Rethinking Leadership in Small Congregations
Churches of Christ are unique in that every congregation is autonomous. Local churches do not report to an overseeing body. Not only is this an attempt to recapture the church governance of the early church, but it has also worked pretty well. Local churches make the decisions, and one church cannot bind their beliefs or traditions on another church.
Perhaps, the only time a church misses out on having some outside leadership is in the case of small congregations who do not have elders. Typically, when a church is small in number and has not selected any elders, they rely on a group of men to oversee the church. This is often referred to as a men’s business meeting. The men who serve on this committee are chosen by default. They do not have to meet any requirements or qualifications. They do not have to do anything. One simply has to be a baptized male and you are automatically given leadership responsibilities over the church. This means a thirteen year old boy could be a part of a men’s business meeting, as well as an eighty year old man with dementia. Worse yet, a male with anger issues or a prideful spirit could easily take over the meetings and there is little or nothing a congregation could do.
I have been a part of two congregations that were overseen by men’s business meetings. In both instances, problems abounded. It was not uncommon for alliances to be made and for men to take sides. On more than one occasion, I have known men to call others in the congregation to make sure they would be present for a big vote. A man may not attend any meetings at all, but all of a sudden he shows up because he has been persuaded by someone who wants his vote. Politics and infighting is not always present, but it is very common among churches who are led in this way. It also makes it hard for the minister to perform his duties. Some men’s business meetings will not allow a minister to make executive decisions on his own, so the decision must wait until another meeting is held. If a minister is working with elders a decision can usually be reached in a short amount of time, but if a minister has to wait on the men of the church it may take a month or longer.
The big problem with men’s business meetings is they are not found or based on anything in Scripture. There are no commands or examples relating to men’s business meetings in the Bible. It is a form of leadership created by human beings and it often results in problems. The question then becomes,”Who is going to lead or oversee these small congregations?” I do not think there is a definitive answer to this question in Scripture, but I do think there is a better way than having a men’s business meeting. Here are a few suggestions.
Choose the men who are most qualified. The thing that often causes congregations to go to a men’s business meeting is that there are not two people in the congregation qualified to be elders. There may be one man who is qualified and another man who is qualified in every way except he does not have any children, so instead of allowing these two men to lead the congregation, a men’s business meeting is formed. In the men’s business meeting, there may be four other men who are not qualified in any way to be an elder or lead, and now they make up the majority of the men’s business meeting. So, instead of having two men who miss being an elder by one qualification, you now have four men who do not meet any of the qualifications trying to lead the congregation. Does this make sense? No, it does not. It would be better to choose several men who are most qualified to lead the congregation, than to allow men who are not qualified at all to lead the congregation. These men who meet many of the qualifications of elders found in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1 could then lead the church and report to the congregation on occassion. This seems to me to be a better idea than allowing men who are not qualified at all to lead the church.
Allow the minister to lead the congregation. As a minister, I personally do not like this option, but it does have some Biblical precedent. I do not think it is wise to have only one leader. I think a plurality of elders is what the Bible expects, but what happens when a plurality of elders is not possible? There are several examples of evangelists and ministers overseeing congregations for a brief period of time until an eldership can be established. In Titus 1:5 we learn that Paul left Titus in Crete to put things in order and appoint elders. Obviously, a single minister overseeing a congregation is not the ideal. The goal of every congregation should be to train up men who are willing and able to lead, but what if there is no one qualified to lead? In the interim, a congregation might want to choose to allow the minister to have more authority than he might otherwise have. This may be a congregation’s best option, especially if the minister is the most qualified spiritual leader in the congregation. That being said, I still believe a congregation should have more than one person overseeing the finances. A congregation might want to appoint a few men to take care of the business aspects of the church, and allow the minister to oversee the spiritual welfare of the church.
Ask another church for help. This is probably the least appealing option of the three, but it may be a better option than allowing men who may harm the church take over. A congregation may want to seek the assistance of a well established congregation that is located nearby. The well established congregation may have families who would be willing to be a part of the smaller congregation until it was able to appoint elders. The well established congregation may be able to give advice and help for a short time. They could treat it as a church plant or a mission effort. Again, the goal would not be for the smaller church to become dependent on the larger church. If this happened, then the two would need to cut ties, or the smaller congregation may consider closing its doors if it cannot make it on its own. The goal would be to establish a healthy congregation that is autonomous and can support itself.
I realize none of these options are ideal, but neither is a men’s business meeting. I am sure there are some congregations who are doing just fine with a men’s business meeting, but I also know of many congregations who have been hurt because of them. I know of several ministers who have left or are considering leaving simply because they are tired of men’s business meetings. Men’s business meetings are often volatile. They may make one decision one month, but would make a different decision another month, depending on who shows up to the meeting. This is not leadership, and men’s business meetings are not found anywhere in Scripture. They often create an unhealthy environment, and they can make it very stressful for ministers. I believe small congregations would do better if they sought a different form of leadership.