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How Does Your Church Choose Leaders?

Recently, at Life on the Vine, we sensed that we needed to call more people as shepherds (or elders) who could bring their gifts into leading us to follow after our Lord faithfully. But we are still a relatively young church and we have not done this a lot, and so we were faced with questions:

‘How do we choose leaders?’ and ‘Who chooses?’

Geoff, Cyd and I (the three co-pastors) could have sat down and looked over our membership and handpicked some people based upon who we know, who we get along with, what gifts we have seen exercised, etc.

We could have done the same process and shared the decision with a larger group (i.e., the current shepherds).

We could have let the congregation nominate new shepherds, and then we could have picked who was nominated the most or who we think would be the best suited to serve based upon those nominations.

We could have made a ballot of those who were nominated and then put it to a congregational vote. OK, you get the idea … we didn’t do ANY of those things.

Instead, we tried something new (to us), mostly ripping off a process outlined in Selecting Church Leaders by Charles M. Olsen and Ellen Morseth. At the heart of the process is a belief that the Holy Spirit can and will lead us in discerning leadership among us.

Briefly, here are the steps we followed:

  1. Asked the congregation to nominate shepherds who were qualified and gifted.
  2. If someone was nominated more than once, we asked them if they would be open to discerning serving as a shepherd.
  3. If they were, then they were given a discernment packet as a guide in prayer, reflection, Scripture reading and discussion with others.
  4. After a few weeks, all of the pastors, shepherds and discernmentarians (yes, that’s a word) met together for a time of worship, listening and discernment. There was 12 people discerning, and 25 of us total.
    • We worshipped and read Scripture.
    • Each discernmentarian (I love that word!) privately wrote on a slip of paper a gift that they bring to the body and offered it on the communion table.
    • Each discernme person answered three questions that they were all given in advance.  hey had five minutes to answer all three.
    • All 25 of us wrote the names of three people on a slip of paper (and we could write our own name down as well).
    • Several shepherds looked at the tally. They were looking for those names that had an overwhelming majority. Two names emerged.
    • We did it again, removing those two names from consideration. There were two more clear names that emerged.
    • A few days later, the shepherds met to discuss what we sensed from the meeting and what we heard—we decided to put two more names forward—bringing our total up to six.
    • We closed, praying the Lord’s Prayer and the Doxology.

What I liked about this process:

  1. We included those who were nominated to participate with us in the discernment process. The decision was made much more transparently, and I think this not only eased any resulting tensions about outcomes, but also built a sense of unity and energy among us.
  2. How often do 25 people from a church get together and share what they are passionate about? Forget selecting church leaders! This was a powerful experience. Why don’t we do this more often? Regardless of who was selected to be shepherds, as a church, we need to hear and encourage these passions among all of our members.
  3. I was somewhat surprised by the results, which led to me wondering, “Where are you leading us Lord?”—and as a co-pastor, that is the question I want to be asking!

What could have been better? I think the process was a little rushed. We needed more time to discuss what we heard collectively or in small groups after everyone answered the three questions. I am convinced that is a key step. Listening to the Spirit cannot be rushed.

I offer our little experiment as an alternative model to the pastors making the decision model or the congregational vote model. The church is not a monarchy, oligarchy or democracy—but we strive to be led by the Spirit as a pneumatocracy (I love that word!).

I would love to hear what other churches do to discern and select church leaders. Offer your ideas and stories in the comments.  

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David Fitch is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.