We talk about that and make sure we all understand. We have two values above all others that we discuss: honesty and loyalty. By honesty we mean that we have to be honest in meetings. If we don’t agree, say it and let’s discuss it. Don’t leave the meeting wishing you’d spoken up. Loyalty, as we define it, is walking out of that room unified. Once a decision is made, no one except the people in that room, should ever know who argued for and who argued against. We stand together as a team. We discuss our job descriptions. We go over the ministry plan. Every year, we walk through the orientation, top to bottom, and it insures we’re all starting the year on the same page. Ask my kids and they will tell you that we as a family would re-orient ourselves to our family values, roles, and jobs frequently. This kept us all moving in the same direction and gave us stability. It worked in my family and it works with our session.

So, I want to encourage you to start thinking about how your session can operate more like a family. You are its leader and set the tone. Be open. Be honest. Ask your session to be on your team. It may take some time but I know you can get there. And when you do, you will say that the session meeting is your favorite night of the month and mean it!

Randy Pope

If you’d like more information about anything mentioned in this blog, please call my office and Perimeter Church, 678-405-2233, and we will connect you with someone on staff that can answer your questions.

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