I am privileged to serve alongside a remarkable group of pastors. We are officially an elder-led church, per our church By-Laws. What makes the leadership of Oceanside Christian Fellowship exceptional, however, is not our formal church polity.
To be sure, as we saw in the previous chapter, some forms of church government naturally lend themselves to the proper exercise of pastoral authority. In contrast, other approaches—the corporate model, for example—are more susceptible to instances of authority abuse.
I think that a formal polity of team leadership like ours is a step in the right direction. However, what makes the leadership of Oceanside Christian Fellowship so healthy—what gives OCF’s leaders so much credibility in the eyes of our people, and what makes it such a delight to serve as a pastor in the church—is not our formal structure but, rather, the quality of relationships we share with one another as a pastor-elder team.
Relationships Among OCF’s Pastor-Elders
Except for the fact that two of us draw a paycheck every couple weeks, OCF knows no distinction between its seminary-trained pastors and those on our board whom other churches might refer to as elders or (in churches without elders) deacons. Indeed, in order to discourage the kind of minister-versus-layperson mentality traditionally associated with the terms ‘pastor’ and ‘elder,’ all seven of us are designated as ‘pastor-elders’, and we encourage our church to view us that way.
Our weekly meetings are the key to the relational and spiritual success of the whole enterprise. OCF’s pastor-elders gather together for an hour-and-a-half each Wednesday morning. We have no business agenda. We simply share our lives and pray for one another, and we also pray through the prayer requests our people submit Sunday by Sunday.
OCF currently has seven pastor-elders. Our tenure ranges from four years on the team to more than twenty. I have been part of the team for fifteen years. You can imagine the kind of community we have developed by faithfully meeting and praying for one another, for so long, on a weekly basis.
We have shared over the years in countless joys and sorrows, big and small. We welcomed four new children and several grandchildren into the world (another is due today, as I write this chapter!). We fervently prayed for shaky marriages in our extended families. And we grieved together when one of our brothers lost his wife to a long battle with cancer.
We generally reserve decisions and actions related to church programs and ministry for another context, meetings that we hold one Saturday each month. And it is here, at these Saturday gatherings, that the community we cultivate on Wednesdays pays big dividends to our church family as a whole.
Power plays? Authority abuse? Not a chance. Brandon, Denny, Ed, Stan, Dan, Carlos, and I know each other too well—and we love each other too much—to let anyone get away with such politicking or posturing. It is really quite amazing what happens when decision-making arises organically from the relational soil of mutual trust, respect, and admiration.
This is not to say that we don’t struggle through the same kind of overwhelming challenges that confront other church leaders. Disgruntled and divisive church members, immorality, financial crises, a major building program, hiring and firing staff—we’ve seen it all. And like any team comprised of opinionated leaders, we have had our share of strong disagreements along the way.
The community we cultivate on Wednesdays, however, allows us to tackle church crises on Saturdays—and push through divergent viewpoints to consensus—in ways that we never could, if we were a typical church board, devoid of caring relationships, meeting monthly solely to do church business or, worse yet, to rubber-stamp the vision of a sole pastor figure. Among OCF’s pastor-elders, community is the bedrock of consensus.
Does This Really Work?
People who are new to OCF, and to our team leadership model, repeatedly ask, How does this actually work out in practice, when a difficult and potentially divisive decision must be made?
There are no absolutes where the decision-making process is concerned, and different groups of individuals will inevitably interact with one another in different ways. At OCF, our pathway to consensus typically runs as follows:
- We each weigh in with our convictions or opinions about the issue at hand.
- We listen carefully to each person’s viewpoint and to the rationale for each person’s perspective.
- We seek to be highly sensitive to the general direction the discussion is going, trusting that the Holy Spirit is superintending the process.
- A pastor-elder whose viewpoint becomes increasingly out-of-step with the trajectory of the discussion willingly defers to the growing consensus of the group.
- Once a decision has been made, we unanimously own it.
And, of course, we pray our way through the process. Not once, during my fourteen-year tenure on the board, have we once found ourselves at an intractable impasse, unable gain consensus on a key church issue.
God’s Perfect Will?
One final observation about the decision-making process, which will perhaps strike a number of readers as counterintuitive: I have become convinced over the years that God is generally more concerned with the process than with the outcome of our leadership meetings, that the way we make decisions as a community of leaders is at least as important to God as the ultimate decisions we make.
I often find it quite difficult to discern God’s will for a given decision related to church planning and organization. Perhaps you have the same experience. While some decisions are clear-cut, I have become increasingly convinced that in most situations there are probably two or more viable alternatives, each of which would be pleasing to God. In still other situations, God likely has no preference at all.
Persons who believe otherwise, and who seek vigilantly to ascertain God’s perfect will for every key decision, run the risk of completely missing a biblical reality that is indispensable to a team of leaders seeking to reach consensus on vexing and difficult issues: in contrast to the lack of clarity often associated with the decision itself, God’s will for the relational integrity of the process—individual humility, mutual respect, brotherly love—is crystal clear throughout the Scriptures.
It is, of course, quite Western to be preoccupied with outcome at the expense of process. But it is not biblical.
The upshot of all this for decision-making by consensus is that I am less and less inclined to confuse my personal convictions with the will of God on an issue, and I am increasingly willing to defer to group consensus when I represent the sole minority opinion at one of our Saturday planning meetings. My brothers on the board take the same approach. For we are quite confident that if OCF’s pastor-elders engage the process with integrity, God will be pleased with the outcome.