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Who leads the church: staff or congregation? [video]

Last weekend I was listening to one of Perry Noble‘s messages from NewSpring Church, a pastor I greatly respect and admire who has influenced my ministry in many ways. He was answering questions from the audience and one question pertained to church structure and leadership. I thought Perry’s answer was intriguing and I’ve been thinking about it ever since: Do we leave the church to be ran by the “professionals” who have been trained for ministry or do we let the congregation, parents, church board, and whoever else tell the staff members how to run the church?

I shot a little video recording some of my thoughts and I included the video of Perry answering the question. Watch it here:

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It’s an interesting paradox because Perry makes a convincing case for a staff-led church, but I’m not sure his analogies carry over to a ministry context quite as well as he describes. We’re not flying a plane nor running a bank — we’re a community of believers serving the Lord’s church. However, as a church leader, I totally vibe with his statement, “There is no evidence in the scriptures that a church should be ran by people who don’t actually do the work.” I’m sure any youth worker can shout an “amen” to that!

I wonder how much of this goes back to an ecclesiology that almost models something closer to a YMCA where the board tells the directors what to do instead of a church that’s more accurately a community of believers serving side-by-side. In other words, I think Mark Riddle has it right in his book, “Inside the Mind of Youth Pastors,” when he says the role of church staff is to train and encourage the body to do the work of the ministry, not to actually do it for them.

What do you think? I welcome your thoughts in the comments below. Should a church be staff-led? Congregation-led? A mix of both? Neither? I’m not making any accusations nor judgments about anyone nor any churches — I’m just thinking out loud about how we do what God’s called us to do so that He is ultimately glorified. Let’s make sure the discussion below does only that.


Posted on August 11, 2010

  • stephen

    I get the sense that this topic is increasing in today's culture and I believe much of it has to do with the increase of social networking (people increasing in the belief that they have the right to be part of every conversation and able to offer their input no matter what). My struggle with this though is what then is the point of Pastors/leaders? The more I hear about this the less I feel empowered to lead.

  • Good metaphor… let's kick at it.

    What happens when the pilot:
    – Doesn't ever let go of the controls?
    – Flies with his eyes closed?
    …- Is getting everyone sick?

    What happens when those in the cockpit:
    – Are threatened by each other?
    – Won't talk to each other?
    – Have spouses that won't talk to each other?

    What happens when the plane:
    – Keeps losing people who keep jumping out the side doors?
    – Is full of people who stand up when the seatbelt signal is on?

    Random questions, all to illustrate that we need each other… and this is a messy question with a messy answer. Personally, I'm comfortable with the mess – because I want people to check me, even when I don't want them to check me. However, if they don't let me do what I know I'm supposed to do, I'm going to do it anyway.

    Like I said, a mess. Hopefully our motives check one another.

  • mclanea

    Before I say anything, I just want to acknowledge how brave you are to talk about Perry. Last time I commented on a post about him his staff called me names. I hope that's not the case for you.

    In watching the video, here are my critiques of what he is saying: (not attacks, I'm sure Perry is a great guy. I just live in a place where we don't shag in public so I don't get his style.)

    1. He never answered the question. He talked around the issue and offered an opinion without consulting the Bible. So, clearly he answered the question purely from a Newspring perspective and not a theological perspective. There's an important distinction. You're video broadens it past what he originally intended so it's an interesting discussion, but to call this Perry's opinion for the church universal may be putting words in his mouth. (See, I defended Perry!)
    2. If you'll remember, his church had an accusation last year that his staff abused a community member, James Duncan. (http://www.pajamapages.com/) While there are likely good things going on and there are clearly two sides to every story… his staff (allegedly) behaved unprofessionally and showed why they need a board to oversee the staff's actions. Those actions don't devalue the tremendous good they have done in the community… just points to the need for non-staff oversight.
    3. While I get the argument that professional ministry people know ministry stuff better than a bunch of businessmen… a church of Newspring's caliber could easily have all sorts of professional ministry people act as elders. Surely, in their community there are professors of theology, retired ministers, noteable Christian leaders, and the others who could add Godly counsel. The difference between being a pilot flying a plane and being a pastor leading a church is that the people of the church are called by Jesus to be the church while the leaders of the church are called to be the teacher, encouragers, etc.

    All that to say, with a grin, I get what Perry is saying. And even my own church is governed locally by a staff who then reports to a Presbytery… I just wish Mr. Noble had used the Bible as his authority.

  • Here's my post from facebook: I like James MacDonald's philosophy (and it seems close to Perry's as well) that those INVOLVED in the ministry should make the ministry decisions. Many times we have congregations make decisions, where only 10-20% actually do the work. I don't think that the decision makers need to be paid staff only, but those involved in the ministry. Why not let those working in the children's ministry decide what to do or the youth ministry, etc. I am pretty privileged to have a lot of leeway in what I do. I also think that we don't need the entire congregation to vote on things – why not leave it to those involved in that area? But Perry's illustration lacks something. He talks only of flying the plane, but what about the size of the seats, the type of plane, the way tickets are distributed, what beverages are served, what requires a fee, etc. There's much more to an airline than flying the plane – and the pilot,though perhaps having an input in those things, doesn't make most of those decisions. Let the those who know what they're doing do what they know how to do with accountability (we've all heard of drunk pilots). But those making the decisions for the whole must also consider what is best for the rest of those in the ministry. The difference, however, is that an airline is making decisions for their patrons comfort – we make them for their growth. They are not to be simple consumers complaining when things don't go their way (or our way). We're to ALL be involved in a ministry and doing what is best for the group and what will help us all be prepared for works of service and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4). Sorry for the long post – I'm a pastor, it's my area of expertise. :-)

  • Danny

    I believe in an elder lead church. Odviously Christ is the head, but He has instructed Elders to lead the church. That being said, I believe the Staff drives the church and is under the direction of the elders. That being said, your congregations are filled with talent and there are some descions that can be made that have no spiritual significance to them what-so-ever. IF you have a contruction project that needs to be done, enlist your contractors, etc. Elders, and staff I believe have a responsibilty to train up spiritual leaders, this should be one of their main objectives.

    Here is the problem I have… All church votes… that is what i disagree with. Whether its the annual budget, election of elders, hiring of ministers ect. You are asking some of the most non-spiritual people in your church to make extremly spiritual desicions. I believe the bible says that Elders, under Christ, are to lead the church… Why don't they in many cases?

  • Kenett

    Our church is staff led….my husband and I have been involved in over 15 churches in our married life. (35 years)..the one we are in now is by far the best church we have ever been involved in. The other churches were run by committees. My husband has been on staff in about 7 or 8 of these churches….personally I agree with the speaker on the video….there are too many in a congregation who want to "run the show" it is best to let the staff lead, and then call on certain people who may be of help in a certain area of the church.

  • G'ma B

    Interesting thinking.. ( Had some double speak for awhile in the sound.. )

    Laymen like the pastor and staff to do the work.. they get paid !! :-)
    Our Free Methodist denomination was started to have equal leadership of the laity and pastors. At the yearly conferences we try to maintain equal people to vote..
    We sure need both… like a family council… We both had lay-parents, so we sure feel with the laity , also…

  • Will

    ( 1 Corinthians 12:7-8) 7 A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. 8 To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice[b]; to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge. – I totally agree that it takes all kinds of churchs to reach all kinds of people. But I believe that the biblical structure of the church from the New testament was all about your personal role and spriritual gift . We read in Acts 6 when the church was first established one of the first things they did was appoint 7 men to be over the food distribution. They were chosen because they were "well respected and full of the spirit and wisdom". This was done so that the Diciples could preach and teach. We cannot dicsount the overall opinion of a communiyt of believers. But we can take each one, put them in a position that God had gifted them for and allow then to help in making Spririt lead deicisons. God has given specific people in our church the ability to make Spirit filled decisions, and that person may not be a Minister.

    • mclanea

      Will- excellent point. Seems like when Paul & Barnabas got into a scuffle they took it back to Jerusalem. (Acts 15)

  • I agree with Layton's comment… I think the key phrase that Perry used (though I'm not sure he meant it like Layton and I do) is that the people DOING THE WORK should be the ones making the decisions. In my life as a youth pastor, there is almost nothing more frustrating than when someone who is in no way involved with my ministry offers advice or criticism. And I think that extends to the church as a whole.

    In my church (and we're probably pretty typical in this regard), there are only about 20 families/individuals who actually do anything meaningful. Even though our church is "Staff-driven, Elder-led", when those people speak, we listen. When the "squeaky wheels" who don't do anything but show up on Sundays and complain start talking, we typically listen to their comments with as little bias as possible (they are brothers and sisters in Christ, after all), but ultimately their complaints usually get filed under "Who cares?".

    On another note, I said our church is Staff-driven, but Elder-led. What I mean by that is that myself and our senior pastor (the Staff) drive our church's agenda in terms of what programs we do, sermon series, etc. Our Elders function in that "spiritual overseer" role that Paul writes about. They let us know if we are getting off-mission, pastor us and others in our congregation, and have ultimate authority in financial matters and to hire and fire staff if need be.

  • Josh Cook

    Abbreviated version.

    Question: Who should lead the church?
    Noble's Answer: Me.

    • mclanea

      Ha. Funny and true. He's the final authority until he learns he isn't the final authority.

  • When talking about church, I think that it's difficult to prove scripturally that the "congregation" leads it. It seems clear that a group of elders (whatever that word means to you) usually leads an ecclesia group.

    When talking about the kingdom of God, however, it seems that Jesus turned the idea of having "people in charge" upside down. God's in charge, but everyone is a part of the kingdom, and he doesn't seem to distinguish between varying degrees leadership.

  • psibrone

    Although, I agree with the spirit of what Perry is saying, the manner in which it was summarized leaves it wide open to debate. Ultimately, the pastors are going to be held accountable to God for what they did with the flock that God has put them over, and the that end, the decisions need to be made by the ones who are held accountable.

    Just like in a family, the children don't tell the parents how to do things, (or if you like, we don't tell God how things should be). How horrible would the home be if that were to be the case? I don't think at any point Perry was saying that 'it's my way or the highway'. I also don't think he was trying to put people in their place. That would just be bad shepherding. I also don't believe that he was saying the congregation doesn't matter, or that their opinions are not valid.

    Like I said, I agree with what he is saying, I just think that its a conversation that was summarized for time, versus being allowed to be explained fully.

  • mclanea

    Very well put, Mark. Seems like Mr. Noble is firmly planted on one side of an age-old church polity question.

  • Liz

    I was hoping that the airplane analogy was going to include the pilot telling the co-pilot and the flight attendants that there was turbulence ahead. Then the co-pilot would support the pilot in making the correct choices to fly the plane while facing adversity. The flight attendants should spend time caring for the concerns and anxieties of the passengers so that even while there was a big problem facing everyone, the entire leadership of the flight was working together for a safe landing. Which after all, is the goal of everyone on board paid expert, or unpaid passenger.

    To me that's what leadership in a church is. Its allowing the pastor(s) to guide, to teach, to help others find the path towards transformation into a God way of living. But, one person or even a group of persons no matter how trained they are, cannot go it alone. That's why lay leaders in a church are vital. They can reach the congregation sometimes in a way that the pastor can't always accomplish, because they are quite simply out numbered. And folks walking the walk don't have to have a Masters of Divinity to be a positive influence and support of life changing ministry.

    Having said that, running your church based on the opinions of the uninvolved or trying to make everyone happy is also not plan that will succeed. If those without formal training and education go down that path, then the pastor needs to lovingly point out that those folks may just be stumbling blocks. That as leaders God wants and desires have to come first, no matter what.

  • Becca Duke

    I believe that the New Testament outline for how the Church should conduct itself is still very relevent today, there is no reason that we should deter from how it was built at the foundation. I believe in an elder and deacon led assembly of believers. 1 Timothy 3 lays it out exactly, but unfortunately many local assemblies do not heed the direction and choose men that are not blameless, sexually pure, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, etc. (1 Tim. 3:1-7). The congratation leads by choosing their own leaders. When men fall from that place, it's time to choose new leadership and trust the Lord to make the worthy men obvious.

  • Becca Duke

    I agree with yesterday's devotion on my daily flip calendar: "The church is designed to glorify God. For an entity thatt was created to display the grace of the Almighty toward mankind, it is interesting that contemporary people speak of the church as something to meet their expectations and desires. In reality, it is to please the Head that this spiritual body exists. The church's reason for being is to display the beauties of the Lord temporally and eternally. As we meet together for worship and edification, let us always remember that it is in the Lord's name and authority that we gather, in the power of His Spirit, and for His glory." -Keith Keyser
    Unto Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen. Ephesians 3:21

  • Mark – I like where you went with this, and I'd like to crystallize a thought at the tail section (no pun intended) of your post. We all want pilots flying the plane… assuming, of course, they have an eye to see, an ear to hear, a hand to steer, a foot to brake, and so on.

    Perry's analogy assumes the pilot is fully-formed.

    In contrast, soaring and moving forward only happens on a church level when the church is fully-formed… which requires (obviously) more than one person.

  • Will B

    As a former Catholic and now especially as a Methodist (first and foremost, Saved and Sanctified and Justified by the Blood of Jesus Christ) I realize that staff makes or breaks the Church. While leadership IS vitally important, a congregation MUST be encouraged by leadership to have much more than a casual relationship with their Bibles and THE Word of God. I have seen WAY too many pastors, priests and leaders preach sermons and advocate doctrine that flies in the teeth of God's Word. I don't hear many pastors proclaiming the virtues of John's advice to believers:
    "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world." – 1 John 4:1

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  • Staff/elder leads, congregation supports and has the ability to call them out when something hugely unbiblical happens.

    Here's where my thoughts probably differ with some. The elders are the staff. There's no "senior pastor" who's the top dog. So you have a guy who's a member of the local body (so he's got a vested interest in her well-being), has experience with finance (REALLY good experience), he oversees the money department, has a volunteer team of congregation members who works with him to make sure everything's transparent, and equips people to become part of the ministry. He doesn't do everything, but he makes the tough decisions. He's accountable to the other staff to make the right decisions (audits, etc). The congregation can see financial records, ask questions, and give input that may help the church move forward. They don't call all the shots, but they take part in the ministry. Same goes for the other positions in a church. YM guy is in charge of youth ministry, works with the finance guy to get things happening, but is equipping others to take part in the ministry.

    Like other comments have said, it's a messy situation, and there isn't one end-all approach.

  • James

    Okay, so a pilot is flying the airplane and together with the co-pilot they happen to notice that they are running low on fuel (bad planning right?). In fact their fuel is so low that if they don't make a correction in their flight plan the entire plane is going to crash(!). The pilot gets on the intercom and says "What a beautiful day it is! The sky's are blue, the clouds are fluffy, praise God for all the wonderful things he has given us. Just sit back and enjoy the ride!". The co-pilot, with a uniquely different perspective, looks at the pilot and says "dude, we're running low on fuel, we should probably make some adjustments so that we don't crash the plane". The pilot, clearly in charge quickly counters the obvious challenge to his authority saying "where is your faith? I'm the pilot and this is my plane".

    Here are four questions pertaining to the situation:

    1. Are the pilot's actions and decisions in the best interest of the entire plane?
    2. How far does the pilot's authority extend, should he be the only one making the decision to let the plane crash?
    3. At what point should the co-pilot subvert the authority of the pilot and make a decision based upon the best interest of the entire plane?
    4. If there is no course correction option and the plane is crashing, how far should the plane drop in altitude before the pilots tell the passengers to buckle their seat belts?

    • This sounds like a fun analogy to think through, but honestly, I'm not quite sure where you're going with it. Are church members the pilot and pastors the co-pilot?

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