Published July 20, 2006
Related article:Final decision-making authority key to polity debate
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) — “Do not take this issue lightly.”
So goes the advice of John Yeats, a veteran pastor who has served both pastor-led and elder-led Southern Baptist churches.
“Look at what happened at Germantown Baptist Church. Unless a church is ready to change its polity, it’s very difficult to take an existing church into a different model,” he said of the May 7 vote that defeated an attempt to transition Germantown, one of Tennessee’s largest SBC churches, to an elder system of church government.
The 168-year-old church just east of Memphis voted by an almost three-fifths margin to defeat a motion to move toward an elder system. Instead, the church kept its congregational form of polity. Several weeks later, the senior pastor, Sam Shaw, announced his resignation.
Yeats, who now serves as director of communications for the Louisiana Baptist Convention, said the difference in the models does not concern major theological differences, but instead churches seeking to find the most faithful model to the New Testament.
Plural elder-led congregational church
Scott Miller, senior pastor of Graceland Baptist Church in New Albany, Ind., serves in an elder-led congregational model.
“I believe that any church organizational system is only as effective as the spiritual character of its members,” he said.
Graceland’s elder-led system of government includes an elder board of up to seven men – five of whom they prefer to be lay elders, the remaining two staff elders, Miller said.
“The way it operates here is, of course, Christ is the Shepherd, the leader of our church. The senior pastor is His undershepherd,” he said.
Miller, along with the other six elders, comprise the elder board at Graceland. The senior pastor is the leader of the elder board “by position,” he said, but the elder board does not make all the decisions in the church.
“In our congregation, we do have congregation involvement in decision making,” he said. “In particular that includes the approval of the church budget, the calling of the senior pastor, and any decision that involves the purchase of property or construction of buildings or financial indebtedness on the part of the church.”
The elder-led model at Graceland, Miller said, has several advantages. One in particular is giving leadership opportunities to qualified lay members, he said.
An elder-led model also allows the church’s deacons to “focus on serving in ministry.”
The chairman of the deacons is asked to be a non-voting liaison member of Graceland’s elder board, which helps communicate the vision of the board to the larger body of the church and provides input into the needs of the congregation, Miller said.
Pastor-led congregational model
Senior Pastor Marty Comer leads a traditional congregational Southern Baptist church that predates both the Southern Baptist Convention and its home state convention of Tennessee – Sand Ridge Baptist Church in Lexington, Tenn., founded in 1828.
Although his church operates in a single elder-led congregational system, with a deacon body, Comer said he would not use that phrase to describe it, or use the term “elder” as others do.
“Our church would not refer to their pastor as an elder,” he said. “It’s simply not a part of their vernacular.”
Comer’s role at Sand Ridge is to be the “shepherd, preacher, vision caster,” he said.
Sand Ridge has a business meeting once a month where the congregation meets to vote on specific issues, although the church is moving toward holding them once a quarter, he said.
Committees and other groups are given authority to perform certain tasks without overall approval from the body on every decision, Comer said.
“I think pure congregationalism, a pure democracy, is untenable. You have to have a system and order,” he said. “But we do try to maintain principles of congregationalism even when other groups have been delegated certain functions within the church.”
Although the congregational form of polity is sometimes “a messy system” and requires patience, it is one Comer sees rooted in Scripture.
“Simple or efficient or not, I think it’s the biblical model for the church,” he said, pointing to passages like Acts 6 where the church made decisions as a whole. “And I think you need to stick to that.”
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