Who Decides Who Decides? Developing an Action Plan

Elders and ministry staff can easily get sideways with each other when it comes to who decides who decides. Clear decision-making processes are vital for healthy leadership, and having written guidelines can help. However, the conversations that help to set guidelines can often become complex!

Adapting the research of Richard Chait, I offer some concrete criteria as a guide for your context. [1] Utilizing trust and being intentional about placing decision-making responsibility and authority in appropriate arenas empowers leaders and congregations to more fully pursue God’s mission.

First, I want to suggest that three basic choices exist for a leadership team to determining who decides who decides.

  1. The senior minister or ministry staff could make the decision, informing the elders in a timely manner.
  2. The minister or ministry staff could make the decision after discussion with the elders.
  3. The elders could make the decision after discussion with the senior minister or ministry staff.

This range of options for answering the question of who decides reminds both elders and ministers that decision-making is a shared process. But decision-making at its best utilizes the persons who have the skill, context and knowledge to make a wise decision. Keep in mind, too, that the size of your congregation matters a great deal in developing your approach. Generally, the larger the congregation, the more decision-making is passed on to ministry staff. [2]

Again, following Chait’s research, I suggest seven distinct criteria to help leader groups determine which choice might be best in any given situation.

  1. Fiduciary responsibility. To what degree does the decision affect the mission, direction or established policies of the congregation?
  2. Risk. Does the decision impact the financial, reputational or ethical life of the congregation?
  3. Consistency. Does this decision reflect a distinctive departure from past practices?
  4. Symbolism. Does the decision impact long-held values or practices, or the use of space?
  5. Competence. Who on the team has the relevant expertise and the capacity to analyze the issue and make a decision?
  6. Support. For the sake of the mission of the congregation, is it better for the decision to emerge from the elders or from the staff? In other words, what is the best way to gather support and develop synergy for a hopeful outcome?
  7. Morale. Would a decision by elders alone – or by the senior minister alone – signal a lack of trust or confidence, lowering morale throughout the leadership team?

Using the above criteria can help your leader group determine whether a particular decision should be made primarily by the minister, primarily by the elders, or through some mutual process. [3] For many leadership teams, it can be a difficult conversation to have. Yet I am certain that many leaders know the frustration and wasted time that accompany unnecessarily endless discussions about a particular decision. Having clear, written guidelines about who decides what will empower your leadership team for meaningful work. Participating in God’s kingdom calls us to work together as a community of leaders with clarity and trust in each other!

[1] Richard Chait, “Decisions, Decisions,” Trusteeship Magazine (January/February 2017).
[2] For a well developed discussion about congregational size and leadership style, consider Tim Keller’s essay, “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics.”
[3] See also the Siburt Institute’s Church Governance document, which brings together a variety of models from seven different elder-minister teams.


Dr. Carson Reed is Vice President for Church Relations at Abilene Christian University and Executive Director of the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry. He also serves as the Director for the Doctor of Ministry Program and holds the Frazer Endowed Chair for Church Enrichment in the Graduate School of Theology. Through the Siburt Institute, Carson does consulting work with congregations and church leaders across the country. His teaching and research centers on leadership, preaching, and issues surrounding faith and culture. Carson and his wife Vickie have been married for over 30 years and have four grown children.

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Author:  Publish Date: April 21, 2017

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The CHARIS website hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. In partnership with the ACU Library and the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, TX), the website is supported and led by the Center for Heritage and Renewal in Spirituality (CHARIS) at ACU. The Center’s mission is to renew Christian spirituality through engagement of Christian heritage, at Abilene Christian University and beyond. The views expressed on the CHARIS website are those of the various authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Abilene Christian University or CHARIS at ACU. Questions or comments about the CHARIS website can be directed to charis @ acu.edu.

2017-18 CHARIS Editorial Board:
Dr. Carisse Berryhill
Dr. Jason Fikes
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Mac Ice
Chai Green
Tammy Marcelain
Molly Scherer
Dr. John Weaver

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