Thinking Out Loud

August 1, 2016

Church Overseer Positions Should Have Term Limits

Admittedly these Mormon leaders aren't the subject of this article, but it kinda set up the vibe we were looking for. Your church's head office dress code may vary.

Admittedly these Mormon leaders aren’t the subject of this article, but it kinda set up the vibe we were looking for. Your church’s head office dress code may vary.

If you attend a denominational church, somewhere, in some city, there is a head office where resides the President or Bishop or whatever your church calls the guy with the biggest office. It is undoubtedly a multi-staff office with various sub departments dealing with the major aspects of church life. For example, one office is probably assigned to the Director of Missions. Another may concern itself with the movement of pastors from one part of the country to another as vacancies arise. A third might give oversight to both local church and national office finances. You might even have 20 or 30 such titles held by various people.

Additionally, if your church is of any size, there are regional or district offices which in some respects replicate the positions of the national office.

The number of people employed at the national or district office is beyond the scope of this article, except to say that it is very easy to move into an office and simply never move out. Such people, I would call, church administration lifers.

Many of these are former pastors, which is a rather odd way of saying that they are now — currently — trained as pastors and hold theological degrees, ordination and denominational credentials. If they chose to, they could at any time step into one of their local church pulpits.

Often the district overseers do that just that on the occasion of the anniversary of a church, the ordination of a pastor, or some other special occasion. This may involve simply preaching the same sermon in different locations, with little advance preparation time required. After the service, they shake a few hands, possibly stay for lunch, and then Monday morning they are back walking the administrative halls of their tribe.

It is nice work if you can get it, and many pastors in the trenches aspire to be promoted to a district position; still in ministry and still salaried, but free from the messiness of having to shepherd a local church congregation.

…and now we get to the meat of this article…

I would contend that with time, this drift away from involvement in a local church is detrimental to their ministry life and eventually impedes their effectiveness as an overseer. True, I’ve heard stories of some very senior church administrators who continue to teach a Sunday School class in their local congregation, but such stories are rare. I would argue that many overseers are cut off from church life, especially if they have been at the position for some time.

When I worked in Christian camping, I made a suggestion one year that each of us on senior staff be associated each week with a cabin and a counselor. I remember doing this myself. At least once a day I ate a meal with the boys, I spelled of the counselor for evening devotions one night, and I went on a one hour boat trip with the kids to a nearby island. While doing all this, I continued to do all of the administrative things required of me in the course of a day.

A few other senior staff caught the vision for this, but mostly, the concept was not well-received. The built-in assumption was that those of us in leadership were to somehow distance ourselves from what was going on in the cabins. The campers were the junior staff members’ responsibility, not ours. I disagreed. I felt we could only do our job effectively if we were maintaining direct contact with the people we served. For me, this was a matter of management style.

Twice in my life I did consulting for Christian publishing companies, while at the same time being a vendor for their products. I was involved in setting policies — including a couple of price increases — which would directly impact me as a customer. In both cases, the senior leadership of the company felt that I brought a freshness to their operations that could only come from also being a customer.

But we’re drifting away from denominational and district offices of your church’s denominations.

The thing I want to end with here is the idea of people being church administration lifers. I don’t think that in the case of ordained clergy who have come up through the ranks this is a good idea. I’ve heard stories of church overseers who reached their “Where do I go from here?” moment and decided to head out to the mission field. Brilliant!

For most however, a return to the trenches is a logical option. Which is why I think there should be term limits on these administrative positions. After a given point in time, the term expires, a new person is given the office, and the former President or District Superintendent returns to some form of pastoral ministry.

Who did I have in mind when I wrote this? Nobody in particular, though these articles often begin with conversations involving specific people. But this has been brewing in my head for a long time, and it is evidenced in my associate cabin leader concept at camp that this isn’t a new philosophy. Rather, I think it’s something that is desperately needed. It’s a win for the denomination because they experience different people in leadership. It’s a win for the local church which gains a pastor who has such a big-picture perspective. Finally, it’s a win for the man or woman whose skills I believe would otherwise atrophy doing the corner office thing and the potluck lunch circuit for all those anniversaries and ordinations.

head of the denomination


Fun image-based, partially-relevant places to visit after reading this article:

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