Richard Exley Ministries

Working with Lay Leaders

What makes for an effective pastor?  The answers are many and varied – spiritual passion, Godly character, vision, leadership ability, a genuine love for people, a heart to serve, administrative ability and preaching/teaching skills. As important as all of these are, they can be rendered largely ineffective if the pastor can’t work with the lay leaders* in the congregation.

Sometimes the problem lies with the pastor himself, but rarely.  He may be insecure and threatened by others with strong leadership skills.  He may be quarrelsome, taking offense when anyone disagrees with him.  He may be overbearing and dictatorial, demanding that everyone do things his way.  He may be arrogant, refusing to listen to counsel or advice.  If that is the case his ministry will flounder regardless of his ministry skills. 

Having said that, I want to hasten to add that, more often than not, the problem does not lie with the pastor.  In many cases he has inherited a group of lay leaders who are not qualified to serve.  They may be carnal, lacking spiritual insight and wisdom.  They may be emotionally wounded making it impossible for them to be objective.  Or they may be good men who are simply misguided, having picked up a misunderstanding about their role.  Whatever the case the ministry of the church will be hindered until these difficulties can be worked out. (click here to continue reading)

The most obvious solution is to make sure that the people we put in leadership positions are qualified to serve.  Unfortunately, in many situations, the way elders and/or deacons are selected does not lend itself to this end.  In many older, more traditional churches, nominations are made from the floor at the annual business meeting and then voted upon by the membership of the church.  This process does not allow the leadership to evaluate the qualifications of the nominees and often results in the most popular nominee being elected, whether he is the most qualified or not.

In churches that have experienced explosive growth, many of them being new church plants; the pastor simply appoints elders and/or deacons.  In most cases this is an improvement, for the wise pastor will prayerfully evaluate each potential leader before appointing him.  It is, however, not without its risks, especially if the pastor acts independently.  Making any decision without wise spiritual counsel is always a chancy thing.  Proverbs 15:22 says, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”

Let’s begin by considering how elders and deacons were chosen in the New Testament church?   Perhaps the Scriptures can give us some guidance. Maybe they will provide us with a model to follow.

There were no elections.  At least there is no Scriptural record of an election for elders and/or deacons.  Acts 14:23 says, “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust” (emphasis added).  To Titus Paul writes, “‘The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you’” (Titus 1:5 emphasis added).

Two things stand out to me as I read these passages.  1) The appointment of elders was too critical to be entrusted to only one man.  In Acts 14 it was a cooperative effort involving Paul and Barnabas.  In Titus 1:5 we see Titus working in consultation with Paul.  2) It was a spiritual decision more than an intellectual one, therefore Paul and Barnabas made fasting and prayer a part of the process.

When it comes to the selection of deacons in Acts 6 we see a different process.  This time the church body is instructed to “…choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3).  These seven men were then presented to the apostles “…who prayed and laid their hands on them” (Acts 6:6).  Following the laying on of hands and prayer, the seven were released into the ministry of deacons.  In this case it appears the body at large selected the seven men subject to the approval of the apostles.  How the seven were selected is not clear.

What conclusions can we draw?  Only this:  the New Testament gives us glimpses of how the church government worked, but it does not give us a definitive model.  The principles are clear – decisions were based more on spiritual guidance than intellectual insight, cooperation and accountability were important, decisions were not made independently or in a vacuum, fasting and prayer were a critical part of the process – but the form is vague at best. 

This is no accident.  Principles are universal.  They are applicable to any and every situation.  Form, on the other hand, is provincial.  Its effectiveness is limited by time and circumstance. 

What does this mean for the 21st century church?  As long as we do not violate the spiritual principles we are free to choose the form of church government that best suits our situation.  In His infinite wisdom God has provided us with principles that are absolute and unchanging.  At the same time He has given us a form of church government that is both flexible and dynamic, enabling the church to be responsive to a constantly changing society without compromising its core values.


* When we speak of “lay leaders” we are referring to those who are generally called Board Members, Elders, Deacons or Trusties.  In some churches they may be called by various other names – i.e., Advisory Board, Church Council, ECT.

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