Church Governance: Local Elders or Outside Board?

by | April 22, 2015 | Executive Pastor, Mars Hill


Church Governance: Local Elders or Outside Board?
ResultSource Part 3

In my first months on staff at Mars Hill Church, the ResultSource contract was approved even though I had advised my direct supervisor against it. I don’t know who approved the plan. I don’t know what process was conducted concerning the decision. I do know that it showed that the process of making big decisions at Mars Hill was flawed and should be fixed. The decision was done and in the past by the close of 2011, but Mars Hill could certainly learn from it. My goal over the next few months was to restructure the decision-making process and the board that made those decisions.

The Church Governance Debate

Church leaders hotly debate what is the appropriate governance structure for a church. Should church boards be all local elder-led? Should they have outside leaders? Should they be a combination of both? Should a church have one outside board for governance and decision-making and another internal board for pastoral accountability?

A small church can have a local elder-led board. A small church can have an outside board. It can even have a hybrid of both. However, I firmly believe that a large church (over 10,000 in weekly attendance) cannot have a board solely of local elders. I’ll go one shocking step further: a large church can also not have a board governed by a plurality of elders.

We can disagree on how God wants a church governed, but we must agree that God has grown some very large churches worldwide. Running a church of over 10,000 attendees is nearly impossible with a plurality of elders. Early on, Mars Hill chose a path that every pastor was also a governing elder, which worked when the church was smaller. At that time, Mars Hill’s governance required plurality, or unanimous agreement, of all elders on any decision (there were no clear directions on what decision required plurality). Those early leaders had not thought Mars Hill would reach 14,000 in attendance. As it grew by God’s grace, more pastors were needed to shepherd the flock. Those pastors were also governing elders, which meant at one point, decisions required unanimous consent of over 20 elders. This also gave veto power to any one elder. That’s like sitting the football team down on the field with the game clock ticking and deciding what play to run together. Two outcomes are likely: a decision will never get made or it will take too long to make one.

Back in 2007, Mars Hill had migrated away from plurality of elders in its formal governance structure, but the strains of plurality still remained within the church culture. Every man who became a pastor, whether paid or volunteer, went through the “eldership” process to ensure the character qualifications of 1 Peter 5 and 1 Timothy 3 were met in the man’s life and home. Although the by-laws clearly stated otherwise, many church members assumed those pastors were directly involved in the governance of the church, even in 2014. Some of the pastors in 2014 felt that all 60 pastors should still be governing elders and all 60 pastors should operate in plurality on all decisions.

During my tenure, many people criticized the culture of Mars Hill and lack of accountability. The most stinging came from Dr. Paul Tripp who actually served on the Board of Advisors and Accountability for eight months when past mistakes and sins began to crater in on Mars Hill. Few people know that Dr. Tripp never physically attended a board meeting during that time. In fact, he had never met all of the board members in person. Furthermore, the points he attempted to make were never made in a board meeting or to all of the board members. Dr. Tripp resigned because he wanted the board to go back to local elders. He wanted local elders to govern each of the fifteen churches across five states. Many of the mistakes, sins, and problems that created the culture occurred under a local elder-led board—including the ResultSource decision. There is a tipping point where a church or organization outgrows its current governance. I’m not certain when it happened, but for Mars Hill, the local elder governance had reached the tipping point well before the summer of 2011.

What can you learn from this?

  1. Your organizational governance will change. You cannot operate under the same governance structure as when your church was planted. Your governance may even change several times as your church changes. Any good organization is constantly refining and clarifying its mission; thus the board that will lead it must also be refined and clarified. In my opinion, a church that sees exponential growth cannot remain in the same governance model forever.
  2. Outside advisors bring a different and experienced viewpoint. A volunteer elder who has business experience can help a young or smaller church with administrative and financial decisions. A seasoned ministry leader from outside the church will teach through his past successes and failures.
  3. A large church or ministry will struggle if it is run like a small one. At its peak, Mars Hill had 14,000+ attendees per week. It supported a church-planting organization, a training program, a publishing ministry, two prolific websites, a widely downloaded sermon ministry, and a music label. Its annual budget exceeded $30 million. By the grace of God, Mars Hill was a sophisticated and complex ministry organization that required a diverse and sophisticated governance structure. Today, local elders govern most of the independent churches birthed by Mars Hill, and these churches have much smaller congregations and much simpler ministries.
  4. Accountability must be chosen and respected. I will write a full blog about this in upcoming weeks, but the leader should be a part of the process in selecting to whom he is accountable. Many of the external members on the Mars Hill BOAA held much needed practical experience, and the internal members of the BOAA respected and honored them because of that experience. Yet the BOAA began to realize that accountability could not be entirely external, especially in the areas of life and doctrine. Some critics and former elders wanted all elders to be accountable to each other, which was not possible with 60 elders across 15 locations and 5 states. Mars Hill had more work to do to reach the appropriate mix of local and external oversight when it came to pastoral accountability. Unfortunately, the church closed before that work was finished.

Ultimately, the church needs to operate in a loving, God-honoring way, practicing good stewardship no matter its size. Churches reach a critical mass in attendance based on their culture and their leadership structure. Mars Hill reached that point when the internal cultural struggle over governance collided with mistakes made years prior. The church could no longer operate in a loving, God-honoring way, practicing good stewardship. (When I mention good stewardship, I mean it could no longer operate all of its ministries at its current level with dwindling tithe projections.)

I resigned in September 2014, and I presented, with the help of my team, one last proposal to the board called “Options to Think Through.” It detailed Mars Hill Church becoming smaller, independent churches. I believe those remaining smaller churches operate in a loving, God-honoring way, practicing good stewardship. I love the men that lead these churches and would ask that you continue to pray for them.

I pray that I have clearly communicated several important points through these past three posts and have provided some clarity around Mars Hill’s ResultSource decision. If you were directly or indirectly disillusioned, hurt, or affected by it, I am deeply sorry. To the people of Mars Hill Church, I grieve over what you have been through. I pray Jesus will continue to heal you and provide peace to your heart and mind. In the coming weeks, I will discuss my leadership of Mars Hill Global, repentance and forgiveness, and when to quit. Stay tuned.