Dealing with Elder Pastor Conflict

So you have read a few of the articles about improving your communications strategy and you realize that the church needs a new logo, name, website, welcome sign or needs to bring in an expert to give you some ideas and insight as to how to improve how you talk with your community and church. Now you have to talk to the elders and run everything past them. The sweat starts to drip as you imagine the conflict that could occur at the meeting. Your stomach starts to twinge and your head is already hurting and the meeting is in two weeks.

Hopefully, I am being a bit over dramatic. I sure hope so. I have been on the other end of the table hundreds of times as an elder for nearly twenty years. I have seen things handled well and things handled poorly. I understand it can be stressful to try to work with elders or board, especially if it is the first time or trying something totally outside of the box. Once a young youth minister thought of a new way of ministering to high school kids. He was very prepared, but I could tell he was extremely nervous. He began his verbal presentation and his voice got more strained, sweat started trickling down his furrowed brow and redness started to develop in his ears and then spread from forehead to chin. The stress was written all over his face. Hopefully, the tips below can let you know what elders are looking for in proposals and ideas and relieve some of the heartburn. 

1. Understand the Relationship. This is probably the trickiest of the whole list because each church is different and each leadership team is different. One church may have a board with elders, deacons and deaconesses overseeing the church. The next may have just elders. The minister maybe an elder in some congregations and just a hired gun in others. Some elders may desire to manage the affairs of the church. Other churches have elders that are just yes men to the wishes of the minister. I know many elders that look to the minister as a paid professional and are expected to bring plans and proposals to the table. Other elders want the minister to just preach, teach, marry, bury and visit the hospital. Most churches are a combination of all of the above with varying views even among the elders or board members. This strange dichotomy of views often creates extreme difficulties. 

First you should be clear on your relationship. If you have not clearly defined your role then you may want to have that discussion before you propose a new idea. Every minister should be able to draw a church leadership flow chart with responsibilities listed. Does your chart match what your elders would draw? Having clear lines helps avoid squabbles and power struggles. I strongly feel that a clear understanding must be obtained before you offer any proposal.     

2. Communicate Early and Often. This means with the elders or board. There is no problem running ideas past the some of the staff, key members, deacons and elders as long as everyone knows they are just ideas for a possible proposal and there is a process. Use that opportunity to ask for prayer and get additional guidance and ideas.

The last thing an elder wants is to be hit with something new with no notice or even worse, something announced in a worship service before it is even discussed. Even in congenial churches with great elder/minister relationships communication must be in the right forum and in the right process. Circumventing the process will strain even the best relationship. This means in the meeting or meetings prior to the proposal or discussion it would be wise to let the elders know that you are thinking about proposing a new communications plan or other item for consideration and then let them know what the discussion will be about at the next meeting. This will give everyone the time to pray and think through the general idea. 

3. Outline the Problem in a Positive Light. I am not talking about rose colored glasses however, no one wants to consider dealing with a problem, but everyone loves to hear about an opportunity. For instance, anytime I hear someone say, "Our community is unchurched." I follow up with, "The harvest is great!" Or, "We don't have the finances for that." I say, "Our God has the cattle on a thousand hills." Positivism is contagious.  Everyone knows that there are challenges in the church today but grousing over the negative drives people away. This does not mean that you can be reckless but it does mean that a positive opportunity is always better received. Clearly state the problem but always follow up with a positive perspective. 

4. Give Solutions. That is the reason for a proposal or expressing an idea. If everything is copacetic, why change anything. Remember everybody can complain. That's easy. The hard part is to come up with a solution or at least a new way to address problems or new ideas. When discussing an issue as an elder I would like it summed up in one quick paragraph or even on sentence. Followed briefly by supporting evidence. The long part of any proposal or discussion needs to be on solutions.

The solutions need to be organized, clear, well thought out and all inclusive as possible. As I indicated above, it should also include costs, outcomes, responsibilities and timelines. This is not a time to hold back any parts of plan.        

5. Provide Measurements. Churches count all sorts of stuff. Attendance, baptisms, offerings, membership and cups in the communion tray are just a few. When it comes to communications plans there are several ways to measure how well things are going. Website clicks, likes, retweets, response rates and views to name a few. When you are proposing any new idea or way of doing things, find ways to measure the success. 

6. Don't Be Afraid to Inspire. Elders are just people that are called to help manage the local church and they need to be inspired and encouraged.  

7. Be Willing to Listen. Once you have had a chance to put your idea forward always ask if there are any questions. But go beyond that, ask questions that will garner a response. Don't get flustered if it seems like a negative response. Sometimes elders want to see how passionate you are about your idea. Sometimes they have great insight into the membership that you don't or they can let you know what they think the response maybe and the challenges you will face. 

8. Remind Everyone (including yourself) that you are on the same Team. Churches do not function in an adversarial environment. Especially if you have had a history of a poor relationship with someone the board, this may be the time for a reminder. As stated above. Get agreement on the issue, problem or improvement that needs to be done, lay out your solution garner a response and if it is negative ask for their solution. Truly search for the solution and gently reminder all involved that this is not about us, but it is about Jesus and His church.  

9. Close the Deal. Often times church meetings are informal. Nothing is wrong with comfortable banter and conversation when you are talking about cleaning the kitchen floors or day to day operations, however when it is something more crucial a true commitment from the whole group and as individuals is important. In my experience it is rare when you go around the room to hear from each elder and to see if they agree with a program or idea. Therefore, when you insist upon an actual yea or nay it it will point out even more clearly that this is an important issue that must be supported. When asked to show commitment, if you hear "Well maybe." and "I guess." then your leaders are not ready to be on board. At that time you have to back up and ask why there is a low level of excitement or commitment. Pushing ahead with lukewarm support will most likely spell disaster. Don't settle for "Well okay."    

10. Make sure that everyone in the meeting is clear on responsibilities, duties and expectations.  

11. Follow Up with Progress. Keep the elders involved once implementation begins. Track your progress and let the team know what is going on. As you gather data on how things are going come back to the elders with tweaks that will improve the plan and implementation.  

12. See it Through. Don't quit. One of the most frustrating thing as an elder is the plans that are never completed or programs that just drift away. Keep it an active agenda point and constantly look to improve and share. 

These are just a few ways we can improve elder/minister relations. If you have any ideas to add let me know. I look forward to any advice.