Who’s in charge? What systems of accountability are in place? What are the opportunities for men and women?

In the face of highly-publicized church scandals and the failure of once-revered leaders, questions like these will continue to increase among church leadership. They are valid and important; church governance matters.

Get Clarity by Defining Terms

Most churches aren’t planted because of a deep desire to get into the intricacies and dynamics of the philosophies and outworkings of church governance. We plant churches because we want to reach lost people, equip believers to live gospel-transformed lives that are on mission, and gather the church for worship together. The early days of a church plant are exciting and vision-focused, but a lack of clarity will eventually cause problems.

Acts 29 is a big, diverse, global community. The specifics of governance vary from church to church. Some have denominational commitments that hand structures to the church. Others try to build their church’s government from scratch. But there are some principles that transcend local polity. The early days of a church plant are exciting and vision-focused, but a lack of clarity will eventually cause problems. Click To Tweet

Defining authority, who has it, and what they ought to do with it is complex. Andy Crouch’s book Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk, and True Flourishing helpfully defines authority as capacity for meaningful action and vulnerability as exposure to meaningful risk. Authority is not purely about power, and understanding the difference between authority and power is key to understanding how various church offices and ministry leaders interact.

Hold Responsibility While Delegating Authority

This gets complicated when we confuse authority and responsibility. When an NFL quarterback blames his offensive line and receivers after a loss, it’s an attempt to pass off responsibility while maintaining authority. The same thing happens when pastors and church leaders cling to authority in making decisions but then blame people in the church or on their ministry team for challenges or failures.

The apostles, who were responsible for the church in Jerusalem, delegated authority for the widows’ ministry to others in order to stay focused on their first task, the ministry of the Word and prayer (Acts 6). There’s a principle here that applies to us, and we catch a similar application from the endings of Paul’s letters when he names all those he counts as co-laborers in the gospel. The principle teaches pastors to bear the weight of responsibility while, at the same time, facilitating others within the church to serve.

Redemption Hill is committed to a plurality of elders. The elders of a church can never delegate their responsibility before God for what happens in the church (Heb. 13:17). Crouch says, “Leadership begins the moment you are more concerned about others’ flourishing than you are about your own.”

Yet holding that responsibility, we ought to follow the example of the apostles: we must be committed to the roles and responsibilities elders carry while delegating as much authority as possible to others. Of course, that exposes us and the church to more meaningful risk. The more people involved in any venture, the riskier it becomes. Godly leadership is willing to take responsibility even for the mistakes of others.

Godly Leadership Accepts Risk

This is especially hard for church planters. It’s safer to do everything yourself. No one will understand the vision, philosophy of ministry, or mission of a church plant with the clarity and passion of the planting pastor. No one risks as much in a church plant as the planter and his family, whose lives and livelihood are tied up in the church. That is real and meaningful exposure to risk—it’s intense vulnerability. The mirage that a pastor is more Superman than servant will become crushing in time—no matter the size of the church you serve. Click To Tweet

If we get this backward, it can open a wide door toward abuse of power. Clinging to authority while trying to delegate responsibility and limit vulnerability gets ugly, fast. The mirage that a pastor is more Superman than servant will become crushing in time—no matter the size of the church you serve.

Here are some questions for us all to consider as we seek to lead well:

  • Where have I shirked responsibility? How can that be made right?
  • Where do I feel a growing need or see a bottleneck in our church? What authority can the elders delegate to raise others up to meet the need more effectively?
  • Where have I pulled back out of fear of taking a risk? What vulnerability will lead the church to greater health and effectiveness?

Remember, the reason God calls people to lead churches is to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4). Our churches will be healthier and more effective if leaders ever-increasingly embrace this kind of vulnerability and responsibility while training, equipping, and releasing a greater diversity of people within the church on mission. That release of authority will build up the body of Christ with its many parts (1 Cor. 12) better than any single leader or even a plurality of elders ever could.

Bill Riedel
Written by: Bill Riedel on June 15, 2022

Bill Riedel is the founding and lead pastor of Redemption Hill Church in Washington, D.C. He was formally trained at Trinity International University (BA) and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (MDiv) and has served in ministry since 1998. He is also on the board of the EFCA. You can follow him on Twitter.